William Brangham: As a young woman in Iran, artist Arghavan Khosravi faced many restrictions. But, on canvas, she renders it all in whimsical and magical layers.
GBH Boston’s special correspondent Jared Bowen caught up with her at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, New Hampshire, for our arts and culture series, Canvas.
Arghavan KhosraviArtist: I like this idea of having these fancy gardens and then having other things that are a bit disturbing.
Jared Bowen: In her paintings, as in her own life, Iranian artist Arghavan Khosravi sees two Irans.
First, there’s the one she found in her family home.
Arghavan Khosravi: We had a lot of freedom. I was lucky to be born and raised in a culturally educated family that gave me the space to do what I wanted.
Jared Bowen: And then there is public Iran, where life is heavily restricted, especially for women.
Arghavan Khosravi: When we go to school we have to wear hijab, and there are things you have to do to comply with these rules.
Jared Bowen: You couldn’t be yourself.
Arghavan Khosravi: I think it’s too, too extreme to say that you can’t be yourself. I could, but just the edited or more contained version.
Jared Bowen: Thus, in this first museum exhibition, we find flowering trees, sumptuous textiles and birds with outstretched wings. But there are also diminished women, darkened faces, sometimes restrained by force.
Work, says Khosravi, comes from memory.
Arghavan Khosravi: They’re usually – they’re usually not very positive. So for me, reacting to those memories in the paintings is kind of also a way to deal with those traumatic, often traumatic experiences.
Jared Bowen: And none of these women are ever you?
Arghavan Khosravi: No, I never intend to have these women as self-portraits. But I have some of the characteristics in common with me, like hair color, eye color, to some extent skin tone.
I want to talk about my own race.
Jared Bowen: Khosravi left Iran seven years ago to attend art school in the United States. And, as an immigrant, she is no longer free to return home.
But, on the canvas, she lives in a magic kingdom, explains Samantha Cataldo, the curator of the exhibition.
Samantha Cataldo, Assistant Curator, Currier Museum of Art: There’s a real element of like a dream space or like a frozen moment in time, but it’s rendered in very crisp detail. And so you kind of have this push-pull of reality and surreality.
Jared Bowen: In his latest work, Khosravi’s paintings enter our space, taking on sculptural qualities as they emerge from the wall, their weight literally hanging in front of us.
Samantha Cataldo: You are faced with work, but not, of course, in a bad way. It is introduced to you and it beckons to you and invites you to explore all of its layers.
Jared Bowen: In a visual language, Khosravi never stopped cultivating.
Look closely and you’ll see that her paint often shimmers, a nod to the precious, like Middle Eastern oil, she says, that comes at the expense of democracy. The classical sculpture depicted throughout his work speaks to both patriarchy and notions of human perfection abandoned to decadence.
Samantha Cataldo: So to put this very charged imagery into work that also includes things like more eastern traditions, like contemporary fashion photography, it creates this interesting contrast of conflicting ideals.
Jared Bowen: Khosravi also returns time and time again to historical Persian miniature painting. These are pictures she was raised on, but, in her versions, she moves men to the side.
Arghavan Khosravi: I see that women have a secondary or not very important role in these scenes.
And, in my own work, I want to reverse that idea and give women more presence than we’ve seen throughout art history.
Jared Bowen: History is literally woven into Khosravi’s work, as she paints on and through handmade textiles her father sent from Iran.
And you walk in and you really have a conversation with the artists who came before.
Arghavan Khosravi: Yeah, yeah, that’s — because I — like, I decided on this color palette, because of the color palette that the textile had, yeah, that’s an interesting dialogue.
Jared Bowen: And a choice that Arghavan Khosravi, now far from home, will never take for granted.
You have what you are talking about in these paintings. You have freedom, full freedom.
Arghavan Khosravi: Yes Yes Yes. And contrary to what I say in the paintings, I have the freedom to say what I want to say.
Jared Bowen: For PBS NewsHour, I’m Jared Bowen in Manchester, New Hampshire.