March 2016; reported at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism
At first sight, it is difficult to connect artist Nicki Nodjoumi the man with the violently bright, politically-charged canvases he creates.
Nodjoumi is on the petite side, with round spectacles, a healthy mop of greying hair, and an adorable, bulbous nose. His demeanor is that of a friendly elf, or a welcoming gnome: He beams warmly by way of greeting, even if you are fairly certain that he does not know who you are.
Although he has resided in Brooklyn for decades, Nodjoumi creates scenes almost exclusively on the subject of his native Iran. Consistently, Nodjoumi’s compositions verge on stomach-churning. Tension is rife in the uneasy postures of his subjects. Landscapes and backgrounds are bleak, while the people are frighteningly vibrant.
In early March, Nodjoumi sat before a small audience at Taymour Grahne gallery in Tribeca, the space owned by twenty-seven year-old Lebanese-Finnish curator of the same name, where his second show at the venue was taking place. He spoke softly, and slowly, with lengthy pauses. With the air of someone unaccustomed to holding the attention of an entire room, he had to be reminded to speak into the microphone, and preferred to face his interviewee, Bidoun magazine editor Negar Azimi, speaking directly to her as audience members strained forward on their folding chairs.
Nodjoumi’s work represents a very specific narrative in New York’s Iranian-American art world. This world hinges on the axes of exile, rebellion and a dark humor – all elements imbued in Nodjoumi’s merciless reimaginings of Iran’s political world. Born in Kermanshah in 1942, Nodjoumi earned his art degree in New York before returning to Tehran in the mid 1970s, where he was exiled for creating posters calling for the resignation of the Shah. He was exiled again when the 1979 Islamic Revolution overthrew the Shah’s regime.
Yet, Nodjoumi’s work is not intended to be retrospective. “I want my art to be of the moment,” he said that night, explaining that while he draws from Iran, the human struggle against oppression is something we all should be able to relate to.
The first part of “You and Me” is a collection of large oil paintings, showing men clad in suits. They look like government workers, and their heads are sometimes replaced with those of donkeys, rabbits, or bulls sprouting above neck ties. Sometimes the men are masked, as in “Men Descending the Staircase,” where said staircase is set against a stormy sky, and seven men carry spears. They look like the early stages of a mob assembling, on the hunt for something. Nodjoumi has replaced sections of clothing with a harlequin pattern, as if in spots the paint is peeled back to reveal another illustration, or to indicate a lurking alternate reality.
In “Obsession with Content” a gorilla trudges through a yellow swamp, steeped in sickly mustard hues. A puddle reflects distorted scenes of a burning city, unseen elsewhere. Strapped to the beast’s back, a stiff body is tied with a cat’s cradle rope, along with a wooden chair; the gorilla’s arms are outstretched like a hungry zombie, inches from a naked woman, who trails a red balloon behind her, seemingly oblivious to her pursuer. While men are consistently dressed in suits, women appear in glimpses, often unclothed, viewed from the rear in profile.
In another piece, “Internal Inspection,” the silhouette of a man in a fedora interrupts what looks like bombed-out ruins. In Grahne’s Instagram account, a caption reads, “Is this a film noir-like villain, walking away from his dastardly deed or a hero arriving to save the day amid the destruction? One never knows quite exactly what is happening in Nicky Nodjoumi’s paintings. There are subtle hints, but never a clear answer, leaving the viewer to decipher what is taking place before them.”
In this way, the vivid tension of Nodjoumi’s work is apparent, even without prior knowledge of Iran’s complex cultural and political realities.
The Q and A sessions ended, and Nodjoumi obliged Grahne by beaming into a camera lens, before finding his way to more familiar territory, where he could receive and return hugs and kisses among friends. The talk was over, and his art was loud enough.