Nasim Nasr

Iranian-born and now Sydney-based, Nasim Nasr’s distinctive style and poignant works are an attempt to make sense of the tension between the push and pull of her past and present, and emerge from the need to ensure that those without a voice are heard.

The word “freedom” is at the centre of humanity – to be human is to be free, to relate to others, spaces, and places without restrictions or persecution. Iranian-born and Sydney-based artist Nasim Nasr explores the concept of freedom through her multidisciplinary practice. As a young child growing up in Iran, her artistic talent was noticed by a primary school teacher and then supported by her father, which led to Nasr’s enrolment at the University of Tehran.

However, after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the freedoms available to women were greatly reduced, and things like paintings or drawings of women and nudes were not permitted. With the support of her father, Nasr was encouraged to undermine these rules and to instead create more work that celebrated these prohibited images. It eventually became untenable to keep working in secret for fear of being found out and severely reprimanded; moreover, Nasr was unable to show any of these works publicly. On her father’s advice in 2009, Nasr moved to Australia, a country with seemingly greater freedoms, to study a Master of Visual Arts at the University of South Australia in Adelaide.

Since her move in 2009, Nasr has quickly established herself as a well-respected artist with exhibitions nationally and internationally, appearing in private and public collections such as the Art Gallery of New South Wales and Artbank. In 2017, she won the people’s choice award in the William and Winifred Bowness Photography Art Prize with her work Forty Pages no.5, from the series Forty Pages 1-5, 2016, which depicts the artist with one hand over her eye, covered in passport stamps. She has also appeared in the inaugural Asia Society Triennial: We Do Not Dream Alone, at the Asia Society Museum in New York, 2020–21.

Along with Nasr’s geographical move came a shift in media, as Nasr left behind a practice that focussed more on painting and drawing and began to experiment with photography, video, installation, and sculpture. She reflects that this “was almost like a revolution inside of me,” in that she had freedom to explore a new way of making and thinking, and the stories and narratives that she felt compelled to articulate could be realised.

In particular, Nasr’s own cultural heritage and the complicated connections to homelands are present throughout her work. She remarked, “It is a push-pull living experience between past and present, and the more I try to avoid this, it always haunts me, it comes back and into my artwork.” This haunting quality is in the shrouded, half-hidden, and half-revealed subjects in her still and moving imagery.

The way that the figures are often not fully revealed acts as a metaphor for both the hijab restrictions in Iran and for the patriarchal society that dominates the world. This is what makes Nasr’s work special: even though at the heart of her work are reflections on her cultural heritage, there is also a sense of universality. Her work unpacks the hold of patriarchy on all women’s freedom, showing that perhaps even in the new country she now calls home, everything is not as “free” as it may seem.

In the ten-channel video installation What to do?, 2012, only the hands of various anonymous men are shown; in the clips, they are holding prayer beads, or tasbih, and are shot against a black background. Made of either thirty-three or ninety-nine beads to represent the names of Allah, these objects are used for reciting prayers, but have also become symbols of thinking or processing – becoming, as we may refer to them in the Western world, “worry” beads. At first watch, there is something mediative about the work as the men’s hands twirl, twist, and play with the beads and tassels. However, as the work loops, something darker begins to reveal itself. There is a constant struggle between those who are in power and those who are not; in Iran it is men and religion, and as we watch these hands twirl and twist it becomes almost menacing. They literally hold in their hands the power to control, to restrict, and to take away freedoms.

The video piece 33 Beads, 2018, on the other hand, is hopeful. In the work, a shrouded figure is in the centre, her face and features covered by a blanket of hair. She holds various coloured tasbih which she clutches tightly, almost painfully so, and at a certain point more female hands join the image, and pull and tug at the beads until eventually they break and the beads come loose. In this piece, women take their freedoms back. Instead of holding on they are letting go, becoming the masters of their own destinies.

Nasr will present at Photo London in May, and has her first solo show with MARS Gallery in Melbourne, titled Impulse, in late March this year. Alongside new photographs, she will also present glass objects which are interpretations of ashkdan, or Persian “tear-pots,” which were originally made by the women of the Qajar dynasty in Iran. They are known as “containers for tears,” and are elegant shapes that take on an appearance of a swan’s neck. As their name suggests, they were created to collect the sorrow of women who were separated from their husbands due to war. The vessels are a tribute to Iranian history and culture, and to the power of women.

Although Nasr initially did not consider herself a political activist after the 1979 Revolution, it is inherent in the work she makes, which speaks on the perils of the patriarchy and the importance of a freedom of voice for women. However, with the movement that started in Iran late last year, Nasr realised that her position as an Iranian woman artist in Australia is, in fact, a political act – and that, through her artwork, she can provide a voice for those who do not have one.

Images courtesy the artist, MARS Gallery, Melbourne, Monash Gallery of Art, Melbourne, and National Art School, Sydney
This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 62. 

Nasim Nasr: Impulse (Short film)
9 – 12 November 2023
ASVOFF15 (A Shaded View On Fashion Film), Paris 

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