Naeemeh Naeemaei is an Iranian environmental artist and activist who presented her art work at Oregon State University in Winter, 2020. Following her presentation, Naeemaei spoke in detail about her environmental justice work and art, her passions, and her experience of living in the United States amid political tensions surrounding the U.S. sanctions in her home country, and the ways in which they inform her art. Naeemaei also spoke about the ways the sanctions have severely impacted Iran’s ability to fight COVID-19. 

“People around the world are facing the impact of nature’s destruction. A tiny virus has expanded across all lands and oceans with no exceptions in race and religion! It’s not the time to pray but to urgently make fundamental changes in our behavior and lifestyle,” she says about the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The U.S. sanctions have impacted Iranian people more than the government, politicians and house representatives, she says. People are unable to access medicines, COVID-19 test kits, and essential goods. Despite a robust public health system, the number of infections is growing rapidly within a short period, she says.   

During her time of self-isolation, she is spending her time at home and at her studio working on her paintings and developing ideas for new projects.

What are some central themes in your artwork? What inspires your activism and art? How are they connected for you? 

I have worked on several series and they mostly had a theme related to nature. My recent painting series has an obvious environmental theme blended with cultural and social issues. Environmental crises have been on top of my concerns for years so they have found their ways into my artwork. Reflecting on nature has been on my mind since I was a little child. I cannot call myself an “artist” or an “environmental activist” because there is no clear line between them in my life. I am full of concerns and I should find a way to act as a responsible human. 

I started to study biology and then I learned more about art and I realized that art can be used as a strong communicative language, so I used it to express my concerns. Environmental crises, like many other human-made crises, are rooted in cultural-social bases. I have gotten involved in a complicated context which is as wide as human life and its history.  

What do you want your audience/viewers to get from your work? 

More than a decade ago I wanted to inform people about environmental issues. I insisted people look at my work just from that point of view and I kept lecturing at audiences. But now I don’t think it was a great idea. Now I think I should not advise people and I cannot make decisions for their perceptions. They might like or dislike my work, they might understand what I had in my mind, or, they might have concerns with my work. 

When I face an environmental problem, before giving a solution I should understand the factors causing that problem. For knowing that I should be among people, not just by physical presence, but by incorporating all the capacity of comprehension I might have, in order to learn and understand. I believe the same after I finish an art piece too.  

At a time like this, when there is increased xenophobia, surveillance and policing of Black and brown bodies, and discrimination, what are some connections that can emerge between art and politics? Do you think art can be political today? Should it be political? How is it useful?

I wouldn’t say art should be political. There should be enough space for any artist to follow any concept with no limitation. But as you might see many artists are responding to social movements and politics by making critical art pieces. Personally I think artists as human beings can increase awareness by breaking barriers around people’s minds. 

Do you think that art can contribute to peace, healing and social change? How? 

Yes, I think art can contribute to peace but we should be aware that art, along with many other fields, is a tool which can save a life or kill. It can contribute to peace and to war. I cannot address how it impacts society because there are as many ways as there are artists. Society is made of people and artists are among them, they have grown in the same context. Just that artists are equipped with a special tool, which can pass all layers of logic and touch people’s hearts.  

What are some challenges around doing environmental activism and environmental justice work in Iran currently, especially in light of the impact of the U.S. sanctions that were imposed? 

The sanctions targeted Iran’s government and finance and because of that ordinary people have been facing intolerable financial pressure. When people are facing serious problems even for their basic needs they won’t be able to pay attention to other necessities like environmental issues. It has also been very difficult for nongovernmental organizations to provide funding for their projects. Unfortunately, in conditions like what Iran is facing now, environmental issues are considered ‘unnecessary” or just as luxury. Even in such difficult conditions, there are many activists who are fighting to increase awareness and to protect the environment.

Who are some of your favorite artists? 

I am more inspired by directors than other artists. They formed my way of looking at the world and they taught me how diverse human perspectives are. Andrey Tarkovsky, Theo Angelopoulos, Wim Wenders and Wong KarWai were some of my prophets, along with many others. 

Interview and picture by Sharadha Kalyanam, 2nd year PhD student, Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Queer Studies minor.