“We are taught how to love as women by our mothers and grandmothers…there is beauty in listening to how each woman yearned and tried, succeeded or failed but still did not give up on love, enough to pass on her story.” – Neda Tavallaee
Iranian artist Neda Tavallaee is predominantly concerned with women. Working across various media – but predominantly painting – her female-centric images shed light on sex workers, homosexual relationships and issues that tackle rules about how women should dress and present themselves within society. Tackling subjects that could be deemed as controversial and dangerous in her native Iran, Neda’s paintings embody a softness that one would not expect to see in works that comment on such divisive issues. Gallery Girl spoke to Neda about her influences and making work in Iran.
The women in Neda’s paintings look sweet. They have angelic faces, pastel coloured skin and gentle smiles. They mostly seem happy, but if you look closer, you will find that they are missing that glint in their eye and you’ll notice the way she clutches her face, signaling that something is amiss. In Suspicious Wife Listening to More Lies (2019), a green woman with brilliant yellow-blonde hair stares vacantly at the viewer as she holds a lit cigarette; evidently she has had enough of her situation. Meanwhile, The Drug Addict’s Child (2019) presents a young girl in pigtails, with fear in her eyes, a bruise on her left cheek and a frown on her face. Obviously, not light subject matter.
“As a female artist I emphasize on the importance of documenting what is happening”, says Neda, “When I tell my story, everything that I feel is rooted in actual events.” Neda’s work has documented Iranian women who for whatever reasons have become divorced, sex workers and models forced to delete their Internet history. In the series A Kiss on Leyli’s Navel (2017), the images comment on the fate of an Iranian fashion model who was arrested by Iranian police for having an active presence on social media and not dressing Islamic attire. The woman, a personal friend of Neda, was suffered under interrogators who flirted with her and, while she was freed, because she did not succumb to their advances, she was forced to agree never to model again and her photographs, phone and computer were confiscated. Affected by this story, Neda decided to create cyanotypes with the model, telling her that now she had fought her oppressors, she could flirt with the chador – the black cape worn by women in Iran – if she wanted. The images include Persian calligraphy and traditional miniatures from the Shahnameh – the Persian book of kings – to illustrate how men are always dominant, portrayed as tyrants and heroes, while women can be punished for being beautiful. “The human condition is all that interests me”, adds Neda, “If my work is about women it is because I can justify how I feel being a woman myself. I truly believe that nothing is worse than being indifferent. We must represent the time we live in and the gender we are. If there are problems, what better way than to let them re-emerge in art and be highlighted specifically?”
Neda’s work also comments on the lives of sex workers, divorcées and lesbians. In the series The Lesbian Lovers (2018), Neda depicts nude female figures, devoid of any clothing or facial features that would allow them to be found out. Their bodies are ambiguous, protecting them from discovery. To be homosexual in Iranian culture is a terrible sin, with many marrying the opposite sex on the outside and conducting same sex relationships in secret. Through her images, Neda paints her observations of lesbians and their lives in modern day Iran, attempting to shed a poetic light on the love, hurt and betrayal of these love affairs.
Similarly, The Sex Workers (2019) portrays a group of friends Neda had in her mid-twenties. “Their stories haunted me…just heartbreaking. The amount and variety of drugs they would use just to forget what they felt still terrifies me”, she says, but, she adds, “I think there was much more honor in these women and transgender boys than girls I knew who married for money. They were mistreated beaten and disrespected on every level, it was so sad, yet they paid the rent, food, education and even gambling or drug habits of people dear to them. More than often loved ones and people they trusted were responsible for the first time they had had sex for money. I never met a prostitute who had entered this abyss just for the fun of it. Real tangible pain shoved them in this direction.” Thus, the series honors the downcast people Neda knew, and who trusted her enough to take a glimpse of the hell they reside in.
And, despite the often-heavy subject matter of her work, Neda’s paintings seem hopeful, light and airy. She is inspired by traditional compositions in Persian miniatures, as well as Chagall, Matisse and Picasso. “I think I have a tendency towards artists that adored women”, says Neda, “And how that touched them, influencing their brush strokes and colours.” She also cites Cy Twombly, Albert Oehlen and Alice Neel amongst her influences. In Morning Ritual (2019), a redheaded woman smiles upwards as she combs her hair, while Lovers (2019) depicts a woman and an antelope amongst a fuzzy pink-red backdrop. Her women – always beautiful – have complex and often difficult stories though. The series The divorcée the siren and the nymph (2018) informs us that being a divorced woman in Iranian religious society is the same in the 21st century as it was 100 years ago. To most Iranian men, the divorcée is viewed as a sexual object in a shameful position, though in reality, the majority of divorced women neither feel nor act this way. The images focus on women who have escaped loveless and abusive marriages, asserting their independence. The motif of the nymph shows a beautiful woman, nude, smiling, elegantly showing her body, free from a toxic relationship.
“We have so many issues for women here”, explains Neda, “So many stories to be told. These are not just fleeting moments but events that shape generations, so it is important to create a dialogue.” Neda’s work touches on women’s issues, shedding a light on the struggles we don’t always see in a sympathetic and gentle manner. “As an artist I want my work to be able to touch people on a very honest personal level”, she says, “I want them to look at the work and rethink these issues and maybe even change how they have observed what I am depicting. All in all I want to be part of a cultural shift in how women are treated.”