Nasim Pachi: A Veil for Seeing
In her oil & acrylic on linen paintings of a veiled woman, we catch a glimpse of Pachi's artistic vision -- to see through time and to retrieve what might otherwise be lost
The painter Nasim Pachi picks me up outside of a subway station on the island of Lantau on a day in Spring when Hong Kong has really decided to have a Spring, instead of launching oppressively into summer.
It’s an appropriate beginning for a story about an artistic journey.
Crowds of people who are outside for Easter holiday shopping during the pandemic clog the mall, and traffic is chaotic and constant.
Pachi was born in Iran and was living there during the Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. She has lived twice in Hong Kong. She has lived in seveeral other places, notably, Hamburg, Germany, where she studied art.
She recently returned to Hong Kong after a stint away, and is living on the island of Lantau, the Chinese territory’s largest island.
“I will be driving you over the tallest part of the mountains here, and you will see where you are going,” she says, as she guides the small car up the hill and gestures to the taller parts of the mountains in the distance.
I have not been on Lantau Island for a very long time, maybe five or six years. The island is much busier than I remember, but the rush of people cannot disguise the familiar landscape. It’s natural and lush. Even in the industrial haze of a warm day, the island has a lustre to it.
Tall cypress pines rise above cutaways of volcanic rock. Steep inclines give way to a vista of the ocean at the highest point of the island, and then we are headed back down to the coast.
The focus of my meeting with Pachi are her oil and acrylic paintings that use intricate textile patterns and patterned backgrounds and that bear a slight familiarity with the Surrealist paintings of Magritte. Pachi’s, however, are remarkably different, and, in my opinion, are a wonderful play of tension and symbolism that evokes the history of oil painting, and a departure from it in a most contemporary way.
As she drives me to her coastal home and studio, we discuss the different countries she has traveled to and lived in: Niger; Germany; Ireland; Singapore; Iran (where she was born).
Her English is precise and inflected with the cultural milieu of her worldly travels. Her speech is laced with the “Tanks” of the Irish brogue. Her “Hamburg” reveals a tongue familiar with umlauts and “Bitte Schoenes.”
When her sister calls her during our drive, she switches to a melodious Persian. I feel at home in the multilingual and multicultural world of her car.
We arrive to a studio home set back against a hill, which is covered today in a bright blue tarp. Construction workers seem to be working on the hillside and the tarp conceals the surface of the bare earth, which is normally encased in concrete.
Inside the house, Pachi removes her veil paintings from her upstairs studio, which faces the hillside behind the house, and unrolls them onto her dining room table, which overlooks the bright sun-scape of Lantau oceanside.
These are the veiled paintings. In the natural sunlight, they glow and they also reveal the tremendous patience and delicate brushstroke of the artist. These paintings, according to Pachi, took four years to make. They were part of her German art studies program.
They depict a woman in various states of action, either grappling with, becoming familiar with, or trying to see through a pre-Islamic veil decorated in the Persian style of painting.
The major foci of the work are: how the paintings’ actions show the journey of the subject as she deals with the relationship between herself and the veil; as well as the obscuring of the subject’s face, particularly her eyes.
“I try always to hide the eyes,” says Pachi, “Or the attention is just drawn to them.”
Let’s star first with what I think is an important point about oil painting.
Traditionally, oil painting has been a framework for displaying the objects of materialism or capitalism, ownership and possession. The details found in oil paintings were, long ago, synonymous with the devoted attention that the owner / possessor of the painting took to care for his or her possessions.
Pachi’s intense focus for detail has a connection to the material world. For her, it’s a historical one, caused by the Islamisation of the Iranian country. For example, the patterns in the “Moulting” paintings are taken from Pre-Islamic textiles and architecture.
Specifically, the pattern on the veil comes from the pattern on the mausoleum of a great Persian poet, Hafez, who was alive in 1315-1390. The so-called Girih tiles have a complex mathematical relationship. Physicists call them “quasi-crystalline” and they are quite crucial forms for the building of works of engineering and art.
By choosing the ornamentation of Hafez’s tomb and these crystalline shapes, which are normally found on buildings of great historical importance, Pachi is creating an allegory of the Iranian sensibility and reaching back through centuries to recover what is lost through “the West’s” misunderstanding of what Iran’s history and its connection to its past is all about.
Beyond the care for realistic detail and historical accuracy in the painting’s masterful renditions of fabric and patterns, which she creates using acrylic (because they dry fast and allow her to see any mistakes or adjustments, or additions of details) Pachi is also paying tribute or working from her inspiration when viewing the veiled paintings of Magritte, the Belgian surrealist, and the rich textile backgrounds of paintings by Kehinde Wiley.
Ironically, and surrealistically, the veil, which covers the face and eyes of Magritte’s subjects, is being used to see, in my opinion, just in the way that Pachi uses the textiles to draw attention to what can be seen in the history and the culture they represent.
Something hidden and often unseen is found through questioning and careful attention to detail.
The same process happens in Kehinde Wiley’s paintings, when he plays with rich culturally significant fabrics and patterns to place African-American men in the context of historical portraiture, and thereby recover them from a past that is hidden from majority representation in art.
Like Pachi’s paintings, Wiley uses extravagant colour that reflects life rather than austerity and seriousness, though, through the postures of the subjects and the intensity of the subject’s gaze and sincerity, we see something deeply important.
For Pachi, the veil enlarges then to be more than a single thing that finds representation in art and to become something more like a metaphor for art itself. Art takes away a veil that is often standing between us and our experience with the world. There is a world out there, in fact, that is much more complex, but welcoming to us and our attention.
The veil — specifically in her art — is both a representation of a symbol that might be recognized through Iran’s history and bring forth its history, but it is also being used as a totem, where the actual painting of its pattern serves as a kind of mystical focuser for the artist. The fact that this is done in the historical genre of oil painting gives it this weight. She is placing the artefact into an historical genre, and offering recognition for herself and for her audience of something that is often disguised but could be a means of cultural connection if only it was known.
Pachi’s oil paintings cover a great distance, in time, as measured by the unending unfolding crises and erasures created by Western thought in its reflection on Iran, and also in her attention to the individual moments of catastrophe and stress that have occurred in Iran during times of war and conflict, revolution and great change.
During her veil painting period, which lasted four years, Pachi worked to rescue or retrieve from art history and time that which was Persian and timeless.
“I was very frustrated during this period,” she says of the paintings.
“It’s not just identity, it’s cultural, historical. Frustration of being called Islamic rather than Iranian, experiencing living in an open society [in Germany].”
She writes in her Bachelor’s thesis: “I am coming from a complex country, made up of various social groups from different walks of life with different educational backgrounds, traditions and customs.”
Iran today, as it was many centuries ago, is a mix of religious minorities, Persians, Turks, Kurds, Baluch, Arabs, Armenians and Assyrians, and that’s just a few of those groups. But what often happens in Western media and even academia is that Iran as a country and a culture is thought of as one thing, Arab, for example, or Islamic.
The labelling of someone from Iran as Arab or the art as Arabic is especially troubling, because of the country’s history. The existence of Arabic Islam in Iran is a minority of the country’s history, it’s past, and its people. It’s a serious misreading of what makes up the country of Iran.
She tells me in a chat message: “I am now more calm, but when I was working on this project I was frustrated. Now if somebody calls me Arab, I laugh and I say I am not Arab.”
Like the cave paintings of Lascaux that archaeologists believe were made by their makers to connect the hunter to the hunted, or, like the Ancient Egyptian pyramid art and pillars of hieroglyphics that told a history of the past, Pachi’s painting “work”, the labor of putting together the oil art of skin and historical textile patterns on linen, is a way of tapping into some kind of cosmic, or myth-making ethos that resurrects the past.
“I feel like trance when I am creating my patterns, not particularly just with Persian patterns,” says Pachi. “I am working with eternity in my art,” says Pachi. “Repetitive patterns mean to me also a kind of eternity.”
Like Roman Opalka, who spent at least 40 years of his life painting the numbers 1 to infinity, Pachi is, conceptually, retracing and tracing over history by focusing on symbolic patterns. While the patterns may not reveal a specific textual narrative, the experience of the artist somehow bleeds through the painting process and presents the final painting as a kind of reflection of that journey through time, trial, frustration, and revelatory emotion.
Having seen these paintings, we walk up to the studio to see some of the painter’s newer work, still in progress. You can see them on her Instagram profile. Several paintings hang from screws in the wall, all of them in various forms of process.
I am standing with the veil paintings rolled up in my arms. It occurs to me that I can now take in their full physicality. They are heavy. Their mixture of oil and linen make them feel almost like living beings. They are soft, dense, and cool to the touch. I can hear the tiny sound of crinkling paper, which she has inserted between some of the individual paintings to protect them from friction or moisture.
Pachi does not stretch her canvases on frames to work on them, because she is too busy moving around from place to place and she doesn’t want to mess with the hassle of movers. Since they hang from the wall, they are easier to take in the entire expanse of the patterns she is is painting. They look like tapestries with a striking focal point of a woman in the middle.
One is of a ballerina dancing in a dress made out of a French cathedral’s stained glass windows; another is a nude meditating woman floating above an ocean scene of marine boats and junks. In these paintings, the faces are seen, in half profile or in full frontal view. The colours are sometimes much lighter than the veil paintings. Sometimes they are darker. But they both hold her incredibly detailed ability to depict skin and the fixtures of the objects.
But it’s striking that in these paintings the women’s faces are more visible. I ask her about it.
“It’s like I am slowly and cautiously unveiling,” she tells me.
She takes the rolls from my arms and sets them on a chair by the wall.
“I can come back and get these later,” she says.
Now we must continue our journey back to civilisation. We have talked for at least four hours.
We head downstairs and then drive off in the car through the haze, and over the mountain and back down into the crowds.