My series of UWC student portraits continues. All of them can be found collectively here, but will still be primarily published on this blog. Enjoy!
2012 Bita graduated from LPCUWC, where she had been finally able to develop her passion for art. Already a year ago, a photograph from her Theatre Project “Skin And Bones” was displayed at Times Square. She now looks forward to interning in New York City for her fall semester. Bita told me about her path into the arts and her personal progress after leaving the “oppressive government” of Iran behind.
Before coming to Li Po Chun United World College, I did have private lessons by independent artists. Out of personal interest, I had visited a few workshops or done visual art on my own – but I was never effectively taught. Even when coming to Hong Kong the arts originally took a secondary, even non-existent role in my curriculum. I had skipped two years of high school, so I started the IB when I was only fifteen years old. Back in my old school, I had been very good at Math and Physics, but when I came to Hong Kong, taking those subjects among so much older and more advanced students was very challenging. I often cried when leaving the classes and was generally in a very desperate state, yet it didn’t appear to me that the solution might lay in changing subjects.
However, I was very lucky to have an incredibly loving and understanding roommate, Jay Bell, who helped me to create and develop the new, real me. Taking double-arts herself, and seeing how much I struggled, she inspired me to follow my dream of becoming a dancer and choreographer. She motivated and supported me in my decision to try and switch to IB Theatre and Visual Arts, so that is what I did. And it turned out to be wonderful. For Visual Arts for example, I had not been aware that I was to choose my own theme and do whatever I wanted to. I thought I was going to take art classes; maybe one day we would learn how to paint, one day how to draw. That was after all how it had been at home, they had never left you space to explore, at least not in high school. But this approach to the arts was very new new to me – one could even say, shocking. And yet, it was only through this manner of learning, that my self could fully develop and grow into the arts. What makes art so special and dear to me? Its purity. With art I am able to look into the deepest of my sole and vomit out my anguish. It is not easy to lie with art, because self expression has its own truth – unlike doing business or politics for example! The process of creation is part of who I am: I am a creative human being, I create. Therefore, I can never live without doing so. Andrew Asnes once said: “Dancing allows me to explore myself in so many ways, to learn about my limitations and strengths, my ability to cope with adversity and to go farther than I thought I could. You find out what you’re made of.” I could not agree more.
Studying the International Baccalaureate overall had a huge influence on me. The IB has a very comprehensive approach to learning: You are supposed to understand, evaluate and analyze, always with a critical eye – while in schools back home in Iran you are just asked to read and memorize. That was an important difference, because if you only memorize, you forget the next day, but if you understand, know and learn, then you won’t forget. Just as the Chinese Proverb says: “Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.” This was also the reason why I eventually applied to UWC. I simply wanted a better education. First I found out about IB, and later stumbled over UWC. From the very start it was very fascinating to see that such schools exist; bringing people from all around the world together to study. It was so ideal that my mother and I first thought this might not be real, but some company that steals money. We had to do a lot of research to find out that it’s a real institution, and little could I know how much it would change my life.
When coming to LPC in my first year, it was very terrible to perceive how hard it was for me to express myself. I was finally in a school where I could say my opinion on all matters, even outside of classroom discussions, and I had all this freedom – but it was terrible to feel that I was simply not able to embrace it. That was definitely something I wanted to explore from the very beginning: On one side how the youth in Iran faces this lack of expression because of the oppressive government and conservative society, and on the other side the progress that I had made myself and the affect that newly gained freedom of speech and expression had on me. This progress was nothing I was constantly aware of, since I was in it myself, but at some point I just realized how far I had come overall. That is what I wanted to look into more, and choosing my own theme in IB Visual Arts allowed me to do so. After my TOK class for example, where I had the freedom to speak out and yet felt isolated and confused because I couldn’t express myself, I created the art piece where I have words written all over my face. I think it was without doubt the whole environment at a UWC, the community conjoined with the IB, that lead me through the progress I made.
In my second year, I choreographed and directed my own Independent Project for Theatre: “Skin and Bones”, a dance performance based on my life experience and personal background in Iran. Dance had always been a big passion of mine, but I could never really pursue it since I was born in a country where dance is effectively banned. Living in Iran, where freedom is oppressed, has empowered me to search for my voice in dance – and to find it there. You can always dance, even if it’s only in your heart. “Skin and Bones” had a huge influence on me. The reactions I got from the audience were beyond what I had expected and I realized: Without any background, this was what I had created, and those were the reactions I got! It was overwhelming. And I decided, that I was definitely going to go ahead and pursue this passion. When starting my university research, I kept my eyes open for dance programs at the universities. I had always aimed at a liberal arts college, because I didn’t want to be too narrow-minded yet, but wanted to explore different courses and kinds of art. In the end I was even accepted to the universities I wanted to go to, but due to financial issues I didn’t land in any of my first choices.
Instead, I ended up at Earlham College. There is no dance program here. In my freshman year I took art and theatre classes, but they don’t really interest me. So I think now I am going to move towards Peace and Global Studies with the focus on praxis, which means social movement and community building. And I realized, that those aspects are exactly where art can get involved and what art can do: Build and support communities, develop social activity. I may take it as my major; I think I need the knowledge. Art can be created for two purposes: Either art for the sole sake of it, or art for change and conveying a message. I’ve always wanted to do the later. I never wanted to be just an artist, I wanted to be an activist artist. So I will need to know more about international relations and politics to improve the message and meaning of my art. This desire to be involved in activism through my art has definitely been shaped by UWC. After all, at LPC we were always critical, always discussed everything and never did something just for the sake of it, but always had a larger idea behind. This defined and developed my own mindset a lot.
When looking into the future I see many, many plans laying ready for me to grasp and follow. One of my biggest dreams is to have my own dance company, but I have in mind to bring all forms of art – dance, film, lightning, costume design, poetry etc. – into the performances of this dance company. Further, art is perfect to explore social and political issues. It can for example explore the Mohammad cartoons and examine them in a critical way, or just generally asses for example the role of riots when it comes to the individual desire for freedom. I am also thinking about another project, “Voices for Iranians”. “A Separation” for example was the first Iranian movie that won a Foreign Language Oscar nomination and its director said: “I love making film in Iran, and I would never decide to do that somewhere else.” Lately I have been looking up a lot of Iranian artists who work are still in Iran and work there. I also really want to go back and make a difference there, because I think it is not fair for me as Iranian to leave my country and not give back to home. For the nearer future, I am considering a Master’s Degree in Dance or Art Education, so that I can then go and work as a UWC teacher myself. After all, I feel like I have to give back to the community at some point, because it has given me so much. I believe that UWC teachers themselves are very activist; they go on Project Weeks, help in the CAS initiatives, and effectively give their idealism and enthusiasm for activism and change on to the students.
Indeed, what I personally appreciated most while I was still at UWC, were the teachers. Practically growing up without a father, my teachers became huge characters in my life – father figures, in a way. Whenever I would become homesick or upset, I could just visit them and talk, till midnight. I always felt very welcomed and that is something I will never forget; what they were to me. I will always remember the moment after the first dress rehearsal of “Skin and Bones”, when our teacher was supposed to give us feedback and we were sitting in a line at the edge of the stage, looking at him and waiting for some response. He just repeatedly shook his head and look down to the floor, looked back at us and didn’t say a word. We started giggling, because we didn’t know if it had been that good or that bad, and that is when his chin started trembling. He was choked, and he only said: “I thought it was brilliant” – and then he just started crying. It was very moving and touching for me. As a teacher, he was effectively, as I was used to it from back home, an authority figure for me. Seeing him open up and show his feelings to me, was just incredible. He was one of the few people who always told me: “It’s never too late, you can always do whatever you want. Just believe in yourself.”
Photo: Extract of one of Bita’s pieces for IB Visual Arts; the mentioned self-portrait. Originally called “In my face”, she later re-named it “Confusion”.