There are many preconceptions in the West as to what it’s like growing up in Iran amidst the turmoil of the 1970s and 1980s. Artist Nazanin Moghbeli (b. 1974) knows she does not account for everyone’s experience, yet she recalls a childhood freer than Americans might think, featuring large family gatherings and happily playing in the streets with her cousins. Upheaval came in the form of her family’s move to the United States in 1984.Arriving just in time for fourth grade, Moghbeli was rightfully more preoccupied with the idea of making friends and adapting to a new culture than thinking about why there was a shift in veiling. It was not until talking with her parents that Moghbeli fully comprehended the depth of what was happening in Iran.
Without these conversations with her parents, Moghbeli might have forgotten what Iran was like after years of moving away. Schools in the United States did not cover the Iranian Revolution, much less the United States’ hand in the Iranian coup from 1953, so it was up to Moghbeli’s parents to inform her and her sisters about the current history of their country. Besides the family conversations, Moghbeli was encouraged to connect with her culture through music and art. Moghbeli grew up learning to play piano and has taken voice and santour — a Persian percussion string instrument— classes.
Having grown up with an artist and a doctor for parents, helped Moghbeli realize that these fields did not need to be separated. Moghbeli went on to study medicine, and is now a practicing Cardiologist, as well as an artist. She spends two weeks focusing on her art and two weeks focusing on her medical practice. She acknowledges that this convergence is hard, especially at first. Yet art gives her an outlet from the stress that accumulates from being a doctor, as well as a mother.
When talking about her current exhibition, Unquiet Fury: The Women’s Uprising in Iran, Nazanin Moghbeli can’t help but talk about her children. She sees the same duty in herself that her parents had, to talk about the history of their country. Creating an exhibition seemed like a way to create a tangible archive beyond oral history that would allow Iranian-Americans, such as her children, to learn about their history. After all, if it wasn’t for her children, this exhibition might have never taken place.
The death of Jina Amini (also known as Mahsa Amini) at the hands of Iranian police was the inciting event for the protests that started in September 2022. These protests, which protested against the compulsory hijab law and the state violence, left Moghbeli feeling at a loss. The desire to do something clashed with her hesitations: How could she as an Iranian woman physically detached from the protests do something worthy? Would making art be enough to express solidarity with the Iranian people as well as make any impact? It was her fifteen-year-old son who finally motivated her to continue. He reminded her how it is the artist’s duty to bring light to these issues. Moghbeli is aware of the limitations of her art. She’s aware this is not the same as protesting, yet, as her son so proudly stated, she hopes it brings awareness to the current injustices as well as provide context for them.
And it is clear, when looking at the exhibition, that Moghbeli feels heartbroken about what is happening in Iran. In Unquiet Fury, Moghbeli features twenty-six artworks, all in black and white, that try to contend with both the positive and negative parts of Iranian culture. The artworks featured in the first two walls of the gallery contrast calligraphy of the song Morghe Sahar (Bird of Dawn), a song used since 1921 in Iran representing freedom, alongside cuttings from CIA documents on the Iranian Coup d’Etat of 1953.
Covering and interrupting, Moghbeli’s calligraphy work of Morghe Sahar allows it to take up most of the space in the canvases, overpowering the CIA clips found in works such as Operation Ajax. The freedom of the Farsi calligraphy, accompanied by the lyrics of Morghe Sahar highlight the hope of the Iranian people, as well as Moghbeli’s own desires of a free Iran. But this hope is interrupted by the black rectangles found in works such as Operation Ajax 2 that reflect on the secretive nature of the United States’ CIA hand in the coup of 1953, as well as the censorship of the citizens by the current Iranian government.
Moghbeli’s series, Strand, featured on the third wall of the gallery, were made with silk strands, representing the acts of defiance done by women of Iran and the world of cutting their hair and removing their hijabs in protest. The artworks are tumultuous, the black ink creating a striking contrast with the white. The ink is not constrained by any boundaries, it’s just free flowing, like hair. These works are not clean cut: audiences looking at them might see a sense of empowerment and strength, or alternatively feel a sense of loss and violence. In contrast with her other works, they show history in the process of being made, and an uncertainty as to how matters will resolve.
It’s hard to wrap one’s head around that Amini was only twenty-two, and has now become the face of the new wave of protests in Iran. The bravery of youth doesn’t stop there, as many of the key players in the protests around the world have been young people, especially children and women, seeking a more egalitarian government in Iran. And, after all, it was Moghbeli’s own son who inspired her to do her art. As Morghe Sahar says, “It’s a new spring, roses are in bloom.” and change could be in the horizon. Nazanin Moghbeli, like many others, hasn’t been back to Iran in a long time due to the oppressive nature of the government. Yet, when looking at her children, and at others in younger generations, their fury and strength provides hope of one day returning.