Sara Madandar: Checking In
A Land with No Name
In the beginning of the pandemic, I actually got a chance to work more in the studio. I guess I didn’t have any distractions and working in the studio allowed me to not be passive during a time that has placed so many restrictions on us. I went back and worked on a series of pieces titled “A Land with No Name” which is the combination of laser cutter and canvas in 2018-2019. I had some leftover burnt canvases with the laser cutter from that series. Laser cutter is a machine that cuts through hard materials by burning through them with a laser. They are normally used for making computer designed parts out of wood and acrylic, usually for industrial prototypes or DIY hobby projects. In this case, I am repurposing this industrial machine for art, using it to both cut and draw on the canvas. Since the machine is mostly used for hard materials, I had to slowly develop the method for using it on canvas - there was no template for how to use it on such a delicate and flammable material (fires are a common accident with laser cutters). In “A Land with no Name” the canvas and paper are burned and etched with a laser cutter, and in some paintings it is shredded and cut. To keep the canvas’ natural color, I use clear gesso or none at all.
Having already moved from Iran to Texas, in 2016 I moved once again to a place with a different culture: New Orleans. It made me think more and more about the identity of a land, what its borders mean and how we migrate across them. Then in 2017, Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, and the deteriorating relations also meant that my family could no longer visit me in the US. It was a moment when these notions of land, migration, and belonging became a central concern for myself and my work. To relieve the stress, I started imagining a free land, one with no name, borders, or flags. The land which I imagined took the shape of a woman’s body – my body becoming my homeland. I imagined myself saying: I am from my own body, it is called “A Land with No Name.”
In the beginning of the pandemic I was seeing people debating about wearing masks or not, and some Republicans had a protest in Texas against wearing masks. So I made the piece “blind protest”. In this piece, a group of people (the forms of which are all based on my own body) are protesting and covering their eyes, as if closing them to reality. The other piece is “Social Distance.” In it, there are a pile of bodies in the foreground and some that are farther away. It was responding to an event in Iran where people discovered that the government had gathered many people who had died of Covid and buried them together in a mass grave.
The idea of body as home, home as shelter, and the window as a connection to the public sphere, are central concepts of the project I am calling “The Window.” Through these pieces, I explore themes established in my earlier work regarding issues of censorship and the body, particularly women’s bodies. This work responds to my own personal experiences, whether in the government censorship of my native Iran or the more subtle, everyday forms of silencing and erasure that I have encountered in the US. In these pieces, the wooden frames represent arched windows while the canvas is a curtain—more specifically, a purdah. In Farsi, the word purdah has several meanings beyond a window curtain. As a verb, one can say "lifting the purdah'' to mean revealing the truth. As a noun, it can also mean a veil for women’s body and hair, a tableau, a tone in music, the fret of a guitar, a key in the piano, and an act in a theatrical play. The world's most embellished metaphor as a noun is its meaning of virginity or the state of being immaculate, and more literally, it also means a woman's hymen. The arched shape of these frames makes reference to the painting style of the Qajar era (late 18th to early 20th century) in Iran, when artists began to embrace realism in their depiction of human subjects, often in life-size works that incorporated the arched shape typical of Iranian architecture at the time. Through this evocation of both the window and the history of the representation of human subjects in Iranian art, these pieces speak to issues of visibility/invisibility and the human body in their very frames.
Hidden behind the primary colors of these works, the paintings continue on the back of the canvas, where nude figures are depicted. These figures do not feel shame in their exposure to the world: they sit comfortably, unafraid of the outside gaze. They are not visible by daylight; however, as the sun sets or as lights are triggered by motion sensors, the painting will come to life. These pieces incorporate light that emanates from within the painting, as a kind of metaphorical opening of the curtains, using LED lights built into the back of the frame that will slowly, gradually brighten. The light will reveal the figures behind the canvas much like one can peer into a home when its lights go on at night. When the sun rises in the morning, the light will slowly fade away, hiding the nude figures and returning privacy to the “residents” of the painting.
Window #2 was initiated with the idea of the isolation of mothers. I used images of my body and my son’s to refer to motherhood. When I was breastfeeding my son in public, I imagined how seductive would a mother’s feeding be. For me, my breasts weren't a private part of my body anymore, they were like a restaurant to serve food for my child. Hiding myself and my child during breastfeeding gave me a feeling of censoring and isolating motherhood. As mother and child in art history so often reference Madonna and Jesus, I made the frame and light setup behind the canvas to show the cross on her breast.
Let Us Believe In...
About six months after the pandemic, I began working on a series titled “Let Us Believe...”. It is a collection of life-size portraits depicting a strong, diverse group of women. Starting with photographic prints on canvas, I paint, collage, write, spray, and sew onto their portraits. Much of my work has deployed the aesthetics of clothing and bodies to portray my own experiences as an Iranian woman migrating to the United States. In this series, I tell the stories of the women behind each portrait, letting their own narratives guide the techniques and materials used in each painting. While they stand in separate portraits, the women of Let us Believe In… are not alone: they are connected through a social geography. All have lived in or are from New Orleans. This spatial connection is represented by a common thread woven through the paintings: the use of plaid patterns, which recall the latitude and longitude lines on a map. In each portrait, you will find a connection between the woman, the place, and the artist.
In telling each woman’s story through their portraits, I also wanted them to bring something of their own to the paintings, choosing an article of clothing, for example—a sort of symbolic collaboration. This is especially salient in Floodlines, the portrait of artist Carol Leak who is a native New Orleanian. For her portrait, she chose to wear the clothes she had on while evacuating ahead of hurricane Katrina. Her choice inspired the painting, which evokes the iconic images of receding floodlines seen on the walls of homes flooded by the storm. The high watermark almost covers her, indicating the danger she escaped—but the floodlines slowly recede down as the city dries, looking ahead, with hope, towards recovery. There is one thing the water does not cover: The Black Lives Matter pin Carol wore on her jacket. Not even a flood can wash away her earnest commitment as an ally to all people of color.
The hope brought on by the receding floodlines is another common thread that connects me to all the women portrayed here. The title of this series looks back to an earlier collection of mine, Let Us Believe in the Beginning of the Cold Season—in fact, it is the title of Forough Farrokhzad’s last book. As I painted these portraits, we all faced a tragic cold season ahead. The coming winter is bringing on the worst moments of the global pandemic, which has kept us apart from the ones we love. By asking each woman to bring something of their own into their portraits, I wanted to overcome the distance the pandemic has wedged between us. By coming together in creating these paintings, we deconstructed the idea of social distancing. We are not socially distant—we are merely physically distant. As you look at the portraits of these strong women, this is what I ask of you: let us, together, believe in the end of this cold, dark season…
Sara Madandar is an Iranian multi-disciplinary artist based in New Orleans. She received her MFA from the University of Texas at Austin and her BA in painting from the Azad University of Art and Architecture in Tehran. Through a range of media such as painting, video, installation, and performance—Madandar explores migration and the human experience of living in between cultures. Her work uses the aesthetics of language, clothing, and bodies to study the complexities of cross-cultural experiences from a unique perspective. Some of Madandar’s accolades include an award from the Texas Visual Artists Association (TVAA) and an award from the Southeastern College Art Conference (SECAC) for an exhibition curated by Jessica Beck of the Andy Warhol museum. Sara’s work has been featured at Elga Wimmer PCC, New Orleans Museum of Art, Austin City Hall, New Orleans Contemporary Art Center, Elisabeth Ney Museum, and many others. Currently, Madandar is a member of The Front, an art collective in New Orleans, where she will also be in residence at the Joan Mitchell Center from 2021 to 2022.