Published  15/01/2013

Taking a transnational picture: an interview with Maryam Najd

Taking a transnational picture: an interview with Maryam Najd

The meeting with Maryam Najd was an encounter of cultures. She, a fascinating artist who left her homeland in Iran and went to Belgium to study, and myself, a Brazilian who has been educated and lives in England. To complete the transnational picture, our meeting happened on the streets of Berlin, near the Kunstlerhaus Bethanien, an important German cultural centre for artistic residencies.


There, in the large exhibition area, she presented the exhibition Happy New Year My Love, in which one of the highlights is the new artwork Grand Bouquet (2012). The eye-catching painting, which resembles 15th-century Flemish style, is a still life depicting numerous different flowers, demonstrating an incredible observation of nature and attention to detail. Najd’s choice not to repeat any single species in the floral arrangement was not to call attention to the superb technique that was learnt through reproducing Persian traditional miniatures, but to depict flowers that are symbols of countries, each one representing a nationality, harmoniously drawing life from the same water in the same vase.

The utopia of conjoined nations, together in the same place, is a constant topic in Najd’s works. Painting a world of flowers she combines rigorous figurative creation with a highly conceptual image that is overflowing with abstract meanings. Is there any real relation between national icons and what they represent? Questions like this configure the Non Existence Flag Project (2010-12), which includes the Grand Bouquet. If in this painting the national icons are meticulously cultivated to stand out in a floral portrait, in the other artworks that compose the Non Existence Flag installation Najd erases the lines and contours that would shape the symbols of more than 100 national flags. The process consists of isolating their design elements in order to calculate the percentage of each colour that constitutes the flag. She repeats the process for each country. Similar to a chemical approach, she mixes the colours in their correct proportions until one single colour emerges. The final result is a set of monochromatic paintings generated by real flags whose colours were dissolved. She hangs these monochromatic paintings side by side, like a line of flags that only contain the pure blend of each nation.

The belief in a possible abandonment of national boundaries can be understood as a recurring theme these days when there has been much talk of a potential global culture. However, in the case of Najd this questioning was by no means brought about by theoretical research but through her own personal trajectory. Najd´s artistic practice reflects an overall understanding of culture that is shaped exactly by the similarities and differences that the artist has encountered wherever she has been. Interested in these transnational aspects, in this interview I ask Najd about her history, her stories and to what extent being an artist in diaspora has influenced her oeuvre.

Currently, her artworks can be seen at the artistic initiative Bolero, part of the parallel events of Manifesta 9 – The European Biennial of Contemporary Art taking place in Genk, Belgium until 30 September. Bolero is based at Genk public library but it also aims to be a nomadic exhibition and through the portable format of a newspaper it can be duplicated, incorporate other artists and travel to other cities. Bolero is called an “International Art Project on the move” where geographical boundaries are absent, such as the utopia stamped in Najd’s works.

Caroline Menezes: Could you please tell me about your cultural background? What was your life like in Teheran, and what was it like being an artist there?

Maryam Najd: I started to study art after finishing secondary school. I was never involved with art before that. I just used to draw at home. It was actually my father who proposed that I could study art. He showed my drawings to an artist friend who said that I had a talent for the arts. He suggested that I should study art. At that time, it was not usual for someone to study art. I was really happy when my father said that I could. So, after taking some drawing classes I started studying miniatures. It is a very traditional way of painting. I did that for three years, but it did not really satisfy me. After all, it was like I was copying the masters’ work.

I decided to further my studies and enrol on an art degree course at Teheran University.  However, it was during the war between Iran and Iraq, quite a strange time to study for an art degree. They were bombing Teheran. You could go to a place, a bomb might fall and you might never go back home. Even with all this tension I continued with my studies there, but other issues made the situation even harder. After the revolution, some forms of expressions, for example modern sculpture and painting that were not miniature, were prohibited. What students could learn was very limited. We were not allowed to see naked bodies. In life drawing classes, there was a model, an old man who would pose for us, and we had to imagine how his body would look without clothes. Nowadays, looking back, I actually think that it was an interesting and perhaps funny exercise, but at the time it was really hard for young students, who have rarely seen the shape of a naked body in real life, to draw nudes when that body is hidden under fabrics. As we just had this old man as a model, we decided one by one to draw each other (my classmates and I) by wearing a gym outfit and trying to imagine the shape of the body.

CM: And I imagine that it was not a mixed class, with men and women together.

MN: It was just women. I have not been to Iran for many years, but I have heard that now there are mixed classes and men and women can speak with each other. During my time there, we were not really allowed to talk to a man that we did not know. The books were also censored and a lot of art books were not even considered.

CM: When was that?

MN: It was in the mid-1980s. It took me five years to finish my degree because the university was closed for a year when the bombing became really extreme. But even under all these circumstances, I really wanted to persist with my art studies. I realised that art was what I had always really liked. However, I could see that the teaching there was quite restricted. Not knowing about anatomy or certain periods of art history, elements that would make you feel complete. I don’t want to say that education gives you 100 per cent of what is necessary to become an artist, but I was lacking certain things. So, when I finished university, I decided to go to Europe to continue studying.

CM: Are you saying that your decision to go to Europe was mainly because of art?

MN: Yes, but at that time, it was not that you made a decision and then left the country. I was given a chance. My brother was living in Belgium and I had permission to visit him. Once in Belgium, I sat the entry exams to the Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp and passed. Then I returned to Iran to apply for a visa and went back to Antwerp in 1992. I had to start the degree all over again because the Academy did not recognise my education in Iran. It was the first time that I had studied anatomy and it was there for the first time I had contact with contemporary art, because I had had no access to or received any education on contemporary art before that.

CM: Up to which period in art history were you able to study in Iran? Did you learn about Modernism? Have you heard about Duchamp?

MN: They just mentioned Modernism but without explaining much. There was absolutely no reference to contemporary art. I could not get to know about conceptual art and other expressions like performance, installation, or even video art. They did not exist in Iran at that time. In Iran the possibilities were mainly painting, photography and sculpture, and even sculpture was not allowed in three dimensions, it should be just in relief form, because it was against the religion. Nowadays, I know that things have changed in Iran and that the artists are very aware and are involved with all sorts of expressions in contemporary art. 

CM: In this period of discoveries and cultural encounters what were the main difficulties you encountered when you moved to Antwerp?

MN: After getting my first degree there I decided to take a postgraduate course. However, after one year I was not allowed to carry on. The director told me that “there was a gap of understanding between us” and for this reason I could not continue my education.

CM: Were there many problems that made you leave?

MN: Yes, and due to being thrown out, I should have left the country. For this reason, I needed to apply for permission to stay in Belgium and I stayed there for four years without a passport. I could not travel abroad. All these years I worked on my own, I had my studio and I stayed there painting. I had my first solo exhibition in 1999. It was very successful and I kept on working and exhibiting and I eventually got permission to stay in Belgium. I mean, this is a very short version of what happened.

CM: What happened at the Academy is interesting because you went to Belgium to seek the support of an academic institution and to formalise your art education but in the end you had to leave. Eventually you achieved both, because you did start to exhibit although you were on your own. I assume that this process was even harder because you were an immigrant.

MN: For sure, but one good thing happened to me at this time. When I left the Higher Institute of Fine Arts in Antwerp, a gallery was already interested in my work. That is why I had a solo exhibition after such a short time. Through this gallery I also met an influential art personality in Belgium, Jan Hoet, who liked my work and when he found out what had happened to me at the Academy he gave an introductory speech in my defence at my exhibition. His support gave me extra belief in myself. Many people paid attention to my work after that.

CM: Could you say that this culture shock affected your work?

MN: Yes, it totally affected my work. I remember that one negative situation when I was in the Academy was the feeling that the lecturers were not only against me personally, but also against my country, our culture and government. For example, a painting teacher took me out of the classroom and said: “try to forget about your past and paint like a European.” This was very judgemental. As a young student I was there to listen to them. Of course, this confused me a lot. During that whole year I struggled over what I should do and my painting was just not happening. What is European?

CM: Exactly, after all what is European? What precisely was it that they wanted you to do?

MN: They wanted me to follow a certain style that was popular at the Academy, but if you did not want to follow that style, or if you were not raised to understand that style, you could not merely follow it. I had to give up something, a style I enjoyed, and copy something else that I had no interest in.

CM: What was your painting like back then?

MN: In the beginning my paintings were maybe still too traditional for them. The way that I used colours and light did not follow the trend of the moment. What the students were experimenting with in the Academy was a kind of wild expressionism in order to express freedom, putting energy into colours to create a strong atmosphere that was also dark. In their opinion my painting was too beautiful I guess.

CM: Isn’t it strange that if the point was to express freedom that they would not accept your work and embrace diversity?

MN: Maybe I should have talked about the freedom and energy that I have brought to the work. But they should not have asked me to ignore my sensitivity or the connections that I had made. I knew I was still under the influence of miniatures, which is not a western style at all. They wanted me to steer away from that. It is as if they were saying, “if we go to Iran, they would not want us to be European”, which I don’t think would be true. If a European goes to Iran they are still European and there is nothing wrong with that. I mean, you don’t go to another country to change yourself, who you are, you go to another country to see who they are. Perhaps you are able to mix the two, to see how you relate to that place and pick up the things that you consider can be part of you.

CM: It is good to change but it is not good if you are forced. But if you do it because you are experiencing or experimenting with new things, and then incorporate these changes within you, it is part of the learning and development process.

MN: I was quite frustrated about how I was treated at the Higher Institute of Fine Arts in Antwerp. It was the frustration of not being respected for where I came from. I started to react through my work and it became a response to what they did to me, pushing me away from my roots. On the other hand, I was influenced by being in Europe and got to know about conceptual art, monochromes and the use of calligraphy in painting. I combined what I learned from western art with what is considered abstract to western people – Persian calligraphy and symbols for example. I found it quite interesting to unite abstract forms or monochrome paintings with Persian calligraphy in order to confront them with my past. It was a sort of reactionary attitude to create art. The works were strong, I was experimenting and I realised that I was much more interested in going deeper and deeper into abstract art and not only painting figuratively. So, when all the institutions were no longer part of my life, I decided to follow both ways, painting figuratively and using abstract forms.

CM: We can see this in your work, the mix between abstract and figurative is very clear, or better said very intricate. In the majority of your figurative paintings we can see a kind of washed out image, as if what we are seeing is going to disappear from the canvas.

MN: Or let’s say, images that are created to be less sharp than what we see in reality. It is an idea that I have had for a long time. I wanted to paint certain images or pictures that I thought I was not allowed to. This thought was not concerning the risks run in the past. It was more about my personal feelings and background education. For example, at a certain time, I was painting from pornographic magazines. I wanted to show bodies, but at the same time I was not feeling completely free to express such images.

CM: So it was a kind of self-censorship?

MN: Yes, so I began placing a layer over the images so that they would not be very sharp and would not be easily perceived by the audience when they looked at the artwork. Later on it was not necessary for the content to matter, I just felt that this was the way that I wanted to express myself. In 2006, I went further and I found my images by following TV shows and taking pictures of the TV in motion.

CM: Any kind of TV shows in particular?

MN: Everything. When I took the photo, the reaction between the image and the camera always created these lines and this filter over the images. I was really touched by the similarities of what I was creating in my mind and what was happening between the television and the camera.

CM: It is very interesting to visualise these stages of the image. There is a TV image and then you take a picture of the TV for us to have the image created by the photographic camera “watching” the TV screen, and finally the image returns to the canvas.

MN: I also think that since I left Iran I became quite isolated in the world of images. I didn’t know the language, I mean, I only knew a bit of English. Sometimes I felt like I was deaf – I watched TV and just saw images. This is why the world of images became more and more important to me. These snapshots became images for paintings that, most of time, were not related to what the movie or TV show was about. They refer to my ideas, the stories I want to express or topics that I want to talk about. 

CM: I like the way you speak about “the world of images”. It is a good phrase. This leads me to a question about living in different cities with different languages, not only taking into consideration the culture shock. To what extent do you believe that the unfamiliar atmosphere had an impact on your artistic practice? Perhaps, your last comment can also answer this question.

MN: Sure. The first change was very difficult but after a while I got totally used to it. Of course, it is never easy to go from a familiar place to a new one. You need to get used to it physically and mentally. However, I learnt to be in that place without the desire for communication, merely by visual interaction. I made the choice of accepting being in a place but not being able to understand the whole conversation, just being there to watch. For me, I enjoy going out and being on my own and observing people. I don’t have the same urge as other people to talk all the time.

CM: Do you imagine what people are saying? Can you create stories from what you observe?

MN: Well, you can see from people’s attitudes when it is an intense conversation, or just chit-chat about unimportant things, or is the seduction between two people. Of course, every now and then there is this nostalgic feeling that you are not participating, that you are surrounded by people and do not really belong. It is a good and bad thing. I am sure that this had a huge influence on my art. In the same way that images became very important even without knowing their contents. I can either create my own story or intuitively just guess what is going on.

CM: Talking about the characters of “the world of images”, I saw a parallel between the Masquerades series, in which you paint people using masks or make-up and the self-portraits series that are not really self-portraits, but are portraits of someone else. What was your intention when you called these personalities such as Bin Laden, or Margaret Thatcher portraits of yourself? Are they masks for yourself? There is always a question of identity in all your work including of course the flags project.

MN: In general when I paint I am questioning. I am questioning myself and I am questioning people. For example, with the self-portraits, I was questioning who these people really are? Or why one person can be for some a certain character and for others an entirely different figure. Of course, this question started firstly with me. Why in one society can I be a respected person and in another, because of my nationality, be judged as if I were a terrorist. My Iranian passport is always considered suspect. I got a European passport because I was fed-up being confronted with visa issues each time I travelled. It was a never ending story. From the moment I got my new nationality, although I have the same face and the same look, everything was changed. My life from hell is now paradise when I enter an airport. I ask the question: what has changed in me that the attitude of people towards me has changed. Nothing has changed. These questions also go back to the self-portraits: what if I were Margaret Thatcher, or Marjane Satrapi or Osama bin Laden? Sometimes, in airports, I felt like Osama bin Laden because of the way they treated me. Many times, people would smile and say: “oh are you from Iran, we love Marjane Satrapi.” What makes someone seem interesting to some people and dangerous to others? From which angles come the projections that people make about you? That is why I called them self-portraits because I was somehow projecting myself onto them or them onto me.

CM: The paintings related to national symbols, maps or flags have also emerged from your life experience, correct? For example, in the Non Existence Flag project, the fact that you take the colours of flags and transform them into an abstract monochromatic painting is as if you are trying to equalise the symbols or to dematerialise the flags.

MN: Yes, the flag project was created bearing in mind governments’ attitudes towards people of other nationalities. This is what I would like to do: take the borders away and destroy the flags. I would allow everyone to go everywhere they want. I am not saying that there shouldn’t be any laws but I think that the law should be the same for everyone. There would be no flags, only monochrome paintings that stand out with volume, light and shadows.

CM: Actually, this lack of meaningful symbols brings numerous conceptual meanings to the installation. Once again the elements fade, this time of the flags, their presence is still there but only in their essence, the pure manifestation of colours.

MN: The idea of destroying the flags already existed back in 2003, but it took me some time until I reached the monochrome idea, the complete disappearance of the flag. I did not want anybody to see the installation without the explanation of what they once were, for this I also made the other works; the charts, maps and flowers.

CM: Do you think that your work is political?

MN: No, I don’t make political art. But I think that for some people it can be considered political. As for myself, my work is about my life, my thoughts and the effects that society had on me. So, it is not political because it is personal. It is not because of the fact that I like to talk about identity and nationality that it should go in a political direction. I raise the questions but I don’t give any answer or any solution. I don’t say what is good or what is bad, that is beyond my judgement.

CM: You don't like raising flags.

MN: (Laughs) Yes, exactly.

Click on the pictures below to enlarge

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