By Joshua Ascherman
At first glance, Azita Moradkhani’s wall sculptures look like cut-out sections from mannequins.
The white fragments of female bodies that were on display in “Victorious Secrets,” Moradkhani’s recent show at Gallery Kayafas in the South End of Boston, are bedecked with Moradkhani’s meticulous colored pencil drawings, applied to look like intimate apparel. However, these mannequins are eerily accurate. In fact, they aren’t mannequins at all — they’re casts from the body of the artist.
Moradkhani’s daring gesture of self-display follows logically from the concerns of her work: “Victorious Secrets,” which puns obviously on the name of the lingerie brand Victoria’s Secret, is about privacy, affronts to privacy and the relationship between the private and the political. The fusion of lingerie with images from the news is one alley by which Moradkhani accesses this subject matter.
The female body also figures importantly into Moradkhani’s work. “The female body is central to my work, specifically its exposure to different social norms,” Moradkhani said, citing as a core belief Wangechi Mutu’s assertion 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.”
Some of the work deals with violence inflicted on female bodies — one lingerie drawing on a mannequin replicates a photograph from the news depicting an incident of religious violence, and an actual knife is affixed to the sculpture. (This piece is entitled “The Pleasure is All Mine.”) However, violence is by no means her only theme, and the artist is an optimist at heart: another of her body cast pieces is concerned with birth and generation, and a found tree branch is attached to the cast so that it looks to be growing from the artist’s breast.
She also connects gender with nationality and politics; Moradkhani’s work highlights the similarities she notices between the policing of women’s bodies in her home country of Iran by religious authorities, and the more abstract oppression of female life in Western society.
Moradkhani was born and raised in Tehran, and she lived there until she moved to Boston in 2012. Moradkhani’s connection to Iran still runs deep. She feels an affection for the physical landscape, and much of her family continues to live there.
As a child in Iran, she “was surrounded by delicate Persian carpets and colorful textile designs, from [her] grandma’s dress to the curtain on the wall,” and she “was impressed by Persian miniature, with its colorful details and its use of images in storytelling.” The influence of these aesthetics is apparent in her work, in which she applies the intricacy of Persian patterns to the fabric of lingerie. Regarding pattern in general, the artist relates it to trauma, to a kind of pleasure which is reiterated until it overwhelms.
Her artistic predecessors are varied. Moradkhani is inspired by figurative art — one drawing in “Victorious Secrets” depicts the outstretched hands of figures in Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” — but also admires the work of Ana Mendieta, an abstract sculptor. Other influences include Shahzia Sikander, whose portrayal of Muslim womanhood is particularly important to her, and Greer Lankton, whom she admires for her dialogue about gender and sexuality. The color palette of her lingerie drawings seems related to the work of Agnes Martin, an American minimalist painter — as does her choice of colored pencil for a medium.
Despite the sometimes disheartening nature of Azita Moradkhani’s subjects and the somber appearance of her work, it is important to her that we see the good in the world and that art serves to highlight that good. She believes that art is capable of challenging established ideas but that its true value is in its ability to remind us of the honesty of real life. Moradkhani’s work is vulnerable and beautiful, and art enthusiasts should watch for her in the years to come.