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ArteEast Exclusive Interview: Shabnam Yousefian

Posted: Dec 10, 2017

Shabnam Yousefian was born in Tehran, Iran in 1982. She started drawing and painting at age seven and pursued oil painting professionally at age sixteen under the supervision of a prominent instructor.

After graduating high school, Shabnam capitulated to social expectations and attended Azad University in Tehran to study Microbiology. However, she continued painting and attending art classes while in university. Her persistence and hard work helped her to excel in this area so much that in 2001 she became an instructor in that art institute.

At age twenty-two Shabnam opened her own art gallery in 2004 in Tehran. Her art works included painting and sculpture. Besides managing her art gallery she had private and group art lessons as well.

In 2008 she immigrated to the United States, and eventually attended Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, where she earned her MFA in 2016. Besides her exhibitions in Iran, her exhibitions in the United States include Seyhoun Gallery, PØST, Agora Gallery, and Claremont Graduate University.

Shabnam currently lives and works in Upland, California. She sat down with ArteEast in Fall 2017 to talk about the evolution of her practice.

AE: You were born and grew up in Iran; you studied microbiology in Iran while also studying painting, and eventually becoming an art instructor. You also opened your own gallery in Iran before immigrating to the United States and dedicating yourself fully to your practice. Have you experienced that these shifts in discipline/practice and place have impacted your artwork, and if so, how?

SY: During the years I painted in Iran my understanding of art was totally different than today. Since art was not my field of study, what I had learned in art institutes was painting skills and I concentrated mainly on painting figures, landscape and still life by copying famous artists such as William Bouguereau. Another reason was the environmental and cultural effect based on most people’s interest in old European styles which had a great influence on the subjects and styles I would choose.

AE: While studying for your MFA in the United States, your style shifted from conventional realism to more contemporary subjects. What were some of the factors influencing this shift?

SY: While attending CGU for my MFA I studied art history in depth, learned more about contemporary art and became familiarized with different art styles. This in turn helped me understand art from an academic point of view.

AE: What has driven your shift from a focus on the figurative, especially the female form, to more stylized paintings? Your artist statement cites a newer relationship to photographic sources. Can you elaborate on the evolution of this relationship? In the process of painting from photographic sources or influences, how do you feel your relationship to the subject changes?

SY: Despite my passion for figures and portraits I have shifted to more stylized paintings. This is because figure paintings are more personalized and have no concept. By shifting my painting style I can better express my feelings and can be more generous to the viewers.

I used to be very faithful to the subject or photograph. Although I still use photographs as base of my paintings, however, I no longer rely on the details of the photo. I remove some details and add my feelings to create my art which is semi-abstract.

AE: Do you work with any specific audiences in mind? Is there anything you are hoping for audiences, or specific audiences, to take away from your work?

SY: I do not work with any specific audiences in mind. My intent is for people to understand what my art is all about. My paintings appear to be ambiguous, however, by focusing on the piece and reading my artist statement it will become meaningful.

AE: From our point of view, seeing residency applications, attending international art fairs, and otherwise being connected to the contemporary art scene in the MENA region, we find that the contemporary art scene in today’s Iran is extremely exciting. Were you engaged with the contemporary art community while you were in Iran? Has your relationship or ties to the community of emerging contemporary artists and institutions in Iran changed since moving to the United States? What do you find are the obstacles or special opportunities for remaining linked into a global community of contemporary Iranian artists?

SY: I was engaged with the art community while I was in Iran but not to the same extent as my current engagement, especially in the Iranian community in the United States.

My involvement with the contemporary artists and institutions in Iran is mainly through social media and acquaintances.

Distance is mainly the number one obstacle to be linked with the artists in Iran, however I have had the opportunity to know Iranian artists in the United States and participate in the cultural events with some of these artists.

AE: Have you had any recent exhibitions in Iran? If so, how do you find that your art is received there? Is there anything different about how your work is perceived, generally, within an Iranian audience versus an American audience?

SY: No, I have had no recent exhibitions in Iran. It is my understanding that the nationality of the audience does not make any difference in their perception of my art, it is the audience’s knowledge and comprehension of art which makes the difference.

AE: Your medium is oil painting. How did you come to work primarily in this medium? Are you experimenting with other media at the moment?

SY: I have tried almost all media. Since I can better maneuver to express dimensions and quality of the subject matter with oil I choose it to be my primary medium. I also use acrylic and mixed media in my paintings. [The choice to work on a large scale] is intentional.  In my opinion larger pieces are more impressive, fascinating and elegant.