Baba Karam Lessons: Artist Amitis Motevalli

15 February, 2022
Los Angeles artist Amitis Motevalli presents her Baba Karam rendition for the first time in 2011.


Amitis Motevalli


In Baba Karam Lessons, a performance series inspired by the lineage of Adrian Piper’s Funk Lessons, I teach audiences how to do a popular Iranian party dance caricaturing working-class street toughs from the south side “slums” of Tehran; the dance, typically by women in suits and hats, is complexly layered within Iranian culture in the way that it questions class, gender and sexuality. The dance is a caricature of something danced by street tough men called “jahel.” Throughout the years, the dance has often been performed by women, in drag to fit the image of the jahel. The dance is complex and layered resisting gender and class constrictions.

I have presented Baba Karam Lessons in various settings since their inception, in a Santa Monica gallery in 2011, where the installation for the dance included all of the costume items and two mirrors with directions for the dance written on them to teach a largely American audience the dance.  Later in 2016 came a planned dance performance at Discostan, a SWANA club night at a local bar in Cypress Park that draws both a SWANA diasporic and general art audience,  which included a group of five artists of various cultures and gender-identities in full costume to whom I taught the dance, engaging a party audience teaching and activating all people in dancing Baba Karam.  In 2018, I presented Baba Karam Lessons at the Hammer Museum as the character of Amir Khoshgele for an invited public program for the Adrian Piper: Concepts and Intuitions exhibition. The performance started outside as I walked and interacted with people in the street (many of whom were well familiar with Baba Karam) in full character on Westwood Boulevard in Tehrangeles and led them to the performance and lesson inside the museum.

Q: Could you muse a little on how you think partially growing up in and spending a good part of your life in Los Angeles has informed your artistic work?

My experiences on the east and south side of LA and the aural and visual culture had as much of an impact on my aesthetic and artistic strategies as my early childhood in Iran. I’m very grateful for the access I had to cultural expression and community among working class Black and Brown people in LA…My experience as a working-class transnational migrant is the foundation of my art.

Q: How do you feel the presence of so many Iranians in southern California changes the landscape, or somehow makes greater Los Angeles different from what it might have been otherwise?

I’m finally accessing the Iranian community in Southern California to a certain degree. Growing up and probably throughout my adulthood, it has felt to me like the Iranian community had a strong class infrastructure that was invisible but impactful. I did not feel embraced by my own people. Now, I love to be where I can easily go to an Iranian supermarket, hear Farsi or go to events, even if I’m somewhat an interloper. I feel like the Iranian community is becoming more diverse and moving beyond the need to assimilate into white upper class suburban life. Iranians are contributing to the greater landscape, however, we still have internal issues of class that need to be addressed and an unconscious bias to be deconstructed.

Q: Do you ever wonder how you might have turned out had you remained in Tehran after the revolution?

I do wonder a bit… but I lean into the life that I walked into. I want to think about the best ways to overcome my real life obstacles and embrace all of the privileges I have at hand while always staying in touch with my people in Iran and other places of diaspora.

Ami’s Artist Statement.


The work of Amitis Motevalli reflects the social injustices Muslims face living in conflict and war. She expresses it through performance art and video. Motevalli is an activist and an Ultra Fem supporter. In the past decade, she has organized workshops and art performances dealing with political and religious conflict for the U.S. Muslim Community. She was born in Tehran, Iran, and in 1977 moved to the United States and settled in Los Angeles. Motevalli received a Master of Fine Arts from Claremont Graduate University in 1998 and a Bachelor of Fine Arts with a Minor in Women’s Studies from San Francisco State University. She is the recipient of numerous awards, which include a California Community Foundation Mid-Career Artist Fellowship (2012), a National Endowments for the Arts/Andy Warhol Foundation project fellowship at 18th Street Art Center (2008), and the James Irvine Foundation, Vision of California (2007). She is the director of the William Grant Still Arts Center in Los Angeles. 

Amitis MotevalliBaba KaramIranian AmericansPersian cultureTehranTehrangelesZoroastrian culture

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