A nude wheat-skinned woman closes her eyes tightly. Her body is tilted forward, and her long blue-gray hair flows like silk into a hand that grips and pulls it down, leaving just a few strands drifting like smoke. Below the hand is an arm with bulging vein-like roots emerging from the woman’s burst-open back.
At first glance, it feels violent, but the hand belongs to the woman, not anyone else. The painting is part of artist Roya Karbakhsh’s latest series, Being a Woman, and it is her favorite piece, she told me, because she thinks it’s the most unique. “It shows that this is still a bossy society where men try to control women and push them down,” Karbakhsh explained. “But women have the power and right to control themselves. It’s all about the strength of the woman.”
Women and freedom have been the primary themes of Karbakhsh’s surrealist works since she came to the United States seven years ago. She emigrated from Iran when it became clear that her ability to fulfill her artistic aspirations would be limited because she was a woman. Iran, she told me, “pushes you down and tries to control you when you act or think differently.”
Though she’s now a U.S. citizen, much of her work reflects her time there. For the rest of her life, the 36-year-old wants to continue painting female images that reflect the beauty of Iranian culture as well as the country’s oppressive treatment of women.
Karbakhsh is still a relative newcomer to the American art scene, but she’s had seven exhibitions and is opening her own art school next year. This month, she and her manager will bring five female artists from Iran to participate in a week-long exhibition titled Artful Protest and Creative Iranian Women at the South Asia Institute in Chicago. In addition to spotlighting the artwork of these women and Karbakhsh’s Being a Woman series, the show will also serve as a response to the Iranian political crisis sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian woman, while in the custody of the morality police.
Karbakhsh was born in 1987, eight years after the 1979 Iranian Revolution overthrew the monarchy of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and replaced it with an Islamic republic. The new theocratic regime imposed oppressive rules on women, including making the hijab or headscarf mandatory in public. During this period, Karbakhsh’s mother gave up her career as an artist because of government repression and social criticism of the arts. “She never picked up a brush after that,” Karbakhsh said. “But my mom was my first art teacher.”
When Karbakhsh was five years old and visiting her grandmother, she noticed an oil painting by her mother in the hallway. It depicted a classic European street with several two-story buildings, two women in elegant kirtles and a horse-drawn carriage, and Kalbakhsh was mesmerized by the scene. She recalls standing in front of the painting for what seemed like an hour. “I was really stunned by it,” she said. “I followed every color and line in the painting and kept wondering how she could include so many layers and details in just one painting. I couldn’t do that.” After that ‘wow’ moment, Karbakhsh took her mother’s pink drawing notebook and copied everything in it, whether portrait or sketch, black-and-white or color.
Growing up, Karbakhsh felt constrained by the limits set on women and girls. Whenever she went outside, she had to wear a long black chador, hijab or headscarf over her school uniform. “Women are considered second-class citizens there and we have no freedom,” she told me. “As a kid, you need to cover your body and your hair. When you grow up and get married, you have no right to divorce. Even if your husband beats you or does something bad to you. It’s really tough.”
Karbakhsh’s parents were against letting her study art in high school or college because they felt there was no future for a woman as an artist. Yet they encouraged Karbakhsh to practice art as a hobby, and when she was in high school, enrolled her in an after-school arts program. At university, she studied chemistry but never stopped drawing. And when she was twenty, her father, a pistachio merchant, helped her open a studio under her name “Roya.”
But maintaining an arts space was challenging. Karbakhsh only opened her studio during class hours or by appointment. “Otherwise, the government would bother you again and again,” she explained. “They will ask, ‘Why are the boys and girls in the class together? Why are you painting this figure?’…just so many whys.”
In 2009, in her junior year, Karbakhsh attended a chemistry conference in Hamadan. As she watched the professors and students discussing molecules, forms and the mixing of chemical elements, she wondered if she truly wanted to devote her life to the sciences. After the conference, when she joined the other attendees on a tour of the Old Persian cuneiform inscription site in Hamadan, Karbakhsh realized she had become “the happiest person” because of the “fascinating artistic atmosphere.” It was a pivotal moment in her life.
A year later, Karbakhsh scored high in Konkour, the Iranian university entrance exam, and enrolled in the University of Sistan & Baluchestan to pursue a master’s in art studies. As a top-performing student, she was recommended for a Ph.D. and was exempt from the program entrance exam. Karbakhsh thought she was finally on the path to becoming a professional artist, but she couldn’t escape the reality of being a woman in Iran. When a male professor who was also the art department director invited her to collaborate on an Islamic painting research project, Karbakhsh declined. Later, the professor gave her an “extremely low grade” in a course he taught and Karbakhsh lost her spot in the doctoral program.
To their credit, Karbakhsh’s parents persuaded her to prepare for the Konkour for one more year and choose another doctoral program in the arts. But Karbakhsh couldn’t see a way forward in the arts and told them she wanted to move to another country.
Karbakhsh knew emigration wasn’t something one could do quickly, so after graduating in 2013, she bided her time teaching painting to children and adults. She sometimes displayed her work at exhibitions in her hometown of Kerman and gained a measure of recognition, but the censors made life difficult. She had to paint men to pass the censors of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. “That wasn’t me—drawing men was definitely not what I wanted to focus on,” she said.
Through it all, Karbakhsh still tried to rebel. Identity for Post-Modern Human (2014) and Human with Two Personalities (2016) are underlined by somber and cold colors. The humans (Karbakhsh preferred to call them humans versus men) depicted in her painting from the time are tied with ropes, masked, covered with scars, facing mirrors, or wrapped in a mass of abstract lines. “It was all about the complexity and hypocrisy of the society, where people feel miserable and act two-faced,” she explained.
In 2017, Karbakhsh finally left Iran and moved to the United States. After working part-time jobs as an art teacher, Karbakhsh got her green card and became a citizen soon afterward. Eventually, she settled in Chicago, which she thought of as the art-world capital. It wasn’t easy. As an immigrant, Karbakhsh said “starting life from scratch” left her confused. But that experience inspired her series Find Me (2018). Every day after she finished teaching, she would retreat to her rented apartment, where she drew. In four sketches, Karbakhsh depicts human faces through jumbled lines, with only partial glimpses of eyes, mouths and other features. “When I came here, I had no background… I had to stand up on my own two feet,” she said. “That’s what these paintings say about me… I got lost in lines many times. I was trying to find myself.”
Karbakhsh noticed that every time she walked down the street, someone would say: “You’re so beautiful. You have beautiful hair.” But that could never happen in Iran, she told me. “It’s like we women in Iran are worthless.” Karbakhsh then showed me an iPhone video of her grade school students singing and laughing in her class. It was her first day teaching art at a public elementary school in Chicago, and she was surprised that American kids didn’t have to sit still and agree with everything the teacher taught. “All of this gives me the power to realize and talk about what we don’t have back in Iran,” she said. “I found myself here, as a woman, a person with confidence and strength.”
Karbakhsh channeled that power she found into her paintings, which is how her Migration Transformation (2019-2020) series was born. Throughout, white doves and green leaves are recurring motifs. They wrap around the figures’ chests or shoulders, cover their closed mouths or faces, or emerge from their hands. Karbakhsh explained that these elements represent hope. “When you want to migrate to another country, you are looking for the hope that you never have in your country,” she said.
The collection marked the first time Karbakhsh publicly created and showed paintings featuring women, some of them nude—she had only sketched females covered by the hijab in Iran. Karbakhsh said she felt “weird” when she first started working on them, unsure if depicting naked women was the right choice. But soon, she broke that taboo in her mind. “It’s just women’s bodies. It’s natural, and it has nothing to do with being sexy….Nudity represents women’s freedom. They have autonomy over their bodies.”
Despite her disappointment with Iran, Karbakhsh said her experiences and all she learned there shaped who she was and would become. “I can’t separate from Iran and Iranian culture,” she said. “That’s part of me. I still do everything to represent it, loudly and appropriately.”
She describes Being a Woman as a piece of silent defiance based on her personal journey. Karbakhsh showed me one of the paintings in the series on her phone. A nude woman is curled up on the canvas. Her eyes are closed and her head is lowered, and her forehead rests on her bent knee. Her right hand passes under one thigh to hug the other leg. Her left arm stretches back, and the strands of her long hair twist into a flaxen rope, extending forward and into a gray surface. It’s as if she’s bound. But in the same work, green leaves and branches grow on the woman’s feet and the ground. A golden butterfly rests on the fingertips of her left hand. She is still growing.
Contrast and contradiction define the dichotomies of many Iranian women’s lives, including her own, according to Karbakhsh. “They seem to be suppressed by society and men, but actually they are growing up inside,” she said. “They can find a way to keep their ideas and their freedom, just like me.”
Protests in Iran broke out after Mahsa Amini was detained for wearing the hijab loosely and brutally killed, and when Karbakhsh saw the news, she felt shaken, and her own experience of being temporarily detained by police twice for showing her hair came flooding back. A week after Amini’s death, Karbakhsh posted a video on Instagram of her cutting her long hair short. “I’ve lived in a country called Iran where women are beaten, arrested and killed just because of this hair… All because of this damn hair… I am mourning,” she wrote in the caption.
In “shock and sadness,” Karbakhsh was unable to paint for the next four months. But she soon decided to paint more in the Being a Woman series. “I couldn’t contact my family and friends in Iran for about two months because the government had restricted people’s access to the Internet after the uprising,” she explained. “It was then that I realized that as an Iranian who is displaced, I was carrying the trauma of the people who are still experiencing the revolution. I had to be a voice for them through my art.”
Right now, Karbakhsh is working on a portrait of a Black woman. She said it’s her new direction—representing all women whose rights are threatened, not just Iranians. “It doesn’t matter if she is Black, a person of color or someone else,” Karbakhsh said. “It’s not about nationality. We all get judged, and we all still have to work hard to prove to ourselves that we are good. In light of everything that’s going on, I want to give the figures more power.”