Sahra Motalebi and the complexities of the voice |

Sahra Motalebi and the complexities of the voice

Sahra Motalebi will be leading a workshop Friday evening and performing Saturday at Aspen Art Museum.
Courtesy photo

Iranian-American artist Sahra Motalebi will be holding her first post-pandemic performance at Aspen Art Museum, “Phonographs,” on Saturday at 4 p.m.

Motalebi, whose father is Iranian and mother is from the American South, was born in Birmingham, Alabama, and raised in Texas. Trained as a classical Western singer, she didn’t connect with her father’s side of the family until later in life – an experience that had a profound influence on her work.

“I grew up in the South. My mother’s family are white working-class, Southerners. My father’s family live in Iran. And I was born in 1979. So it really would have could have gone either way,” she said. “And because of the nature of the political situation, I didn’t really know my family until much later in my life, at which point I wrote an opera about it, the complexity of my own identities as an American, but also this kind of transnational family, technology – we all met online, as it were – and intimacy. I don’t shy away from that disjuncture of being both from the South and also having this kind of global perspective.”

For two decades, Motalebi has written, produced, and staged open-format operas, exhibitions, and studio albums. In addition to time-based work and performance, her installations include voice-sculptures and scenographic objects. She has exhibited her work and performed at Brief Histories, the Kitchen, MoMA PS1, New Museum, SculptureCenter, and Swiss Institute.

She participated in the 79th Whitney Biennial in 2019 and was a 2020-21 visual arts fellow at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute. She has taught art and voice in community-based learning spaces and university settings. Her research includes voice studies, creativity, embodiment, and technology.

“I often structure my larger projects with the idea that, as a vocalist, I have centered the work around often a research narrative, but one that because of the nature of the project is what I call disjunctive,” she said. “So it’s a it’s a complex collage of many stories at once. I think that’s a reflection of the complexity of my own personal story, but I think it rings true for many people. And it also rings true for kind of the nature of reality.”

For this weekend’s workshop and performance, her work will focus on the voice and all its complexities. She aims to encourage people to listen to their own voice as opposed to finding it.

“I think the idea of finding one’s voice is not so important as listening for my own voice and putting that into the world,” she said. “So being a vocalist is as much about the form as it is the content. It’s complex because, as a woman, the voice is often ascribed to one’s body and the corporeal, and you really want to be able to tell the story without being the main stage act for me.”

Friday, Motalebi will host a community workshop, entitled “VOICE/S,” from her ongoing project that began in 2018. She described the event as collaborative sessions that expand the definition of the voice, inspiring a network of open-ended questions. Moving between our individual and collective vocalities, she said, we find unexpected poetics, multiple modes of expression, and listening as an aspect of the voice itself.

“These workshops are kind of some of the philosophical ideas I’ve been talking about,” she said. “They’re about getting people to listen for their own voices. So in the workshop this Friday, there’ll be a combination of different approaches, and it’s really fun. It’s across kind of modalities. There’s always room to be drawing or writing or using the voice.”

The workshop is currently sold out, but Saturday, Motalebi will perform a one-hour improvisational vocal-only performance, producing phonographs – or voice-writings – that conjure relationships between agency, technology, playback, and silence. It is free, and all are welcome, but registration is required.

“I find myself post-pandemic back on the stage here, and I’m really delighted,” she said. “But like many people, I’m quite changed, and this is will be a really elemental performance. It reflects where I came from. It will be only vocals but with some technology and also sort of my journey since then. I would say it’s not going to be story-based. It’s about experiencing the voice on its own, in its, like, most natural, their loud, voluminous nature, I guess.

If you go…

What: “Phonographs” by Sahra Motalebi
Where: Aspen Art Museum
When: 4-5 p.m., Saturday
More information:

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