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Uncovering Humanity

By Tori Phelps | Photography by Aranka Israni

Most artists prefer to be known for their work, but sometimes the person behind it is as compelling as the art. Aranka Israni is one such artist. Her life story is a kaleidoscope of international addresses, and the latest chapter includes an exhibition in Arles, France, alongside a legendary festival that’s known as a springboard for the world’s top photographic talent.

The Evolution of an Artist

Israni’s exotic upbringing started off in a not-so-exotic locale: Seattle. Her family was soon on the move, and her formative years were divided between the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Middle East. She spent the most time in Dubai—a final landing spot of sorts for her father’s business and where her parents still reside.

It was during her teen years in Dubai that Israni first developed an interest in photography. She found it difficult to connect with the city, but she could always connect with nature. So she spent nearly every afternoon on the beach, clicking away until daylight gave way to sunset.

My mom has a great interest in art. We visited every possible museum and exhibition that we could find while I was growing up.

The diversion came naturally to Israni, whose family made frequent cultural trips to Europe. “My mom has a great interest in art,” she says. “We visited every possible museum and exhibition that we could find while I was growing up.”

Israni was always allowed creative outlets: painting, drawing, playing music, and, of course, photography. So when it came time for college, she knew two things: she wanted to pursue a fine arts degree and she wanted to do it in the States.

View of Navy Pier Featuring Lake Michigan And The Centennial Ferris Wheel

After a foundation year at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, she finished an undergraduate degree at the University of Southern California School of Fine Arts, focusing on graphic design and digital media. Then it was off to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts for a master’s. However, the wanderer found more than an education; she found a home. She’s been in New York City ever since—eleven years and counting.

Here, Israni picked up a camera again, which rekindled a passion that had lain dormant for about fifteen years. Her career had centered on painting and live video artistry, but she believed that photography was the key to capturing the human body, which was a long-held fascination she never indulged through drawing or painting. But now was the time. Her works up to that point were all abstract; she needed something to help her reconnect with humanity. And there’s nothing as human as the bodies we inhabit. “There’s beauty in the vulnerability of the naked form that you don’t have anywhere else,” she says.

There’s beauty in the vulnerability of the naked form that you don’t have anywhere else.

Israni calls the camera a natural tool to explore the subject matter. It’s not that she suddenly decided to become a photographer. In fact, she balks at being branded a photographer, preferring to simply describe herself as an artist. Nevertheless, photography is now an inescapable part of her artistic identity; it’s increasingly the medium for which she’s best known.

Her mastery of the art form led VIE to commission Israni for a special project: going behind the lens at New York Fashion Week with a fresh, artistic take on it. Israni took aim at the concept of internal versus external as influenced by the clothes we wear. The question on her mind: do the veils of the body—fabrics, fashion, and design—mask our essence, or do they reflect what’s inside?

View of Navy Pier Featuring Lake Michigan And The Centennial Ferris Wheel

Fashion shows may not sound like a good fit for an artist whose life is spent pursuing emotional truth. In fact, she had done a bit of fashion photography when she was starting out and didn’t find it to be a natural strength. Israni’s artwork is very intimate, usually created in a one-on-one experience in the studio. Fashion Week, with its crowds and whirlwind pace, couldn’t be a more polar opposite from her studio.

But in true artistic style, she couldn’t help but investigate that contrast. This left her open to possibilities other than traditional runway imagery. The results are on full, striking display throughout this issue. Israni doesn’t like to interpret her photos and prefers to let the work speak to audiences directly. But if she won’t say it, plenty of others will: her images are more than just clothing on a body. While Israni does capture the apparel, she also captures the person underneath the couture. It’s an example of her ability to find the “moments between the moments” that reveal authenticity—rather than posed perfection. She has said that she sees essences and souls. And apparently her camera does as well.

View of Navy Pier Featuring Lake Michigan And The Centennial Ferris Wheel

A Universal Perspective

These unique gifts have earned Israni the exhibition of a lifetime this summer. In her first solo photography event, she’ll exhibit nine black-and-white nudes from July 4 to August 22 at the Anne Clergue Galerie in Arles, France. Her show runs concurrently with the world-famous Rencontres d’Arles, a massive photo festival that attracts nearly a hundred thousand art lovers to Provence every year. The event was launched in 1970 and includes displays in cultural sites—like twelfth-century chapels—that are only open to the public during the festival.

Israni, however, will be happily ensconced in a more meaningful venue. Anne Clergue is the daughter of her mentor, who had a significant role in the festival’s creation. And like her father, Anne saw something very special in Israni’s photos and decided to give her father’s protégé a solo show as soon as she saw Israni’s work.

View of Navy Pier Featuring Lake Michigan And The Centennial Ferris Wheel

With this exhibition, it’s impossible for Israni to ignore the fact that her star is on the rise. And while she doesn’t object to a wider audience for her work, the thrill remains in the artistic process. “It’s magical,” she says. “Each time I see something I’ve never seen before and experience something I’ve never experienced before. It’s always different.”

“Different” is the story of her life. Israni has lived in Toronto, Miami, Dubai, Los Angeles, London, and New York City. Her career has included live video performances, online exhibitions, and group exhibitions from Estonia to Colombia. She’s lived and worked with people of different cultures, religions, ethnicities, and philosophies, resulting in a knowledge that few of us can imagine and a worldview that few of us possess. She calls it a “universal perspective”—a fluidity and an adaptability that allow her to disregard the outer layer more easily than most. “Your environment does affect you,” she concedes. “But if you remove external influence, our bodies carry our essence. Beauty is universal. My work is universal.”

She’s found a similarly universal outlook in the people of New York City, which may help explain her uncharacteristic decade-plus residence. Israni believes that the city chose her. She thrives on its pulse and rhythm, feeding off the creative energy of her fellow artists. It’s the place that, more than any other, has given her a foundation of creative development. In a very real way, the city turned her into an artist.

View of Navy Pier Featuring Lake Michigan And The Centennial Ferris Wheel

And yet nothing about Israni is set in stone. If opportunities take her elsewhere, she’ll happily decamp from New York City. And when different artistic mediums call to her, she’ll answer. Even during this period of photographic success, she still makes works on paper. She doesn’t see other mediums as being separate from her photography. Rather, they’re different means to the same end: expression. “I love making imagery,” she explains. “And right now, the way I know how to express my vision is through a camera.”

For Israni, being an artist is both a profession and a way of living. She can’t even pinpoint what she loves most about her life right now because when you do what you love, it’s all good.

In the near future, she intends to expand the complexity of her imagery, perhaps with the help of the circus performers and contortionists with whom she’s working. Her next venture will undoubtedly involve taking her best picture yet. “My favorite photo is every one I’ve ever made,” she confesses. “And it’s also the next one that I make.”

We can’t wait to see it.

— V —


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