Artist Mona Shomali: Ecology not for ‘stiff lab coats’
Once upon a time, there was a young painter named Mona Shomali. Her brown eyes glowed like candied almonds and her smile came together like a vanquished orange slice. She laughed readily, covering canvasses with beautiful images — sweeping portraits of female figures who share her Iranian descent. Art collectors were attracted by the sensuality and warmth of her works. Then one day she stopped painting jewel-toned women and started painting bloodied rivers, frightened animals caught mid-flight, and human organs embedded in rolling hillsides.
Shomali’s new collection marks a major departure from her previous work, and will take a form similar to the description above, except as a visually-driven narrative.
In a recent conversation with the New York-based artist, Future Challenges got an exclusive preview of her interdisciplinary project, a socially-aware guide to ecology for tweens and young adults illustrated by Shomali’s new paintings. Please join the discussion in the comments section below:
Future Challenges: Your latest series of paintings reveal a passion for emerging global concerns like the environment and the sustainability of natural resources. Can you walk readers through how your concerns as a global citizen reveal themselves in this form?
Mona Shomali: This collection comes from my own experiences and field work as an environmental activist and educator. For example, I worked alongside the [Amazon] Sarayacu tribe as they filed a human rights case in the Inter-American court for illegal exploitation of their ancestral Amazon lands. My compassion and concern for their struggle is immeasurable. I truly believe that working outside the arts has made me a better artist because it offers doors to new perceptions — the issues that I wrestle with are fueling my visions for paintings.
Future Challenges: Why did you decide to present your new collection in the form of a book for young people?
Mona Shomali: I currently teach students of all levels at four different New York City universities and institutions (ranging from adults in graduate school to teenagers at the Botanical Garden). My students that focus on social issues become intimidated by the notion of ecology being a “science,” and I notice they immediately relax when I start drawing flow charts of cause and effect on the blackboard. What I really want my students to understand with my drawings is that ecology is not a “science” for stiff lab coats; ecology is actually the study of relationships, communities and how ecosystems adapt and find equilibrium. The human relationship to the environment is very much defined by culture and spirituality … It is important to understand that ecology is not locked in competition (as we have justified socially), as cooperation is another way to be “fit” and “survive” [in the Darwinian sense] in the environment. I believe that when my students truly understand how ecology works, they can make better decisions about their own lives and the world we live in. By living in the western world, many of us have at one time consumed more than what we needed — taken more when our plate was already full. I try to explain that resource use decisions are not always about meeting needs, but also about power, identity and ego.
Future Challenges: Some people say artists shouldn’t have a specific “agenda.” Do you agree? Do you think this latest series is agenda-driven? Why or why not?
Mona Shomali: The arts have always been used for propaganda purposes, and that is not inherently bad. There are some uses of propaganda imagery and symbols that we don’t even notice — such as the “don’t forget to wash your hands” images that are posted in public bathrooms. … I think there is room for all types of artists and I don’t agree with anyone who tries to limit the use and function of art. This collection is definitely agenda-driven. My agenda is to try to inspire either a curiosity or a love for how ecology works. I myself have found great comfort in understanding why and how the natural world works.
Future Challenges: What do you think the world can do to help address impending environmental concerns? Do you have specific solutions in mind that go beyond the awareness your artwork and forthcoming book have achieved?
Mona Shomali: When it comes to raising awareness of environmental issues, I think it is very dangerous to attempt a missionary “conversion” or to use mechanisms of guilt, as I have seen how those types of manipulations can backfire. Idealism can lead to black and white thinking, arrogance and rejection of grey areas (which is where most of us operate), and guilt mechanisms lead to defensive postures and denial. It is hard to cope with information that questions our ideals of how we make a comfortable life for ourselves. I think the best way to engage someone on environmental issues is to ask them to simply join the conversation. We all have underlying assumptions and frameworks beneath us that are laid by our identities and cultures. … When it comes to environmental justice, many western environmentalists shy away from the fact that low-income communities and people of color in this country suffer disproportionately from water pollution and air pollution. On the other hand, the elite drive to and vacation in pristine environments that are marketed as “untouched”. … The assumption latent in any “wilderness” description is that humans are bad for the environment and that any impact is a negative impact — when in fact, there are many communities who live low-impact lives, living simply so that others can also live. A human impact can also be beneficial to an environment, providing that it is mindful and reactive to the environmental dynamic. Meanwhile, many indigenous peoples all across the globe who have been most sensitive to the task of environmental stewardship have been left out of decisions on how to best manage their ancestral environments. …With this series of paintings, I am exploring our human relationship to our ecosystem services and resources. I hope that I can question some assumptions, and inspire people to learn how ecology functions. I believe that by being exposed to basic ecology concepts, we can be more mindful, conscious and purposeful in how we interact with our ecosystems and human communities.
Note: this interview was conducted by email has been edited for clarity and length.