The Delicious Fan Fiction of Artist and Designer Shana Sadeghi-Ray

In Shana Sadeghi-Ray’s charged object-multiverse, even the most seemingly banal trinkets and toys become talismans of memories, messages and meaning.

Nazuk Kochhar

Photography by Molly Malaton

Jrue the bearded dragon conferencing with Betty Boop keychains and figurines over breakfast.

Ever since multimedia artist and designer Shana Sadeghi-Ray was a kid, she felt deep down that objects held meaning. “I remember being young and collecting rocks. I would call them ‘wish rocks’ and put a certain importance on [each of] them—I would feel like it was bad luck when I lost one.” Walking into her Bushwick apartment/studio on an unseasonably warm October evening, it’s clear that sentiment has never gone away. As we sit down to chat at her wooden kitchen table, NPR’s evening programming humming in the background, my eyes are drawn to several dozen thoughtfully placed figurines and trinkets to my left that go on to line the table’s edge and seem to crawl and sprawl up the wall—bits of Celtics memorabilia, BTS merch, hacky sacks, little plastic sea creatures and stickers, dolls and more.

Experienced together, these items might appear a well-curated collection of goodies that once caught her eye, but understood in the context of Sadeghi-Ray’s art—an ongoing exploration of worship, fandom and, most recently, basketball—they are items with a story: research materials gathered over time. Through collage, sculpture and graphic design, she turns even the most inconsequential of everyday items, images and familiar figures into humorous reflections on the complex dynamics that exist between humans and popular culture.

Shana Sadeghi-Ray

Shana Sadeghi-Ray in her backyard.

“To be passionate about something is interesting to me,” she says of the themes she explores. “I don’t particularly like celebrities, but I’m fascinated with the world around them. How can these people who don’t do much be royalty?” Here, Sadeghi- Ray refers to her collage work, brought to wider attention through a project with Art Baby Gallery a few years ago. Sadeghi-Ray’s compelling creations feature cutouts of pop culture icons, such as Kim Kardashian, engaged in menial activities and placed upon outdoor backgrounds sourced from passed-over books found on thrifting sprees or hours clicking around online archives. The celebrity images contrasted with dramatic landscapes or architecture make for a comical visual, but also give the viewer an opportunity to wonder about the scope of fame in a more finite way. What does this kind of worship provide a fan, on a human level?

In her own words, “If you’re a fan of something, I have so much respect for you. Fandom, for me, comes from a totally natural place. It gives you hope, and that’s why I’m interested in it. If you can’t find a religion, you’ll find some other idol. It improves people’s lives. I really like that.” One unending well of artistic inspiration, fandom and hope happens to be Sadeghi- Ray’s true passion, and the most consistent subject of her work—basketball. In the past three years, she’s focused a majority of her time and energy, both creative and personal, on this sport and the items and worlds that come from it. It’s a fascination that stems from her own origins.

Shana Sadeghi-Ray

Celtics collection: #1 Fan foam finger, Celtics Barbie and cheer bears, Jayson Tatum jersey, handmade rhinestone hat, wall ball, piggy bank.

The 32-year-old artist was born in Boston to an Iranian father and Filipino mother. Five years later, the three of them and her younger sister moved to the city’s suburbs, where she’d have a strict upbringing. Art and basketball, respectively, were parts of her life early on. She showed skill in drawing from a young age and was encouraged by her parents to make art and enter contests. At home, her father “had creative ventures on the side. He’d make a lot of games and we’d always go to the craft store. He was an inventor, for sure. Seeing his creative drive inspired mine.” Her mother motivated her love for collecting, their weekly trips to the mall inevitably resulting in Sadeghi-Ray spending her allowance on trinkets and collectibles. “That habit has developed through who I am today,” she reflects. Though now overwhelming at times, due to the sheer volume of items she’s accumulated, the artist appreciates that the joys of this practice, which remains so central to her work, are connected to her experiences with her mother.

Growing up in such a basketball-crazed area, one of her earliest memories of the sport is watching a game on TV with her grandfather, the lasting image a screen stalled on the Celtics mascot—a leprechaun—on the court after a game. Towards the end of her time as a fine arts student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the Boston Celtics made it to the NBA finals. The energy and excitement of that season got her serious about following the sport. In the years that followed, she moved to New York to pursue a career as an artist, and after struggling to keep up with the NBA season while only able to watch at bars, a freelance gig allowed her the extra cash to buy a TV; her first accompanying purchase was an NBA League Pass subscription.

It was that League Pass access that would bring Sadeghi-Ray’s passion for basketball into full obsession-fascination. The sport, and its many related rituals and cultures, has been the biggest influence on her work in the past four years, her fandom extending to watching several games at a time, daily, on many occasions. Here For This, a zine she made to recap the unconventional stats of the 2016-2017 season, was her first foray into exploring basketball artistically. Everyday Basketball, from 2018, presents all kinds of everyday items—from night lights to pillows, flip-flops and beyond—that are designed in the likeness of basketballs, set very simply against a white background. This minimalist presentation format, reminiscent of a catalog, is a tickling way to showcase the artist’s almost anthropological approach to the sport.

From zines, Sadeghi-Ray has expanded her visual exploration of basketball and now celebrates her passion in multiple mediums. The artist has designed and self-released several original t-shirts and, more recently, created a sculptural hoop complete with a hand-pearled net and a “spirit hammock” installation featuring small stuffed animals suspended within a net, each dressed in cheer outfits for different NBA teams, as well as hand-painted vases and nails that feature NBA team logos—all for the “Fever Lure” show at artist-run gallery Selenas Mountain earlier this year. Accessibility and humor are guiding principles in her art. “With all of my basketball work, it’s not focused on specifics of the game, but odds and ends of the game that everyone can relate to. You don’t have to understand everything that I see, but there are parts of it that can draw you in.” The New York and Los Angeles Art Book Fairs have also been fundamental in making her work physically accessible to a wider audience, and she’s appreciated the independence these platforms have provided.

Shana Sadeghi-Ray

Teddy photo from a thrift store, Hello Kitty Fuji camera, pink NBA Celtics gloves (two right hands), “Cutie” plush, wind-up dollar store carousel.

Accessibility is also a method she employs in her design work and an approach she developed when first designing items on her own. Rather than relying on professional (and often complicated) design programs and technologies, her process for producing graphics and images is both unconventional and totally her own. “Since I didn’t have to brand anything, I had free range in what I could do,” she shared of her early design explorations. “I realized I didn’t have to make things from scratch.” An example is a logo she created for one of Supreme’s t-shirts, a graphic that was born from covering a television she found in pink fuzz, and then photographing it.

This is Sadeghi-Ray’s first full year as a freelance artist; these days she’s in the midst of a period of finding her calm and taking time to re-center while putting personal work on pause for a few months. Of late, though, she’s excited about a few upcoming projects, including a collaboration and pop-up with Japanese brand BlackEyePatch, and a basketball-themed show at WHAAM gallery that she’ll be curating. At first averse to the gallery world, it’s a full-circle moment for Sadeghi-Ray, as she’s now able to re-enter it on her own terms. “It’s totally changed since nine years ago,” she says, as the opportunities presented this time around provide her with a lot of freedom.

In the long term, her dream job is to work for the NBA. “If I could work with a team on branding, that would be ideal for me. I just don’t know how to get in there.” In the short term, she’s got the upcoming season to look forward to. At the mention of it, her excitement bursts out of her, her tone of voice noticeably changing. “Just getting a taste of it, I’m like, ‘oh my God! This is who I am! I’m coming back to myself.’ During the three months that we don’t have the NBA, I always get so lost. It’s something to look forward to.”