Does art imitate life or the other way around? “Reincarnation”, the Iranian-born artists Bahareh and Farzaneh Safarani’s first independent show in New York City combines painting, video and performance. The work is also part of the twin sisters’ personal journey to explore and discover new things in their own lives.
“The whole idea of this exhibition,” Farzaneh Safarani told me in a recent interview, “is about capturing the moments of one day in a woman’s life, from the moment she wakes up—and ‘wake up’ is meant literally and metaphorically.”
Born in Tehran in 1990, the sisters have been painting together since the age of 13, and now live and work in Boston, Massachusetts. After studying painting at the University of Tehran, they moved to the United States to study Studio Art at Northeastern University, where their intensely collaborative work came to full fruition. They have exhibited in many countries, including the U.S. and Iran, and their work has been acquired by both museums and private collectors across the globe.
The current exhibition, which features 14 of the twins’ paintings overlaid with video projections, is curated by Roya Khadjavi, a New York-based independent, cultural producer who is largely focused on the work of young Iranian artists, working both in Iran and beyond its borders. Explaining her interest in the Safarani sisters, Khadjavi said that in addition to supporting the work, she seeks to facilitate cultural dialogue. “The increasing tension between my country of birth, Iran, and my adopted country, the U.S., where I have resided most of my life, demands more and more attention to such cultural dialogues. ‘Reincarnation’ explores the self [and reflects] the female form — her beauty, strength and confidence.”
But perhaps it's best to have the sisters talk about it themselves.
Omid Memarian (OM): You two have been painting together since you were children. Take us through your thought processes when jointly pursuing an idea. What makes this collaboration possible?
Farzaneh Safarani (FS): We studied painting at the University of Tehran, where we were trained traditionally. We were also active in theatre, performance and music. As artists, we always want to explore and discover new things and we always want to speak to the world with our art. So we decided to travel and come to the U.S. in 2014. In our study at Northeastern University, we learned to combine the skills we had acquired in Iran with new concepts, integrating video, performances and installation art into our work.
We get inspired by the most simple to the most complex experiences in our lives, and the ideas for our works are driven from those experiences. We have been living together so closely for so many years and sharing so many experiences, that we have come to many of the same ideas for our paintings. We used to work separately and in fact, never consciously decided to work together—our collaboration happened organically when we realized how our minds work together, and how we complete each other's thoughts and ideas. And we saw that it worked: our first series of collaborative paintings was very successful. Gradually, our work became increasingly knitted together and now it is like one person working with her other self. When one of us is behind the camera and the other one is performing or posing, we do not need to communicate a word, we both exactly know and feel what we both want.
OM: What are the major similarities and differences between the art schools in Iran and the one you studied at in Boston?
FS: Graduating from the University of Tehran means that you know how to paint and have learned all the necessary skills to bring a 3D image into 2D. We learned all the traditional aesthetic techniques and theories. We were taught not to critique someone's art without being well versed and experienced in the field ourselves. We learned to work with new media, but only after we demonstrated knowledge of all the basics in our field. Collaboration and teamwork were not encouraged.
Here in the U.S., people at university are supposed to collaborate. As an art student in the U.S., you are not required to be a good drawer or painter to be successful; if you want to learn such techniques, you can go and learn them by yourself, elsewhere. We were not required to take specific classes, and could choose what we wanted to do. Here, you learn how to push yourself to be as brave as you can be, to bring out all your hidden abilities and use them in the best way you can.
Bahareh Safarani (BS): Whatever we know in terms of skills we learned in Iran, and we also self-taught. Here, we learned that art is all about approach and communication and as an artist, it really does not matter what you do — what matters is how you present your subject and concept. Galleries, collectors, art dealers and society play an essential role in the career and success of an artist; it is [critical] to have their support in order to flourish — and they have a very delicate job, because they are shaping societal tastes and if they do this poorly, they can do lasting harm.
OM: Why did you decide to try media other than painting?
BS: Different mediums communicate artists’ ideas in very different ways, and give artists different tools to communicate their message. For example, music is the most abstract art, while literature can be narrative. We know that if we have an idea that we want to depict in a painting, viewers may not get the meaning from the painting that we intended—this is simply a fact about painting. That is why we care about the aesthetic of a painting more than anything else. Video projection can bring the element of time into a still image, and it has brought a mystical and surreal aspect to our paintings. It opens up a new world for audiences, and encourages them to imagine. We sometimes integrate performance art as well, because we are aware of the impact of the form. Performances usually include music and are time- and place-specific; in other words, after it is done it is gone, as it was what we wanted for that specific concept.
OM: Tell us about “Reincarnation”, and its paintings overlaid with video projections. How do these works reflect your artistic journeys and personal identities?
FS: One of the major paintings in the exhibition is titled ‘Awake’, and the rest of the paintings follow chronologically — from her 5:00 a.m. waking until twilight, with each painting depicting different moments of her day. For example, in the painting ‘Her 5:00 a.m. View’, there are two elements in the painting that represent femininity and masculinity — the two attitudes she must have in order to survive. In the next painting, ‘5:30 a.m. in the Basement’, she is cleaning away blood. The blood is a symbol of inimical memories and thoughts. Each painting reflects a moment in the daily process, and the decisions and changes she makes in the process of daily self-renewal and strengthening.
BS: One can find differences between this series and our other works. For example, the color palette has changed — we are using lighter colors, such as bluish and greenish grays. The compositions are also simpler — we are using the empty spaces to expand upon the subject. The figure is not in every painting; she only appears in some, or just in the videos. Overall, changes in our art come from all the changes around us. We want to clear our minds of pessimism. We want to nourish our hopes with the light. We want to observe the beauty and try to define it, and we want to believe that people can be united, at least in simple facts.
OM: As two artists who are primarily painters, what have video and performance art added to your work?
FS: The communication between video and the still image is very interesting to us. Video adds time to the still image — but when one watches the video over and over, it becomes a still image. The videos we make for the paintings are very subtle; they give life to the painting, like a breath or heartbeat. Their beauty is that they do not overpower the paintings; they are not narrative and are very abstract, meant only to elicit the imaginative power to visualize different occurrences in the painting that are based on the viewer’s own perceptions and experiences.
OM: What does your show say about your progression as artists?
BS: ‘Reincarnation’ implies a new life. If we can make the audience wake up and realize the world around them and see the beauty in it, it is a huge success.
OM: In what ways have your works changed since your departure from Iran? How do you connect to the sources of inspiration you had in Iran, in your new home?
FS: Our works are about our lives — that is where we draw our inspiration, conceptually and formally. All the interiors we have painted are actual places we have lived — so for example, many of the paintings we did in the U.S. have elements of New England architecture. The use of greens and blues in our recent work flows from the beautiful nature around the house where we have been living, so there are many different things that appear in our paintings that come from the environment [in which] we live. Conceptually, the source of our inspiration is ourselves, so even as we change and grow, we never get disconnected from this source of inspiration, no matter where we are.