Azadeh Ghotbi talks about her paintings and her unique style…


Azadeh Ghotbi is an international artist in the literal sense:; She was born in Iran, studied at Brown University and at INSEAD, lived most of her life in France & the U.S., and is currently based in Germany.

Azadeh, an innovative painter, has had over 21 group and solo exhibitions of her work around the world. Last month, I had the opportunity of interviewing her over the phone for CWB.

Bijan Tehrani: Looking at your paintings, I find a lot of similarities between all of the paintings but at the same time, like members of a family, they have their own differences also. Is this intentional?
Azadeh Ghotbi: I am happy to hear this actually because it’s not necessarily intentional but I like to have some kind of line or pattern that you find from one painting to the next, from one series to the next, some kind of DNA that’s specific to my work. And maybe some of my background is infused in the work and thus transpires throughout my work. I also have a specific technique: I use a roller. So I do have some kind of a fingerprint that’s specific to my work. You’ve said it well, there are family traits in all the works!

BT: There is also this kind of transformation. For example, of course all the work is abstract, but you started almost in black and white from what I remember and then you begin to see an explosion of color in your work. How did that happen?
AG: I’m not exactly conscious when it happened but it’s a very good observation on your part. I did start with entirely monochromatic patterns; not only that but I loved going very dark, very deep. With time, I think I was more willing to try more colors, mix them so that even if I only used two tubes of paint I would get a palette where it looked like I used five or six colors. With time and experience and maybe life showing me its better side, I was willing to bring in more warm colors as opposed to dark and cold ones. There definitely is a change in me allowing more colors to take over. In terms of the ones I like to use, I’ve noticed that they somehow seem innately harmonious and natural. If I use an orange, I will balance it with a red I feel that I’ve seen in flowers. If I use a green, I can’t help using some kind of blue to counter balance it, having seen that underwater or on a feather for example. When I look at picture books that are nature-inspired I often notice details of color patterns that resemble those found in some of the work that I’ve done.

I also notice that I use more and more blues that tend toward turquoise, and it seems that I am going back to my roots, to all the beautiful ceramic work that is so specific to Iran. I don’t remember being in Isfahan for example although I am told I visited it when I was around 3 but I’ve of course seen many films and pictures of it since. When I see the beauty of the Iranian ceramic works, I realize how much I love those colors, and how they must be somehow infusing themselves into some of the work that I do.

BT: There are artists, regardless of their style, in whose work you either see some kind of motion or you see stillness. In your work, I see some motion, some kind of action going on. Has this been mentioned to you before?
AG: I have been fascinated by dance since my early childhood. I used to want to be a ballerina! My parents took me to see performances early on, including the Shiraz festival, and from very early on I got to see the greats of the world like Carolyn Carlson and Maurice Béjart. I adored their work and tried to mimic the choreography I’d just seen for my parents. Although I didn’t pursue that path, I guess I perform some kind of a dance when I paint. I don’t sit still. I don’t work on small paintings that are sitting on an easel with me sitting on a chair. Quite the contrary. I often work on large canvases that I lay flat on the floor and I am usually painting from all four sides with very big gestures and large movements. It’s some kind of a dance. I’ve never had it filmed but I’m sure if someone where to look at the process, it would look like some kind of tango between the canvas and the artist.

BT: In the Veiled Revelations series, you can see that clearly. It also reminds me of Renoir, such a great artist, who never had models sitting still and posing for him; he would ask them to move around while he was painting… In some of your interviews, you have mentioned that you relate to the immigration from Iran, and to this matter of family falling apart and then coming together again. Can you tell me about that?
AG: There are two series I am working on that are maybe doing this in a more obvious and overt way, the other ones might be a little bit more subtle and indirect. One of them is the Puzzling Stories, which was most recently shown in a solo show in Los Angeles. This series starts with a white canvas that I paint. Technically you could say that is a finished piece but what I do is I tear it to shreds. I kneel on the floor, turn the painting over and start destroying it, cutting it up, and spreading out the strips. But then I put them back together. I reassemble the torn pieces of the original story and put them back together in a different way than they were originally because there is chaos, there’s not always linear order in things that happen – so I make a point of having them not follow the exact initial order. I also overlap them so that about a quarter of every strip of painting is hidden under the one before, maybe because when you go through turmoil and hardship, you keep a little bit of that to yourself, you become a little bit more of a closed book. It’s the story of all of us. We all went through a revolution, we lost friends, families, homes, roots, but we have found the strength and the willpower to put back together our stories and create something new. If you look at these paintings from afar, they look normal, but if you come close and scratch the surface and look deep you see that they’re made of torn pieces of a former story with no direct root. Every strip has fragile open edges on both sides And to me, that very much tells the story our lives. The new lives we’ve had to create may be even more beautiful, more complex and intriguing than the original ones but at the same time are definitely more fragile and exposed than before.

The other series I’m working on is called Crossroads. It’s made out of lines, sort of curvaceous lines of colors that criss-cross each other in an unending fashion. And it’s a bit like the life of those in exile and on the move. We met all these people in Iran, lost touch with many, met new ones abroad and we keep moving. Every so often you make some new roots but for some reason you have to move and start anew, and all these criss-crossing patterns of encounters and experiences can seem completely chaotic but if you come close, you see a lot of beauty and intriguing complexity… in a good way. Each layer enriches the one below and above it so at the end, much good comes out of all this criss-crossing, all this moving, all these torn relationships and new ones. That’s what I wanted to convey in this series.

BT: And for people who don’t have this direct experience, they still get the feeling. I think there is something organic about these paintings, Crossroads. It is again life in motion. Obviously you see the influence of Iran, of the miniature, I can see the ceramics. You spent some time living in Germany. How much would you say German art has influenced your work?
AG: Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter amongst others have been painters that I’ve loved and admired since long before I moved to Germany. It would seem however, that my new environment influenced me more than I thought. My husband noticed that some of the paintings that I did the first year we moved to Germany were very muted in terms of colors; everything was very white-washed. I didn’t even notice it myself, he’s the one who pointed it out and asked why. I realized later that first Fall and Winter had been extremely long and grey. We went weeks and weeks without seeing the color of the sky and I realized that it influenced my work rather directly after all. Although I wasn’t at all depressed and quite happy in my new life there, the color schemes of Frankfurt in that first Fall and Winter infused my work.

BT: I think your paintings in a way are talking to each other. I wonder if you would hear whispers if they were all hanging in a room together. When I am looking at your paintings, something is happening right now on the canvas, it’s not about the past, it’s about now.
AG: I don’t think about the past in a conscious way when I paint; I’m very much in the moment, in the now. That might be what is showing. I try to zone out when I paint. I’m not thinking of where I want to go or where I came from: it’s about the moment. It’s sometimes after the fact that I step back and try to analyze what just happened.

BT: Tell me a little bit about your plans for the future.
AG: I have a group show in London that opens on 25th of April at the Opera Gallery. It’s an exhibit focusing on Peace in Iran, called “Peace from the bottom of my Art”. After that, I don’t have definitive plans except to continue to be inspired by what’s around me and continue to paint.

For more info about Azadeh Ghotbi and her paintinhs, please visit


About Author

Bijan Tehrani

Bijan Tehrani a film director, film critic and writer, works as editor in chief of Cinema Without Borders while teaching Language of Film and Film History at workshops nationwide. Bijan has won several awards in international film festivals and book fairs for his short films and children's books.

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