We took the N train to Bensonhurst to visit Mahtab Aslani in her studio within her apartment.  Her third floor studio gets wonderful light, which is important for Mahtab’s work; often she paints from still life that she sets up in her studio.

Her series of paintings include recreating and enlarging arranged lingerie, as well as a series of prescription pills, and a series of bits of discarded ephemera she’s picked up in her neighborhood. Seeing her various projects made us enjoy her paintings even more, and more still after hearing her story of leaving Tehran in the midst of a revolution as a war refugee, to arrive in the United States as an art student twenty years ago.


NNNY: Describe your studio practice.

Mahtab: The underwear series I painted from observation. I buy the underwear, then arrange it and pin it to a board, and light it. Everyone would look at it and say “did you paint it from a photograph?” But no, I painted it from observing light on the fabric.  

I’ve been doing this series for a long time; it gradually developed. I wanted to do still life because it takes me so long to finish things, and it’s hard to get people to pose for very long. So I chose still life, and I like fabric; I chose underwear because it relates to being a woman, sensuality, those things. I am very inspired by Ingres and the way he painted fabric. I made them large because I tend to get tight when I paint a small painting. I paint more confidently when I paint larger. I did a close-up so I could get all the detail, then had to blow up the image. I set the lingerie up, then make a drawing; the painting starts messy, and I build it up and refine it with details. They take between a month or two.

I paint as much as I can – it depends on how much I am working. Even if I’m tired, I can at least paint for a couple hours and feel like I’ve done something. Emotionally it feels better right now to work small because I don’t have much time in the studio.

(NNNY asks if this series has anything to do with Iran’s history of oppression of women) I don’t know…but it’s funny, now that my work is online, sometimes I get hate mail! Because I’m painting underwear! From Iranians who don’t know me, crazy people. Maybe in a way there is a connection because I lived in that oppressive environment.

Before the revolution, in the 1970’s, women weren’t really free.  You could wear what you want, but there were a lot of rules. Like I remember when my mother wanted to travel, she had to get permission from my father. You’re a woman, you want to travel, and you have to get permission from your husband or father. I moved here about 20 years ago, during the war. I wanted to move to study art, and I went to Europe first, but couldn’t get a visa due to certain complications. And then I moved to America, and stayed.


NNNY: What is the evolution of you becoming an artist?

Mahtab: I was a student at the university in Tehran; my major was graphic design.  At the end of my freshman year, the government closed all higher education institutions and a few months later the Iran/Iraq war broke out. Finally after three years the Universities were re-opened but most instructors and students were expelled based on their political and ideological convictions.

I moved to Europe and I attended art schools in Holland and Germany.  Because of issues related to my visa status I was not able to stay in Europe.  In 1987 I immigrated to the U.S where I was granted a residence permit.  I studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and completed my BFA in 1991.  Later I moved to New York and received my MFA at Brooklyn College.

Leaving was not as hard as coming here and getting a residence permit or visa in Western countries. That’s the hard part. When they said, OK, you can leave, it was hard to get a visa anywhere, being Iranian. But I came here as a refugee, I had refugee status, that’s how I was able to come to the United States.


NNNY: What successes and difficulties have you had as a foreign-born artist in New York?

Mahtab: Americans are very generous; a lot of people from non-Western countries like to come to America instead Europe, because Europe can be a little closed to foreigners. But here, people are more open minded, especially in New York and big cities. I find Americans very generous.


NNNY: How has moving to the United States influenced your art?

Mahtab: Oh yes. In Iran, we had no access to the art going on outside, what was going on in galleries and museums. There were no magazines, no art books; we lived in a cultural vacuum. And it was before the internet, so it was impossible. Right now, I think it’s better because of the internet, but then, it was impossible. I had a professor who shared his books, and that’s how I got something, but I don’t know if you can develop as a visual artist in that environment. You can be a writer or a filmmaker; there are great films coming from Iran, but I haven’t seen many great visual artists. It would be very hard to make artwork in that environment.



© 2010 Non-Native New York

Selected Artists