Sahra Motalebi’s Tender Mortal Means

New York performer, musician and artist Sahra Motalebi brings a unique shamanistic quality to her work.

Photo by Tina Tyrell
Sahra Motalebi is the stylish intellectual artist that people away from New York hope to find in the city. But even among New York's artistic inner circles Motalebi is uniquely gifted. Her intense shamanistic performances, romantic, poetic lyrics and global array of musical instruments and influences (including a mother who is a Muslim convert from a Southern Baptist bluegrass musical family and a father from a household of traditional Iranian folk-singers), coupled with her drawings and sharp personal style, have earned the Texas-raised and Brooklyn-based musician/artist a cult following. After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia School of Architecture, she exhibited at Rivington Arms gallery, preformed throughout the city and co-founded the New York-based experimental record label, Static Recital, with Jorge Elbrecht of the art-musician group Lansing-Dreiden. Her EPs "Feeding the Ghosts" and "Blankenship," and her performances at The New Museum of Contemporary Art and elsewhere, have met with widespread admiration from New York's artistic community. Her album "Tender Mortal Means" comes out this spring along with a video by Colin Whitaker. And this weekend she presented work in the roving gallery space...

Dazed Digital: What are your key musical influences?
Sahra Motalebi: My key musical influences are female vocalists, from experimental avant-garde sound artists to virtuosic pop singers one could hear on FM radio. I'm also really fond of production from the 1980s, from sublime gorgeous stuff to the really ridiculous. And percussion palettes from various global traditions and classical European pieces, particularly German and French opera and 19th century art song.

DD: Are you intentionally interested in creating a rich culturally and historical mix?
SM: I don't intend to consciously, no; nor do I think what I do is particularly new. People have been sampling different cultures - particularly percussion from other parts of the world - for quite some time. People make it seem that using African or Indian instruments in rock music was a brilliant idea born in Brooklyn just yesterday, but this kind of cross-cultural pollenization has been happening for at least the last 25 years or longer.

DD: What is the relationship between your art and your music?
SM: It sounds abstract, but in art, music and performance, I often find myself working with the edge between futuristic and primordial elements, both in terms of poetic gesture and symbolism. I like technicality imbued with a sense wildness and heart. Mine really was the ultimate Renaissance education. My love of architecture isn't very far from my interests in drawing and music production, as I seem to find myself consistently curious about the structural nature of things. Really good drawing and painting are basically architectural from my view, in the sense that they attempt to convey the built nature of a scene or even the landscape of one's mind. I began producing my own records while studying architecture when I was younger, it's all really the same muscle.

DD: Do you feel rooted in New York?
SM: I love New York. In fact when I leave it takes a bit of time to adjust.

DD: Has your Middle Eastern heritage become more or less of a factor in your identity as you get older?
SM: I have a great partisanship for all things Persian and Iranian and
I certainly have a high regard for Islam, but culturally speaking, I'm not really Middle Eastern at all.

DD: How would you describe your personal aesthetic?
SM: My personal aesthetic is somewhat formal and androgynous. I feel most comfortable in simple, dark, streamlined and structured clothes.
I don't really own jeans. Sometimes, I like slightly risqué items, but never too many details or anything to dainty or feminine. I rarely have the experience of wanting or coveting clothing designed for women; more often than not it's men's clothes that I end up imagining myself in. In fact I went through a phase when I was twenty when I dressed like a boy.

DD: Was that when you were modeling in Paris?
SM: I moved to Paris and modeled just after that when I was 21 and I must have been doing something very boyish though because Sonia Rykiel once told me in a show casting to: "walk like the boy that you are".
That was the most glamorous highlight of my whole year there.

DD: Overall, how does your look relate to your music's concept and focus?
SM: I'm sure not if I can pinpoint that relationship between my look and my work though I'm sure it exists. It's fairly obvious that people's styles are extensions of who they are but they are also projections of who they'd like to be, and the same goes for art making. Personally, I think the best performances, like the best looks, are natural but exuberant - even dramatic and confident, but never when 'put on'.


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