When you move to a new country, there are always aspects of home you’ll miss. For Rokhsareh Jeddi, one of those things has been the gallery where she showed her silverwork, and the community that surrounded it. Located in the House of Iranian Artists in Tehran artists’ park, the space resembles a salon and high-end jewellery shop, replete with glass display cases to showcase the work. The complex itself houses a theatre, conference halls and a cinema as well as a number of exhibition spaces and galleries.

It was run by a tight-knit collective of women who took turns staffing the space. Each worked the floor two days a month, selling their wares and interacting with the clientele. Otherwise, they were free to focus on their craft.

Jeddi is a jewellery artist. She works with silver, sometimes incorporating beads into her one-of-a-kind necklaces, bracelets and rings. Four years ago, Jeddi moved to Canada with her husband. The couple followed their daughter, who arrived in 2010 to study at the University of Waterloo, as well as Jeddi’s sister, who immigrated 15 years ago.

With big ambitions in mind for a possible storefront and trying to figure out an entirely new market, it was a hard transition. But Jeddi has persevered in trying as many outlets as she can to get her work noticed.

“After moving to Canada, everything changed. I couldn’t find the market,” she says. “I couldn’t find my client.” Jeddi was selling to friends who admired her creations, but that was a limited consumer base—and word of mouth only travelled so far. Having a larger platform to sell and promote her work from would have an obvious advantage. Jeddi and her sister Elham, a potter, began reflecting on all the talented women they knew back in Iran.

Their home country is replete with skilled artisans. In Iran alone, over 300 handicrafts are practised domestically and there are 14 craft cities and villages recognized by the World Crafts Council — the most of any nation in the world. But beginning this century, international sanctions against Iran have impacted all areas of life and the economy, including the country’s vibrant arts sector. One of the many ways sanctions made careers in creative fields more difficult is through stifling contacts with the international community, reducing opportunities to show and sell abroad.

Since Jeddi’s arrival in Canada, sanctions had only tightened. But she knew there was a way to get the work out, and it occurred to Jeddi that having a storefront could be the key to finding a client base for herself and the artists whose work she would carry. Coffee could be a way to attract clients. Jeddi flew back to Iran to take a three-day intensive course in barista training. Soon Jeddi and Elham were viewing commercial spaces in downtown Toronto. The plan was to open a cafe—hence the name Collage Cafe Gallery—dedicating a corner of the shop to the sale of artisanal objects. Jeddi reached out to the women she used to share a gallery with. To import the accessories and homewares, the inventory travels to Dubai and then gets redirected.

Then the pandemic hit. Amid enforced business closures, leasing an expensive storefront felt like too much of a risk. Through a friend and fellow artist, Jeddi learned about Scadding Court Community Centre’s Newcomer Entrepreneurship Hub. She’d already decided to pivot to ecommerce, but was looking for support in getting her business off the ground. She applied to the program, which is a partner of Ryerson University’s Diversity Institute and funded by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. The NEH offers pre-incubation training and mentorship by experts and entrepreneurs, as well as workshops to help get participants from idea to launch.

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Jeddi’s cohort began in July 2020. So far she’s completed three terms: July to September, October to December and May to July of this year. When the program is in session, Jeddi logs on three to four times a week for virtual classes and workshops, along with the 20-something other successful applicants. There are also one-on-one mentoring sessions available to those enrolled. So far she’s been able to add web design, photography and marketing skills to her resume, all of which she's applying to her website. Before, she says she knew nothing about taking photos; now she has a lightbox at home and shoots each item herself, updating the website’s ecommerce platform and the shop’s Instagram page. What she learned through NEH is in part how she was able to launch Collage Cafe Gallery online in under two months.

The site now stocks unique works from 14 Persian artists spanning textile, enamel and woodwork to pottery and jewellery design. Vibrant reversible velvet scarfs, hand stitched with cotton thread; plexiglass earrings and brooches made using stained glass techniques; a silver clamshell pendant with two cultured pearls hanging from a delicate chain; a lively red clay cake stand hand-painted with colourful swirls; table cloths decorated using a hand-stamping method: these are just some of the items available for sale on the site.

Jeddi works directly with the artisans, meticulously requesting edits to individual items. So far, she’s finding that Torontonians prefer more minimalist, less colourful designs than Tehranians. But she’s holding out for those customers who also agrees that all the colours found in nature are fair game when it comes to fashion, that designs and motifs don’t have to be pared down but can be as intricate and textured as the poetry that inspires them.

In addition to maintaining her online shop, Jeddi has been selling at popup markets as well, like a recent Sunday fair at Stackt, the shipping container marketplace at the bottom of Bathurst St. and another at Liberty Village. Her next hurdle is translating these in-person introductions to online sales and repeat customers. Sales have been slow to start, but Jeddi is looking into hiring someone for marketing and SEO as she gears up for the next cohort of NEH beginning in October. As for whether the shop will move into a more permanent venue, that’s a decision she’ll hold off on making until July 2022.

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