Born into an educated and respected Iranian family, Negar Ahkami is an artist influenced by her heritage, passion and surroundings. Her paintings carry an Islamic influence as well as an intense and unique color scheme which is whimsical, depicting everything from nude harem women to exaggerated cartoonish characters. Currently a resident of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Negar took some time to do this interview with us.
PersianMirror: Tell us a little about yourself.
Negar Ahkami: I grew up in Northern New Jersey. My parents immigrated to the U.S. before I was born, about 10 years before the Revolution. I felt fortunate to have been spared from the diaspora experience. Still, the Hostage Crisis was difficult. I was in the 4th and 5th grades in a new school, and felt very aware that my status changed. My magical glimpses of Iran from summer vacations in the 1970s were replaced with ugly media images of Iranians on nightly news. My little girl reaction to all the teasing and to the dreadful media images was to distance myself from all things Iranian.
In college at Columbia University, I majored in Middle Eastern Languages in Cultures. It was an amazing opportunity to go back to my roots and begin to repair my shattered pride. I studied Persian; ancient history; art history; as well as political science. With Columbia’s core curriculum, I had this great balance between a Western, Eurocentric education on the one hand, and an Iran-centric education on the other. I also have a JD and an MFA in fine arts. But it’s my college education that really informs my art.
PM: When did you decide to become an artist and how did it all start?
NA: Better to ask my parents (Shahrokh and Nahid Ahkami) because it started at a very early age. Apparently there were signs in kindergarten, which my parents temporarily ignored, but then revisited when it became clear later in my childhood. I drew constantly and was passionate about art, and about looking in general. I also had a hypersensitive temperament, much different from my 2 older sisters.
My dad would take me to the Art Students League of New York, starting when I was 10 years old through high school. There, I would take unsupervised Life Drawing and Painting classes for members, and would mostly draw or paint the nude model. Other than the model, I was often the only female in the room filled with grey-haired men. Learning to draw from strict observation at such a young age was a great foundation. But by my late teens, I grew bored of it. While I still loved to draw and paint people, I discovered that I preferred to make art that came from the imagination. I felt that the possibilities and rewards were greater in art that trusted intuition and emotional observation. This continues to be the place from which I make art.
PM: What are some of your daily challenges as an artist?
NA: There is a lot of struggle in being an artist: the risk, the instability, the difficulties of navigating the art world, and the struggle of the artistic process. Someone once said to me that you should only choose to make art fulltime if you have absolutely no other choice. I think that is very true. It’s a hard road to be on, and yet I’ve learned that I cannot be anywhere else!
PM: Tell us about your art.
NA: In a lot of my work, I revisit Orientalist motifs (subjects by late 19th century European and American artists that engaged Western stereotypes about the Middle East). For example, I paint scenes of harem women, or odalisques, to revisit this painting tradition of Western male fantasies of exotic Muslim women. Growing up, I related to Matisse’s paintings of odalisques –to their facial features, and to Matisse’s Persian sensibility of patterning and color. But I also felt like Matisse’s women were invisible and lacking in inner spirit. In some of his odalisque paintings, the vases and background rugs were more important than the woman.
The women in my harem paintings have a fetish-object, ceramic quality, and at times get consumed by the patterns around them like in a Matisse painting. However, my harem women have personality and desires. In contrast to the exoticism in the Orientalist view, my paintings have deeper references to Persian culture. The Persian beauty that I explore goes beyond the American media obsession with chador-clad women, and looks to the Persian beauties to which I have been exposed as inspiration. Like good Iranians, my odalisques are fashion-conscious divas on Louis Quatorze chairs. Although they are cooped up in an enclosed space, they are aware of the world beyond them. Even if they are naked, in the European tradition of harem women, they have great shoes.
Orientalist harem paintings were based on pure fantasy, since Western male artists would never have been allowed inside a harem. Similarly, my harem paintings also engage my own fantasies and emotions about an interior domestic world where men other than eunuchs are not allowed. Having grown up in a very strong female house of 3 sisters, and the daughter of an Obstetrician-Gynecologist, there’s a lot of psychology in my harem works!
In addition to the harem paintings, I also paint fantastical landscapes in the spirit of the fantastical images of the Middle East in American pop culture. The Aladdin, carnivalesque views of Islamic worlds are another kind of Orientalist art tradition, taking the fantasy in the harem paintings to even more preposterous levels. In contrast to the controlled indoor spaces of my harem paintings, my outdoor scenes are chaotic, out of control, and often political. I include recurring characters like cartoonishly evil clerical figures, and melting Islamic architecture. Through these and other symbols, I grapple with the degradation of Persian culture that I have witnessed, and the reduction of Iran to a cartoon in the media and minds in America.
But I go beyond mere replication of negative cartoons. In my art there is a tension between the cartoon and the incredible sophistication of my Persian art influences that make my art so rich. Brutality and stereotypes are counterbalanced with a celebratory flamboyance and humor. Within these contradictions in my work, I am reconciling the degrading cartoons and brutality associated with Iran with an incredibly rich, proud, and colorful Iranian culture. This tension in my art reveals a lot about the conflicts in the world around me - this constant dual exposure to the dreadful and to the wonderful. It was so hard to negotiate this duality for me growing up. Putting it in my art has a healing effect.
PM: Your art has such a dramatic Iranian influence. Where do you find your inspiration for this type of detail?
NA: Iranian art was my one source of pride at a young age when I was disconnected from being Iranian and rejected everything. Growing up, the Islamic Section of the Met was my sanctuary, and I spent a lot of alone time there over the years. When I was 18, I interned at the Met and would spend almost every break in the Islamic section. After so many years of getting lost in this work, as well as my exposure to Iranian art in my parents’ home and through my travels to Iran --I inherited a lot from the Persian-Islamic aesthetic.
Being married to an American man and being very American myself, my art is the one true space where I can connect with and inherit my Persian culture. My Persian language skills are pretty lacking which tends to limit my interaction with Iranians. My art is a space in which I can speak the version of the Persian language that comes natural to me, and continue the visual traditions that I love.
At the same time, there is a lot about Iranian art that I am rejecting in my work. I want there to be such thing as an Islamic Expressionism --an art that internalizes the Persian-Islamic language, but that is also psychological, raw, unleashed, reflecting the neuroses of this world. While I have a deep respect for Rumi, Hafiz and Sufi ideals, there is so much more to visual art than poetry, poetic beauty, and the transcendence of the self! My version of Persian embraces the flawed self and the material, corporeal, political world. I have more of an existential than a Sufi impulse: to embrace the absurdities and flaws within and around me, and to make something rich out of the lemons this life has dealt. Like a glorious limoo stew!
PM: What is the biggest misconception of Iran you face when trying to explain Iran to non-Iranians?
NA: There is the usual surprise that Iranians do not speak Arabic. (I wish Iranians here would refer to the language as “Persian” - not just because it is more grammatical in English than saying “Farsi”, but because I think it could help address this misconception.) Also, a lot of educated Americans cannot distinguish politics and statements by the Iranian regime from Iranian people and culture. With all the press about a reformist youth culture in Iran, people can’t seem to grasp the extent of a secular culture in the older generations as well.
PM: Desert Island. Three things. What will you take?
NA: My husband is not a thing (otherwise him), so I’d take a giant roll of canvas, a supersized barrel of ballpoint pens…and tweezers!
Full Name: Negar Anna Ahkami
Born In (city & date): Baltimore, Maryland
Favorite Color: Fluorescent Yellow
Favorite City: Paris
Favorite Dish: Chocolate Chip Cookies w/Milk; Zereshk Polow w/Maast
Favorite Drink: Tie between Pomegranate Juice and Vanilla Egg Cream
Languages: In order of competency: English, French, Persian, Italian
Currently Reading: I recently read Joan Didion’s “The Last Thing He Wanted;” my next read might be her “Year of Magical Thinking.”
Anything else interesting about yourself? My closeted dream is to be backup dancer in a Bollywood film. And I rock out to Googoosh in my art studio.
For more on Negar Ahkami and her art, visit her website at www.negarahkami.com.