Recoupment Through Roses:
A Word With Artist and Activist Amitis Motevalli

by Carrie Paterson

Amitis Motevalli’s Golestan Revisited project, now in its exhibition phase, has several aims. One is to perform a revisionist botanical history to “decolonize the roses.” Motevalli explained to me that the flowers originated in an area of the world now described partly as Iraq, Syria, Pakistan and Iran, where she was born. Ancient Persia’s flowers could be described as successful plant emissaries of cultural exchange during a period of trading along the Silk Road. But Motevalli questions the way these plants were collected, specifically during the era of The Crusades, and the reasons they were cultivated. She sees the flowers as having been forcibly taken, because in their journeys to Europe and widespread adoption as symbols in art, literature and culture, they were hybridized and their offspring renamed, their cultural histories and their poetries erased.

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Amitis Motevalli, June 2018, at The Huntington Gardens

A recent exhibition at Occidental College opened Motevalli’s project for its first public viewing. Stark displays of genealogical maps and cement block plinths holding roses, repotted temporarily from their locations on Occidental’s verdant grounds, contrasted with generous desserts of rosewater-infused ice cream and a “fountain” with four cups what looked to be red tea or blood spilling from a downward-cast tea spout. In the installation it becomes clear that over the centuries of breeding, roses have come to acquire peculiar associations with patriotism, celebrity, and Western, Christian ideology. Roses in the West also are often named for women, a kind of pet-project one can see in expensive real estate developments just a few miles away in Pasadena, home of the annual New Years’ “Rose Parade.” When this information is presented together in situ, the pattern of naming clearly identifies this flora’s history as a branch of difficult and under-discussed colonial legacy.

I had the occasion to walk with Motevalli through several local rose gardens in Southern California to discuss the project’s latest phase: her “reclamation” of roses whereby she bestows upon them as memorials the names of women killed in regional wars and conflicts post-2010 in Central and West Asia and North Africa.

CARRIE PATERSON: Which roses are you renaming for your project Golestan Revisited?

AMITIS MOTEVALLI: All those that have been Westernized. Roses have entirely different names in their homelands. The next part of the project will be to research those as well. I’ll have to go to Iran to the southern regions and go to the places that make the rose waters, and go to Pakistan. But right now, I’m looking only at roses in diaspora.

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Renamed Rose Map. Golestan Revisited. Spring 2018. Occidental College.

PATERSON: How many names do you intend to change?

MOTEVALLI: Some of the names won’t change, but almost all of them will. Here’s the interesting thing: there are not enough roses to cover all the femme martyrs. In the past eight-year span. Eight years! Within one region.

PATERSON: That’s horrific.

MOTEVALLI: Yes, it’s totally horrific.

PATERSON: So you stand among the roses, and you see people, people who are mostly not Americans, and who are Muslim women.

MOTEVALLI: Yes, as well as Yazidi, Coptic, Assyrian… At the very least they can be acknowledged.

PATERSON: How do you find out about these women? Can you give me an example of where you are pulling your research?

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Tuqa Razzo and Mayda Razzo roses: Julia Child — Floribunda — Bred 2004 United States — Reclaimed September 20, 2015, Mosul, Iraq;& Ebb Tide — Floribunda — Bred 2001 United States — Reclaimed September 20, 2015, Mosul, Iraq.

MOTEVALLI: One is Iraq Body Count. But these sources are all incomplete, I found Mayda Razzo (Julia Child — Floribunda — Bred 2004 United States — Reclaimed September 20, 2015, Mosul, Iraq) and Tuqa Razzo (Ebb Tide — Floribunda — Bred 2001 United States — Reclaimed September 20, 2015, Mosul, Iraq) through the work of journalists Anand Gopal and Azmat Khan. Sama al-Iraqi (Rio Samba -Hybrid Tea Rose — Bred before 1991 United States — Reclaimed January 6, 2017, Mosul, Iraq) is also through the work of Anand Gopal. There are many databases with lists of people killed in each city. Sometimes I will get names and stories from friends who knew people.

To read the rest of this interview, go to Riot Material magazine: https://www.riotmaterial.com/interview-with-amitis-motevalli/

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