Maryam Najd

Crown Gallery

Maryam Najd was born in Tehran in 1965 and left Iran at the age of twenty-six to study and live in Antwerp. Just old enough to remember the Islamic Revolution, she grew up in a country beset by tumultuous events, where artistic expression was severely limited. The isolation in which Najd was forced to work had at least one advantage: She could work on her style undisturbed. Her recent show was called “GET GIRL, KILL BADDIES, SAVE PLANET,” and those words appeared in the first painting viewers encountered upon entering the gallery. Superimposed on a portrait of a naive- but harmless-looking young man, the text in Self-portrait, 2006–2007, might be quoting or paraphrasing one of the subject’s comic-book superheroes, but there is also a disturbing association with the fantasies of suicide bombers. Then again, one person’s hero is another’s terrorist, just as a military engagement can be called “liberation” or “occupation,” depending on your point of view.

Like all the paintings in the show, this one is based on an existing image, in this case one taken from the Internet; but rather than simply appropriating photos and transcribing them on canvas, Najd destroys these figurative, narrative images in the act of painting them—or, to describe it more accurately, she veils them with layers of paint. What you think you see is an illusion, a lie: The power of the paintings is generated by the paint itself. In this respect, Najd always conceals what she wants to say, often to the point that you don’t know what you are seeing. It’s not surprising, then, that Najd, in addition to her figurative work, makes abstract paintings that contain, she says, her most personal expressions and reflections on the world. This is of course not a unique approach, but in Najd’s case there is no clear boundary between the abstract and the figurative: What seems to be a figurative image is nothing but a reflection of the viewer, and a painting like Enola Gay, 2007, only becomes figurative when one reads the title.

Other works in the show were also called Self-portrait: a glamorous image of Farah Pahlavi (Farah Diba), widow of Iran’s last Shah; a portrait of Osama bin Laden. They were hung side by side, and the exhibition imposed no hierarchy between them. The world’s most wanted terrorist, whom we usually see in badly lit images from amateurish video messages, is depicted as in a ceremonial portrait.

So, what is Najd trying to say? By naming two extremely different icons from our recent history Self-portrait, the artist plays with how we interpret images when we are instructed to look at them in a certain way. At the same time, the paintings comment on how Middle Eastern stereotypes are based on a few notorious icons. The subtitle of both works could obviously be “Ceci n’est pas un autoportrait.” The artist is not projecting herself onto these two characters but rather playing with definitions and meanings from history, including art history.

Jos Van den Bergh