Ellee Bokharachi is Associate Director & Art Critic at Tilt Gallery in Scottsdale, Arizona. She is also an Independent Curator, teaches at different institutions, and writes for international publications. Bokharachi holds a Masters of Art in Art History from Arizona State University. Among the original exhibitions, she has presented (Un)Certainty at Tilt Gallery; Turtles Cry When They Fly with Phoenix Institute of Contemporary Art (phICA); and I Saw You in My Dreams at Bentley Gallery. She has received research, travel, special talent, and exhibition funds from Arizona State University, University of Houston, and Axosoft. She has been invited to speak at several educational institutions including Arizona State University and Scottsdale Community College, and has been selected as a juror in various international festivals and competitions.
The New Agenda and MALA are proud to launch the “Women of the USA,” a campaign to showcase Muslim women’s stories and voices. Our goal is to spotlight the diversity and accomplishments of Muslim American women. If you would like to share your story as part of this series, please submit your information here. Join the conversation by using #WOTUSA, and share your voice with us.
The very first grade that I have ever received in my life was a big, fat zero (aka F). They say that a failure is the first step to the success. If you are lucky and smart enough, your lack of success can set a very good example for the rest of your life. My failure though was not really mine; it was the educational system’s.
It was the first week of my first grade. I was confident and ready to make my mom and dad proud. I had prepared for my first ever dictation, the first A of my life. Our teacher started reading the words to us. I was doing perfectly fine until I heard someone crying. I looked around and realized the crying was coming from the little girl who had sat next to me. I looked at our teacher hoping that she would reach out to help. To my surprise, she was dismissive of the student, so as everyone else. How was this possible? The teacher looked at her from the corner of her eyes and continued dictating to the students. The little girl was still crying, and I was becoming more uncomfortable. It just didn’t seem right. I could not let her first experience be this horrible moment. I looked at the teacher for the second time before I reached out to my classmate to ask what is wrong? “I’ve been left behind.” She responded, crying harder. “Don’t cry! I can read the words to you.” I quickly looked at her notebook to see what was the last word that she had written, and started reading the next ones to her while trying not to miss the new words. It was only seconds later that my teacher angrily yelled at me to hand over my notebook. I tried to explain, but she would not listen. With so much grief, I looked at my words that were shining on the page that I had adorned with crayons the night before and handed over the notebook. She was still yelling at me. I bet she was surprised, or maybe a little shocked, thinking that she was going to give me the lesson of my life. She did, just not in the way that she hoped for. In less than thirty seconds, my beautiful notebook was given back to me. I starred at the first zero of my life, feeling confused, angry, and disappointed. This was not what I was told at home about school. It was very puzzling. I was upset, but Idid not cry. I had not done anything wrong.
My mom handled that situation perfectly, but little did she know that that incident was only the beginning of the series of heroic and rebellious acts by her daughter. Although my mom was trying to be a good mediator between me and my teacher, my dad was confused and at a shock. I think he knew that it was more than just an unfortunate incident. He was aware that I was going to be just like his rebellious self, but probably was hoping that it would appear a bit later in life. My mom tried to persuade me to apologize. I did not want to. I had no regrets. My teacher told my mom that since I did not explain the situation to her, she did not know my intention. That false statement, certainly, made apologizing harder. It was only a couple weeks, and I already knew life was not going to be fair. I knew that Ihad to be ready to stand up for myself and others. I had learned that people are going to make mistakes, even if they are teachers!
As soon as I learned to read, I became an avid reader with an insatiable thirst. A few years later, I would finish my own books and magazines and go after everyone else’s. My mom was not initially happy as she would not necessarily categorize all the books that I would read in a “proper for my age” category. As a result, some of the books were confiscated by my mom’s executive force (aka. my elder sister). I was furious, but I figured this needed to be addressed and solved peacefully. I explained the situation to my dad. I just wanted the books back. Was that too much to ask? Luckily, my dad backed me up, and once again, I was allowed to read all the books that I could find at home. My dad’s library was my haven. To me, reading was an opportunity to live different lives and reside in different worlds.
In my mid teens, my sister gave me a few of her recently purchased novels. Those books were really special to me as they had successful and independent female protagonists. I read each of them multiple times while envisioning myself as the leading characters. The joy of reading about empowered women was an experience that I still remember as if it was yesterday. Soon, I started noticing that it was harder to find books with stories focused on strong women, but it did not make sense to me. It was important to me to have equal rights. I demanded the same rights that boys were given at home and school. I did not want to be beautiful. Instead, I wanted to be smart and, more importantly, courageous! I started defending my rights and others to the point that some of my teachers pushed me to become a lawyer. But, my life was going to take another turn.
I went to college to get my business degree, but after a few months, I realized that I’d missed reading philosophy, poetry, and literature. I had missed reading about the arts and culture, so I dropped out and reapplied into a related major, which covered both arts and business. Almost everyone I knew was terrified of me jumping into the unknown. Not me though! It was not really in my nature to get scared that simply! When I graduated, I had ranked first among 80 students in the department. I could easily get into a graduate school because of my strong application. Everything was great but terribly repetitive after so many years of living in one place. It was right before my graduation that I felt the desire of discovering a new home, where I could meet new people and learn about other cultures. I was ready to take on a new challenge. I worked hard for another year, took exams, applied to several programs, got interviewed, and finally moved to the United States to start my graduate studies.
Upon my arrival, I soon realized that my native metropolitan hometown is not as known as I wished it would be. I figured that I’m here to teach as much as learn. I answered and still answer an unvaried set of questions—which I do not mind a bit— about the stereotypes that people form in their minds, but in the process, I also learned more about my native country and its culture.
During my graduate studies, I changed my focus once. Therefore, I had to reform my committee. I took a photography class to understand Shirin Neshat’s work —which was going to be the subject of my thesis— better. It was first frightening and later delightful to develop negatives and print gelatin silver photographs. I did simultaneous internships and slept five hours every night for a long time. After graduation, when I started leading my curatorial projects, I always picked something that would encourage people to step outside of their boxes so they can stand next to the narrator and see the issues through their eyes whether it was me or my artists. I took every opportunity to create a platform for discussion and conversation. I encourage my students to question everything, embrace the differences, and empower themselves through knowledge. I encourage them to work hard and be brave. I teach them to fly and discover.
The beauty of my host country is the diversity that it manifests through different cultures. It is the excitement of meeting new people from all over the world and learning about their history. It feeds my insatiable curiosity and desire to expand what I know and gives unique character to this country.