Art meets Activism: Hadi Nasiri

Meeting Hadi Nasiri at the New York Oslo Freedom Forum, I was struck by his nonchalant demeanor and human, down-to-earth approach. As an activist, multidisciplinary artist, innovator, and educator, his matter of fact focus on the real human and individual impact of his work was very relatable and uniquely refreshing in a sea of change-makers who may at times take themselves a little too seriously.

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Starting his career in Bandar Abbas, Iran, Nasiri boldly founded the underground women’s rights organization Afarinesh. He was later admitted to the New York City Safe Haven Program for activist/artists at risk. During his residency, Nasiri had a chance to explore the new environment and seeks more opportunities.

I was lucky enough to sit down with Nasiri; he divulged the following and more:

You’re known to use so many different mediums, ranging from performance art to sculpture, to graphic design. What draws you to a specific medium for a particular piece?

I believe it depends on the piece itself, the situation, and the environment that I deliver the piece. I remember I was offered a job as an art director in a magazine’s office where I also managed to do one of my performances. Well, it was clear to me that I was going to deal with print, design, text, etc… So, I set my mind on what was available; then I considered my skills and potential. However, sometimes I have to deal with a more complicated situation. For instance, my other artistic performances in Saudi Arabia. I think everybody knows about women’s rights and the restrictions in this country. In cases like this, I have no idea about the mediums, or challenges that I’m going to face! I only know, I need to be prepared for any unexpected challenge. I know it sounds frightening, but I look at it as part of my life and work.

Your activism on behalf of women’s rights is remarkable; what are some of the experiences that brought you to the point of action?

I should mention that I was so lucky to be forced by my father to study religion. I remember I was five years old. Since then, I’ve almost spent my life reading and researching Abrahamic religions. They all have one thing in common; none of the messengers were female! So patriarchal, right?! Even after many years, women are still second-class citizens. They can not become an Emam or a religious leader. This has been bothering me since I was a teenager. I couldn’t take that much discrimination. And finally, this encouraged me to give a speech about “What the Qur’an Really Says About Hijab in the library at my school. However, it was about all religion, not only Islam, but I needed a provocative title for my speech, and it was my first real, and serious action.

You were given the safe haven here in NYC to express yourself artistically. How do you feel about your homeland, Iran?

Well, to express myself artistically I don’t necessarily need a “safe haven”. I’ve done all my performances in the middle-east – not in Europ, nor in America. I can do it anytime and anywhere. However, I did take the opportunity granted to reflect on my resume and all my achievements and I appreciate them for this opportunity.
To answer your question regarding my feeling about Iran; for sure I’m worried about Iran. I’m kind of concerned about the whole world!

Please tell me about the “gun pants” you designed for a traditional Iranian wedding?

Alright, first let me correct you here. It wasn’t a traditional “Iranian” wedding. Iran is a big country which contains many languages, cultures, and subcultures. The wedding took place in southern Iran in Bandar Abbas city. Moreover, people in this city celebrate weddings in different ways depending on their cultures!

“A Word is a Gun” was a performance critiquing the prejudicial society in southern Iran. I designed a pair of wedding pants for a female friend. In southern Iran, some women traditionally wear pants as a wedding outfit, sometimes with a long skirt over them. The pants incorporated the design motif “Laleh Shah Abbasi,” named for the Iranian King who loved this pattern, and images of guns (a symbol of death). When a woman gets married, she performs a metaphorical suicide, losing her civil rights, and surrendering her body and soul to a man. Ironically, it is considered bad luck to talk about death, or anything related to death, around the time of a wedding.
My sister’s friend wore these pants during her wedding ceremony. As a wedding guest, I observed people’s reactions. They were shocked, angry, and looking for the culprit who installed this taboo at the wedding. I had myself ready to speak up and expose their contradictions but I was threatened with a knife and by the groom’s brother which made me run out. Despite this unexpected experience, after almost ten years I got a message through my facebook page. It was from a woman at the wedding; she relayed to me a story of chronic abuse in her marriage and my performance that day had helped to give her the courage to leave eventually.

Wedding pants with the gun design incorporated

What is the highlight of your artistic career?

It’s a hard question to answer because I have my definition of “highlight.” For me, highlight means “I did something that changed something.”
When I look back, I see that I’ve done enough to change – as a person. I can say I’m satisfied. I started making art as an activist, not as an “artist” since I was fifteen. I call that “as an activist” because as an artist, you’re not necessarily responsible for any changes unless you’re an activist. This has been my life philosophy since I was fifteen. I used any opportunity, or even sometimes I created the opportunity to make that change.

My underground organization deserves to be mentioned as a highlight as well. My team and I did years of volunteering work. My team never complained even after my insistence that we didn’t do enough. They are angels.

What is your dream for the women/people of Iran?

I wish freedom, respect, and equal right for women all around the world. And, for the people of Iran, they are experiencing though days. No doubt, the Islamic ruling system is responsible for the country’s crisis. Anyhow, I have hope and cross my fingers!

Hadi Nasiri

Why is artistic freedom important?

Generally, freedom is essential, and no matter if it’s artistic or not! We need to express ourselves freely without any fear. For instance, I believe most of the troubles in the world are caused by lack of freedom of speech. There is no discussion, or if there is, we don’t want to listen to other’s opinions. We don’t trust each other. that’s why the globe is surrounded by wars. And what’s the result; the world that we are living in now!

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