Many Layers Lurk Behind The Gaze Of Bahar Sabzevari’s Self-Portraits


“Untitled 1”; 30 x 24 inches, oil on wood panel, 2020.

Self-portraits by women artists have become ubiquitous in contemporary art (behold Cindy Sherman and Carrie May Weems). But the tradition actually stretches much farther back. Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentileschi, like Sherman, depicted herself in different guises – St. Catherine of Alexandria, for instance, or a lute player. In the 18th century, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Marie Antoinette’s favorite portraitist, also turned her focus onto herself (leading Simone de Beauvoir to brand her a narcissist in her 1949 book “The Second Sex”).

“All of these women, and many others,” says Iranian-born painter Bahar Sabzevari, “have continually been a source of inspiration throughout my journey as an artist.” One of these, Frida Kahlo, has been particularly influential. “Looking at Frida’s work, you can perceive a lot of emotions and stories in addition to her self-portrait. Her deliberate exploration and biographical survey go beyond a brief flicker in the artist’s life.”


(l) “Self Portrait” Photograph by Behar Sabzevari. (r) “Prehistoric Debate”; 30 x 24 inches, oil on canvas, 2020.

Sabzevari’s self-portraits also explore her own personal stories. The first thing you notice is her gaze – steady and unflinching, though more curious than confrontational. “A direct gaze is considered rude in Eastern culture, especially for women,” she explains. “The women in my work are trying to express their courage and boldness, declaring visually that they are not afraid of being seen or judged. In exchange, the gaze is nonjudgmental and draws the audience closer, inviting them to discover the painting and the idea behind it.”


“Persian Medusa” 30 x 30 inches, oil on wood panel, 2020.

Of the “Crown Series” Sabzevari says, “I think every woman is a queen, which is why in my portraits I depict a crown…My personal story, my experiences in life and my lucid dreams all inform what the crown eventually morphs into.” Drawing from Persian mythology and her love of animals, the crowns can be writhing with colorful, fantastical creatures and deities, as well as figures from Persian literature. In other series, she herself becomes the protagonist in traditional myths, as with “Simorgh,” a work about the decidedly feminine representation of divinity.


“Untitled” 30 x 24 inches, oil on wood panel, 2020.

Some paintings dispense with her visage to depict imaginary animals that seem to be manifestations of Sabzevari’s inner states of being. They can appear dark and demonic, or simply exotic. Her work conjures an unmistakable sense of magical realism. “Drawing on reality alone may not arouse one’s curiosity,” she admits. “But when you tell a story within an unreal world, with symbols and colorful tales, then you may not be referring to one specific reality. That’s when the story becomes eternal and affects people in many places and times. This is the magic of story and imagination.”

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