Piercing eyes, troubled stares, yearning glances as well as feminine torsos and poetic crows—these are the faces that peer out from Jason Noushin’s poignant oeuvre. Born in the UK, as an infant the artist was sent to Iran to his grandparents and his aunt. It was there during his early childhood that he witnessed images of conflict and violence from the Iranian Revolution and then the Iran-Iraq War. The skin of many of his works is made up of words, beautifully laid out typefaces and watermarks that serve as documents of history—details that add context to his lurid works.
I first came across Noushin’s work through a collector friend and was immediately taken by its poetic nature. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Here is a raconteur that tells history again from the point of view of an artist who experienced its woes and is now recreating it into aesthetic objects of wonder.
Maryam Eisler: Headless women. Headless birds?
Jason Noushin: Well they have heads; it’s just that they don’t have features. It was so much easier to suggest a face rather than make a face. For me the form is more important than the actual image.
M: In that case, why women, why birds?
J: I like women a lot; I was raised by women. I respect women and I think that they are just incredible creatures. My protagonist is female. She’s quiet, secretive, strong, and vulnerable. I still don’t know her well. And birds: I had a crow when I was a kid, as a pet in Tehran, so I have a very strong affinity for them.
M: So do you use the crow, a symbol of your childhood, as some sort of lost connection, a missing link to your past?
J: It does remind me of Iran, and I haven’t been back since 1984. I was 13 years old when I left. It was in the middle of the Iran-Iraq War. So all of my memories date back to that period and they weren’t very pleasant because the country was in major upheaval.
M: To me, an outsider, a bird has many allegorical, phantasmagorical, symbolic and philosophical affiliations. First and foremost, it suggests freedom, the flight. Do you ever think along these lines?
J: I do, but I don’t approach my work philosophically, I approach my work visually and tactilely. I need to touch the work and feel it rather than focus on its philosophy.
M: So would I be correct in saying that it is not the idea that leads your work but rather the work that leads the idea?
J: Yes, very much so. I think that over the past two decades I’ve just been experimenting with various materials and it’s all finally coming together, including the Persian calligraphy, which is something I had not even thought about till recently. By nature, I’m restless. I’m always thinking about finding solutions even when I’m not physically working on a project. This inevitably promotes dialogue between my consciousness and the creative output.
Sonnet VI. 2016. Oil on linen with wool, butcher paper, ink and coloured pencil. 124.5 x 91 cm
M: Do you actually use calligraphy with its original intent or does it take a conceptual form?
J: It’s stylised calligraphy. However, these are English words that I transcribe into Farsi letters. The content is generally composed of English poetry. And that’s because I’m half English, so I have always had an affinity for English literature. Recently, I have been quite taken by Ted Hughes.
M: Why Ted Hughes?
J: Ted Hughes’ poetry is beautiful! My recent work refers to Hughes’ Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow first published in 1970; a white crow decides to fight the sun because he thinks the sun is too bright, so he flies up to the sun and as he gets too close, he burns and becomes black. I love the mythological aspect of Hughes’ work.
M: Do you feel that you fly too close to the sun sometimes?
J: I used to fly very close to the sun, but as I am getting older, I think I am calming down, which is good; I live longer this way.
M: With age, one tries to reconnect with one’s roots. The fact that you’ve only just started using Persian calligraphy indicates to me that there may be a sudden awareness of your cultural heritage. The idea of self-search and identity, perhaps?
J: Absolutely, yes. For the longest time I desperately tried to avoid Iranian circles, not because I was ashamed of it, but rather because I always associated it with some kind of pain and loss. When the revolution took place, I lost a few friends in the war, all of whom were my age. So it was a time I really had no interest in remembering. Now I’m back in the fold, and I’m reconnecting with my past, using my calligraphy, and it’s wonderful. I wish I’d done it earlier but guess it’s never too late. So here I am in the present drawing energy from my past!
M: And the fact that you use Persian calligraphy with English content is the perfect symbolic representation of who you are, a self-portrait of some sort, straddling both cultures?
J: Exactly. We all need to live our lives and to live our past—whether you want to embrace this past or not is a different question. Being half Iranian is such a privilege, and Farsi is such a beautiful language. I remember reading poetry with my aunt when I was young—Ferdowsi, Saadi or Rumi’s Mawlana; those are memories I had forgotten about, but they are now slowly creeping back.
Mafi. 2008. Pen and ink on antiquarian paper
M: There are many Persian artists who have and continue to use calligraphy in more ways than one, but I had never encountered an artist who uses Persian calligraphy with English content!
J: Well, it just came so naturally …So, I have my laptop, I have the poem in front of me and I read it in English but I write it in Farsi, and the exercise itself actually becomes therapeutic. It provides relief and joy!
M: I think you’ve created your own code.
J: I had never thought of that, but thank you, Maryam. Now I can add that to my spiel! I’m a code-maker! Maybe even a code breaker! A lot of my works have cross-hatchings, or they have other types of tally marks; these are based on Persian talismanic drawings, so I guess you could say that the work is coded in more ways than one. As you know, talismanic drawings in Iran are not meant to be read; they are just meant to keep you symbolically safe.
M: Talismanic codification also has some association with spirituality and mysticism. Would you say that your work contains some element of that?
J: Yes, I grew up in a very religious household, but I’m neither religious nor spiritual, just practical.
M: From codes and talismans to calligraphy and form, where does magic fit in in all of this?
J: The magic is not created by me. The magic is created through the mixing of the material. It’s the alchemy that matters. I just channel this creative combustion. The work makes up its own mind. I never force it.
Namerie. 2016. Plaster, encaustic, ink, oil and shellac on chicken and barbed wire. Height 57 cm
For more information visit Jnoushin.com