From structure to spontaneity

The Iranian-born artist Malekeh Nayiny reflects on her new, freer, post-Covid approach to art

The Coronavirus pandemic has had a significant impact on many artists working today, from choice of subject matter to practical issues. Yet unlike most, Malekeh Nayiny, a Paris-based artist of Iranian descent, experienced the rollercoaster ride of battling the virus first-hand after contracting Covid-19 in March 2020, before recovering, then struggling to rediscover her creative side and eventually finding a new, more spontaneous way of making art.

“It was a frightening time. Luckily, I didn’t require oxygen, but I was struggling to breathe, and living on my own made the whole thing very scary, especially when the news was all about people becoming very sick or dying,” she told ArtScoops. “I’m really grateful for the care and medical support I received in those weeks.” 

Malekeh explained that although she was relieved to survive Covid-19, the virus initially left her feeling depressed and lacking enthusiasm. When she did eventually find the motivation to return to her art, to her surprise, she found herself adopting a very different approach. “I felt much less concerned about the concept of what I was creating. It was if I’d left all of that behind and my paintings appeared by themselves,” she admitted. “The entire process felt much less structured and enjoyable, and the work felt incredibly genuine.”

Her ‘In search of Alice’ paintings, which she explained were done spontaneously and “almost as if they appeared by themselves, like doodling”, are one example. Other projects that have a great resonance with life lived through a pandemic include a series of portraits featuring nurses, instantly recognisable in their uniforms. “I’d visited a friend who was ill in hospital,” she said, “and this collection of pieces just seemed to happen naturally afterwards.” 

While Malekeh has focused primarily on painting in her post-Covid phase, much of her best-known work has involved photography, making use of creative processes such as colour photograms and photoshop, which she combines with additional elements such as collage and pieces of painting.

“My parents bought me my first camera – a Nikon – as a gift when I moved to New York to study Fine Arts at Syracuse University,” she said. “I started taking pictures straightaway and quickly realised that photography was something I really wanted to do.”

Malekeh began experimenting with various techniques, including colour photograms. “I found them really magical, since you never know how the picture will turn out until the acetate paper stage,” she explained. Once back in Paris, she also took a course in photoshop when she found herself unable to source a colour darkroom to print photograms herself.

While Covid-19 might have prompted a shift in Malekeh’s approach to her work, she has long been happy to immerse herself in projects that are enriching and, she admitted with a smile, more rewarding emotionally than financially. 

The series of portraits she produced titled ‘Street Saints’, from time spent working with a group of homeless Romanians, is one such project. Malekeh explained that she found an affinity with the group, having met them soon after returning to Paris from a particularly challenging trip to Iran. 

“I couldn’t relate to anything in Iran, so in a sense I too felt homeless and confused about my identity. I struggled with being in my birth country, yet feeling that I didn’t belong there,” she said. “I think this was partly why I connected with these people so deeply. I also wanted to acknowledge their fight for survival and evoke some compassion.”

The impact of exile, especially the sense of loss, is clearly evident in Malekeh’s nudes, which exhibit a heightened sense of vulnerability, with her subjects positioned against the backdrop of an anonymous building site, defenceless and powerless over the future.

Having lived in exile for much of her life, Malekeh has inevitably found her Iranian heritage a focal point for some of her work, with projects featuring old family photos rescued from the attic of the family home in Tehran after her mother passed away proving particularly popular with audiences.

“I was searching for ways to remember my mother and took the photos with me, although I wasn’t sure at that point what I was going to do with them,” she said. “I started working on the old pictures and updating them, which is something I like to do.”

Malekeh admitted to being surprised that what was a fairly intimate collection of works generated such a sizeable reaction amongst viewers. 

“I think perhaps the exotic colours made them attractive, along with the combination of modern and traditional elements. There was also plenty of humour in them, which often goes down well!” she said with a smile. “Perhaps, as well, people were able to identify with the concept of a family story, since everyone has their own in one form or another.” An example, perhaps, of the draw of nostalgia and the power of humanity, whatever the era, continent or cultural differences.

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