NEW YORK – Aphrodite Desiree Navab’s The Homeling, featuring body-sized monoprints and small-scale ink drawings that explore the New York-based artist’s roots in Iran and Greece and the body politic, closed at Johannes Vogt Gallery on February 17.
“My earliest memory is kids spitting on me. Telling me to go back to Iran,” Navab told TNH. Born to an Iranian father and a Greek mother, she and her family fled Iran in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution of 1978–79. They settled as refugees in Greece before moving to the United States when she was in the fourth grade. “Am I Iranian?” she pondered. “Where do I belong?” she asks rhetorically before saying: “People tell me.” Judging her by her looks—strong features and piercing eyes—Greeks and Iranians both claim and deny her, saying: “You belong, but you don’t belong.” Navab admitted, “It’s been a struggle,” but ultimately she concluded: “I belong through art. And I want people to belong to each other.”
“I navigated three languages since birth,” Navab said, speaking of English, Farsi, and Greek. “I remember there was a time I stopped dreaming in Farsi.” Visual arts became her language. “Instead of talking about things, I would draw.” In the New York gallery, her small-scale ink drawings hung on the walls like words on a page. Navab explained that she started with one print, creating subsequent prints that were in dialogue with it. Series of related images lined the walls in rows of varying lengths. “The curator thought they could be like sentences,” she said, speaking of curator Roxana Fabius, who selected thirty-one works from the one hundred twenty Navab created.
Collectively entitled Persian Abstraction, Navab likened these ink drawings to Islamic calligraphy that used geometric solutions to pass censorship. “There’s something about it that’s still veiled a bit,” she said, referencing the Islamic head covering, currently required by law in her native Iran. The black-and-white drawings are abstract in nature, yet subconsciously tapped into her themes of the body politic. She joked that she calls one line of drawings on the far wall her “flying phalluses series” because of the dominant form in the work. Another print, she said, reminded her of an organism’s cell, the building blocks of life. The work is sexual and political: as a female artist in the United States, Navab is afforded a freedom of expression she would not have in the country of her birth.
Adding another layer of feminist meaning to the work, The Persian Abstraction series originated only when the mother of two’s children were old enough to be away on their own, leading her to have the opportunity to travel to the Latin Quarter in Paris last year. She hadn’t planned on making art while she was there but, inspired, ended up buying all new supplies and creating the series in a prolific flurry of activity. “I was near so many amazing museums. I went to seven museums in five days.” On the last day, she went to the Centre Pompidou, where she discovered, “I tapped into something I feel was a collective unconscious.” There, she encountered abstract works by male artists in the 1930s that were similar to what she had just created.
In dialogue with Persian Abstraction was Navab’s title piece The Homeling, the first work one saw when entering Johannes Vogt Gallery and the largest of the works. A continuation of her Super East-West Woman performance art that she began creating in the early 2000s, The Homeling finds Navab once again donning a chador, or Islamic veil, to create provocative art that challenges our idea of culture and femininity except this time, instead of appearing wearing her superhero outfit in photographs, she inked up the chador and used her body as the brush. “I want to have my body involved in my work,” she said. The printmaking paper was so vast that to keep it from curling up and encasing her body as she lay upon it, she had to weigh the corners down with heavy art books, perhaps its own subconscious gesture of artists in intercourse with one another.
The only work to veer away from a stark black-and-white color palette, The Homeling features lipstick imprints. “‘Are they kissing? That’s cute. That’s sexy,’” Navab said viewers would say, but she said: “Honestly it’s pretty brutal.” During the Revolution, the so-called veil police in Iran would harass women, and those who wore lipstick in public would sometimes have their lips slashed with razor blades. Navab never had much interest in wearing lipstick as a young woman in the United States, but now she wears lipstick as a political statement.
“This is both a protest and a celebration,” Navab said of her work. The work is visceral, imbued with instinct and evolution, sensuality and sexuality. Navab’s art is personal right down to the inky fingerprints in The Homeling – “they could ID me,” she quipped – yet her work is also communal. Her work builds intimacy with the viewer, allowing them to explore their own identities, their own desires, their subconscious, while reminding them through her own experiences that they are not alone. One can find a home in her art.