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INJURED SPIRITS

By May 14, 2021No Comments

The work of Iranian artist Samaneh Atef reflects the plight of persecuted women in a hostile political situation

COLIN RHODES

RAWVISION Magazine #105

above: Untitled, n.d., pen on paper, 8 x12 in. / 20 x 30 cm opposite: Women in Prison #3, n.d, charcoal on paper, 12 x 16.5 in. / 30 x 42 cm

The image of a strong female figure is at the core of Samaneh Atef’s work. An intense, emotionally charged being, this eternal image of femaleness seems to be coextensive with the world. Atef’s woman adopts different guises: fighter to victim, child to mother,

human to daemon. At times, she is the sole, iconic human presence, at others she appears in manifold. Never can she be viewed passively; looking at an Atef creation is always an encounter.

Born in 1989, in the city of Bandar Abbas on the

“The eyes they wear have been taken from the innocent women who died in prison… “

opposite: Untitled, 2019, pen and wash on paper, 12 x 16.5 in. / 30 x 42 cm

southern coast of Iran, Atef now lives in Astaneh-ye Ashrafiyeh in the north near the Caspian Sea. As a girl, she moved around a lot with her family and naval officer father; however, she and her three siblings had a stable upbringing that was safe and loving, and constantly relocating meant that the young Atef was exposed to a wide variety of cultures and ethnicities.

She knew from an early age that she wanted to pursue art, and throughout her childhood she drew and made things. However, she always hid or destroyed her creations as she felt that artistic activity would mark her out as different, something she sensed should be avoided. Nevertheless, when the time came, Atef voiced a desire to train as a graphic artist. Her father forbade it, and instead Atef began studying for a computing degree at the Azad University of Lahijan. As a sideline, to make money, she began tutoring others in computing. Gradually, she became financially independent so that, when she was ready, she could pursue her artistic ambitions without relying on her family or needing their permission.

While she was at university, a close friend committed suicide. Atef was greatly traumatised by the loss; the feelings of loneliness and isolation, to which she was prone, were magnified. For a time, she retreated into a dreamlike existence, using sleeping pills as a way to escape and find solace. However, she also began to lose herself in art. “My love was for my paintings,” she says, “In them, I could describe my injured spirit, define the loss in my life, and never see anyone.”

Aside from its cathartic, healing effects, the pull of artmaking was too strong for Atef, and when she was in her mid-twenties she gave in to it. It was also around this time that she befriended a man, who she later discovered was a graphic designer, the very thing that she had wanted to be. When she plucked up the courage to show him her drawings, he told her that formal art training would only stymie the freeness and spontaneity that flowed from her. He saw a unique quality in her work that could only come from unmediated expression.

The themes of restriction, captivity and yearning – both for physical emancipation and emotional

transformation – appear frequently in Atef’s work. Her “Women in Prison” series depicts, “Women who have been in prison for many years now, denied equality in society and regarded as only half-man,” she says. The bars in Women in Prison #3 suggest literal incarceration, while the slip the woman wears grows through her body and into the ground anchoring her symbolically in cultural binds. “The woman was thrown into a black hole,” Atef says, “and forced to wear a veil. They did not know that she would become a tree that would destroy the black hole with its branches.” In the corner the artist has included lines of Persian poetry about the suppression of women.

A sense of melancholy is even more pervasive in Women in Prison #1, in which three “goddesses” – who seem to be made from eyes and prison bars – watch over a hunched woman entrapped by her own fertility, symbolised by a flowering plant that issues from her vulva and looks at first glance like menstrual blood. Atef describes the trio as “the female prison guards who have arrested the woman. They are blind. The eyes they wear have been taken from the innocent women who died in prison after the guards beat them”.

Eyes are an important recurring device in Atef’s work. Almond-shaped, with dense, black irises, they seem to simultaneously stare out at the viewer and in to the soul of the subject. Sometimes they are cyclopean and rotated, the only feature in round faces, functioning iconically as vulvae as well as organs of sight. In other instances, a face features multiple eyes, stacked up like mystic, visionary entities or complex genetic strands, as in Women in Prison #1 and in Untitled (page 72). The woman in the latter exudes sadness, relayed by the tumbling pile of seven eyes, the tilt of her head, and a hand tugging at a red and black vulvic shape that viewers read first as a broken heart. As the artist writes, “It was me whose hair had bloomed and I wanted to gift my eyes to spring. I [symbolically] killed myself”. Eyes also symbolise the organicist universe in which Atef’s art is set – they are the leaves on the trees in Untitled, while in other works they are at the tips of roots that penetrate the earth.

Danger and threat loom over much of Atef’s work.

above: Drawing on a Map, n.d., ink on printed map, 39 x 27.5 in. / 100 x 70 cm below: Untitled, 2016, pen on paper, 27.5 x 39 in. / 70 x 100 cm

A pregnant, smoking woman faces a shower of vicious arrows and a mass of accusing faces, while two figures look on impassively. It is a kind of symbolic self-portrait. Atef says, “Smoking on the lips is a sign of always being ready to fight and get pregnant with pain. The figure was me between millions of bad people”.

In the end, though, it is the fortitude and strength of Atef’s female characters that win through. In Untitled (2019) (page 74) women are dismembered, and their bodies – transformed into organic suits with breasts and wombs – hang from trees. Meanwhile, their heads, the source of thought and self-determination, float disembodied through the shallow picture space. Atef says, “Women in society have their heads cut off to destroy them. But they [the perpetrators] didn’t know that they will sprout again.” In Drawing on a Map the schematised rendering of the world on the printed map is overlaid and semi-obscured by two goddesses arranged back to back. The artist identifies the right-hand figure as a “Middle Eastern woman, with eastern eyes: turbulent, wretched, tired, beautiful”. The two women are joined together indissolubly by flowing hair that emanates from their skulls. Their custodianship of the Earth is sealed by the two great trees that emanate from each of their right eyes. Everything here is in swirling flux and growth in an image of protection, fecundity and eternal becoming.

Colin Rhodes is an artist, writer and curator. He is author of Outsider Art: Spontaneous Alternatives and a contributing editor to Raw Vision.

A pregnant, smoking woman faces a shower of vicious arrows and a mass of accusing faces, while two figures look on impassively. It is a kind of symbolic self-portrait. Atef says, “Smoking on the lips is a sign of always being ready to fight and get pregnant with pain. The figure was me between millions of bad people”.

In the end, though, it is the fortitude and strength of Atef’s female characters that win through. In Untitled (2019) (page 74) women are dismembered, and their bodies – transformed into organic suits with breasts and wombs – hang from trees. Meanwhile, their heads, the source of thought and self-determination, float disembodied through the shallow picture space. Atef says, “Women in society have their heads cut off to destroy them. But they [the perpetrators] didn’t know that they will sprout again.” In Drawing on a Map the schematised rendering of the world on the printed map is overlaid and semi-obscured by two goddesses arranged back to back. The artist identifies the right-hand figure as a “Middle Eastern woman, with eastern eyes: turbulent, wretched, tired, beautiful”. The two women are joined together indissolubly by flowing hair that emanates from their skulls. Their custodianship of the Earth is sealed by the two great trees that emanate from each of their right eyes. Everything here is in swirling flux and growth in an image of protection, fecundity and eternal becoming.

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