‘Manifesting my struggles in my painting’: An interview with Iranian artist Zeynab Movahed

Clothes Line Series. Acrylic on canvas.130 x150 cm (51 in x 59 in), 2011. Courtesy of Zeynab Movahed

In September 2022, Mahsa Amini’s death in Iran sparked nationwide protests in the biggest public outcry since 2009. Amini, a 22-year-old woman, lost her life in police custody for not wearing a “proper hijab.” She became an icon and symbol for many — especially Iranian women artists who have seized the moment to speak about their struggles and concerns through their art.

Zeynab Movahed, 41, is one of those artists whose paintings open a window to the complexities of life as a woman in Iran. Her work has been shared widely to communicate the ongoing fight for equal rights in a country that can be described as a “gender-apartheid” state, despite the fact that a large number of its women are highly educated.

Movahed started painting when she was a child and began taking classes in 1999 when she was 17. Since then, painting has become a significant part of her life. Three years later, she entered Tehran University's Art and Architecture School, where she later received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in painting. Despite all the shortcomings and frustrations of attending art school in Iran, the school opened her eyes to a series of positive developments, including learning about leading artists, books, and new experiences.  This education helped her find her professional path.

Since graduating, she has had 11 solo exhibitions and participated in more than 60 group exhibitions worldwide. Her work has been displayed in Tehran, Kuwait, New York, Lahore U.S., the U.K., France, and Greece, among others.

She cites her major influences as Robert Rauschenberg, Mark Rothko, Andrew Wyeth, and Edward Hopper, although they are all from different schools of art, but she says, “Right now, contemporary young Iranian artists’ work inspires me and makes me feel confident about what I do.”

Since 2016, Movahed has taught figurative painting in Tehran and has trained more than 150 students.

Excerpts from the interview follow: 

Enclosed Garden Series. Oil on canvas. 120 x120 cm (47 in x 47 in), 2017. Courtesy of Zeynab Movahed

Omid Memarian (OM): How much is your everyday life reflected in your paintings? Do those from your early exhibitions to the latest one in New York in April 2022 mark different periods, beliefs, or concerns? 

Zeynab Movahed (ZM): I believe so. From the first series to the latest, there are references to specific times in my life and my lived experience. Indeed, the society I live in has directly impacted my life and particularly my work, given my different struggles as an Iranian woman in my country.

The fears that were instilled in us about women's clothing started in elementary school. Over time, these beliefs faded, and I, as a woman, and not just a painter, found a free and even more courageous presence in my paintings, which is directly related to my lived experiences at different stages in my life — not only about women's clothing but also various other issues, both in my own life and the lives of other women. I needed to articulate these concerns and struggles in my paintings. So when you look at my work and my life, you see it’s sequential.

You are awake while we slumber.bOil and acrylic on canvas. 130*150cm.2015. Courtesy of Zeynab Movahed

‘You are awake while we slumber.’ Oil and acrylic on canvas.100 cm x130 cm (51 in x 59 in), 2015. Courtesy of Zeynab Movahed.

OM: Rooster and crow are the main subjects of paintings in two of the series of your works. What do these symbolize?

ZM: In my collection, “We Sleeping and You Awake,” the rooster symbolizes a man in a patriarchal society who shows off his power and aggression with a bully-like awe in an altogether delicate and feminine atmosphere. In the paintings, you see that he is pleased with a submissive and traditional woman, while a woman, regardless of the threats, seeks to find a way out. Somehow the rooster is ridiculed in that tender and peaceful atmosphere.

In the next period, the crow, due to its different character and at the same time living in the society, can be very similar to human society. In this series of works, the influx of crows in the picture and around the woman symbolizes a stratum of our current society. They impose many dos and don'ts on the woman, but she is indifferent to them and selects the lifestyle she wants.

OM: What spaces can you experience in your painting that you might not be able to experience as a woman?

ZM: Not only as a woman but also as a painter (who can be a man, too), the field of painting provides many possibilities for the artist. Painting is my personal territory. I create any image I want. In many periods, I expressed all the femininity of my being, whether it is anger, rebellion, satisfaction, hardship, or imposed injustice. Emotions and qualities that I had no room to explore in real life.

In a society like Iran, where misogyny still exists, both from the government and the society, the issue of women is essential, and we cannot be apathetic to it.

A clear example of this trend is the honor killings of recent years and the murder of Mahsa Amini in September 2022, which led to nationwide protests. She was killed just for just being a woman. These incidents find their way in one way or the other into the creative process of a conscious artist.

Unstable Condition Series. Oil on canvas. 130 x150 cm (51 in x 59 in), 2018. Courtesy of Zeynab Movahed.

OM: How are the worlds you create in your paintings received among audiences with different cultural, historical, and geographical backgrounds?

ZM: The audience is different in every country. Women identify more with my work in Iran and the Middle East. In the West, my work is interesting to audiences. They see courage in what I do as an Iranian woman. People want to know how women are treated in Iran, and artworks from Iranian women are an opening to that understanding. Beyond concept, no matter the location, my technique is appreciated.

OM:  Your work was exhibited at last year's Chicago Art Expo, which featured nearly 200 galleries from around the world. There are also hundreds of galleries in Iran. Are Iranian galleries present at such events? 

Several Iranian artists participated in the Chicago Expo on behalf of foreign galleries, but none from Iran participated. Participating in these events is very expensive for Iranian galleries, particularly as the Iranian currency has lost much of its value in the past few years. But some of Iran’s top galleries have been present in significant art fairs from the U.S. to Dubai to Istanbul. Certainly, it does not represent everything happening in the visual arts field in Iran. But still, it’s a step forward that they can change the stereotypes about art in Iran. I believe so many talented artists in the country can present their works abroad.

Enclosed Garden Series. Oil on canvas. 130 x150 cm (51 in x 59 in), 2016. Courtesy of Zeynab Movahed.

OM: You had a solo exhibition in New York in 2022. What are the similarities and differences between those works and those of your previous collections?

ZM: Unlike my previous collections, where the subject was crucial, in my recent collection, the image itself and visual elements are given priority. Images that are integrated and reflected in the glass are far from their original nature, and with fragmentation and repetition, we are confronted with new images.

In my previous work, the women appeared in private indoor spaces, and the work was done with a flat and monochrome background. But, in my new body of work, the viewer is faced with layered spaces in which there is no certainty. Incidentally, this is the concept of the collection: the stability and instability of life and all its moments.

A similarity between these works and my previous ones is the presence of women, and especially myself, in the images. But in the newer works, the women have left the previous interior spaces and have become present in society.

Unstable Conditions Series. Oil on canvas. 100 x 130 cm (51 in x 59 in), 2019. Courtesy of Zeynab Movahed.

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