Artist Interview: Orkideh Torabi

Today we share an interview with Orkideh Torabi. Torabi's paintings, made using a unique transfer process of fabric dye on cotton, depict oafish men in garish, sickly colors. These caricatures incorporate lush patterns and imagery from traditional Persian miniatures in order to emphasize the connections between power dynamics of the past and the present. She renders her male subjects as goofy and goggle–eyed in order to rattle the patriarchal precedent of her home country Iran, and of contemporary society at large.

Conceived of as a tool, Weight of a World presents artworks that elicit lessons to be learned – and to be taught – from global conflict, local lore, and cultural identity. Presented in partnership with Facing History and Ourselves, Weight of a World comprises sculptures, paintings, film, and supplementary programming that pivot upon two vast, inextricable categories: history and identity. The works on view recognize the roles of individuals within the long arc of history: how we are formed by our contexts, and how we may impact what comes next.

Weight of a World is on view at Weinberg/Newton Gallery from July 13 - September 15, 2018.

Sit tight, 2018, Fabric dye on stretched cotton, 43 x 37 inches

Weinberg/Newton Gallery: Your work does such an excellent job at weaving together intense criticism with a charming levity. Each of your creative choices, from the caricature-like portraits bathed in saturated color to your humorous titles, all work together to lift the veil on patriarchal culture in Iran and beyond. How did you come to realize this was an issue you wanted to tackle through your work?

Orkideh Torabi: I was always concerned about women’s life and situation in a male dominated society. My experiences came from a larger aspect of daily life. Growing up, I started to realize how woman did not have all the same options as men. The experiences with daily life favored men over women, and made me think how my life might be different if none of these problems ever existed.

Since I came to the United States I was able to meet people from different backgrounds that have the same insight and personal struggles. I began to realize how ridiculous the circumstances are for woman. This became an outlet for myself. It made me want to depict all of these aspects in the work.

I also wanted to understand my artistic identity and the language in my painting. Thinking about my relationship to Western art history and Persian art history. I was looking for a language to express what I wanted to communicate.

WNG: Many of your paintings show these men in intimate positions, such as the washing of another man’s hair in I hear you buddy, or the 3 men standing behind a sheet in The Greater Wall, where it’s unclear if they are fully clothed or not. What role do you feel this intimacy plays in the work?

OT: These men are in the places that women are fully removed from. In fact, this is a space that only men are allowed to go. In these societies, women are considered as the other and they are not the activators.

These men have control of everything. The intimacy has been established and they have the freedom to gossip. They can do as they wish without any female present. For example, the painting “I here you buddy” shows two men who are gossiping about their wives in the public bath. Making these men more intimate with each other. The male power, masculinity, and insecurities are the qualities these men share.

It's never enough, 2018, Fabric dye on stretched cotton, 43 x 36 inches

WNG: You also have a unique way of integrating cultural references across time and space. You often place your depictions of Iranian men into feminine roles from historically western paintings such as the Birth of Venus or the Madonna and child, calling their masculinity further into question. Can you tell us more about how you chose those particular western tropes to insert your characters into?

OT: Usually, when I start a new body of work I have multiple narratives in mind. Then I start working on some sketches, gathering different resources, and research. At times I look at art historical images to get some reference. It can range from Persian miniature to a historically western painting, it doesn’t matter. The revisiting of history has been a major part of my recent body of works.

For example, when I started the “Madonna” series I came across these images of Madonna and the child and I thought it’s a good place to start. I wanted to have my own version of it.

In this case, I replaced the female figure in the painting with the male figures. It just reminds us of the actual painting that I am referring to, but the whole composition is different. In fact, this parody is bringing a new life to these images.

My works are not about any specific nations or nationalities. These men can be from anywhere around the world to different communities.

That moment!, 2018, Fabric dye on stretched cotton, 43 x 37 inches

WNG: Your work brings up an important conversation about identity and freedom of expression--topics that our current partner organization, Facing History and Ourselves, integrate heavily into their curriculum. Would you share with us a bit about your experience of making this work here in the U.S. knowing how differently it may be perceived in Iran?

OT: This content was always there and continued even when I moved to the United States but the way I have executed the works has changed. The language, the aesthetics have evolved to make the message clearer. I used to talk about these issues through painting women but I found it problematic since the images that I produced usually were misinterpreted. So, I started creating these characters, using contemporary men, intermingling them with the images from art history.

I believe these paintings can be well-received in Iran. The art community in Iran is pretty open and there is an understanding between galleries and artists. They are more open to talk about these issues.

Where are all the houries?, 2018, Fabric dye on stretched cotton, 37 x 43 inches

WNG: One of my favorite pieces is Where are all the houries?, which features an angel-winged man floating in a sea of mustard yellow clouds wondering where all the heavenly virgins he’s been promised are; he even appears to be wearing a shirt patterned with a Venus symbol. I find this one to be the most cheeky and humorous, but also one that really exemplifies the powerful wit in your voice as an artist and a woman. How do you find yourself able to toe the line of satire so well?

OT: When one becomes fully aware of their surroundings they have the ability to be critical about it. I didn’t want to be outspoken with direct reference about the issues that I am talking about so I added humor to my work. The element of satire becomes more universal and is accessible to different ranges of people. I think very serious things can be discussed through satire.

I also think when a content is heavy with satire it can help the viewer to make more connections to the artwork. It’s a way to be discreet and humorous at the same time.

Weight of a World installation at Weinberg/Newton Gallery

To view more of Torabi's work visit her website.