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.


Amitis MotevalliBaba KaramIranian AmericansPersian cultureTehranTehrangelesZoroastrian culture

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. 


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