Art and Punishment

[caption id="attachment_55246819" align="alignnone" width="620"]Prison Sketches ©Soudabeh Ardavan Soudabeh ArdavanPrison Sketches©Soudabeh Ardavan[/caption]

The old "suffering artist" cliché takes on a new meaning when it comes to Soudabeh Ardavan. Charged with participating in demonstrations against the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ardavan was held for eight years in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison. She found sanity and solace through the forbidden activities of drawing and painting, secretly producing paint from flower petals and tea, using brushes made from toothpicks and human hair. Whenever she was caught, she received severe penalties that ranged from forced isolation to brutal beatings.

Now a longtime resident of Sweden, Ardavan continues to paint and has exhibited around the world, most recently in the Half of Heaven exhibition that formed part of the Nour Festival of Arts in London.

The thing that is immediately striking about Ardavan’s work is its microscopic scale. We’re talking painstakingly detailed drawings and paintings rendered on scraps of card no bigger than the palm of a child’s hand. Her work is exhibited inside a glass display box. At first glance it resembles a collection of large stamps, until closer inspection reveals haunting images of incarceration and suffering. Her expertise in miniature painting and drawing is no artistic gimmick, simply a practical solution to outwit a sadistic penal regime.

[caption id="attachment_55246824" align="alignright" width="300"]Prison Sketches ©Soudabeh ArdavanSoudabeh ArdavanPrison Sketches©Soudabeh Ardavan[/caption]

“For the first six years that I was imprisoned, all the art I created was confiscated and destroyed by the guards and my friends and I were punished. So, during my last two years, I came to the conclusion that I should work to a much smaller scale so that they could be smuggled out,” she tells The Majalla.

At great risk to themselves, Ardavan’s female inmates helped her smuggle her artwork out of the prison. “During visits all physical contact was forbidden, but we were allowed to hug babies so we slipped the pictures inside the baby blankets and clothing,” she says.

In this way Ardavan eventually managed to save up to two hundred of her precious pieces, and it is a selection of this very same work that The Majalla had the privilege of viewing up close.

Unsurprisingly, all of the tiny compositions deal with Ardavan’s captivity in one form or another. Many of these are expressionistic, such as Inner Portrait, where we see a merging multitude of faces at various stages of emotional turmoil. Others are more traditional in their real-life depiction of captivity. In Evin Prison, for instance, every single brick of the dauntingly high walls topped with barbed wire is illustrated with meticulous pinpoint accuracy. Though this is a solely black ink affair, we can appreciate the blinding light and dry heat of a scorching Persian afternoon. Shadows creep up the walls and half submerge two lines of docile inmates squatting in the courtyard below.
[caption id="attachment_55246836" align="alignleft" width="215"]Soudabeh Ardavan  Evin Prison @Soudabeh ArdavanSoudabeh Ardavan
Evin Prison
@Soudabeh Ardavan[/caption]
Oppressive, high walls are a recurring theme in Ardavan’s work, but her art becomes most stimulating when she blurs the line between expressionism and realism. A color rendition entitled Imprisonment is a good example of this, where we witness a giant and grotesque human hand reach down through a prison roof and begin crushing a faceless horde of victims. The horror is obvious, but more interesting is the frustration—frustration with the pathetic helplessness of the prisoners and the acknowledgement that despite her artistic rebellion, Ardavan is one of them.

An architecture student at Tehran’s Polytechnic Institute, Ardavan was arrested in 1981 on chillingly vague grounds.

“They charged me with being against the regime. They had no evidence, no documents, but they imprisoned me anyway. After two years they found a link with a banned opposition party and gave me another three years,” she tells The Majalla. After doing her five years the authorities demanded one final act of submission—a humiliating admission of guilt—before releasing her. “They asked me to repent and retract my original statement. I refused, so they kept me. I served eight years in all.”

Ardavan’s refusal to compromise, even at the expense of her own freedom, was borne out of loyalty to her fellow political prisoners and their code of never becoming a Tavabin, a despised category of prisoner who "repented" and then worked and spied for the guards. We see these prison comrades—teenage girls incarcerated for similar non-crimes— in a series of portraits, which feature beautiful faces haggard with sorrow. Not all of the girls were happy with the end results.

“One of my friends criticized my portraits, asking why they were all so sad,” Ardavan chuckles. “I told her it wasn’t my fault, but the fault of my models, who could not help losing themselves in sad thoughts when they sat for me. ‘Okay,’ my friend said. ‘I’m going to sit for you and I’m going to laugh.’ Well that’s what she did and there were soon forty women lining up waiting for their turn. Because laughter is infectious.”

Inevitably everybody was punished, but Ardavan believes it was worth it. “We always tried to do what was valuable to us and were willing to take the consequences.”