A review on Nicky Nodjoumi and his recent solo show: Singing a New Song
By Parham Ghalamdar, edited by Mel Galley & Assemblage Magazine 

While Phillip Guston Now has become Phillip Guston later, Nicky Nodjoumi (recently named among the artists to have created “the 25 most influential works of American protest art since World War II” by the New York Times) is fortunately having two solo shows in London; one exhibition at Noho Studios, 46 Great Titchfield St, and another at the Taymour Grahne Projects, 10 Portland Road.

Nicky Nodjoumi is an Iranian-born American painter currently working and living in Brooklyn, NY. Following his graduation from the School of Fine Art at Tehran University in 1961, he moved to the USA and received his Master’s degree in Fine Arts from The City College of New York in 1974. During this time, he cooperated with the CISNU (Confederation of Iranian Students National Union) to create political posters demanding freedom of speech for Iranian people back home. Nodjoumi’s curiosity for politics wasn’t limited to Iran; he also participated in demonstrations against the Vietnam War and similar causes, producing significant posters like Trash Bin of History and Victory is Ours. In that period, Nodjoumi dropped painting for two or three years to become a full-time political activist. It seems that he has always had concrete priorities when deciding between personal or collective interest. Upon his return to Iran in 1975, he was instantly in trouble with the Pahlavi’s intelligence service known as SAVAK. He was interrogated for three months which resulted in a ban from teaching at any school. He left Iran again briefly before returning in 1978 to join the revolution.

"Trash Bin of history" in Persian, depicting the fall of Mohmmad Reza Shah. Courtesy of Nicky Nodjoumi.


Left: “Victory is ours” in Persian. Courtesy of Nicky Nodjoumi.

Right: "Long live freedom" in Persian. Courtesy of Nicky Nodjoumi.

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In an interview with Kambiz Hosseini in 2013, Nodjoumi was questioned about his solidarity with the revolutionaries back in 1979. After bluntly stating ‘I wasn’t a fan of Khomeini’, Nodjoumi went on to explain that it was possible to take down Pahlavi’s regime by allying with Khomeini and his elite, but no one could even comprehend Khomeini would succeed due to the people’s democratic demands and values at the time of the revolution. It wasn’t long until Nodjoumi permanently left Iran in 1981, just three years after his return. He was exiled when the Cultural Revolution was executed under the shadow of Iran-Iraq war, a series of events which lead to universities being temporarily closed and the violent purging of a wide spectrum of political organisations opposing Khomeini.

In the hostile environment of the Cultural Revolution, Nodjoumi dared to be a dissident. In a sense, the painter’s persona, as a figurative painter, has a lot in common with the Persian myth of Shahrzad the storyteller. In What is an Author?, Michel Foucault says that the Shahrzad ‘spoke, telling stories into the early morning, in order to forestall death, to postpone the day of reckoning that would silence the narrator.’ Nodjoumi’s political and artistic endeavours, specifically in his painting career, could be interpreted as an attempt to salvage intellectualism, modernism and the democratic ideals of the revolution, proving that 1979 was not a reactionary recessive movement. The storyteller works with memories as their basic materials, which ‘creates the chain of tradition’ and ‘passes a happening from generation to generation’, as Walter Benjamin writes in his reflective essay The Storyteller. Therefore, it is possible to interpret Nodjoumi’s figurative paintings as dramatic scenes, produced to hand over political and social collective memories, perhaps also as pieces of advice, to prevent the rise of another Khomeini.

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At the exhibition, the painting Approaching Masked Carnival held my attention more than any others. Nodjoumi’s paintings are expressive, dynamic, dramatic, figurative, and large-scale. This specific painting depicts a strange scene in a storm, occurring at the edge of the forest and dominated by defaced men in suits, busy with nonsensical activities. The figures are constructed from mismatching legs and bodies glitching into a pornographic scene. They don’t give away their intentions, it’s not clear what is happening. The actions include a man in a chicken-mask performing a strange magic trick with the chair, which appears absurd and cultish. Absurd can be defined as the state or condition in which human beings exist in an irrational and meaningless universe and in which human life has no ultimate meaning. In such a world, the very act of searching for meaning pushes the curious man into more unwanted conflict with his universe. Perhaps that’s the space where Nodjoumi’s painting is happening; a constant struggle to find reason in a world sinking into madness. On the other hand, Neil Cornwell in The Absurd in Literature defines the absurd as a style which manifests a ‘timeless disposition or quality’. Therefore, it is also possible to perceive Nodjoumi’s painting as a reflective visual attempt to articulate the irrational political and social circumstance of his life between Tehran and New York. 

Nodjoumi’s work is inextricably linked to the political and social climates he observes; from protesting the Vietnam War, the regimes of Pahlavi and Khomeini, all the way to supporting the Green movement of 2009. Now, he is observing yet another absurd situation; the American election of 2020, the Biden vs. Trump debate, and all the other episodes of this dark series, which might have been comedic if they were fictional. 

Installation view of Approaching Masked Carnival. Photographed by Maliheh Zafarnezhad.

Courtesy of Nicky Nodjoumi.

But it is real, and quickly unfolding into chaos. It’s no surprise to see Nodjoumi painting the backgrounds in grungy, wide brush strokes which give the impression of a concrete wall or perhaps an unwelcoming sky. All through the renaissance, paintings were operating like a beautifully constructed lie, inviting you inside like a window but Nodjoumi’s paintings do the opposite - they block your way. These paintings are like warning shots, refusing to invite you in, not a comfortably staged carnival but an irrational and absurd hoard that could march out any moment. 

The amalgamation of calm and chaos; confident men in uneven suits, with obscured faces or novelty masks, playing magic tricks during an imminent tornado disaster. It could be an illustration for the cover of Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, suggesting a nihilistic sense of humour. Nodjoumi attempts to ridicule the men whose outfits remind us of politicians, bankers or, more generally, people in power. The juxtaposition between the powerful men and their superstitious activities points out the shallow modernism of men in suits. Although there is a dark, hostile and absurd sense of humour in the painting, Nodjoumi’s work is far away from being nonsense or passive. According to Cornwell, there is a clear line between nonsense and the absurd. Pointlessness as the point of nonsense is essentially non-serious; pointlessness as the point of the absurd is more serious.

Nodjoumi paints about power and those that uphold it. Perhaps Nodjoumi’s long history with painting and political activism proves his seriousness in exhibiting the fragility of men in power. This seriousness is essential for understanding the absurd, which has strong ties to social and political commitment. Absurd doesn’t mean the existent has purposelessly has resigned and disconnected from the reality. In existential thought, resignation does not primarily refer to disengagement from social and political commitments insofar as they relate to outer rather than inner determinations of thought. Resignation more adequately designates what seems to be the only sensible attitude when humans come to confront the implacable truth of human mortality. However, accepting the mortality comes with the responsibility of protecting it, at least for an existentialist.

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Installation view. Photographed by Maliheh Zafarnezhad.

Courtesy of Nicky Nodjoumi.

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Installation view. Photographed by Maliheh Zafarnezhad.

Courtesy of Nicky Nodjoumi.

It’s no wonder why the most repeated motif in the exhibited paintings is the diagrammatic depiction of plants. According to Dr Bahram Beyzai’s lectures at the Stanford University titled The Semiotics of the Iranian Myths, the fundamental idea of Iranian mythology revolves around the two elements of water and soil. When these two elements join together we will witness life, growth and finally wisdom. Therefore, separating the two is an existential threat. Nodjoumi’s paintings of diagrammatic images of plants show his deep concern of our fragile existences.

Although Nodjoumi is socially and politically conscious, as we can see from his talks and opinions in interviews, painting the absurd and absurdity cannot be reduced to just the awareness of a particular state of affairs, it goes beyond that and turns into a call to action. The quick grungy brushstrokes of the background and drips of paint at the bottom of the painting are technically used to emphasize the urgency and priority of this action. Nodjoumi has been revolting the surrounding irrationality through continuity, not resignation. A good example of such behaviour is the figure of Sisyphus, from Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, revolting against absurdity by continuously practising the punishment. In the same way, Nodjoumi’s non-stop painting career over the past decades, all through the worst circumstances, is an act of protesting the established unreasonableness and absurdity. Such sustained persistency proves that the painter finds painting an act of co-operating with life without being able to come to terms with it. 

Although there is a certainty manifested by the facial features, gestures and firm actions of the figures, the painting doesn’t jump to conclusions to dictate anything. At the end of the day, the painting could be interpreted differently, which is why Nodjoumi is not a propagandist. The painting makes every effort to open mind, which is the basic difference between Nodjoumi and an agitprop maker. He respects the intelligence of his audience and is genuinely concerned about the development and education of the individuals. An educator would be pleased to see others thinking on their own. For that reason, Nodjoumi has been seriously committed to the democratic values of the revolution of 1979, finding reason and confronting absurdities threatening our existence. After all, we all know the lack of reason produces monsters.

Nicky Nodjoumi: Singing a New Song

17 - 31 October 2020 

Noho Studios, 46 Great Titchfied St, W1W 7QA

Nicky Nodjoumi: The New York Times Drawings 1996 - 1998

27 October - 19 December 2020 

Taymour Grahne Projects, 10 Portland Road, W11 4LA