Though some readers of The Rumpus may not have heard of Nicky Nodjoumi, in his native Iran he has achieved the status of a rock star. In a recent national survey, he was voted the fifth most influential artist in the last eighty years. Since I first got to know him almost twenty years ago, he has increasingly gained considerable recognition in the Western art world as well. As an Iranian-American poet attempting to politically and figuratively engage the Persian tradition, I’ve long considered him an artistic mentor. His agreeing to paint the cover of my latest collection, Haji as Puppet: an Orientalist Burlesque (in which he makes an intransigent cameo appearance), means more to me than any book prize I could ever win.
Nodjoumi was born in Kermanshah, Iran in 1942. Earning a bachelor’s degree in art from Tehran University of Fine Arts before relocating to the United States in the late 1960s, he received his MFA from The City College of New York in 1974. Returning to Tehran to join the faculty of his alma mater, he participated with his politically galvanized students in their criticism of the Shah’s regime, designing political posters inspired by the revolutionary spirit sweeping the country, only to be exiled once more in the aftermath of the revolution.
This political engagement has continued to the present day. His nuanced figurative paintings engage in political discourse with a light, satirical touch, layering his personal heritage and lived experiences in Iran and the United States into scenes that resonate beyond specific historical contexts or geographical boundaries. Nodjoumi’s works are conceived of as theatrical stages, where compositions of figures both serious and ridiculous, in the words of Phong Bui, “house meanings without irony, narratives without stories, humor without morality, above all creating a space that heightens the awareness of old and new history.” Serious in subject matter and witty in execution, these rich and diverse characters enliven Nodjoumi’s narratives and allude to collective experiences underpinned by socio-political struggles, articulating the full spectrum of feelings from aggression to victimhood.
Nicky Nodjoumi’s works are in several prominent institutional collections worldwide, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the British Museum in London, Guggenheim Museum in Abu Dhabi, the DePaul Art Museum in Chicago, and the National Museum of Cuba. In 2014, Nicky had a solo exhibition at the Cleveland Institute of Art titled The Accident. The artist lives and works in Brooklyn.
Nicky and I spoke by phone, following our much more informal (and unrecorded) interview last year at a coffee shop in SoHo, where we met so he could give me the painting he made for my book cover.
The Rumpus: Let’s begin with what’s connected us artistically: the sensational painting you made for the cover of my new book. Haji has remained a rather folkloric character in Persian literature, emerging from a 19th century Orientalist picaresque novel by a British author. It was then re-appropriated by a Persian translator, who brought it into Iran. I developed my own literary depictions of Haji, but I was blown away by how you seemed to capture it as an image. How did you invent him for this painting?
Nicky Nodjoumi: You know, I was very familiar with the image of Haji in Iran. It was already in my mind. But that wasn’t enough for me. I needed to find an idea for his representation in the 19th century. So I went through different magazines from that time. He was often associated with a mullah, but I didn’t want to focus on that. So I combined images that I found that belong to the Iranian type of “Haji.” The more I studied the images the more I made changes to my illustrations until I came to the final outcome.
Rumpus: So this is transitioning more to what you do in general in your work, but it’s related. I don’t know if I told you, but my editor for the image you made was concerned about the display of sexuality related to Iran. She worried about what kind of message the scantily dressed American and Persian women on the cover might be sending. Since your work can be so politically volatile, do you worry about how it’s received? How do you handle that, when you’re painting something and then you think, this could upset the viewer?
Nodjoumi: You know, I don’t care.
Rumpus: I love that. It’s liberating.
Nodjoumi: I mean, if I start thinking about that, then I won’t be able to do anything. It’s a matter of thinking, okay, this is the right way to go. It’s the curators or the owner of the galleries, they are the ones who will tell me, “No no. That’s no good.” Otherwise, I just paint.
Rumpus: I think that’s helpful for me and other writers to hear, too, since we can overthink and end up playing it too safe during the creative process, instead of just letting go in our work.
Speaking of your specific creative process, are there general strategies in your approach? I’m thinking of what you do so well with satire, for which you’ve become so well-known. You politically render images in your paintings to great effect. How do you go about making something satirical? What gives you the ideas?
Nodjoumi: You know, it’s become part of my working vocabulary, so it comes natural to me. If I’m working on a painting and I want to make a certain statement, I find a way to do it by manipulating the image. It’s often a small gesture. For example, maybe the way someone is standing. I can just make a modest adjustment. But it’s not like I have all of this in mind. As I’m painting it just comes to me that the image should go this or that way, so I can make fun of it.
Rumpus: So it sounds like you’ve developed an aesthetic over time that just informs your approach to painting.
Nodjoumi: I’m constantly preoccupied with making images, so yes, it just comes to me a certain way. I see an image when I’m getting started, and I just go after it.
Rumpus: I love how you put that. Your approach is inspiring to me as a writer, which is why I wanted to interview you for this forum. I talk with a lot of writers and my MFA students about their discipline in terms of when and how much they show up to the page to write. One of the things that most struck me during our talk last year was your artistic routine. I went home so humbled by it. Can you share a usual day of your painting life?
Nodjoumi: Every day, it doesn’t matter what day it is, seven days a week, I get up like 6 or 6:30 a.m., I go to gym and work out a little bit, then I take a shower, get a coffee, sit down for an hour to read the newspaper and take a look at the Internet. Most of the time by 11 a.m. I start working. I have plans for either a work in progress or a plan to start a new one that I have to study for. So I start at 1 a.m. and go until 6 p.m. In between, I have a thirty-minute lunch. At 6 p.m. I have dinner and watch the news, have a tea. Then, at 7 p.m., I start working.
Nodjoumi: Again, yes. Until 10 or 11 p.m.
Rumpus: Wow, that’s really impressive discipline.
Nodjoumi: Sometimes I do go out to galleries and museums. I don’t go to the gym on Saturdays and Sundays. Instead, I’ll go look at paintings.
Rumpus: You are so structured. I think that’s one of the reasons you are so successful.
Nodjoumi: I don’t know about that. But we have to be disciplined or we won’t go anywhere. We have to work for it. And I need the routine in the morning with breakfast and the gym, so I can, you know, get ready to go to battle.
Rumpus: “Go to battle.” I love it. Now, moving from the present day back over the course of your career, what would you say helped you develop early on as a painter? A big turning point?
Nodjoumi: I think I knew I was going to be a painter when I was six, and that I’d end up painting until I am dead. In school the teacher asked us to do some drawing, and I did a rooster. The rooster looked so good, everyone was shocked, and the teacher showed it to everybody. At that time I knew I was an artist. Then by twelve I was so into painting that I asked my father to find me a teacher, which he finally did. The teacher wasn’t that good, though, so I had to let him go. Then at fifteen years old I started copying Russian paintings by myself. So I knew I had a passion for it. By eighteen I went to the University of Tehran to study art.
Rumpus: You must have been a good student, since they eventually asked you back as a faculty member.
Nodjoumi: No, I was a really bad student in all of my other subjects. Really bad. But I painted well, so my teachers gave me good grades anyway.
Rumpus: Thank God for art! Just like you had these turning points in your development, is there a big break or two in terms of your discovery, when people started to really know your work? Of course it’s always been a struggle, since it’s art, but can you locate a moment when you could more easily show and sell your paintings?
Nodjoumi: For me my break came really late. I always had problems selling my paintings. The galleries wouldn’t take my paintings. I always had to do other work, like textile jobs, to make money. Then around 1995 I had a show in Brooklyn, and someone from a famous gallery in Manhattan saw my paintings and took me on. That was the big start. Then maybe the best one was a couple of years ago, the Taymour Grahne Gallery.
Rumpus: So maybe circling back to inspiration, both then and now, authors often talk about writers’ block, where they just don’t feel the creativity coming. Have you experienced significant painter’s block, where you feel stuck?
Nodjoumi: All the time.
Rumpus: How do you deal with that?
Nodjoumi: You know, I really just go to the museums and galleries.
Rumpus: So for you it’s about seeking inspiration through the work of other painters?
Nodjoumi: Yes. Looking at how they approach their subjects. Something through that process of investigation gets me going.
Rumpus: Okay, last question. What are you working on now?
Nodjoumi: I’m working on a double panel, large painting. There are five people in it, and I don’t know what they’re doing. There’s something strange going on with them. The color looks good. The composition looks good. It’s not finished yet. I’m very anxious to finish it and find out what the people are doing.
Rumpus: You talk like a fiction writer who doesn’t completely know what his or characters are going to do until the story gets written.
Nodjoumi: Maybe. I focus on some things, but I have to let it come together through the process of creating it. Only then do I know what it was supposed to be.