If you know me, follow me on Twitter or Instagram, or visit my NFT profiles on Superrare, Opensea or Foundation, then you have come to see that my artwork is very personal and also serves my broader mission (women’s/human rights). If you don’t know me yet, hi, I’m Roya, and I want to talk a little bit about how my art has transformed me, my personal life and the lives of people I know, and how art with a purpose is one of the greatest human assets to instigate transformation of the collective. You can see this amazing process playing out every day with NFT artists and collection projects (like World of Women), and I challenge you to do some digging and see what you find! OK, onto the blog…
I have always been inspired by powerful women. When I was younger, I honestly did not see myself as “powerful” and yet I looked up to women I knew or saw in the news who stood up for themselves, their race, their gender or their beliefs. Sadly, these brave women were all too often prosecuted for taking a stand or even for defending those who did. For those of you who’ve grown up in a western society, the idea that a woman would be sentenced to jail for such a thing may seem crazy… after all, in countries like America the women’s rights movement began to take shape as early as 1848.
As I looked deeper into the women’s rights movement, I found something which surprised me - but then also made a lot of sense. The same women who founded the women’s rights movement in the US (Elizabeth Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, etc.) played major roles in the abolishment of slavery years earlier. Similarly, strong men who worked hard to end slavery also became vocal about women’s rights. It is the nature of creative and free thinking people to find and support each other, and this is something I see happening everyday in the art space. And just as the final conventional vote to adopt the Stanton’s “Declaration of Sentiments” for women’s rights was largely due to abolitionist Frederick Douglass’s firm support, it is every creative person’s responsibility to network and find ways to use their art and their voice to support each other and the causes they believe in.
I’m not writing this blog as a history lesson, though I do believe it is important to be a student of history (or be doomed to repeat it). As I wrote these prior sentences on the early women’s rights movement in the US, I gleaned two essential insights:
1) Change doesn’t happen overnight. Though meaningful, large-scale change is often spurred on by tragedies (as is the case with Hanna Lalango and the Setaweet Feminist Movement I will discuss later), there are always bumps in the road and sometimes even u-turns. Human rights are always supported by reasonable people and free thinkers, and refuted by those who are either ignorant, afraid, angry, or profiting from the inequality. Since so many humans, and sadly often the majority of those in power, operate from these latter places, change takes years, decades and even centuries to take hold. This brings me to the next insight;
2) Transformation requires creative thinking and determination. Brute force rarely has the power required to shift the course of history unless it is supremely well capitalized. Instead, we have always seen that grassroots transformation is born from those who have a creative outlook on life and see things differently. Whether it’s an ingenious strategy, a viral idea, or a poignant political cartoon that sticks in people minds, transformation requires vision. Most, if not all humans are capable of assimilating “vision”, however to give birth to inspired vision requires a great deal of creativity. This is where the artists come in.
Art has always been admired for its ability to “show not tell”. Anybody who knows a thing or two about marketing or creative story writing has heard this phrase, and it holds the key to art’s transformational power. In the same vein as “seeing is believing”, this concept illustrates the fact that change takes place inside each of our minds and it is something we must arrive at ourselves. We cannot be forced to (authentically) change, we must come about the change via our innate faculty to take in information and decide how we feel about it. Since humans are very visual creatures, visual art is the perfect vehicle to inspire transformation and help people see what’s possible.
One of the ways that I, personally, have chosen to inspire change is to create art based around key members of movements or situations I believe in or wish to support. I have done this countless times over the past 8 years, and each of these artworks not only symbolizes and inspires large groups of people, but also creates new layers of depth within myself.
Sometimes, an artwork I create will reach tens of thousands of people. Sometimes, only a few hundred. But in the end, if a work of art even inspires one person to make a difference in their lives and the lives of others, it’s a wild success. I will share a few examples of this below to better connect you to how this process has played out in my career and life.
In this painting, entitled “Ethiopian Girl”, I depicted a fanciful and vibrant adult version of Hanna Lalango. Hanna was the unfortunate victim of a brutal assault on her gender resulting in her murder in Ethiopia in 2014. Learning about her story I found myself devastated. As I learned more, I found that it was this tragedy which spurred on the Setaweet (meaning “woman” in the local language) Feminist Movement in Ethiopia. This contemporary feminist movement aims to articulate Ethiopian feminism and creates the space for dialogue, research and activism by Ethiopian men and women.
Knowing that I was a world away from Africa, being based in Germany, I decided to contribute to this cause via my art. Hanna died as a teenager, and it broke my heart that such a beautiful girl never got to see adulthood. So I decided to paint her as the strong and beautiful woman she would have grown into. In this way, as people view the painting they not only learn about the tragedy and resulting gains in women’s rights it has lead to, but also are confronted with their own unique mix of feelings surrounding dying before their time, the loss of beauty and the danger which always results from such a gross abuse of power. What also makes this, and all of my artworks powerful, is the fact that I poured my own devastation, anguish and conviction into every stroke. This art healed a part of me, and so it does for those who spend time with it.
Growing up in Iran, I faced some of the most misguided anti-female sentiment found anywhere on Earth. Living in a place where all aspects of your life are censored and looked down on is something that is hard to express to anyone who hasn’t experienced this type of social abuse. There are so many women who have risked their freedom and their lives to help enact change in Iran, and one who really inspires me is Nasrin Sotoudeh. When I was younger, I knew of Nasrin’s impact as the legal representation for outspoken journalists and nobel prize winners, but it was her willingness to stand up for women who dared go out in public without wearing their mandatory hijab (head covering).
I always resented being forced to cover my head in public while growing up. It was a constant disregard for my creative freedom and basic human rights. Nasrin was the subject of a 2020 documentary which shares her name, filmed in secret inside Iran. This exposé shed light into her “ongoing battles for the rights of women, children and minorities.” Her persistent effort to live for something bigger than herself has caused her to be imprisoned and even sentenced to solitary confinement. The current Iranian regime considers her efforts surrounding women’s rights to be “spreading propaganda and conspiring to harm state security” and she remains incarcerated to this day, with some periods of restricted home visits.
In this portrait I created to show my support for her and all she is doing to advance women’s and human rights in Iran, I depicted Nasrin with a neutral yet compassionate face, existing beyond the melodrama surrounding her opposition. She wears a beautiful dress and is holding a butterfly to her throat. This butterfly, a universal symbol for transformation, is red with a passion for life and emboldens her voice. Chains break open in the face of her strong heart, as they are beginning to all around modern-day Iran as the new generation has continued to push the boundaries she has so tirelessly helped to topple.
In much the same way that visual art helps people see truth and shift their perspectives, poetry speaks to the heart of a person and strikes chords not easily struck by long-form writing. Forugh Farrokhzad is my favorite modern day poet, partly because she is the most iconic and controversial feminist poet ever to come out of Iran, and partially because her poems speak directly to my feelings and trials as a young woman. You can’t properly describe a poet without including one of their poems, I have chosen one of my favorites:
The four elements alone rule me;
my heart’s charter cannot be drafted
by the provincial government of the blind.
Forugh tragically died at the age of 32, and Iran lost one of its greatest agents of change. In this painting I depict her surrounded by color and life, she is outside at night surrounded by a sky full of falling stars. As dreamers make a wish upon these stars, Forugh took a stand and inspired endless dreams in the hearts and minds of oppressed women all around the world. On her head, rather than the obligatory hijab, I planted flowers which grow wild out of her unfettered mind. All of these colors are juxtaposed by her black and white face, representing her early death. Yet her lips retain their color, as her voice continues to inspire a nation of women who are fighting everyday for their rights.
I’ve always found that sharing our own personal history and work is the best way to teach others by our own example. Do as I do is superior to do as I say.
As I engage with young women artists and help them understand the current nature of the art and NFT market, I make a point to explain that art with a purpose at this time with so many important causes that need attention provides greater avenues to success and also makes each of us feel better about going about our normal course of business. I’ve said it before and I will say it again and again, there has never been a better time to make a living as an artist. The tools are there, the courses are free, and the causes are endless. When you choose to align you work with any transformational process, it grows wings and will fly to places you never thought you’d go.
When you create art based on your own personal journey, struggles, ideals, opinions and hopes, it changes who you are. Art is therapy, it is a spiritual and transcendent practice which for me has helped me grow and overcome every obstacle life has thrown my way. My wish is to inspire thousands of people to pursue their dreams, outgrow their limitations, and become self actualized. If you or anyone you know would like to have a conversation about how to make this dream a reality, please reach out to me on Twitter, Instagram or fill out the form on my Contact page and I would love to talk.