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Armed with a Paintbrush:

Q&A with Farah Ossouli

 Mona Lisa, Photo: Courtesy of Farah Ossouli

By Erin Joyce, Aslan Media Art Editor

Every once and while an artist appears on the international scene whose work hypnotizes an audience, forcing them to stop and take in, in a meaningful way, what they are seeing. Iranian painter Farah Ossouli is one of those artists. The rich patterns and saturated colors Ossouli employs in her work are visually arresting. Ranging in subject matter from autobiographical to quasi-religious, Ossouli lends a breadth and range to her paintings, adding to the multi-faceted quality of this talented artists.

Born in 1953 in Zanjan, Iran, Ossouli has been living the life of an artist since childhood. She received her B.A in graphic design from Tehran University and has not stopped painting since. Ossouli has had several solo-exhibitions in Iran and Germany, and has been featured in many group exhibitions in Paris, the United States, the United Arab Emirates, Belgium, Turkey, and extensively throughout the Arab World. Her work is part of the permanent collection at museums in the Netherlands, Germany, and throughout Iran and Jordan, and she has won several prestigious awards for her artwork.

Ossouli recently sat down with Aslan Media to discuss her life, her beginnings as an artist, what it means to be a woman artist in Iran, and what inspires her to paint.

Aslan Media: You were born, raised and educated in Iran. What was life like growing up there and how has it impacted your life as an adult?

Farah Ossuli: I had a childhood full of joy and love, parents and siblings who filled my life with happiness. The result of an active childhood and adolescence full of travels, games and recreation was a sense of hope and self-confidence. It still gives me an impetus to challenge the problems. I have a painting titled Childhood Paradise which shows my feelings of my childhood. I have many paintings centering on Mother.

AM: Were your parents artists or artistic in any way or involved in the visual arts? What influenced you as a child to begin your work in the art world?

FO: My parents played a major role in me becoming an artist. I inherited a talent for visual arts from my maternal family. Many of the relatives on my mother's side paint as a hobby or are interested in art. Therefore, they always encouraged me to paint. My aunt began to study art when I was born. She is a Painting graduate of School of Fine Arts. She also obtained her MFA in Graphic Design from Art University. She provided me with large papers and diverse colors so that I could make different experiments during my childhood.

One of my sisters is a professional painter who has already graduated from Art University. My other sister and brother are also painters, but studied Drama. Therefore, art runs in the family. During the time I was at the elementary school I used to write short stories and paint a lot. I thought I would become a writer in the future.

AM: That is such an amazing resource, to have such an artistic environment in which to grow up. What age were you when you decided to commit to art as a career?

FO: I participated in national painting competitions as a school student. I was the winner of the first prize at times and received prizes. The prize for one of these competitions was the free admission to a professional painting class. I was fourteen at the time and it was difficult to attend both the painting class and school. It changed my view of painting, though. It ushered me to the great world of painting at an early age.

I was awarded in another competition a year later. This was the beginning of a serious initiation into the world of art. This time, though, I won admission to the summer classes of the School of Fine Arts. The teacher who taught there asked me what field I was planning to study. I said I was planning to study literature and to become a writer. She suggested that I participated in art entrance exam and chose painting as I had a talent for painting.

AM: How much do you feel your training in university influenced your artistic aesthetic?

FO: I entered the School of Fine Arts when I was fifteen and choosing painting, I entered a paradise of which I am, fortunately, yet to be expelled.

AM: Do you feel that to function as an artist in contemporary society that a degree was a beneficial undertaking?

FO: Academic studies do not make an artist, but it is important to go to university if you are looking for the right direction, contacts, discussions, debates, practices and order, and need to live in an art environment along with other students and teachers during an early stage in life when an individual is most influenced by his/her environment.

Childhood Paradise, 76x76, 2005, Photo: Courtesy of Farah Ossouli

AM: On being influenced by one’s environment; to what extent do you feel your Iranian culture and heritage has influenced your art aesthetic?

FO: To a large extent … I am greatly inspired by the standards of Iranian visual arts. Early miniature paintings, architecture, tile work, Pop Art, klims, rugs, literature, philosophy, history, geography, sociology, and psychology of this land are among the subjects that interest me. Therefore, they are directly or indirectly reflected in my work. AM: Who do you create your artwork for? Do you have a specific audience in mind or do you create just for yourself, and people happen to see your work?

FO: I have never been commissioned to produce a work for a specific audience. I have things to say and try to express my ideas in my own way. I try to depict my thoughts as I wish. I assume that there is always an audience for what an artist creates.

AM: As a member of the artistic community (and audience member yourself), specifically the community of artists working in and around the Arab world—what is your impression of Middle Eastern art scene today? What other artists are you a fan of from the Middle East?

FO: Art of the Middle East is going through an important era. Artists are discussing issues that have never been touched upon. In the age of Internet and information technology, artists of this region are also encouraged to express their views and get heard by important people around the globe.

Differences in life conditions, governments, traditions, and standards led to a new art form that introduced audiences in the east and the west to the novelty and distinction of the art of this region.

Shirin Neshat, Mohammad Ehsaei, Shirazeh Houshyari, Parviz Tanavoli, Ghada Amer and Mona Hatoum are among the artists I am interested in.

AM: Has the oeuvre of other artists influenced your-self as a painter? Who were your favorites?
FO: I was inspired by and learned from many artists at the beginning of my studies at the School of Fine Arts and college. Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Georges Rouault, Henri Matisse, Gustav Klimt, Kate Kolwitz, Marc Chagall, Jackson Pollock, Rothko, and Toulouse-Lautrec are among many others.

AM: I find that my taste in art is always in flux and my favorite artists tend to change over time. Have your favorites changed over the years?

FO: My interest grew over time to include artists such as Reza Abbasi, Kamaleddin Behzad, Otamaro, Hokusai, Judy Chicago, Anish Kapoor, Frida Kahlo, Cindy Sherman, Georg Baselitz, and many other contemporary artists of the east and west.

AM: In your own words, what has the response been to your work? Do you have any interesting accounts of how someone reacted to your art in either a positive of negative way?

FO: Once a European couple came to my studio to acquire an artwork. They had a three-month child and had been waiting for a long time to use their savings to buy a painting. The couple had lost part of their savings for some reason, though. They were at the end of their tenure in Iran and had to return to their country. They explained their financial situation and proposed a price that was a quarter of the original price I had offered. The moment I agreed to the price they had offered, the young man delightedly jumped up and ripped his trousers, while milk trickled off his wife's breast. I will never forget this delightful moment.

AM: What do your parents and/or other family members think of your life as a visual artist? Do you ever discuss your artistic motivation with them?

FO: My family, including my parents and siblings, my children (my daughter studies painting) and my husband (a prominent filmmaker) respect what I do. They encourage me and we always discuss my motivations and ideas as well as other art forms.

AM: What has been your personal favorite work that you have created?

FO: It is not possible to choose a specific painting as my best artwork. I sometimes have ideas, though, that take a long time to become an artwork. I enjoy such challenges and feel happy and at peace when I succeed.

AM: Do you feel that you will ever reach a point where you will become bored with art?

FO: Since I love art, it will never bore me. I have been practicing art for 43 years and am not sure how I can live without it. The hope to paint wakes me up every morning. Creation is an endless, pleasant journey for me.

AM: With all the unrest in the region right now, and the revolutions of the Arab Spring, do you feel inspired or, maybe better phrased, motivated by these events in your painting? Have themes or issues that relate to revolution appeared in your work?

FO: It has often been controversial. Traditional miniature painters believe that my work is riotous and destructive to the miniature painting. On the other hand, conservative Westernized painters consider my work traditional miniature painting. I feel alone and unappreciated by both groups.

During the thirty years I have been mastering miniature painting I have been criticized time and again for not fitting into any categories.

On the other hand, I have enthusiastic buyers and admirers inside and outside Iran. My work is especially interesting to art critics and researchers abroad.

AM: Do you think your work is controversial? What is life like for you right now in Iran? Are you able to openly exhibit your artwork there?

FO: Yes, I can present my work to galleries and museums in Iran. However, some of my works are not presentable in Iran.

AM: Have you ever been in a situation where your artwork has been censored?

FO: My work has never been censured except in rare instances. I myself might have been censured for my ideas and mentality. It seems there will be even more limitations in the future.

AM: To you, what does it mean to be a female artist from the Middle East on a global scale?

FO: Female artists of the Middle East have so much to say. An educated artist from this region is not different from a female artist from the West. We are, however, limited in terms of our personal behavior, words, positions vis-à-vis developments, and presentation of artwork. Therefore, the discomfort that results from such regulations, traditions, and limitations can be wearing. This is the path every artist has to tread in one way or another. What art does is to upset current traditions and norms. Art always criticizes the world around, thus paying a price.

For more information on Farah Ossouli, or to see her complete works, please visit www.farahossouli.com

Via Aslan Media
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