Azita Moradkhani was born in Tehran where she was exposed to Persian art and culture as well as Iranian politics. This double exposure increased her sensitivity to the dynamics of vulnerability and violence she explores in her work and art-making process. She received her BFA from Tehran University of Art (2009), and both her MA in Art Education (2013) and her MFA in drawing, painting & sculpture (2015) from Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts & Tufts University. In 2017, Moradkhani was announced winner of the international Young Masters Art Prize & the inaugural Young Masters Emerging Woman Art Prize. This autumn her work will be included in The Shapes of Birds: Contemporary Art of the Middle East and North Africa at Newport Art Museum, Newport, RI. You can also see her work currently at The Cynthia Corbett Gallery, Royal Opera Arcade Gallery, London and in the Royal Academy of Art Summer Exhibition.
WIA: What are you doing today?
Azita Moradkhani (AM): I am moving my bedroom to another house at the Horned Dorset Colony residency in upstate New York. Constant moving has been a part of my life since May 2017, when I started an attempt to go to back-to-back residencies in the U.S. Nothing is permanent, everything changes, and that’s one of the lessons I hope to take away from this journey.
WIA: Tell us about your creative process.
AM: Depending on the project, my creative process could span a few months to a year or more. I don’t rush my work and I try to give myself as much time as I need to complete a piece in a satisfying manner. Sometimes in the middle of a project, I need to pause and stay away from my work. However, simultaneously, I’m engaged on a different level, mentally experimenting with possible ways to complete it. I am a perfectionist and very picky when it comes to my work, and no matter how hard I try, I cannot help it.
WIA: Describe where you do most of your creative work.
AM: It happens in my studio with piles of photos – from photojournalism to art photography and iconography – alongside coloured pencils categorised by colour in metal cans, stacked on a drafting table, next to some dried tree branches and leaves that I’ve collected from different residencies. I have started using them in an installation piece, incorporated with my body casts, which I am currently completing.
WIA: What’s the most exciting project you’ve worked on?
AM: My series of coloured pencil drawings of intimate lingerie has been one of the most exciting projects that I have worked on over the last couple of years. This series is based on my first impression of a Victoria’s Secret store in the U.S. Seeing such a large lingerie store in public surprised me, since in Iran such stores were private, secret spaces.
The drawings explore connected narratives of pain and pleasure through repeated abstract patterns and images based on photojournalism, art photography, and iconography. I use an aesthetic of pleasure to attract the viewer’s attention. Yet upon closer inspection, through the layers of coloured pencil, past the details of lace and filigree, disruptive iconography becomes apparent, narrating inherited histories of nation and belief.
WIA: What made you decide to become an artist?
AM: I didn’t decide to become an artist. From a young age, I was interested in art and followed my passion until I eventually found myself as a fine artist.
WIA: What are you currently working on?
AM: Currently, I am researching objects that have been used to oppress the female body, both literally and figuratively, to incorporate in my drawings. Over the course of history, foot binding, corsets, and neck rings have modified the body according to cultural standards of beauty.
I am also working on larger scale drawings connected to my lingerie series, such as a life-size drawing of a negligée with a moustache growing from its paisley pattern that depicts delicate femininity with the implied presence of the masculine.
Meanwhile, I am experimenting with materials such as water colour and fabric to incorporate into my body casts. Moreover, I am learning jewelry-making techniques to use in my sculptural work. I think the delicacy of the process could be a good counterpart to my detailed drawings.
WIA: Do you listen to music while you work, and if so, what’s your soundtrack?
AM: I usually don’t listen to anything while I am working in my studio. Sometimes several hours pass by as I enjoy absolute silence while I am drawing. I have noticed how much more genuine my drawings and linear expression become when I practice in quiet. However, after long hours of working late at night, I occasionally listen to a podcast that has dialogues cut out from different movies. The dialogues are usually meaningful and emotional, but are not connected by any larger story. So, I do not need to follow any narrative thread between the dialogues and instead can stay focused on my work.
WIA: What are the key themes in your work?
AM: The female body, and its exposure to different social norms, is central to my work. Through my drawings and body castings, I’m examining displacement as an unnatural state we experience when we find ourselves insecure in our own bodies.
Also, the connections and tensions between sexual representation and national identity, and between private and public, is a part of my work.
WIA: What would you like people to notice in your work?
AM: I hope the audience notices the narratives hidden beneath the layers of coloured pencil on the surface of my work, and thinks about them in relation to the layers of complexity in individuals, societies, and countries. These details reveal contrasts such as pain/pleasure and beauty/ugliness that exist in our everyday lives.
WIA: What attracts you to the mediums you work in?
AM: I was born and raised in Iran, and from childhood I was surrounded by delicate Persian carpets and colourful textile designs. I was impressed by Persian miniatures with their colourful details and the art of storytelling through images. A sense of delicacy and virtuosity connects my work aesthetically to Persian art, and coloured pencil is a medium that allows me to achieve the linearity and level of detail that I am looking for in my process of making art.
WIA: What equipment could you not do without?
AM: Coloured pencil and paper.
WIA: Who or what inspires you?
AM: Like many other artists, my ideas come from feelings such as excitement, anger, fear, and curiosity; the simplest thing around me could inspire me, as could meditation on the complexities of the wider world.
I’ve been impressed by different artists from throughout art history. For example, the way Greer Lankton connects her body’s experiences to her work, resulting in a strong dialogue with the viewer about gender and sexuality. Also, I like Wangechi Mutu’s belief that “females carry the marks, language and nuances of their culture more than the male. Anything that is desired or despised is always placed on the female body.”
WIA: How does gender affect your work?
AM: I am a woman and, consciously or unconsciously, part of my work will always be influenced by my gender, feelings, and experiences. I am currently working on larger scale drawings connected to my lingerie series, such as a life-size drawing of a negligée with a moustache growing from its paisley pattern that depicts delicate femininity with the implied presence of the masculine.
WIA: What’s your favourite gallery, or place to see or experience art?
AM: When I’m in New York, I like visiting galleries such as AIR Gallery, Asya Geisberg Gallery, Ortega y Gasset Projects (OyG), and PPOW. The Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Boston and Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASSMoCA) are a few of the other places that I like to visit: Laurie Anderson and Louise Bourgeois are some of my favourite artists who have shown at MASSMoCA.
WIA: If you could own one piece of art, what would it be and why?
AM: I have had a hard time choosing a single answer.
I would say Marc Chagall’s painting Bella”would be a masterpiece I would like to have. When I was in high school, I made my first-ever monoprint based on this painting. I was fascinated by Chagall’s surrealistic imagery and characters and his vivid colour palette. Having this piece would give me a sense of nostalgia and pride in having the original version of what I copied as a young artist.
Giorgio Morandi’s Still Life is another piece that I would love to have. His paintings always give me a feeling of comfort, peace, and satisfaction. I think having one of his paintings in this image-bombarded, post-modern society would be a reminder how life could be still be simple but beautiful.
Also, Edgar Degas’s Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer would be the sculptural piece I would like to own. I love dancing but I never had the chance to become a professional dancer considering my background and where I grew up. But, regardless, this young dancer looks beautiful and strong to me. Her delicate body with the detailed ribbon around her hair, tutu, and ballet slippers contrasts with her cold and confident face and the rough texture of the material. It’s also fascinating to see how he created a sculpture that was strongly connected to his paintings while looking completely different. Similarly, I am trying to transfer my drawings from two-dimensional surfaces to the three-dimensions of my body casts.
WIA: If you could collaborate with one artist, from any time, who would it be, and why?
AM: Louise Bourgeois is the artist who I would be thrilled to collaborate with. The female body was a major part of her work and I find her paintings and sculptures, specially the doll-like pieces, to be simple but emotionally powerful. To me, her work is psychological and dark while still offering a sense of hope. My work, on the other hand, is more detailed, more vulnerable, and hidden under layers of coloured pencil. Her structurally simple sculptures could combine with my detailed and layered technique; I can imagine stitching shadowy images on one of her dolls.
WIA: What’s your favourite colour?
AM: 191 Pompeian red in Faber-Castell coloured pencil is the colour that I like the most; it’s a shade of mauve with fleshy, bodily associations.