The Forrest Research Foundation was established in 2014 to create a world-leading collaborative centre of research and scholarship. The foundation was made possible through one of the largest-ever philanthropic donations in Australian history, by Andrew and Nicola Forrest through the Minderoo Foundation. The Forrest Research Foundation Early-career Creative and Performance Leadership Fellowships are designed to offer a new route through which to nurture the creative talents and research leadership skills of those working in the creative and performing arts sector to generate high impact outcomes and research initiatives that will result in social, cultural and health benefits to the wider community. Here we profile some of those trailblazers.
The love language of video art
Moving images have always held a fascination for Elham Eshraghian-Haakansson, an award-winning young Iranian-Australian Bahá'í video artist, director, and researcher.
“When I was young, I would create little skits and videos with my twin brother,” Ms Eshraghian-Haakansson says.
“A lot of my assignments in middle school were films and I’d use a camcorder. I was largely inspired by my older brother, Jason, who is a renowned filmmaker and Artificial Intelligence researcher. He’d make these Harry Potter and Dragon Ball Z skits. I found them recently and they were hilarious.
“Not to mention, my dad would record every waking moment of our childhood, with the same camcorder, growing up.
“I always had a desire for wanting to explore film and video. It’s that aspect of wanting to capture a moment, of creating a memory and being able to understand how we express emotions and how to express a story. When I was a kid it was lots of fun with our imagination and humour.”
Image: Family archive, 1999, recorded on camcorder by Kamran Eshraghian. (L-R): Ashkaan Hadi, Elham Eshraghian-Haakansson, Natasha Yorke, Omid Eshraghian, Jason Eshraghian.
As she grew older, the source material for her art projects shifted as she became more deeply aware of her family’s history as refugees of the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
Like hundreds of thousands of others, the artist’s mother, uncle, and grandparents were forced to flee to the relative safety of Pakistan to escape persecution, and almost certainly execution, over their Bahá’í faith.
“Every decision my grandma made during that time I’m here because of it, she is why my family is safe,” the 25-year-old, whose family settled in Western Australia, says.
It’s the emotional impact of that conflict and what Ms Eshraghian-Haakansson describes as “the universality of grief and of loss that comes with displacement” as well as the experience of first and second generation Iranian-Australians and the Bahá’í community, that now underpin her work and practice in empathic art-making.
Image: Elham Eshraghian–Haakansson, Asha Kiani with the Second Generation Collective, Áshená, Bear Witness to Me, 2021, multi- channel installation, 4K video with sound, 25:00. Acknowledgements to University of Western Australia School of Design, Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship, Lotterywest’s Community Arts Network Dream Plan Do ’20, City of Fremantle, Propel Youth Arts WA, Amped Digital, Englisifarsi and Centre for Stories.
While she says she has explored different mediums, completing a unit in video art while at university left her convinced she had “found her calling” and her “love for language”. It’s a language that has resonated with her and with her audience.
The Fine Arts graduate from The University of Western Australia who is now finishing a Masters, has exhibited her work nationally and internationally and is the recipient of a growing list of prestigious awards for her work.
She received the Dr Harold Schenberg Art Fellowship Award during the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art’s Hatched Exhibition in 2018 and the Jean Callander Art Prize in 2017 for her first major work, Bohrân.
She also exhibited for the John Stringer Art Prize in 2019 and the 10th Prospect Portraiture Prize in 2020, receiving notable commendation for her work, The End is Glorious, If We Only Persevere, as a finalist, that included archival footage gleaned from a pilgrimage to Israel with her mother.
And she was awarded the Invitation Art Prize 2020 for her work, face to face from the City of Joondalup for a video installation that included a segment she filmed of her mum writing Rūmi’s poem Only Breath in Persian calligraphy on her brother’s face during lockdown in Perth.
The expressive artist says she is “over the moon” at being named one of two inaugural recipients of Forrest Research Foundation’s Creative and Performance Leadership Fellowships. “When I got the phone call, I was feeling butterflies, I was absolutely happy and delighted, I just couldn’t believe it,” she says.
"When I got the phone call, I was feeling butterflies, I was absolutely happy and delighted, I just couldn't believe it."Ms Eshraghian-Haakansson
For her fellowship Ms Eshraghian-Haakansson will explore new ground in digital media, particularly in the area of virtual reality, looking at the techniques and methods needed to help audiences to become co-authors of her work, rather than just passive bystanders.
She will work in collaboration with creative arts therapist Cara Phillips, Dr Ionat Zurr (UWA School of Design), Immerse Australia and Dr Jason Eshraghian, with the support of Spaced, as part of the Know Thy Neighbour #3 Program.
“I think it’s really important, especially with what we are experiencing in today’s world, the discourses we’re trying to get through, to explore communal care as well as self-care when considering our mental wellbeing and sense of hope and home,” she says.
“I try to seek understanding between strangers and develop ways of connecting, especially when disconnection feels so prevalent and there’s social unrest, climate change, pandemic and a whole host of other things that people are feeling. Art is very potent in poetically realising this thread of understanding.”
Image: Blue Room Theatre, 900s (Of Storytelling), 20 - 23 January 2021. Photography by Duncan Wright. (L-R:) Elisha Rahimi, Raneen Kousari, Asha Kiani, Elham Eshraghian-Haakansson..
As for the future, Ms Eshraghian-Haakansson, who got married two years ago, says she is incredibly positive.
“My husband, who is currently completing a PhD in physical chemistry, is the ‘honorary art technician’; he helps me with the practical hands-on building when it comes to my installations, and he helps to keep me grounded.
“His family and my family, they’re my community and they really support my passion for art and my hope to make the world a better place. It starts with family when we work towards the betterment of the world to achieve unity.”
"His family and my family, they're my community and they really support my passion for art and my hope to make the world a better place. It starts with family when we work towards the betterment of the world to achieve unity."Ellie Eshraghian-Haakansson
Ms Eshraghian-Haakansson cannot pinpoint a one moment in her career which stands out instead saying her whole journey has been “one massive highlight”.
“In the past year I’ve been collaborating with the Iranian-Australian community alongside leading performance artist Asha Kiani. She has taught me so much. They all have.
“It’s definitely been a highlight being mentored in this space, learning, expanding into many crafts of collaborative social practice and has really solidified my path as an artist.
“I like to embrace the unknown, I have faith in that. When someone experiences my artwork, they take a bit home. Whatever it is that they find from it, they take it home.”