Contradictions and Tensions: Shiva Ahmadi Interviewed by Naomi Falk

An artist working to unveil ugly truths.

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A strong blue streak centers fluid and colorful images of people, monkeys, and horses titled, Strait of Hormuz, by Shiva Ahmadi

Shiva Ahmadi, Strait of Hormuz, 2018, watercolor on paper, 40 × 60 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

The systems around us are shrouded in robes of opulence and gold. Shiva Ahmadi knows. Enter, she says. Then she divulges that which might otherwise slither, undetected, in the folds. Aglitter under the lowlight like an eye in the cave, Ahmadi’s work hums something long and unplaceable as I enter the room it occupies. Is what I see the detritus of human gore or an elated expression of release? I listen to the characters of her creation that are compelled to speak: faceless tyrants and worshippers bound to themselves and intricately to others, pure carnage, phantomly vignettes unconnected to the ground of our Earth but still, painfully, belonging to us. 

—Naomi Falk


Naomi Falk When I draw near your work, I experience new emotions and ideas, because what I see upon first glance might be something else entirely. I’m talking more specifically about the objects of war and the aftermath of violence that lace or, in the case of your animations, develop in your compositions. Can you talk to me a bit about this? 

Shiva Ahmadi My life was hugely affected by the uncertainty and instability brought by the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the subsequent eight-year, Iran-Iraq war. During the war we experienced city bombings for a period of time. As a child I was terrified of the sound of an explosion and the unknowns that came with it. One day my mom told me that if I hid underneath the big, sturdy, German-made table in the kitchen, I would be fine even if a bomb dropped on our house! I believed her! After that, anytime I heard helicopters, I would grab a book and hide under the table. Books and stories took me to another world and made me forget the ugliness of our situation. One of the books I read during this time was the Farsi version of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. What I loved most was the allegory and how the message was hidden and wrapped in layers and conveyed through animals.

I have adopted this language in my artwork as well. I like to use contradictions and tensions as a tool to explore the idea of chaos and instability. The scattered objects found after an explosion or any violent act contain many layers of stories. It’s both abstract and figurative. It makes the artwork playful and engages the viewer for a longer time. By making the surface beautiful and shiny, I want to seduce the viewer to get close before revealing the ugly truth.

Shiva Ahmadi, excerpt from Lotus, 2014, single-channel video animation with sound. Commissioned by Asia Society Museum, NYC. Courtesy of the artist.

NF The elements of your storytelling are anchors. This seems consistent with how you handle your subject matter in some of the larger works. I find so often that people want to compartmentalize their confrontation with ugliness from their experiences with pleasure. This, of course, seems to come from a particular American privilege, where the private sequestering of violence and pain is an option, more so than in the majority of the world. What role does intimacy play in pain, and vice versa?

SA I think intimacy and pain are the opposite but close. Both feelings stimulate the same place in the brain, and they both help people to escape reality even if it’s for a moment. In Iran, I had two different lives: inside and outside of the house. Inside, I would wear whatever I wanted, listen to Western music, read all the forbidden books, talk freely about my hatred for the regime, etc. But outside, I had to cover my hair and body, be completely mute and pretend to be a practicing Muslim, or else I would get into big trouble. So, contradiction was something that I grew up with. My paintings are layers of hiding and revealing, pain and closeness, beauty and ugliness, abstraction and figuration, gesture and control, transparency and visceral texture.

NF The form of your work, too, fluctuates. You’re manipulating different inks and paints within a single work, composing on found objects, and animating your paintings to give them an extended narrative that prolongs the static moment. How do your variant forms lend themselves to this “negotiation”?

SA The idea, characters, or the story define the materials or form. For example, when I paint, the water or fluid media is a conscious choice. Water (including watercolor, ink, or acrylic) runs and is out of control. It is transparent, temperamental, and honest. You can’t erase watercolor or the transparent washes or easily paint over it. If I make a mistake, I can’t do anything about it, which makes it scary but at the same time exciting. I don’t think there is any other medium that shows instability better than water. 

But this is when I work in 2-D. If I want to develop a story that is more extended, I make an animation. And if I feel frustrated with both, I work on objects like oil barrels or pressure cookers. When the pressure-cooker bombings were happening all over the world, nothing could describe the horrifying action better than the thing itself. It is a domestic object designed to make food to nourish people. I bought pressure cookers from Amazon and asked my mom to bring a couple from Iran. She got into big trouble at US customs when she tried to explain in broken English that her daughter wanted to make them look like the pressure-cooker bombs in her art. 

A pressure cooker decorated with silver-metal etchings titled, Pressure Cooker, by ​Shiva Ahmadi

Shiva Ahmadi, Pressure Cooker #4, 2017, intaglio hand-etching on metal pressure cooker, 10 × 19.5 × 12 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

NF I’m astounded by how high the stakes are for you as an artist. In Talinn Grigor’s essay on your work, “The Violence of the Armchair,” for your 2017 Skira monograph, she discusses how in the current state of global unrest, you are—as an artist—uniquely positioned as an oracle. You cast predictions and shapeshift. Can you talk to me about how you engage your imagination with what you see and read in the news? I oftentimes find in my own writing that the only way to communicate the facts of the world properly is through a lens of make-believe. I cannot make sense of what is happening.

SA I cannot make much sense of it either. But I can say that my experience as an immigrant helps me observe and compare things as outsider and insider. For example, in Iran we have a Supreme Leader. His decisions affect people’s lives directly. He is a king, a monarch, a dictator. His minions, even though they know he is wrong, still support him. Look at what happened recently with Trump’s impeachment. He was acquitted in the Senate along party lines. I am not saying that US democracy and Iranian dictatorship are the same because they are absolutely not. But I can’t help but to compare certain behavior.

When I look at Persian poetry or miniature painting from thousands of years ago, I see the same dynamic. There is always a king (male) sitting on top of the throne while his minions worship and follow him. It seems everything in this world is the epic of Rama with Hero, Heroine, Ally, and Foe. My imagination goes wild.

NF Yes, and “democracy” is as much a costume for the US as “republic” is for Iran. And, of course, being inundated with this same male-king story for decades—in personal and public life, in theory and in practice—is exhausting. How has your relationship to that narrative changed over the course of your life?

SA I didn’t know any better when I was in Iran. When I moved here I saw the differences between the two systems and became hopeful. Then Bush invaded Iraq because of a “nuclear weapon” that didn’t exist, and I was lost and confused. The Arab Spring, Syrian civil war, and subsequent refugee crises happened, and kings or presidents all over the world did nothing.

Your question made me look back at my work, and I think a lot of things changed in my art subconsciously. In the Throne series, I painted human beings as leaders sitting on top of the throne, offering bombs. They were replaced by monkeys, and now they are all gone, and only the aftermath of the violence, which is the direct result of their decisions, is left.

A colorful watercolor featuring monkeys, a flying carpet, humans, and a bird titled, Flying Carpet, by Shiva Ahmadi

Shiva Ahmadi, Flying Carpet, 2018, mixed media on Aquaboard, 22 × 30 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

NF This story you’ve just mapped out feels as if it is heading toward the apocalypse. There is also a sense of ecstasy in some of your very recent pieces, particularly the paintings. Within the past two years, I notice the incorporation of almost sculpturally layered, gory, abstract masses that—though they are carnal—feel cathartic. Where are you headed? 

SA I work very intuitively. I can feel when I get frustrated with the limitation of 2-D media. I either bring a new element into the painting or change the medium completely. In the last couple of years, I have started working with really thick and visceral textures that—next to the transparent washes—create tension. The 3-D quality or physicality of the medium is expressive and deeply satisfying.

I don’t know where I’m heading. I guess we will see, but I have become restless with paintings again and want to start making things. I have always loved Joseph Cornell’s boxes and might experiment with that idea.

NF I’d like to leave readers with one final thought. If you could only pick five words in any language and of any kind to describe how you feel when you look at your own work, what would they be? 

SA Whimsy, red, playland, anxiety, throw up. 

Shiva Ahmadi’s video Lotus can be seen at the Shrine Room Projects: Shiva Ahmadi / Genesis Breyer P-Orridge / Tsherin Sherpa exhibition at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City until September 14. (The Rubin Museum of Art is temporarily closed due to the coronavirus.) 

Naomi Falk is a writer and editor.

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