Nicky Nodjoumi’s large-scale works take an intimate look at the politics of today.
Prominent Iranian-American artist melds patterns with politics through the freedom of substantial creations.
With a longstanding career spanning decades and countries, Brooklyn-based artist Nicky Nodjoumi brings together heroes, horses and harlequins, alongside epic Persian tales that bleed into contemporary conflicts. In an article for Al Jazeera written by professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature Hamid Dabashi at Columbia University, Nodjoumi’s signature style brings a particular “worldiness” to his work that has been honed over a significant period of time, making the visual artist one of the most prominent Iranian contemporary artists in the West:
After decades of unwavering, principled, and quiet work, Nodjoumi has finally arrived as a major aesthetic visionary of his contemporary time, having carved a commanding angle on our lived experiences from the assured perspective of a global worldliness that has patiently and consistently crossed all artificial borders of identity and politics.
Born in the Western Iranian city of Kermanshah, Nodjoumi earned his Bachelor’s degree in art from the Tehran University of Fine Arts in 1967. After successfully completing his MFA in the United States from City College of New York in 1974, the artist returned to Tehran to teach at his alma mater, where he participated alongside university students in demonstrations against Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, also known as the Shah of Iran. Upon the fall of the Pahlavi dynasty, Nodjoumi was forced to seek exile in the United States, where he lives to this day.
The artist’s work has been shown throughout the world and is a part of important international collections, including the British Museum, the National Museum of Cuba, the DePaul Art Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the soon to be opened Guggenheim Museum in Abu Dhabi.
At first blush, Nodjoumi’s works are unmistakably his. His large-scale creations are distinctive, yet subtle, pregnant with political undertones. According to the artist’s biography on the Taymour Grahne Gallery’s website, his personal experiences protesting against the Vietnam War and the Iranian Revolution have provided the artist with a boots-on-the-ground perspective regarding power, corruption and “political discourse” across cultures:
This political engagement has continued to the present day. His nuanced figurative paintings engage in political discourse with a light, satirical touch, layering his personal heritage and lived experiences in Iran and the United States into scenes that resonate beyond specific historical contexts or geographical boundaries.
Seeing inside, being outside
Despite Nodjoumi living abroad for a considerable time, he remains intensely aware and connected with what’s going on in his homeland. As the artist told Art Radar, this allows Nodjoumi the opportunity to see his country through a slightly different lens than those who remain:
In one’s country, you have a clear sense of what is happening around you. When you are out of your country or homeland, however, you have a broader sense of clarity. A different sense, probably. You can read a lot, see a lot. It gives you a different perspective to the same reality. I have friends in Iran, who are really in touch with the current situation there. When I compare their view with what I see and read here, I see that we are seeing the same reality from two different angles.
This ability to transcend cultures is deftly honed in Nodjoumi’s work, with characters stripped free of their identity or nationality. As the artist relayed to Alma Vescovi in an interview on The American Reader, he intentionally “applies a kind of universal situation” to his work, where the actions of Iran and the United States are both scrutinised:
Yes, it’s a conscious intention to not pigeonhole, so that you see only Iranians or Americans in the paintings. There is a kind of universal situation, that you can apply it to any place. In one painting, the two men are actually Afghan, and I put them in a situation where you can read it any way you want. I took the photo and deformed it, to get the identity out of them, that way it becomes something else. It’s not real anymore, they don’t exist anymore in that situation. I don’t think any Iranian would identify with them, or any American, in fact, it’s just a kind of human being, but they have a recognizable suit. Most of these paintings are critical of both societies, Iranian and Western.
Colours and contrasts
As an artist who has consistently produced paintings and drawings throughout his life, Nodjoumi’s works have seen several transitions. One of the most noticeable changes is the artist’s move from monochromatic imagery to the addition of colour to his work. Of particular interest are the bold mash-ups of traditional Persian imagery in black and white, alongside colourful images that examine contemporary events and themes. This combination, as Nodjoumi told Art Radar, brings modern day events to the fore, with traditional images remaining as dreams or mere echoes of the past:
I used to do black and white, painting and drawing — especially painting charcoal on canvas. I liked that blackness in the painting. Eventually, I started adding a touch of colour in order to make a statement and add something more hopeful that is coming out of the canvases.
I worked with mostly black and white for a while, then I worked with minimal colour (but still mostly monochromatic work) until probably the middle of 1990’s, when I started a series of work that is more colourful. At the same time, I was working with Iranian motifs which I did not show; I painted them in a black colour but in a wash – meaning, there was different grays tones, with black on top of it.
Starting in 2000’s, I was working on landscape paintings, with characters in it. The figures are done mostly in black and white with occasional single colour. The figures are in black and gray costumes to represent men in power. Most of this kind of work is in black ink. I have a washed black ink in the background and black ink on top – some of them are figures from traditional 19th century Iranian lithographs, depicted in Shahnameh the epic of old Persia. I am using this juxtaposition to contrast the tradition with contemporary political life and wondering why violence has been continuing through history.
With the introduction of colour on canvas, patterns and plaids began to figure more prominently in Nodjoumi’s creations. In a masterful twist, the artist drew inspiration from the harlequin, a Renaissance figure, and as Nodjoumi imparted to Art Radar, contemporary master Pablo Picasso:
The harlequin and checkered patterns have multiple meanings for me. The harlequin is a costumed character from commedia dell’arte from the time of the Renaissance. They served to please the master. I, however, use them as a combination of master and harlequin. I usually have people wearing gray suits in my work. They represent powerful people. Some of them are heads of state. Part of the body is dressed as a harlequin — saying at the same time these people are both master and clown.
The same thing about plaid. They go back to Iranian patterns. If you look at Picasso’s harlequin, he also used that kind of checkered pattern. I took it from Picasso and have been incorporating it into my work for decades now.
In addition to the colours and the patterning, Nodjoumi’s works are known for their substantial size. This larger scale, as the artist told Art Radar, provides a space in which he can confidently and freely “dance on”:
A larger scale and canvas provides me with a surface that I can dance on. It gives me much more freedom to work around, provides me with space for the image that I want to create. I feel much more at ease with larger scale canvases. Also, I think the impact of a larger work, if you are able to manage it, is much more powerful than a smaller work — not to say that a smaller work does not have power. If you do it the right way, a small scale work can also be quite powerful.
- The Fabric of Reality: Iran’s Mehrdad Sadri – artist profile – July 2016 – ambiguous narrative surrounds established artist’s work and interests new generation of collector
- Challenging tradition through colour and form: Iranian calligrapher Mohammad Bozorgi – interview – July 2016 – internationally recognised calligrapher breaks the rules to create signature style
- “But a Storm Is Blowing from Paradise”: UBS Map Middle East and North Africa – June 2016 – UBS MAP Global Art Initiative launches third exhibition with artists from the M.E.N.A. region at the Guggenheim
- “ART BRIEF II: Iranian Contemporary North America”: at Arena 1 Gallery – in pictures – June 2016 – second edition of exhibition in Los Angeles opens with select Persian artists from across North America participating
- Iran beyond conflict: the colourful world of Sassan Behnam Bakhtiar – interview – March 2016 – artist uncovers the “true nature of Iran” with bright patterning and black and white photography
Subscribe to Art Radar for exclusive articles about Iranian contemporary artists