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On a cold January afternoon, I met painter Nicky Nodjoumi at his studio in Brooklyn. Now seventy-eight, Nodjoumi has a slight figure, with a neat grey beard and round, owlish glasses. Although he is one of Iran’s most globally celebrated artists, he has been living in exile in the United States since 1980. Initially coming in 1969 to study at the New School, he arrived in New York at a moment when the city’s Iranian expat community was engaged in leftist politics protesting the shah, a movement he threw his support behind. In 1975 Nodjoumi returned to Iran as the revolution was really heating up, but because of his political views was forbidden by the shah’s secret service, SAVAK, from teaching or working in the country. However, he was permitted to hold one annual show of his paintings and drawings. After the 1979 revolution, Nodjoumi’s critical images of the shah were hailed by the incipient regime, and he received a solo show at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art in 1980, but these paintings were just as skeptical of the mullahs and ayatollahs who had risen to power. Within days of opening, the show was declared “antirevolutionary” and “antimuslim,” the paintings removed, and Nodjoumi forced to flee the country. He has been living and working in New York ever since.
‘When I finished school, I went back to Iran to teach. But the secret police interviewed me every other day for hours: What did I do in New York? What school did I go to? What books did I read? Who was my friend at the student association? What did we do?’
On the far wall of Nodjoumi’s studio was a series of life-size works depicting groupings of shadowy figures engaged in a variety of absurd, yet vaguely sinister situations. The nearest canvas showed four men, cut up and glued back together. One of the men was Trumpian, judging by the outline of his hair; marionette strings emanated from a man wearing a carnival mask, who seemed to be gesturing to the group while an upside-down chair floated over him midair. In the torso of one of the figures was a window exposing a piece of a blonde woman’s face against a fleshy backdrop, her expression a kind of parody of pleasure. The group stood against a desolate landscape with a gray sky, and curlicues of a smoking explosion or a tornado rose in the distance. Also, there was a tiny horse, prancing through space inexplicably. Nodjoumi was leaving the painting up on his wall for a month or two, to determine if it was finished.
By the door were stacks of stretched oil paintings and racks for storing rolled canvases. Behind these racks was the artist’s living area: a bed over which more paintings were stored, a little kitchen, and an improvised bathroom carved out of the studio space. Filing cabinets full of work were the largest pieces of furniture in the room.
In recent months, Nodjoumi has been receiving renewed interest for a previously unexhibited series of 300 works, New York Times Sketchbooks (1996–1999), which was finally shown at Helena Anrather (November 21, 2019–January 19, 2020) before being shipped off to Princeton University to join the university’s permanent collection. The series originated when Nodjoumi, short on money and supplies, began the daily practice of drawing or painting on the front page of each day’s New York Times. The relationship between image and text in the series is loosely allusive, but never didactic, the events of the day overlaid with personal, mystical, and erotic images—whatever was on the artist’s mind that day. Amounting to a kind of visual diary, the series is both a time capsule and a vision of an individual navigating complex political currents while caught between the pull of two bitterly opposed countries.
• • •
DP: What motivated you to start painting on the front page of the New York Times, and then to keep doing it almost every day for three years?
NN: My connection to English is the newspaper and the radio. I’m not in contact everyday with people who speak the language. If we get together, Iranians, we all usually talk Farsi. Most days I hardly talk English. Even at the coffee shop, I get the coffee, we don’t say hello or anything, I just get the coffee.
When I came to the United States, I remember a friend advised me, “Since you’re not in connection with the American people, read the paper.” And the New York Times, at that time, was the most valuable in terms of content of the news. So I got used to buying it every day, and even though I still don’t understand much of it, I try to read it.
One day, after I read the paper, I started working and I was looking for paper to work, because I usually start with just doodling or drawing. I couldn’t find anything, and I didn’t want to go out and buy paper. So I said, “This is not a big deal,” and I started doodling on the newspaper that was right in front of me. I drew on almost every page that day.
After a few days, I realized it’s not a bad idea if I not only do it, but do it just on the front page and see what happens. Nothing spectacular, nothing serious, nothing related to anything, just whatever I feel that day, I would do it. Usually when I paint, the process is more calculated: I make small studies, then make it larger, than make it larger on the canvas. But this thing was just, I start doing something, whatever comes, you know?
‘When I started doing it, I wasn’t concerned to do any drawings related to the stories, but when I look at them now, I often see that whatever I was angry about—the politics in Iran, the politics in the United States—it is there.’
DP: Even if the images aren’t related to the content, they seem to naturally create some sort of dialogue between the events reported that day and the images that you choose to paint on top of the reporting. Can you talk about that relationship?
NN: When I started doing it, I wasn’t concerned to do any drawings related to the stories, but when I look at them now, I often see there’s something that is attacking the New York Times. Whether it was intentional or not, I don’t have really any idea. Whatever it was that I was angry about the politics in Iran, about the politics in the United States—it was just there.
DP: Tell me about how politics came into your art.
NN: It was 1975 when I finished school in New York and right away I went back to Iran to apply to teach at the university. They wanted a teacher, but I was asked by SAVAK, the secret police, to go to a bureau on the outskirts of Tehran every other day, sit there for hours, and then two people would come and ask me questions: What did I do in New York? What school did I go to? What book did I read? Who was my friend at the student association? What did we do? All of these questions.
DP: You were involved in a lot of activism in New York, right?
NN: Yes. I was part of the Iranian Student Association, which was an umbrella organization for all the different political groups of students against the shah, working especially for freedom of expression, freedom of thought, freedom of political prisoners. And they knew all of it, the secret police in Iran, so at the end they said what do you want?
I said, “I’m done with my schooling, I’m here to teach.”
They said, “You’re not allowed to teach in any cultural center in Iran.”
Then I said: “Can I work in TV?”
They said no.
“Can I work in an organization for children’s books?”
They said no.
So I asked them: “Can I have a show in Iran?”
And they said yes.
DP: Why do you think that is?
‘I went back to New York and told my wife, “You know I have a job, the revolution is finally successful.” But she said: “No, the revolution is not done and this one is worse than the first one. I’m not going, it’s not safe.”’
NN: I think they thought, “This way, he’s harmless.” So they said, “OK, you can have a show.” And that allowed me to visit Iran once a year.
The Iranian art scene at this time was hot. There was a lot of money coming into the country because the oil price went up. And cultural institutions started buying art. And art became really important also because the empress supported it, especially contemporary art. So they opened up a Museum of Contemporary Art in Iran in 1977, and they even bought some art from me, from my gallery.
But this was also a time when a lot of political demonstrations were going on. I could have had the show I was permitted once a year, but it felt useless because tons of people were in the street. So I didn’t have it.
DP: What did you do instead?
NN: I was in the street with the people. Interestingly, the first day I got there, I got the sketchbook and the pencil and thought I’m going to sketch what’s happening in the street, but when I got to this crowded street and I saw that emotional situation, I said: “What the hell do you want to do?” So I didn’t do anything, I just stayed with the people. From the morning to the night, I was in the street. Every place they went, I went there. I didn’t yell or do anything, just walked with the people to be in the street.
Meanwhile the students and faculty of fine arts at Tehran University had occupied the building and they asked me to go there and cooperate with them in terms of making political posters and cartoons. So we decided we would gather the slogans being used each day by protests and pick one that we thought most related to the immediate situation and make a poster for it.
DP: When the revolution happened soon after, I assume you wanted to stay in Iran and be part of what was happening?
NN: A lot of students from the fine arts were dissatisfied with the teachers. They wanted a new generation of teachers, and they lobbied for me to be a teacher at Tehran University, so I said OK. The university was closed for the summer, so I went back to the United States to talk to my wife and daughter, who were still living in New York, and take them back to Iran. I told them, “You know I have a job, the revolution is finally successful.”
But my wife didn’t agree. She said: “No, the revolution is not done and this one is worse than the first one. I’m not going, it’s not safe.”
So I said: “I’ve got to go. I promised them, so I’m going. Maybe after a couple of months, you’ll see.”
So I went back, and I went to the office of the faculty and they said, “You’re not going to be hired.”
“Because you are a leftist.”
DP: So without the teaching job, did you come back to the United States immediately or stay in Iran?
‘The judge said: “We arrested all your leadership and they’re going to be punished. All of you are convicted and you’re going to get a hundred lashes.” When they started lashing the people—savagely they would do it—I thought, “I won’t be alive if I get those lashes.”’
NN: During the first year of the revolution, there was supposed to be a coup d’état in Iran. But it was a failed coup. As part of it, there was a huge demonstration in front of the office of the newspaper of the revolution, and I was in it. It was the first bloody demonstration against the new regime, and several people died. I got arrested.
I was taken to the jail. I was there for almost two days. I was faced with an ayatollah by the name of Sadeq Khalkhali, who they called “the hanging judge.” He would execute anybody who was against the regime. So when I got arrested it was with about 140 people, and we all spent the night together. There was no room to sleep or do anything. And the next day, they took us to the ayatollah in the big yard of the prison.
So he said: “We arrested all your leadership and they’re going to be punished. All of you are convicted and you’re going to get a hundred lashes right now, and then you go home.”
When they started lashing the people—savagely they would do it—I thought, “I won’t be alive if I get those lashes.” I’d had open heart surgery the first year I lived in the United States to correct a congenital condition. I thought, “That much pressure, I won’t be able to survive.” So I called on the hanging judge in front of all the people.
I said: “I wasn’t part of this group. I was going home!” And I tried to be really gentle.
He said: “No no no. Your face tells me that you were one of the leaders. You are a communist. You are going to get the lashes, that’s it.”
Anyway, this was a hot summer day. By five or six o’clock everybody carrying out the lashing had gotten tired. By that time, only forty people had been lashed and there were probably about a hundred people left. I was in line to be number forty-eight or -nine.
Another guy came and said: “OK, we’ll stop here. Just go home.” But I had big hair, so they cut it before I could leave. Then they said to go home, but first sign a letter saying that I’m not going to participate in any demonstration inside Iran. If I do, and if I get arrested, that’s it: “You’re done, execution.” I had signed almost the same letter with the regime of the shah.
Meantime, the Museum of Modern Art in Iran had reopened under a new director. (It had been closed during the revolution.) And because my work had been anti-shah, the new director said he wanted to do a big retrospective of my work.
DP: What kind of paintings were they?
NN: I used myself as a model. In the paintings, my head was banged up, I had a prisoner’s body all bundled up, they were set in a torture chamber. In my mind, whether it’s the previous regime or the new regime, they were doing the same thing. But the museum was thinking of them as critical of the shah rather than critical of the new regime. I had done a series of around ten large paintings titled Report on Revolution, and a bunch of black-and-white drawings that showed mullahs, you know, Khomeini and all of them in the midst of revolutionary scenes.
The problem was really with the new paintings, of all the mullahs, especially Khomeini. The director hadn’t seen all this new work, only the previous ones about the shah. But he said, “Send everything!” They sent a truck to my studio and loaded up 120 paintings, drawings, monoprints, everything, and took them to the museum.
DP: So this was probably your biggest show to date?
NN: Yes. So there was a big opening, which I didn’t go to because I thought a lot of ayatollahs would be there. Two days after the opening, the Islamic Republican newspaper came out against the show. The gist of the article was that I’m anti-Islam, anti-Khomeini, anti-revolution. How I came from the United States, a bad place, and the revolution had embraced me, and I had betrayed the revolution. And that was really bad. This was the first article post-revolution against any artist in Iran!
A friend of mine called me and asked: “Have you seen the paper?”
I said, “No I haven’t.”
He said: “Go get it. Read it. Do not talk to anybody, don’t do an interview with anybody, and get out of the country as soon as you can.”
So I got the paper. I couldn’t believe it. So that was it. The director of the museum called me and I went there and I saw that most of the paintings where there was a depiction of Khomeini and other mullahs had been taken down and turned to face the wall. The director told me that fifty or sixty people had come to the museum and censored the paintings.
I offered to send a letter to the editor of the Islamic Republican but he begged me not to. He said: “Don’t do it! We don’t want any more fights because their plan is to capture the museum by saying it is anti-revolution.”
So the week after, I left Iran, and left all the paintings in the museum. I left at 9:00 am on September 22, 1980, to fly to Germany and that afternoon Iraq bombed the airport.
DP: You barely escaped!
‘Even Iranian artists working outside of the country are often hesitant because. This government, they have such a power that they control you here. Because if you do something, you cannot see your mother, your sister, your brother. That’s the punishment.’
NN: Amazing. So that was how I came back to the United States.
DP: Tensions between Iran and the United States are once again at a fever pitch. Do you feel like this is making its way into your work? And how do you see other Iranian artists responding?
NN: It will take some time for what’s happening now to make it into my painting. It is not going to happen right away. Maybe there is a hint, like there will be something in the next painting. In terms of artists in Iran—they are trying, at least the new generation, to be more aware and more political but they also know the condition in Iran, they know they would never be able to show any painting if there is something even remotely criticizing the situation.
Even Iranian artists working outside of the country are often hesitant because they still want to be able to go to Iran. This government, they have such a power that they control you here. You’re sitting here, you’re not allowed to do anything. Because if you do something, you cannot see your mother, your sister, your brother. That’s the punishment.
DP: How long has it been since you’ve seen your family?
NN: You know, my mother died in 2009. And I was ready to go. And she begged me not to go to see her. She said: “Don’t come. I don’t want you to come.” My sister died last year, I couldn’t see her. I could have a better life in Iran. I know my friends, they have a house. I don’t have anything. This is not mine; I pay for the rent. This is the situation. It’s been all these years and I’m lucky that I’m here, I can work, I can sell some paintings, and can live. There are people in Iran that don’t have that right, they cannot do it. So what do you do? Because I’m really telling all the people, especially Middle Eastern artists, that they should commit themselves to the social world. If you do painting, you have to say something.
Nicky Nodjoumi is an Iranian painter who has been living in exile in New York since 1981. His work is held in museum collections around the globe, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the British Museum in London.
Daniel Penny is a critic, journalist, and poet with an MFA in creative nonfiction from Columbia University. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, frieze, 4Columns, The Paris Review Daily, GQ, the New Republic, The New Inquiry, and others. He teaches writing at Parsons and The New School. You can follow him @dwpenny.
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