Introducing Artist Maryam Gohar
Maryam Gohar makes artwork under an assumed identity, in order to avoid the hassle she would endure from Muslims who might see her artwork as a violation of the Quran.
Gohar is having none of it, and rather than letting the Quran tell women what to do, she’s pulled back the cloak of secrecy and shown us an imaginative world of nude women interacting cross-culturally with world history. Her work consists of carefully designed graphical mash-ups of overlaid images, painted in acrylic, of nude women in poses spanning erotic bliss, contemplation, distress, and motherhood. One strength of the work is that there’s not just one thing going on. The multiple layers in the art are in dialogue, and the viewer works to understand how one layer might inform another layer and tilt the meaning askew or in a new direction.
The work owes a lot to historical imagery, pulling from old Middle-Eastern illustrations but even more strongly from Japanese ukiyo and shunga, the eroticized woodcut art popular in Japan for centuries. In DEAD FISH, Gohar’s woman is entangled in an embrace with an octopus, and here she evokes Hokusai’s woodcut “The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife” (1814.) Quite a few contemporary artists have borrowed from the graphic power of shunga, most notably contemporary Japanese master Masami Teraoka whose work is in 50 museum collections. Teraoka was notable for using the historical form to comment on the concerns of the present moment (AIDS, 9/11, etc.). Gohar is not following Teraoka in any way specifically, but you can see how she is using some of the same tools to attack a different political issue, essential to Muslim women, which is the repressions the female body endures. Her work asks us quite fairly, if this is the world we are in, what are women permitted? Gohar’s answer is: “all this and maybe a lot more.”
My new body of works, though equivocally figurative and of sensual nature, are split into two different groups: the first group consists of those paintings with Shunga backdrops and the second group the ones with Shahnameh backgrounds. To explain my intentions behind each set:
For the first series of works, the reason why I used Shunga to act as their backbone is the raw, uncensored and provocative depiction of pure erotica. I found their bold nature extremely refreshing in oppose to the life I am living as a female artist in my country. I still am working in small sizes though no longer restrained to the confines of my sketchbooks. By letting the Shunga lines peeking through the frontal figure, I deliberately am trying to smear in some of that “fleshy” erotism and at the same time muffling down its male-dominated narrative by doubling, or in cases tripling, the sensual presence of my female figures in their most vulnerable state. The lines can also be seen as tattoo designs since I have always appreciated the art, the peaceful coexistence of destruction and resurrection on a living canvas.
Finishing each figure atop is like letting out a lungful exhalation emotionally encouraging me further to break those unseen walls built by the surrounding world. This led to the second half of my works which are more “ethical” to a degree.
Growing up in a Persian household, there are a handful of books that can be found in every bookcase; Divan Hafez, Sa’adi’s Golestan and Boostan, Masnavi Mowlavi and last but not least, Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh. We had one of the latter that once belonged to my grandfather and was actually a housewarming gift to my parents. It was a beautiful thing with its magnificent illustrations. Since the illustrations were too graphic and violent, my parents had it hidden in some closet as to keep it out of sight which had made it ever more desirable an object! I and my sister would sneak it out of its hiding hole and spend hours on end feverishly drinking in its pictures. Just like Shunga paintings, there was something extremely visceral in those severed heads, bulging eyes, hung out tongues, blood…. As horrifying as the experience was, we would always go back to repeat it.
For this new set, I was playing with the idea of injecting some sensuality into those raw battle scenes by adding the female figure on top and still letting some of the lines of the background to show through, the same way I used with Shunga-coupled pieces.