Silent screams of a generation

Speaking to Farbod Morshedzadeh

Farbod Morshedzadeh, born in Tehran in 1974, is one of Iran’s avant-garde contemporary figurative artists. During his studies at Tehran’s Islamic Azad University, he had the opportunity to work closely with well-known artists like Nosratollah Moslemian and Babak Etminani. In 2004, Farbod went to India to study gender and sexual identity under the direct supervision of the world-renowned writer and activist R. Raj Rao. Farbod’s works have been shown in solo exhibitions and several national and international group exhibitions. Today, he is also a lecturer at Islamic Azad University.


What inspires you and where do the subjects of your paintings come from? Outer events or inner challenges?

I was born in Tehran in 1974 and was my parents’ only child. Until the age of 8, I was raised among members of my paternal extended family and afterwards, due to societal changes in the country (particularly the 1979/80 revolution and the Iran-Iraq war), my parents decided to move from Tehran to a nearby suburb. This was one of the most important events in my life. Some people remark that my paintings are “sad”, and I think that the shift from a crowded place where I was loved by all, to a very small town where I didn’t know anyone and was quite isolated – which left a lasting mark on my soul – is the source of this sorrow.

The solitude of my childhood and early adolescent years was not all negative, however. There was indeed a silver lining to this “gray cloud”. My parents provided me with loads of books, which I read with much interest. Reading novels on philosophy and history provided a sound intellectual basis for my education and artistic growth, and in my paintings, one can observe a sort of “narration”, which refers to this growth.

Some people remark that my paintings are “sad”, and I think that the shift from a crowded place where I was loved by all, to a very small town where I didn’t know anyone and was quite isolated – which left a lasting mark on my soul – is the source of this sorrow.

What trends are found in the themes and forms of your paintings?

Painting is a very personal form of art – at least for me. I paint in the sanctum of my workshop, with the music I prefer at the moment playing softly in the background. It’s a sort of meditation and catharsis wherein I explore my senses, my feelings and myself. It’s a reaction to whatever happens to me in life.

We live in dire times, surrounded by injustice, fanaticism and oppression. Every morning I read the Iranian news, and hardly a day goes by without me hearing about an execution or jailing. My country has always been under pressure, but the situation has never been as grave as it is these days. I’m scared of war. I’m scared of the poverty that the sanctions will bring. I’m screaming inside, and my paintings are the protests that I’m too frightened to show in public.

So the horrors and anxieties of people in your paintings come from your inner fears? As I noticed, even the ones that seem calm and relaxed still have a sense of sadness in them, especially the women. What’s the social role of women in your paintings?

Women are major characters in my paintings, although at times I also feature male figures. I was raised by women so perhaps this is why I’ve always been influenced by them. Inside each man, there’s a woman, I believe. Or at least, every man has his own feminine side. I’m at peace with my feminine side, and consider it to be quite prominent.

Once, the French author Gustave Flaubert remarked that Emma Bovary (in his novel, Madame Bovary) was his feminine transfiguration. I think the same is applicable to my female characters. They’re a part of me and they’re women I see, understand, and appreciate. Women in Iran are some of the most prevalent subjects of oppression and injustice, and I channel my voice through them. My depression, passive-aggressiveness and despair are reflections of them. On the other hand, my rage, internal torture and desire to scream at times embody themselves in my male subjects.

I’m scared of war. I’m scared of the poverty that the sanctions will bring.

In your previous works, men and women (mostly women) appeared on the canvas separately, but in your recent paintings, we can sometimes see them together – although without emotional connections. Is there a particular philosophy behind this?

This is something that happened unconsciously until some two years ago when someone at an exhibition mentioned it to me. I really don’t know why it’s like this. I suppose it’s a direct result of our government’s policies. After the Islamic revolution, the so-called “moral police” has constantly tried to separate men and women from each other.

That being said, however, there might be another reason for it too. In the past, I was struggling to reconcile my masculine and feminine sides. The male and female characters in my paintings represent different feelings. In a piece like Lamented Screams, you can see a man and woman shouting. Although they’re both doing so, one is lamenting while the other is screaming. After looking at the painting for a while, this changes somewhat: their feelings shift from rage to suffering and from wrath to grief.

What’s your perception of figurative paintings in the atmosphere in which you live?

What we understand as Iranian painting is figurative painting. The arabesques and patterns which adorn the walls of mosques and other edifices are not really considered to be paintings per se; neither are the recent works of calligraphy which have come to dominate the Middle Eastern art market.

The so called naghashi-khat movement (calligraphy-painting) is recent – it started in the late 60s as an indigenous response to abstract expressionism – and has very little to do with the roots of Islamic calligraphy. It’s rather a direct reaction to the Orientalist/post-Oriental market – or whatever they call it these days! On the other hand, figurative painting in Iran has a rich and colorful history stretching back to Manichaean times (the prophet Mani himself was a renowned figurative painter, believe it or not!).

Do you think that Iranian figurative painting today has its own individual visual culture, freed from Western figurative art affects?

The painting education system in Iran is based on Western visual knowledge and as a result, we learned more from the Western masters than Iranian schools of painting. For me, it was just after finishing my bachelor’s that I became passionate about Iranian figurative painting and its forerunners. We have an interesting heritage of depicting the human form in Qajar painting, something that unfortunately has remained semi-obscure. It’s only recently that some people have again begun to learn about and appreciate it.

We must also not forget about some of the giants of classical Persian painting, such as Kamaleddin, Behzad, and Reza Abbasi. While completing my master’s degree, I began studying their paintings; art that’s had a tremendous impact on me as a painter. This influence had less to do with form and style than it did with ontologies and ideologies. I was, and still am, amazed by the way these artists looked through the human soul, and how they portrayed individualism in their works. We live in a period in which talking solely about Iranian painting, and neglecting outside influences, is somewhat passé. Rembrandt, Mehrali (a Qajar-era painter), and Amrita Sher-gil (a pioneer of modern Indian painting), for instance, have played more or less equal roles in influencing my style as a painter. We don’t need to separate ourselves from other cultures. Rather, what we need to do is to understand them and focus on their positive aspects.

The painting education system in Iran is based on Western visual knowledge and as a result, we learned more from the Western masters than Iranian schools of painting.

Who are some of your favorite contemporary figurative artists, and which artists have influenced you?

There are plenty of painters whom I adore and appreciate. Off the top of my head, I can list David Hockney, Gustav Klimt, Bobak Etminani, Masoumeh Mozaffari – and, having lived in India for a couple of years, Arpita Singh – as noteworthy painters in my book.

Let’s come back to your works. Why is there no specific and familiar background in your paintings?

I think that what I want to show and express is the human condition, regardless of any particular time or space. If you look at the clothes and hairstyles of the characters in my paintings, you may well observe this. My figures and their feelings belong to eternity. We can see more or less the same thing in the Ghazvin and Esfahan schools of Iranian painting, as well as in Qajar portraits, although the implications may differ somewhat.


Although they’re both shouting, one is lamenting while the other is screaming.

When I first saw some of your screaming figures, they gave me a weird feeling – I couldn’t hear their voices! It seemed that they’re screaming while paradoxically remaining very coolheaded and silent. Is that so?

Although my paintings tell a story, they are not dramatic the way that Baroque-era painting can be. It’s rather about me freezing a moment, feeling or reaction in my paintings. I choose scenes from personal stories and transform them into paintings. The figures in my paintings are aesthetic, as opposed to dynamic. When you rule out time from an action, you step into a realm of eternals. In a painting such as Her Voice Carried Her Away, the viewer is presented with a screaming woman. After looking at the painting for a while, you might actually feel the scream transforming into a grimace. This is what I enjoy – when you start to paraphrase your own feelings into the figure’s gestures, and begin to feel empathy.

Does the Iranian audience’s taste play a role in your works?

Since time immemorial, Iranians have manifested their artistic sensibilities through poetry. From Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh to Rumi’s Masnavi – and in the works of contemporary poetry such as Ahmad Shamlou’s Paria – Iranian poets have always tried to tell stories. We are a story-telling nation and as such, narration has always been incredibly important to us. When we reflect on our heritage of painting, we can clearly see that there has always been a narrative behind each painting, if only a simple verse from a ghazal. Accordingly, to appeal to Iranian audiences, I think it’s important for paintings to have stories behind them, and I think this is something Western audiences will appreciate as well.

When you rule out time from an action, you step into a realm of eternals.

Generally speaking, do you consider your audience when creating a piece of art?

You can’t please everyone, and I’ve never tried to create something that would be loved by all. To be honest, I think there must be something inherently wrong with something – whatever it may be – if it doesn’t arouse any criticism. The relationship between an artist and his/her audience is something very personal, and in a way, incoherent. Whenever I begin a painting, I imagine there being an “ideal onlooker” who sits and observes me until I finish it.

Do you ever censor yourself in your works because of cultural or social reasons?

Yes, always. In a country like Iran, you have to do so if you want to continue working – or, in some cases, to simply remain alive or to avoid having to escape abroad. But censoring your works in Iran is not as simple as hiding a nude figure or a bottle of wine in a painting; you have to censor your thoughts and dreams as well. Whatever you say or represent or express can be perceived as a threat to the totalitarian system which has no tolerance for anyone or for any ideas but their own. Wherever you look you see red lines – personal, spiritual, political. Sadly, after a while, you learn that this fear of crossing the lines has engraved itself so deep in your soul that you have begun to censor yourself, without anyone needing to remind you to do so. However, this does have its benefits too – believe it or not – and it’s something that I believe contributes to the depth and sophistication of contemporary Iranian art.

What do you think of the women in black chadors who are observed in many Iranian figurative paintings? Do you think it’s an Iranian characteristic?

I don’t like them. Women in black chadors remind me of burial ceremonies and dead bodies, such as the ones I depicted in Lamented Screams. I don’t know if this is an Iranian symbol – none of the women I know and respect have ever worn a chador. It has little to do with Iranian identity or the Iran that I know.

Finally, tell us a little about your future projects.

I don’t know. I’m going to continue to produce work like I’ve done until now. This new series of paintings with crying, screaming and tortured characters is still haunting me, so I guess I’m going to continue producing them for the time being.

Thanks to Joobin Bekhrad for all his kindness and help.

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