Interview with Negar Jahanbakhsh

We see predominantly women subjects on your canvas, most importantly we see them in interior space, in an everyday setting. How does portraying women in an everyday setting reflect their inner world?

Many years ago I read an interview with Susan Sontag, a writer whom I greatly admire and there was a story of Jean Cocteau “who, when he was in his late teens or early twenties, went to see Proust, who was already in his cork-lined room. Cocteau brought him some of his work, and Proust said, You really could be a great writer, but you have to be careful about society. Go out a little bit, but don’t make it a main part of your life. And Proust spoke as someone who, in the early part of his life, had lived a very social, what we would call café-society or jet-set life in Paris, but he knew that there was a time when you had to choose between the work and the life. It’s not just a question of whether you’re going to give interviews or talk about yourself – it’s a question of how much you live in society, in that vulgar sense of society – and of having a lot of silly times that seem glamorous to you and other people.”

After reading Sontag's account, I decided to stay home, in my studio and have strict discipline. So the presence of women in interior spaces in my painting is simply due to the fact that most of my time is spent in my studio.

You quote from Houshang Golshiri, an Iranian author in your biography, and you said you paint to see if you are in love or not. To whom are you testing your love against: yourself, intimate others, viewers or the subjects you paint?

Houshang Golshiri, prominent Iranian writer, was asked why he was writing, answered for various reasons: “I write to see if I am still in love or not, sometimes I want to reveal the human truth to itself. In other words, to show the monster inside.”

Painting is also a daily routine for me. I paint to see if I love or not and to show the monsters inside myself and others to myself and them. So painting gives me a chance to evaluate my own relationships with other people. Whether I love them or not, whether they love me or not, and how our inner monsters interact with each other.

You use quite oftenly mise en abyme in your paintings; sometimes you refer to another painting of yours through your canvas. Is this method for constructing a self-reflexive, visual narrative?

I think self-referencing in my paintings is more of a conceptual thing than a technical one, and as far as I'm conscious about it, it happens due to the following three reasons:

  • The story of the first painting continues in the second, the third and so on. Like the piece of “The Prince Vol II”.

  • Self-referencing is my personal diary for recording stories. Meaning that when I paint those pieces, it is a reflection of what happened to me like the piece “This Side of Paradise” and “The Searchers”.

  • Sometimes the reason is that the previous painting occupies part of my studio space and I paint the same part of the studio in my new painting as it happens in “The House of Brightness Vol IV” and “The House of Brightness Vol V”

Negar Jahanbakhsh / Break Up with Lan Lan, 2018

Negar Jahanbakhsh / Break Up with Lan Lan, 2018

What do you think about today's art world? How does an ideal art world look like for you?

I hope the art world had more to do with the art itself rather than the “art market”. Unfortunately, what happens these days is that the artists (mostly white male ones) whose works are sold at high prices get all the media attention without reflecting on what will be their place in ten or twenty years in the art world.

In other words, it seems that in the art world nowadays money is more important than anything, even more important than art itself. I hope the art becomes a little more important, though my hope seems impossible.

How does Iran treat you as a contemporary painter? What are the possibilities and limits of living and working in Iran?

In Iran, due to the scarcity or even lack of public museums, other sources like art foundations, residences, private collectors, and sometimes established artists become the main supporters of the art. These supporters make it possible for young and emerging artists to continue their journey.

I have been lucky in my career to have had both private collectors and established artists supporting me since the beginning; Supporters like Pouyan Zandi, Cyrus Islami, Nazgol Moshtaghi, and Afshin Pirhashemi. The ratio of these supporters to artists in Iran still is a small number and I hope they increase in the course of time. 

Another advantage of living in Iran (Tehran) over other metropolitan cities is the relative low cost of living compared to those cities. In a sense that emerging artists have more chance and time to remain true artists at the beginning of their careers.

On the other hand, due to the poor economic support of the art galleries in Tehran and the difficulty of establishing relationship between Iranian galleries and the art world outside of Iran, (in part due to sanctions), prominent Iranian artists are more likely to prefer to live and work in art cities such as New York, London or Paris. 

Since I can’t show my work in public in Iran due to its subject matter, I haven't had any exhibition in Iran since 2015. I have had fifteen exhibitions outside of Iran in New York, Dubai, London, Monaco, Amsterdam, and Chicago.

This interview is a part of our Public Support section, dedicated to our Kickstarter supporters.