Five men appear on centre stage in a circular form holding what appear to be mirrors. Their movements profess distress, anger and discontentment. As they wrestle with one another, shoving their long mirrors out in anguish, one captures the reflection of the central figure—the man that everyone seems to be attacking—and his face takes on the likeness of a pale Donald Trump, but with horns. The work, Oath of the Infidels, is by Brooklyn-based Iranian artist Nicky Nodjoumi and it is one of the stars in the artist’s first solo show Fractures at The Third Line in Dubai, curated by Media Farzin. Through his figurative painting rendered with abstract sensibility Nodjoumi depicts the emotional dynamics of contemporary politics. The artist’s satirical reactions to current political drama, based on original photographs from newspapers and magazines, tell it like it is—adding a heightened sensitivity to the often cold news renderings published daily.
The artist’s abstract figurations reveal uncomfortable truths about today’s tormented world. “Oath of the Infidels is a painting based on an image of a fight in the Polish parliament,” says Nodjoumi. “There were lots of people throwing chairs and I decided to cut them into different shapes. The subject matter goes back to the idea of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the notion that Westerners are the infidels. The cutting is a way for these leaders to feel the people’s pain.” After the artist finished the painting he realised the configuration of the figures was akin that of Matisse’s Dance.
Field Report. 2018. Oil on canvas. 178x127cm.
Born in Kermanshah, Iran in 1942, Nodjoumi obtained a Bachelor’s degree in art from Tehran University of Fine Arts before relocating to the US in the late 1960s, where he received his Master’s degree in Fine Arts from The City College of New York in 1974. Nodjoumi returned briefly to Tehran to join the faculty of his alma mater, and there joined his politically galvanised students in their criticism of the Shah’s regime. He designed political posters inspired by the revolutionary spirit of Iran, and in 1980 was exiled after an exhibition in Tehran. “I can’t go back to Iran because of my painting,” says Nodjoumi. “They attacked the museum to get the painting down and attacked me as anti-Khomeini and anti-revolutionary and I am still fighting to get the paintings back.” Yet the artist’s determination to fight back continues—through his art. His paintings educates through its lucid subject matter and poignant brushstrokes. “The power comes from the way painting and not just the subject matter,” says Nodjoumi.
Despite the political violence representative in Nodjoumi’s oeuvre, there is always a gentler side, rendered through his meticulous lines and colours and the touch of humour that encompasses his subjects. Another highlight is Two-Faced, a painting depicting a man at his knees with his head being yanked up by another man donning a cow mask. The reflection below, instead of portraying the human elements of both figures, reveals simply a cow. “Here is a comparison between the powers to be and the power of the cow,” explains the artist. “The leaders are supposed to be powerful but when we look at the world it is stupid—it is a cow. In Iran when we want to say someone is stupid we say they are a cow.”
Here is Aleppo. 2017. Ink on paper. 215x320cm.
The scene above the reflection is real, continues Nodjoumi, while the lower reflection should portray exactly what is happening on top, yet it doesn’t. “The shadow signifies another reality which is the cow,” he says. Like many of the artist’s paintings, this is a painting about power relations, but what you see is not always what is there. The truth comes in many guises. “I want to work with subjects that relate to our time,” says the artist. “I look at a lot of magazines and I want to expose the sensitivity that I see.”
Nodjoumi’s latest show in Dubai opened with much fanfare from the Middle Eastern art community. While the artist has been a pivotal painter for decades, he’s rarely shown in the region, except for one show in 2010 at Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, and a few appearances in art fairs. In 2013, Taymour Grahne, then based in New York, presented his solo show Chasing the Butterfly and Other Recent Paintings, followed by You and Me, in 2016.
The Long Day. 2017. Oil on canvas. 183x127cm.
Cutting, slicing, and slashing his figures is one of the techniques Nodjoumi uses. “It’s been a couple of years that I have been working on slicing my figures,” he explains, suddenly seeming himself a torturer of the oppressed. “It happened during the Iraqi War of 2003—mostly when they were bombing the road as a form of resistance—and I could see the many body parts flying everywhere. I didn’t want to do it in the exact same manner. I wanted to do this—this slicing to the politicians—who are doing these atrocities. My solution was to slice them so they could be vulnerable and also to displace them.” The “cutting” is a technique found in many works in Fractures. The subjects that Nodjoumi paints become themselves “fractured” as the artist manipulates the paint and splices their bodies so that what we view is not just political subject matter, but something that is emotionally disturbing—works that relay the same pain experienced by victims of torture.
The Long Day once again shines the spotlight on President Trump. Next to him stand a bald man, presumably Putin, and the two stand erect together on a blood red rectangular plinth with arms at their side as if saluting the gigantic pair of guerillas that stand before them. “I don’t just want to paint; I want to relay a message,” says the artist. “These were the people that caused this disruption; I want to send my works to the region so that people can see.” Nodjoumi’s paintings illuminate The Third Line’s space with expression, painterly zeal and determination. And while there are wounds here—disruption and pain—there is also light. Nodjoumi’s work offers a satirical cry to the madness of recent history and its stronghold on the Middle East. Maybe one day the cutting will stop.
'Fractures' by Nicky Nodjoumi ran from 12 May until 31 July at The Third Line in Alserkal Avenue, Dubai. Thethirdline.com