Politics on canvas: Nicky Nodjoumi and the New York enclave

The artist’s work transcends borders and displays a worldliness that is a hallmark of Iranian artists in New York.

Nodjoumi's artwork walks a fine line between art and politics [Taymour Grahne Gallery]

The corner of Laight and Hudson in New York, where the newly established Taymour Grahne Gallery was exhibiting its very first show, seemed like an odd place for an Iranian artist to reflect back on his lifetime achievement. But early in September, the gallery was the scene of a spectacular opening featuring the large-scale oil paintings of Nicky Nodjoumi, Chasing the Butterfly and Other Recent Paintings.

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.

Today it is the overwhelming political force of his art that immediately attracts his viewers. The Huffington Post captured the very essence of the evident political implication of Nodjoumi’s art when covering his exhibition:Iranian Artist Nicky Nodjoumi Talks Revolutions, Secret Police And The Vietnam War.

Politics as art

This is perhaps self-evident and even unavoidable. But in response to a question regarding the influence of current politics on his work, Nodjoumi responds: “Yes and no. I follow current events, especially in Iran, almost religiously. Aside from world events, however, I have other preoccupations. Naturally, when I start to work, the political events of the day occupy part of my mind, but imagination is also a part of the function of the mind. Inspirations that shape my work come from a lot of different places.” How are we exactly to read that self-professed interface between fact and fantasy, reality and imagination, politics and aesthetics?

On another occasion, a commentator suggested, “Nodjoumi’s artwork walks a fine line between art and politics” – in response to which he muses, “I don’t have a clear idea. I play with ideas and put them together.” That fine line, if we were to follow that appropriate metaphor, is the fact that the politics of our contemporary realities occasions (not influences) Nodjoumi’s aesthetics.

In yet another descriptive reading of his work, by Holland Cutter of the New York Times, we read perhaps a more accurate angle on the manner in which politics and aesthetics of Nodjoumi’s work cohabit:

“The new paintings at Taymour Grahne are political too, but the tone is different. Visually the work is light, even airy, and filled with absurdist, mocking incident. Men in suits and mullahs in robes share space with horses, apes and apparitional figures from classical Persian paintings. Almost nothing feels grounded or organic: figures are composed of mismatched legs, torsos and heads, and seem unbound by perspective or gravity. Only in a series of magisterial black-and-white ink drawings does the mood tense up.”

There was as much New York in Nodjoumi when he lived and worked in Iran, as there is Tehran in him now that he lives and works in New York.

To understand the aesthetic force of that cohabitation we need first to come to terms with the imaginative geography of its production.

Storytelling on canvas

I have known Nodjoumi’s work since my youth as an undergraduate student in Tehran of 1970’s, and have followed his extraordinarily poised and purposeful artistic career closely ever since, and particularly when we both found ourselves living in New York over the last quarter of a century – and I’ve had many occasions to talk to him and write about his work, on and off camera.  

Nodjoumi’s surreal hybridisation of historical and phantasmagorical imageries intercut with sharp political commentaries and none of the reviewers who have reported on this show could have missed those strong ingredients. There are as many Shia clerics loitering on his canvases as clean-shaven European- and American- looking businessmen and diplomats; as many people as animals; as many formal occasions as sexually explicit positions.

He is a storyteller with a solid command over his stream of visual consciousness. He draws and paints people and then formally and ceremoniously cuts them into pieces and shapes and designs. He loves to pile people and animals and body organs on top of each other irreverently and provocatively. He paints as if he were an old-fashioned pardeh-dar storyteller, reciting old stories of heroes off a canvas, though his attention span is punctuated and interrupted by the urgency, immediacy, obscenity, and schizophrenic absurdity of the tales he wishes to tell.  

Iranian artists’ NYC enclave

Born, raised, and having come to aesthetic consciousness and artistic fame in Iran, Nikzad (Nicky) Nodjoumi was a virtuoso painter long before he packed his belongings and moved to New York. He began to cultivate a distinct artistic signature in his homeland with a visual audacity that was globally resonant long before he came upon greener pastures.

In New York he and a few other Iranian artists – notably his close friends, the preeminent Iranian filmmaker Amir Naderi, the late virtuoso Ardeshir Mohassess, and the globally celebrated Shirin Neshat, become central to the expatriate community of artists who now called New York home. The term exile is a deeply misleading term in this case. Yes these artists, whose invisible enclave includes the pioneering figures of Manouchehr Yektai and Siah Armajani, have been forced to leave their homeland against their will, but the term “exile” also casts them in a nativist disposition that is entirely alien to their work.  

Artists like Nodjoumi were worldly when they were in Iran – and they are worldly now that they are in New York. The aesthetic result of this historical fact is the formation of a palpable trans-social signature that defines each and every one of their multiple and varied work. There was as much New York in Nodjoumi when he lived and worked in Iran, as there is Tehran in him now that he lives and works in New York.

There is no difference in this regard among the works of Nodjoumi, Yektai, Neshat, Mohassess, and Naderi. They are as much Iranian as they are American – and that fact categorically dismantles the binary politics of location that habitually exhibits them in one or another curatorial context. The advantage of a solo exhibition of Nodjoumi at Taymour Grahne Gallery is precisely the singular opportunity for this innate quality of the work to come out effectively without the imposition of continued curatorial practices of group exhibitions of one sort or another that keep regurgitating stale and mothballed notions of Eurocentric or (even worse) “parallel” “modernism” ad absurdum.  

Understanding contemporary art requires a complete and categorical abandoning of the innately exoticising curatorial practice of the flawed ethnographic gaze that informs much of contemporary art exhibitions and criticism, when it begins and ends (in confirmation or negation) with the designation of an even more flawed category of “Western/non-Western” dichotomy. The politics of location that informs any work of contemporary art must come to terms with the border-crossing fact of all art as it has happened anywhere in the world, effectively imagining a liberation geography constitutionally transgressive against every and all borders. Nicky Nodjoumi’s art is a living example of this claim.

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature at Columbia University in New York, and the author of the world of Persian literary humanism (2012).