When Roshanak Aminelahi first heard the story of the Persian princess Gordafarid, who disguised herself as a male soldier to ride into battle to defend her homeland, she was a young girl, growing up in 1980s Tehran. “My father read me the epic poem The Shahnameh as a bedtime story,” she explains. “This story of Gordafarid captivated me and I was reminded of it last year when I heard the news of the Kurdish women who dressed as men to go into battle in Northern Syria. I was so moved, I had tears in my eyes.”
Roshanak’s painting Gordafarid - a 3m-high swirl of red and gold raised brush marks riding on a white horse - is the first thing you see when you enter her solo exhibition at Ayyam Gallery, Dubai. “I knew that when I wanted to paint my Gordafarid it had to be huge and in bold, beautiful colours because she’s a woman but she’s also strong and powerful. I like to be a woman and be feminine, and at the same time be fierce, so I relate to Gordafarid and look up to her. These qualities for me are very important.”
It’s a powerful combination and one which, in person, Roshanak encapsulates. It was doubtless this strength which allowed her to leave Tehran in 2006 and move alone to Dubai with her 3-year-old son. “It was crazy and very difficult,” she recalls. “My now ex-husband didn’t come with me so I was having to sort out my work and my job and where we would live, and all with a little tiny boy where everything was new for him.”
Roshanak wears: Carolina Herrera shirt, Massimo Dutti skirt, and Oscar de la Renta earrings, all her own. Photography by Ethan Mann
She now exhibits all over the world - from Miami to Vienna - and travels internationally with her work. “Dubai is a beautiful city to live in,” she explains. “It’s extremely close to Tehran, which is important because my main source of inspiration is my Persian culture - the literature, the art, my background - and I go back a lot to see my family. But here in Dubai I’m exposed to so many nationalities and cultures - not only what’s happening in the UAE but the rest of the world.”
Unlike other artists who shy away from making their work overly political, Roshanak says she considers it her responsibility to address what’s happening in the world. “Right now I’m working on another body of work which is directly talking about the situation in Syria,” she says. “They are large works and they take a long time but it’s important to me. These are subjects we’re constantly living with - you can’t stay away from it and I wouldn’t want to.”
It’s fitting that the theme of her current exhibition is strength because even her paints have been specially reinforced to be more durable. “I’ll mix sand, cement, whatever it takes to give my paint the depth and dimension it needs,” she explains of her unusual technique. “Then I’ll mix all these different layers to create this thick strong texture which I love to play with.”
Roshanak wears: Massimo Dutti jacket, Dolce & Gabbana trousers and Louis Vuitton shoes, all her own. Photography by Ethan Mann
The overall feel is of movement and texture captured on canvas, and Roshanak’s inspirations range from French Impressionists to digital images. “I only realised afterwards that this technique I’m working with looks like Pixels made from paint,” she says. Her work draws on the pointillist brushstrokes of the Impressionists such as Georges Seurat’s famous Bathers at Asniere, the abstract paintings of Beat artist Jay DeFeo and the intricate tile work in Islamic architecture in Iran.
Although the overall message of this exhibition is courage, Roshanak says that she rejected the idea of making the show about female strength specifically. “I want an equal world, I don’t want men fighting for women and I don’t want there to have to be a special day for women to have to fight for their rights,” she says. “I’m aiming for balance.”
Although the show might not focus specifically on women, Roshanak herself is the embodiment of female empowerment. “I married when I was very young, I had my son in my thirties but I worked the whole time,” she says, with noticeable pride. “Even when my son was born I remember the next week I was sitting behind my computer. I’m constantly managing a million things and as a single mom I feel this huge responsibility, but at the same time I’m following my dreams. And I think that makes me a better mother.”
That’s the message she wants to give to other women in the UAE. “You can’t bring excuses, you can’t say ‘Oh but I’ve got kids, I’m a wife, I’m a woman...’” she says. “If you want to do something - just do it.” She may not be wearing a helmet and riding a horse, but in her work Roshanak is waging a battle all on her own.
This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia
Photography by Ethan Mann