Art: Raha Esmaeili
My art is giving a platform to Persian culture in the West. I have enjoyed researching Irani art history and finding ways to incorporate my own modern niche. Having learned so much about my culture, I love sharing that knowledge with others. When people who were also first generation diaspora kids reached out explaining that they, too, wanted to find any and as many ways to stay connected to our culture, I realised that my art held more significance than I initially thought. During the pandemic, as I made my paintings more connected to my culture, multiple people began asking if they were for sale. I soon started selling on Instagram (@rahxart) and it went well enough for me to open up my Etsy shop (RahxArt). I was nervous to begin my journey, but like with anything, exhilaration soon followed the nerves.
My debut collection involves Qajar era style portraits of women and men, focusing on the portraiture of Khatuns (medieval women of royal descent). The Qajar dynasty reigned between 1785 and 1925 in Iran, and their paintings of royalty and nobles were rich, and saturated with colour. The art style is so beautiful but it's not popularised outside of Persian culture, so there aren’t many modern renditions or explorations -- which is why I think my art has resonated with so many people who don't see this form of representation in the art world.
Something that was evident when researching Iranian artworks was just how white-washed the artistry was, where fair skin was the default. I thought it only right that I created portraits that were slightly more accurate; Afro-Iranians exist and are devastatingly under-represented. So, it’s been fun to show off these beautiful Iranian queens with brown/dark skin. Another wall I would like break down is the constant heteronormative relationships present in Iranian art -- be prepared for some very queer Qajar art soon!
Whilst I was drawing one of my Khatuns, I added a pomegranate in her hand and I could not stop staring at that portion of the painting. I was inspired and created the collection: Persian Necessities, which became a love letter to my favourite aspects of Persian culture. For a lot of Middle Easterners, not just Iranians, simple things such as a picture of anar (pomegranate) or chai nabat (tea with rock candy) really brings out the warmest feelings of nostalgia for us. I think it's comforting. I started painting not only pomegranates, but hands with persimmons, cherries, and my most recent piece with the chesm nazar titled with the Persian phrase “Salamati”, which translates to wishing someone health and safety. I’m definitely not done with this collection yet, the Persian symbols I want to paint are endless!
Starting my journey was certainly a bit anxiety-inducing, however the people around me have been so overwhelmingly supportive that it pushed me to have confidence in my work. I struggled with imposter syndrome, and often I had to remind myself that I am an artist and that my scientific career was simply another part of who I am. I am not classically trained and almost felt undeserving of any attention I received, but I am working through that. I hope people like my art, but ultimately I make art that makes me feel good. Getting recognition or payment for it is simply a bonus.
Being a self-taught artist has also helped me push other people to pursue their own artistic dreams. I think a lot of folks, both within and outside of my culture, enjoy learning about Iranians, so it will be interesting to see how other Iranians create their own cultural art. I wanted to make a line of artwork that was simple but meaningful, and I think that regardless of the era or where you were born, certain parts of Iranian culture will always be with us as Iranians, and even resonate to those with similar cultural icons. It's very cool to see how things as simple as fruit or chai can remind us how at the end of the day, we are all related to such rich history.
Raha Esmaeili interviewed by Asia Khatun