By Jeff Baron, Staff Writer, America.gov
Negar Ahkami's paintings combine Persian elements and Western sensibilities
Her artistic influences, drawn from her Iranian roots and American upbringing, are just as rich and complex: Persian miniatures, calligraphy and tiles, plus the work of Ardeshir Mohassess - "I grew up knowing and meeting a lot of Iranian artists," she said - but also expressionism, pop, baroque and fauvism.
In an era of growing attention and prestige for Iranian artists, Ahkami said she understands that people will put her in the Iranian-American category, and she won't complain about that.
"I understand the need to put people in a box. It doesn't upset me. I just hope over time it's not the only box I'm put in," she said. "It's a privilege to be making art at all, and if that means that I'm going to be in a box, that's fine."
But ask her where she puts herself, and she says: "I'm very American. I consider myself an American artist first and foremost."
As for her style, Ahkami said she uses "a bold hand." "I'm not punk rock in appearance or in my daily behavior, but when I'm painting, I have a punk-rock mentality," she said.
At 39, Ahkami is no rock star, but she has achieved a measure of success in the art world, with solo and group shows at galleries in New York, where she lives, as well as in other U.S. cities and Zurich, Switzerland. She said her career really took off when she was pregnant with her daughter, who is now 2½ years old - "I think she's my good-luck charm," Ahkami said - and she has had to get used to not having her paintings around her because they tend to sell.
Ahkami has taken a bit of a roundabout route, artistically and personally, from drawing classes in childhood to painting in her home studio in Brooklyn, New York. She grew up in the New York City suburb of Clifton, New Jersey, and her father would take her for classes at the Art Students League of New York. She said that even then she grew restless with simply drawing the models in drawing class; she would add ornate backgrounds out of her imagination.
In paintings such as The Bridge, Ahkami bridges styles of East and West. She says she tries for "a messy kind of Persian art."
"It got to the point where I couldn't do both anymore," Ahkami said. So at about age 30, she switched: She became a full-time artist and practiced law on the side, just enough to pay the bills. She still keeps her law license up to date, but said she hasn't used it for a few years.
Her artistic journey, meanwhile, took her away from Iranian art before she returned to embrace elements of it. "It's the aspect of my heritage that I've been most proud of," she said. "I loved the jewel-like qualities."
But she also admired the fierce emotional power of the expressionists. She said she couldn't imagine herself in the role of the classical Persian artist who hides himself in the beautiful details and for whom the work is not primarily a means of self-expression or of showing the anguish of the world.
The more she explored, the more she found that she wanted to form "a messy kind of Persian art that wasn't about beauty and that maybe had some satire in it as well," she said.
Ahkami said she borrows freely from the Persian tradition - "I seriously love the way rocks are painted in Persian miniatures," she said - and revels in the connections she can create between Eastern and Western art. Persian paintings might not have had any influence on early American landscape painters such as Thomas Cole, but Ahkami said she loves the way both genres use trees, and she has drawn from both in some of her works.
The subject matter of her art also reflects the links between her two cultures. "I am embracing the absurd aspect of what I've been dealt with my Iranian heritage," she said: what she called the absurdities of Iranian politics and of American perceptions about Iran, in contrast with the glories of its culture that inspire her with pride.
Ahkami said her work is political because she is so deeply pained by the rift between the United States and Iran. "I'd love to create art that didn't have anything political in it," she said.
As for American perceptions, she said, "it used to be that the only images people saw were this 'death to America' thing." Now, she said, she has noticed a hopeful change in that Americans seem to be developing an understanding of Iran's politics and history that they lacked in the decades after the revolution of 1979.
"It's been healing for me that people over here are finally getting what's going on in Iran," she said.
More information on Ahkami and some images of her work are available on her website.
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