Roya Ebtehaj is an Iranian multimedia artist and educator. In her piece Plastystopia (2019), Roya displays the influence of capitalism and western beauty standards on a universal scale, with a focus on Iran. In this interview, she shares her experiences with social media, her effort to focus on universal themes in her work, and her future aspirations for Plastystopia.
DigA: In Plastystopia, you examine the combined power of big tech and Instagram’s influence on Iranian culture to idealize and pursue western beauty aesthetics and ideals. Do you see an opportunity for Iranian Instagram users to reverse this Western influence and to celebrate Iranian cultural identity? Do you see and celebrate users who may be doing this now?
Roya Ebtehaj: Of course! In Iran, there are many activists and influencers who have been celebrating the authentic Iranian culture for a while, but if you ask me if they were successful in reversing this western influence, my answer is yes and no. The truth is the standards of beauty are becoming more westernized. Iran has the highest rate of nose jobs in the world. It proves that many Iranian, especially women, are not completely satisfied with the way they look and determined to change it. This is a pervasive part of the culture, and looking back, I can see that I was more obsessed with the way I look when I was in Iran compared to now.
I want to emphasize that my message is not limited to Iran, and is about the adverse impact of this capitalist culture on the contemporary universal perception of beauty. This digital culture relies on algorithms to take advantage of our insecurities, and platforms like Instagram leverage this chaos. As we see even in America, Kim Kardashian (165m followers on Instagram) is way more popular than [Barak] Obama (27m).
DigA: You refer to the Instagram hashtag #palang, “leopard” in Farsi. Iranian Instagram users tag images of people with altered features or dramatic makeup with #palang. Observations on cultural identity and displacement are prevalent in your work, particularly in Plastystopia. In what ways does the mark of #palang affect Iranians’ identity and placement in Iranian society?
Roya Ebtehaj: The history of this term goes back to the time before Instagram became a popular platform in Iran. It always has had a negative connotation and is usually used to mock someone. No one would ever refer to themselves as a Palang, even if they did fit the description in everyone else’s eyes. I remember I heard this word at least more than 6 years ago for the first time. I think this hashtag definitely helped with the visibility of this content at first, but it is not as powerful as when it went viral 2-3 years ago on Instagram. When I recently searched for this hashtag recently on Instagram, I noticed the number of posts using it have barely increased since 2019. So at this point, it’s becoming an outdated slang term. While working on my project, this hashtag helped me a lot to find many influencer’s pages in less than 3 days while I was assuming this research would take a while! I was fascinated by this bizarre power of the Instagram algorithms at that time!
DigA: In your commentary, you discuss how guilt is experienced collectively—when people follow an influencer to mock their actions. Do you see evidence that influencers or followers experience collective guilt about embracing and encouraging the capitalistic ways and beauty standards of the West?
Roya Ebtehaj: That is a tough question as I don’t have collected any data about the psychology of the influencers and their followers regarding their ethical considerations.
Honestly, I am not that optimistic about fashion/beauty industry influencers being thoughtful or remorseful about these issues. However, I know there are a few alternative influencers that promote shopping/beauty standards in a more constructive way!
Speaking as a follower and user of Instagram myself, capitalism and influencer culture definitely trap me sometimes as they know the way to manipulate us. It is easy to get caught in the seduction of the advertisement industry, but I encourage myself to think twice about my habits. For instance, I force myself to question if this type of shopping makes me truly happy or should I fulfill this need in a more creative way? I am definitely optimistic that other followers have the capability of thinking twice and questioning the narratives fed to them by influencers, albeit if algorithms allow them to be exposed to other contents as well!
DigA: Iranian artist Farhad Moshiri comments on the intersection of the West and the Middle East through visual aesthetics and content; he also mulls over the transitions occurring in Iran. Parastou Forouhar processes personal trauma, grief, and displacement in her artwork. Your work aligns with Moshiri and Forouhar due to your focus on memory, displacement, identity. Yet, with the additional component of technology, you ask tough questions regarding algorithm manipulation, information distortion, internet access inequality, and censorship. You explain that creating art without the obstacles of censorship was a driving force for you to pursue your career in the United States. Can you tell us more about how censorship affected the stories you were telling through your art? In what ways is artistic freedom different from what you expected?
Roya Ebtehaj: You made an interesting comment about my work and brought up two Iranian artists whose work I find very inspiring. To answer the first part of your question I think my practice is divided into two chapters. One is before immigration, the time I didn’t have the opportunity to express my ideas freely. This is the most toxic situation for an artist. When you are limited that much, your world and your ideas are limited as well. So honestly, I was lost!
I think the answer for the second part of your question falls under the second chapter of my practice which started after immigration. At first, I was again lost for a while as I realized that I could make art about almost anything that was going on in my mind!
I began to know myself and my concerns better as I gained this freedom. However, I found it pretty challenging that the issues I deal with may be very alien to viewers who may not understand the cultural context that I am referring to. Most people have a very limited view of Iran colored by mainstream media coverage. This makes my work more challenging and I am learning every day to find a universal point in my subject matter in order to stimulate empathy in the viewer’s mind.
DigA: You incorporate Persian symbols and designs in your piece with the added dynamic of influencers’ faces, which represent the presence (or invasion) of social media and western ideals in Iran. With the increasing use and development of social media, do you see this piece evolving? In five years, how would you hope the piece would change?
Roya Ebtehaj: I definitely think that I will develop this concept and aesthetic. I believe there is still so much to address about the way we use technology on a daily basis. Beauty and social media is a drop in the ocean of relationships between politics, power, culture, capitalism, globalisation, consumerism and many other concerns. I know that I don’t want to specifically focus solely on the topic of beauty as it is not my only concern, but I will continue doing research on different aspects of social media platforms and how they manipulate our ideas and behaviour. In terms of aesthetics, I would like to continue playing with creating the collage of pop culture forms and Persian motifs that I find culturally relevant.
DigA: At the end of your commentary, you state that users need to stop big tech and algorithms from manipulating their lives. Do you hope that your audience takes a specific form of action, or has a certain response, after viewing and processing your piece? If so, what do you hope people do?
Roya Ebtehaj: I want my viewer to think and think! I am definitely not happy with what is happening to us because we are not aware of what is going on behind the curtain.
I emphasize that I am not an opponent of the beauty industry. What I find harmful is following certain lifestyles without realizing the consequences. Nobody can stop big tech, and we can’t deny that it brings us comfort in many ways, but we need to be aware of the negativity it might come with, and we have the right to question it. However, questioning is impossible without understanding how certain technologies work, as well as the ultimate objective of those who made it.
I hope people don’t simply play the victim role in the near future and claim that tech giants took advantage of them! It’s better to ask sooner rather than later how the data that is collected from us today would be used against us tomorrow. I’m reminded of a quote from the book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century:“If we are not careful, we will end up with downgraded humans misusing upgraded computers to wreak havoc on themselves and on the world!”
Check out Plastystopia.
Roya Ebtehaj is an Iranian multimedia artist and educator based in the Bay Area, California. Working across digital technology and experimental interdisciplinary approaches to art production, she incorporates mixed reality (VR/AR), 3D, video, animation, web, photography, and installation to reflect on the complex relationships between memories, stress, identity, and displacement. Her practice stems from continuously looking for new methodologies, taking a multidisciplinary approach, and merging creative production and modern technology.
Ebtehaj has presented her work in the form of exhibitions and talks in different venues such as Richmond Art Center, Root Division, B4b4lab, and New Media Caucus. She received a BA in Photography from Azad University of Tehran in 2009, and her MFA in Digital Media Arts from San Jose State University in 2019. She has previously lectured at SJSU and is currently a Postdoctoral fellow at Santa Clara University in the Department of Art and Art History; teaching Digital Imaging, 3D Animation & Modeling.