Afshin Naghouni: Beautiful Images, Ugly Truths

afs3More often than not, we passively accept the truth in the form of mass media messages. Unlike most of us, painter Afshin Naghouni is not afraid to ask the questions that we often ignore. While most of us are consumed with the lives of celebrities and consumerism, Naghouni spends his time thinking about war, poverty and life’s contradictions. This talented artist takes the concept that his personal life is also influenced by politics to a whole other level.

In most of his artwork he uses paint and photographs to capture the reality behind women’s lives. He focuses on the exploitation of both Muslim and Western women. Oftentimes it can be problematic when a male tries to express the sexist oppression women face in their daily lives, however, with Naghouni’s artistic lens, he encompasses what society often ignores. We are often too quick to judge what sexist oppression looks like. Some people may see a woman wearing a burka and assume that is sexist oppression. We forget to realize that sexual oppression can also be in the form of a sexual exploitation women experience as a result of capitalism. As the old adage goes, “sex sells.”

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Naghouni’s piece titled “Reflection” speaks on this issue. The painting is unapologetically charged politically. It features a woman looking off to the side, so you don’t see her face. Even though her face is not covered in the shadow of the light, her naked body is facing the viewer directly. This is a metaphor for how Western society emphasizes women’s bodies rather than their personal attributes. She is looking at a wall, which is a mural of different photos of Muslim women wearing traditional head coverings. It’s as if the naked woman is looking at these Muslim women and only seeing their sexual oppression, not realizing her own. In the same respect, it appears as though the Muslim women are looking at the nude woman, grateful that they are not exploited for their bodies. However, as the title “Reflection” demonstrates, we have more in common than we think we do. As Naghouni stated on his official website afshinnaghouni.com, “Attack on each other’s cultural differences takes the place of understanding and celebrating them, fear of the ‘Other’ becomes the norm, war becomes necessary and status quo, while peace remains an occasional treat, occupation becomes liberation, torture and murder becomes justifiable. Muslim women are oppressed and exploited while western women are liberated? And vice versa? We become what we wear and what we wear becomes even more important than the person who wears them.”

Naghouni uses his art as a platform to discuss such intense issues because he has experienced an extensive turmoil in his own life. Often people who have been through the most in their lives often make the best artists. They use their art as a way to express these moments of pain, which resonate with us. “I look around me and I see inequality, war, and death. I see, considering all the wealth in this world, and yet still thousands of people are dying of poverty and hunger every day. In different parts of the world including Iran, still in the 21st century, people are imprisoned, tortured, and even executed because of their beliefs…I think about these things, then I don’t find painting birds and flowers satisfying,” said Naghouni in a Street of Life interview with the Persian Voice of America, which is part of the largest U.S. International Broadcaster companies.

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Born in Iran, he left for Britain after experiencing terrible wars and violent revolutions, reported FAD, a website that focuses on art, culture, news and events. He expressed in an interview with Manoto TV that living in Britain has helped him openly create work in an environment without fearing political censorship. “Of course, it becomes easier to work, where there’s no censorship, and you can go ahead and create what you want conceptually and technically. When you don’t have to worry about whether you would be able to show your work or it would land you in trouble with the authorities if you did,” he stated.

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Unfortunately, this was not the only less than ideal circumstance Naghouni faced while living in Iran. He also experienced a spinal cord injury, which caused him to have to use a wheelchair. While he was at a party, police unexpectedly showed up. Everyone in the party instantly fled to the sixth floor of the building. Unfortunately, for Naghouni, he accidently fell off the building which led to his severe injury. He told FAD that his injury has influenced his methods as an artist. According to FAD, he no longer has full function of his wrist and fingers. For most artists, full use of their hands and wrists is a requirement for creating art. However, Naghouni was able to change his technique to adapt to some of his physical limitations. “I used to paint in very fine detail and played it very safe, but now I am forced to execute bolder and more intense brush strokes with a deeper expressionistic approach than before,” he told FAD. His brush strokes bring his paintings to life. If you look at his painting titled “Hindsight Bias,” which features a woman laying naked as her hands clasped together in prayer, the magnificent white, beige, and brown brush thick brush strokes invoke powerful emotions. Rather than simply using delicately refined brush strokes, Naghouni’s thick and free-flowing movement of his paint brush provide emotions of despair, isolation and hopelessness.

This ingenious artist puts life into a perspective that we often take for granted. He forces his audience to look past the comforts of everyday life and realize what is really going on in the world around us. Somehow, Naghouni has mastered the skill of producing beautiful images to express ugly truths.

-Samantha Miller