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Iranian artist’s surreal paintings of women take on a new sense of urgency

Written by Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

For Iranian artist Arghavan Khosravi, depicting hair in her paintings has become emotionally charged. In early October, she posted a video of herself on Instagram sweeping her brush across the canvas in fluid strokes to create fine streaks. “These days when I paint hair I am filled with anger and hope. More than ever,” she wrote in the caption.

She added the hashtag #MahsaAmini to the post, the name of the 22-year-old woman who died in Tehran, Iran’s capital, in September after being arrested by the country’s vice squad for not wearing her hijab properly. Amini’s death has since catalyzed nationwide protests – many of which have seen young women and girls defiantly cutting their hair – and her name has become a rallying cry on social media.

Khosravi grew up in a secular family in Tehran in the aftermath of Iran’s 1979 revolution, when a new theocratic regime instituted oppressive rules for women, including making the hijab, or headscarf, compulsory in public.

Arghavan Khosravi uses long, flowing hair as a symbol in his metaphor-laden works. Credit: Courtesy of Arghavan Khosravi

“At a very young age, I realized there was this contrast between your private spaces – your home – and the public spaces. At home, you are free to do whatever you want,” Khosravi said during a phone call from Stamford, Connecticut. “You learn to navigate this double life.”

Khosravi had her own encounter with the vice squad in 2011 and was temporarily detained, she said. Based in the United States since moving in 2015 to study painting, the former graphic designer uses long, flowing hair as a symbol in her metaphor-laden works. His portraits of surreal and dreamlike women, which appear on multi-paneled surfaces that resemble architectural facades, were influenced by the flattened perspectives and meticulous detail of Persian miniature paintings.

Some of his latest works are currently on display around Rockefeller Center in New York until mid-November, while his first solo exhibition recently concluded at the Currier Museum in New Hampshire.

Rich symbolism

Women in Khosravi’s paintings are often depicted as bound by string or hidden behind walls, flowers or hands in what she describes as a struggle for self-reliance. Yet they possess a commanding presence. She contrasts ropes and irons with expressions of freedom such as doves. With lush colors and areas of brilliance in which his subjects body parts seem to glow, Khosravi’s works are not dark, but bright.

Khosravi is influenced by Persian miniature painting and her own memories of growing up in Iran.

Khosravi is influenced by Persian miniature painting and her own memories of growing up in Iran. Credit: Courtesy of Artist/Gallery Kavi Gupta

“Contrast and contradiction is one of the main concepts that I explore in my work,” she said, pointing out the dichotomies in the lives of many Iranian women. Red or black threads are a recurring motif in his paintings – they appear wrapped around his figures’ fingers or wrists, sewn over their closed mouths or emerging from their eyes – sometimes as painted lines, sometimes as physical strings suspended from the canvas.

“I was thinking about my memories of Iran,” she said. “There are a lot of red lines imposed on us by the government.”

It opposes the symbols of oppression to those of freedom.

It opposes the symbols of oppression to those of freedom. Credit: Courtesy of the artist/Galerie Stems

Since protests erupted in September, Khosravi has seen hair become a powerful symbol as women cut off theirs, in protest or solidarity, and burned their hijab in the streets.

“Women cutting their hair is an ancient Persian tradition… when the fury is stronger than the power of the oppressor”, tweeted Wales-based writer and translator Shara Atashi at the end of September. “The moment we’ve been waiting for has arrived. Politics fueled by poetry.”

Real world reflections

In “Cover your hair!”, a painting that Khosravi recently reposted on social media, a woman is suspended from her torso by a long piece of red cloth, her long black hair tightly wrapped in the cloth. Stylized Persian soldiers on horses loop threads around his body in a poignant image of repression.

Her past works have brought women with long, flowing hair to the fore – works she revisited on Instagram in light of Mahsa Amini's death.

Her past works have brought women with long, flowing hair to the fore – works she revisited on Instagram in light of Mahsa Amini’s death. Credit: Courtesy of the artist/Galerie Stems

“I have battlefield scenes where soldiers are attacking women. And now in the streets we see videos of these security forces (and a) level of cruelty as they attack protesters,” he said. she declared. “I have some visual metaphors…but now they literally happen.”

But Khosravi hopes her subjects represent not just the experience of Iranian women, but any woman whose rights are under threat.

“Something in common between all of the (women in my paintings) is that they are around the same age as me, or their hair color or features are, to some degree, similar to mine… because I think about my own story and that of other women who have been through the same thing,” she said. “But at the same time, I don’t want these characters to be too culture-specific. So anyone in any corner of the world can relate to their works based on their own experiences.”

"I think of my own story and of other women who have gone through the same thing," she says.

“I think of my own story and other women who have gone through the same thing,” she said. Credit: Courtesy of the artist/Galerie Koenig

Now she sketches ideas for new paintings, responding to what she hopes will change trends in her home country.

“At one point I had lost hope that maybe things would change, but now there is this young energy, it’s very fascinating and I hope it will lead to fundamental change,” he said. she stated.

Although the subjects of her portraits all have some degree of agency, she works on a new set of symbols that will evoke the strength of women who take on an entire government to claim autonomy over their bodies. “In light of everything that’s going on,” Khosravi said,I want to give more power to the numbers.”

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