You can meet fascinating people at the most random and inconspicuous moments in life. It was a moment like this when I met Aphrodite Désirée Navab, an artist of Greek and Iranian descent, living and practicing in New York. Navab’s work dwells on the issues of immigration, humanity, and the elements that connect all people – themes that are consistent throughout her practice. The body is prevalent in her works, whether conceptually or physically, as she works between the borders of abstract pictorial work and performance.
About a year ago, we sat a couple seats apart for the screening of two politically charged short documentaries, during the NYC Greek Film Festival. Aphrodite Navab caught my attention through a comment she made on the documentaries where she shared her own experience with immigration, defining one’s own identity, and finding solidarity through local communities. That was it. Aside from my own dwelling in art and curation, having experienced immigration, and being a child of immigrants as well, rendered meeting the artist vital in a way. She seemed to think in a wonderful, empowering and warm way about such charged issues prevalent today. She argued for the vital right to dignity – the main theme of both documentaries by the way. We ended up connecting through the magic of social media, and I have never missed an exhibition of hers since then.
To cut a long story short, on October 2018, Aphrodite was invited to exhibit works from two series she has been working on Mother’s Milk (2018-present) and Speaks Greek Farsi (2009-present) at Coco-mat in SoHo, NY. Both ongoing series are true to Navab’s intimate references to the body and to language. She invites a continuous dialogue on the ideas of humanism, cultural heritage, and the beauty of our perceived differences that, in the end, could be our very bonding factors.
In these two series of works, Navab uses language as both a symbol of cultural heritage, as much as a pictorial element.
Mother’s Milk is a series of ink-on-paper works. Navab’s mother is the inspiration for this series. After her marriage, the artist’s mother had to swiftly learn Farsi to communicate with her husband’s family, while mothering four children. The artist notes:
“I imagined Farsi letters entering her breast milk, feeding us what she was learning to survive and succeed.”
The artist’s starting point for these works is abstracted letters in Farsi (the Persian name for the Iranian/Persian language). Navab abstracts the forms of Farsi-like letters until they evoke the forms of the female breast and breast milk. Her goal here is not to fetishize the breast. On the contrary, she calls the viewer to consider their linguistic inheritance and all it stands for by referencing how a child inherits from a mother through the intimacy of breastfeeding. The artist emphasizes the notion of sacrifice and calls for consideration of the immense gift that is the bond created through the act of breastfeeding. In fact, through her reference to breastfeeding – a process well understood and thoroughly universal – to evoke the idea of cultural and idealistic inheritance, Navab manages to make Mother’s Milk a body of work that can appeal to any and all viewers at once.
On the other side of the room, works from her series Speaks Greek Farsi occupy the centers of columns. This is a series that spans a number of years. It was first exhibited at ICC in Athens, Greece, followed by an exhibition at Soho20 Gallery in New York City. This series challenges traditional understandings of what an artwork’s medium is. Speaks Greek Farsi is firstly a performance in which Navab’s body becomes the canvas on which words in Greek and Farsi are written in what was once her childhood handwriting. The artist references words that carry a deep meaning for anyone who has ever had to emigrate or relocate: family, place, love, language, friend, birth, land, home, person, history, life, memory, body, self and world. As one language is drawn from left to right, and the other from right to left, the two meet in the middle of her abdomen. Each representing a side of her own tri-lingual heritage, Navab evokes again the meeting of the “different” in the middle, on the very part of the body that is so deeply associated with birth. The artist, here, performs language.
The physical works created from this performance, comprising the Speaks Greek Farsi series are photographs. The visual result, flat surface as it is, transforms the artist’s skin to the paper-like surface on which the words are drawn. Her choice of Greek and Farsi however, aside from representing two sides of her heritage, also play on a popular Greek saying existing since antiquity. In Greece, when you speak a language fluently, it is said that you speak it “like the Farsi language.” In spite of their perpetual state of enmity with the Persians, the ancient Greeks considered Farsi a beautiful, musical and challenging language. To learn it well was an accomplishment worthy of praise. This, for Navab, reveals the possibility of moments and signs of respect between two antagonistic nations. Against the backdrop of political tensions between Iran and the United States today, Navab’s work stands as an alternative interaction between different cultures that do not take the form of domination or demonization. Her work serves to challenge our understanding of “difference,” be it within our own inherited identities, or in our perceived differences with other cultures.
The exhibition opening at Coco-mat offered the additional treat of hearing the artist speak about her work in a talk moderated by Navab’s fellow artist Negin Sharifzadeh. While walking the viewers through her exhibited works and overall practice, Navab connected Mother’s Milk and Speaks Greek Farsi with her earlier series Super East-West Woman (2002-present). The works of Super East-West Woman are also the result of the photographic documentation of a performance, aimed to challenge notions of belonging through the challenges posed by perceived [cultural] differences. As a young girl, Navab fled Iran in 1978-79 when the Islamic revolution began, with her parents and siblings. As a result, they were forever separated from her beloved grandparents. Navab’s young mind empathized with Superman’s own story of separation from loved ones and homeland, and she associated his cape with her grandmother’s hijab. When, in 2002, former President George W. Bush characterized Iran as one of the countries comprising an “axis of evil,” Navab recalled Iran’s new leaders labeling America as the country of the “Great Satan.” The artist found herself torn between the mutual antagonism and demonization of both places she inhabited and identified with.
For one branch of the work, Navab dresses in a combination of Eastern and Greek symbols and performs in an American Midwestern setting where her bright blue hijab-cape comes into stark contrast with her surroundings. Respectively she dresses in symbols and clothing evoking a vocabulary that is generally understood to communicate the concept of “Western woman” and performed in Isfahan, her native city in Iran. Her chador, turned into a cape, pokes fun at her cultures and the precarious and ludicrous state of being that her life between East and West has placed her. The artist maps reactions and feelings while considering womanhood and immigration on two ends of what is often presented as a pole. Through documenting the performances, Navab created a series of gripping photographs that now make up Super East-West Woman.** The result? Incredible, thought-provoking, deeply sensitive.
As an immigrant herself, and a child of people who became immigrants, whether immigrants of love or of political turbulence, the concept never escapes her. What is belonging, and what brings it about internally and externally are questions she implements in her work. Navab notes that while, as humans, we are not so different at our bare cores, it appears to be a deeply human thing to seek differences, and this is exactly what her work confronts us with.
In times like these, Navab’s work can stir some extra thought and emotion, or even discomfort, and so much the better. We are in dire need of artwork that makes us think, makes us uncomfortable and exposes us to our social and cultural habits so ingrained we forget they are not universal. How else can we become better in an age where bettering one’s self, has become a wellness trend?
**Works from Super East-West Woman will be on view at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in the upcoming group show Men of Steel, Women of Wonder, February 9 – April 22, 2019.
*The exhibition at Coco-mat will be up until January 12, 2019