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Artist Ghazaleh Avarzamani at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, where she is currently exhibiting, Nov. 25.Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

When artist Ghazaleh Avarzamani first moved to Canada she was surprised to see that pedestrians barely bothered looking left or right when they crossed an intersection: Canadians trusted traffic signals so completely they could assume that the cars would obey the lights.

Avarzamani, who left her native Iran in her 20s after she was involved in a car accident that killed two of her sisters, ponders such systems of control. “You have to find the way to survive in those countries,” she says of semi-developed countries such as Iran. “And then you come here and you see that you don’t really need to do anything. So your common sense, gradually it’s useless because everything has been predesigned for you.”

Her art features sculptures and installations that consider the rules of games, the design of public spaces or the conventions of museums. She has deconstructed a plastic playground slide, for example, mounting it as a series of useless, unconnected parts. And she has created work about cock fighting, an ancient sport in which the birds are trained to an unnatural aggression to satisfy spectators. She has just completed a residency at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, where she has filled the reflecting pools, all drained for winter, with blue rubber mulch of the kind sometimes used to make playgrounds safer. In sunlight the mulch looks almost black, but under grey skies, the blue becomes particularly intense, adding an unsettling, fantastical element to the museum’s carefully planned gardens. Inside the museum, Avarzamani has used blue stained glass in geometric patterns to build the railing that protects anyone standing on a second-floor overlook of the collection. Visitors may simply respond aesthetically to the pretty glass and its hazy reflections, but Avarzamani sees a certain bitterness in the hard blue barrier.

“It’s beautiful. Great. Thank you. It’s beautiful, but that beauty is just a surface. It’s a system of control.”

Avarzamani's 30-panel stained glass piece entitled Who Watches the Watchers at the Aga Khan Museum.Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

Her brief was to respond, as an artist, to the collection and her biggest challenge was to incorporate her contemporary work into a strictly controlled environment dedicated to preserving historic Islamic art. In storage, she encountered pieces that were too fragile to ever be displayed. She puzzled over that idea, wondering if such caution was not depriving the art of any life, and seeing in the exotic objects a metaphor for immigration.

“Controlling the life of something or somebody just for the sake of prolonging the life: But then that life is not a real life because it was just sitting in the darkness. Two hundred more years? And then what’s next?

“And then I was thinking about myself as an immigrant coming in search of safety … I took the museum as a small example of Toronto, a small example of Canada – all these regulations. Those objects that are in the museum, they are not from here. … They are made to be in different temperature, different light, different life. But they have been here and they’ve adjusted. I liked that as a small example of Canada.”

Many Canadian viewers might assume Avarzamani’s interests arise from roots in a society intent on controlling women, but her point is often the opposite: that in Iran, life is a struggle in which you have to battle for yourself, whether in the unruly traffic or the larger society, whereas Canada is a haven that may blunt people’s survival instincts.

“This might sound clichéd, but balance is always the solution. I’m not really supporting the system back in third world countries, but also here losing the humanity, the talent, the nature … just trusting the system is not really healthy.”

Avarzamani's work, Forced Afloat, comprised of five infinity pools filled with blue rubber mulch outside the Aga Khan Museum.Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

Avarzamani’s work is not political – “I don’t make manifestos,” she said – but she is as willing to comment on systems in the Islamic world as in the West.

For the Greater Toronto Art ‘21 show at the Museum of Contemporary Art, she installed a bright blue mashrabiya, the enclosed latticework balconies that provide shade and privacy in Islamic architecture, on the building’s utilitarian exterior. In the context of the semi-industrial Sterling Road, the delicate balcony makes an arresting sight, but, like the stained class, Avarzamani sees more to it than the obvious aesthetic pleasure. She points out that the traditional mashrabiya was used to control the women of the house, allowing them look out on the street without being seen, and draws parallels to the way museums control the viewing experience.

“When I added that piece to the museum as a contemporary institution, I was trying to draw attention to your position inside that space and your position outside that space, when you are the watcher or when you are being watched.”

In the transition from Iranian to Canadian culture, Avarzamani’s career has flourished. As a young woman in Iran she studied painting, but feared that in a conservative system of masters and stylistic disciples she would never find her own voice. She left Iran in the aftermath of the accident because she was so disillusioned by authorities who cared more about the forbidden presence of men and women together in a car than in her sisters’ deaths. There were three options for an Iranian who wanted to emigrate: Australia, New Zealand or Canada, and she chose the latter. However, it took more than a decade before her application was approved and she arrived in 2016; in the intervening years she lived in Dubai, where she began to do needlework, and then completed her Masters at Central St. Martins, the art college in London, where she turned to tapestry and quilting. It was only when she moved to Canada that she had the permanence and space to begin making larger sculptures and installations.

She contrasts the security of Canada, the country included on every list of the best places to live, with the competitive cultures not only of Tehran but also New York and London. “People who moved to New York are there to grow, to thrive, to change. But those who come to Toronto, they’re here to sit, to settle … It’s just a very different perspective,” she said, debating the difference between good and bad fear. She would never consider returning to Iran.

“Canada for sure, 100 per cent, is home for me now. … Maybe I’ll travel, stay somewhere for six months a year, but this is always home,” she said in an interview last week. “Yesterday, I got my Canadian citizenship. I’m so excited.”

In spring, Avarzamani will travel to Britain to do the second leg of the Aga Khan Museum project which is a collaboration with the prestigious Delfina Foundation, a London non-profit dedicated to providing studio space and cultural exchanges for visual artists. Before she leaves, however, she has to oversee the move of 22,000 kilos of rubber mulch from the museum to the parking lot of a church on Bloor Street West, where it will be displayed from March to June, as part of the Toronto Biennial of Art. There, Avarzamani is hoping that passing pedestrians will throw Canadian caution to the winds and begin to play.

*Terms and Conditions Apply, Ghazaleh Avarzamani’s project at the Aga Khan Museum, is on view until Feb. 27.

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