Pop Stars, Wrestlers and Poets: Artist Afsoon Celebrates Iranian Icons

The Iranian artist Afsoon produces exquisite prints and collages steeped in the culture, philosophy, poetry and contemporary history of Iran. Her works are held in many prestigious collections, including those of the British Museum and of Yves Saint Laurent’s long-time partner and business associate Pierre Bergé.

Kayhan London recently paid Afsoon a visit at her atelier in an industrial zone of West London. There, she draws and makes prints and collages from the dozens of postcards, press cuttings and found images that are the raw material for her work.

Artist Afsoon Haley

“I get here at about 9:00 or 9:30, and spend the whole day alone, doing whatever I need to do. I work on a series, send proposal emails, or read poetry to recharge myself. When I’m in the mood, I can work really fast, and produce a lot of work in a condensed time. In general, I think about a work for a long time. But when it’s cooked in my head, it comes out.

“Then I have a little lunch, and leave at about 4:00.

“I was born in Tehran, and lived there until the age of six. We then moved to Kermanshah and later to Isfahan because of my father’s job. I left Iran when I turned 17. I attended an English language school in London for a couple of months, and eventually got a visa for the States, finishing high school in Bremerton, Washington State.

“My parents had moved to California by that point. A lot of relatives lived in Fresno, in central California, so I applied for Fresno State, and studied radio and television there, with a little emphasis on filmmaking. Later, I got accepted to NYU Film School, but didn’t go – my family thought New York was very dangerous!

“One summer, I went to Spain for a holiday, and met my husband-to-be. We stayed in touch, and got married quite young; we were both 26. I moved to London and worked at a second-hand art bookshop in Soho called William Barnes, selling artist books to famous painters, including Francis Bacon. He would stand outside the door and send a young boy in. We would keep books on circus photography for him, and also on skin diseases, body diseases, etc.

“Afterwards, the building was bought by a fashion designer called John Pearce, who asked me to stay on and work as his personal assistant. I said yes. Fashion was something I had a great love for. As a university student, I would use myself as my own canvas: dress unusually, do things with my hair, wear weird bracelets or earrings or scarves as a way of expressing myself.

“After about a year and a half, I decided I wanted to have a child, and stopped work. I had two kids. I started doing art with them. We went to museums, did art days at home, made things. But it wasn’t enough. By the time my daughter was 10 and my son was seven, I needed something more. It was eating me up.

“I took etching classes for six weeks. That was the beginning of my love for printmaking. Then I discovered lino, and never looked back. I love lino. I can put it in my bag with a few copper tools, and go anywhere in the world. I can cut it and print it. I don’t use a press. I use a little bamboo disk. So I can print anywhere.

“At one point, a very good, old-school print maker I studied with said, ‘Why don’t you show your work to people?’ So I hung a bunch of stuff on the wall. A lot of people came, and I sold a lot of pieces. The prices were very low. I thought people were just feeling sorry for me. I was still not convinced of myself.

“Then a series was sold to [the Iranian arts patron] Shirley Elghanian. She said, ‘Will you give me another set for a charity I’m starting?’ I gave her a complete set. A few months later, I got a call from her saying they were flying me to Dubai to be in an auction for their charity Magic of Persia.

“I went, and the series was sold. There, a gentleman started talking to me. He said, ‘I’m interested in your work. You use very Western techniques, lino and collage, but the stories are very Eastern, so there is this merging of the two.’ He turned out to be John Curtis, then Keeper of the Middle East department at the British Museum.

“When I got back to London, I received an email asking me to bring that series and other work to the British Museum. They gave me a little piece of paper – which is now in my scrapbook – saying, ‘We have received art from this lady.’ Three days later, they wrote back and said, ‘We want to buy all 12 pieces for our permanent collection.’

“Up until then, I was just showing in little galleries with other print makers, and mainly selling to the English or European market. Suddenly lots of Iranians got interested in my work. I started feeling pressure to ace it all the time, do well, produce things that were really good. People would say, ‘What other museum have you sold to recently?’ So I got a sense that I had to do something completely different.

“At around that time, I made a trip to Iran for the first time in 25 years, and brought back a lot of postcards and magazines and old memorabilia. In my head and in my heart, I was returning to my youth. I felt a burst of things inside me that needed to come out. Nostalgia is in most of my work.

“That’s when I started my Icons series. I asked different Iranians: who’s an Iranian icon? People named the singer Googoosh, or the champion wrestler Takhti, or the Prophet Ali, or the Shah, or Ayatollah Khomeini. I produced collages with a very busy color background, and a foreground with the face of each iconic figure in black and white. People related to them, because we all grew up with those faces around us. They were very colourful, they were quite Pop Art-y, they were easy.

“The Icons series became extremely popular – too much so, in fact. I was having too much fun, and it was not a challenge anymore.

“I thought to myself, ‘There are all these fabulous Persian expressions, and they’re all dying out!’ So I started my Persian Expressions – zarb-ol-massal – series, and had fun corresponding with elderly people, who knew many of them. There’s a lot of humour in these, and a lot of them go back to classical poetry.

“I’ve now gone back to making lino, with a series called Poets in Heaven.” I’ve chosen 12 poets from different parts of the world: Iran’s Forough Farrokhzad, but also Pablo Neruda, Nazim Hikmet of Turkey, W.H. Auden, E.E. Cummings, etc.

“My hope now is that a proper book of my work be published. Not everybody can afford art. So it would be nice to have a book with my artwork in it. Everybody could just sit and flick through it, and flick through my head!”

For more information, go to the artist’s dedicated website www.afsoon.co.uk