When Life Gives You Poppy, Make Pop Art

By David Jenison on March 1, 2017

From heroin to oxycodone, narcotics are made from the milky latex of unripened opium poppy. The cultivation of poppy plants started in Mesopotamia, an ancient land that included western Iran, and opium is so common in Iran today that the Washington Post once said it costs less than beer. Iranian-American artist Taravat Talepasand included opium paintings in her latest exhibit, Westoxicated, at Zevitas Marcus (through March 18) in Los Angeles. PRØHBTD discussed opium with Talepasand in this installment of our five-part interview with the artist. 

It all started with a story my mother shared with me about her first experience with opium as a child. My grandmother would prepare special cookies to calm down her seven children. From the family garden, my grandmother would pick fresh poppies and crush the opium into the cookie dough. She wanted to make a Persian snack of tea and cookies for the excitable children in hopes to calm them down in time for their daily afternoon nap. As I was shocked to hear how my mother knowingly ate opium, I was equally surprised by her giddy expression and blasé attitude, her own nod to a time when traditions surpassed the political laws of what’s right from wrong. 

During my time in Iran, I would always pressure my uncles to show me—if not allow me to smoke—opium. My uncles knew this was the only thing that would really dazzle me and grab my attention, since opium wasn’t readily available for me in the United States. No, I was never allowed to smoke or see the drug. Later, my parents finally opened up to me about their experience smoking opium, and how they still partake with friends in Iran today. I quickly learned that opium was regarded as a privilege of the elderly, a medicinal comfort from the daily grind. You have to understand that for me, this was blasphemous! My parents have not, and will not, smoke marijuana, even though I tried to entice them both many times. These stories created a smaller gap between my family in Iran and myself in how we shared our experiences with narcotics. I have tried smoking opium and even swallowed it whole in Iran. Unfortunately, my body doesn’t respond kindly to opiates so it’s not one of my drugs of choice.

After the Iran-Iraq War, I began researching opium and learned how it was made and from where it was most often distributed. Soon after learning Afghanistan is the world’s biggest opium producer, American troops began occupying the country. This was about the same time I started making connections as to how devastating opium really was and the war that perpetuated around it. Just as marijuana grows rapidly in California, so does opium in Iran, with both countries accepting the illegal substance as medicinal and recreational. Before the opium blooms, you can actually access the sap itself in order to consume the drug. 

Growing up, my mother would decorate the house with fake opium flowers, and I would arrange them in different ways for paintings and drawings. I did not know the narcotic substance that poppies are known to produce, but rather I was drawn towards the full petals and spiky bulbs. Now it has a completely different conceptual purpose in my studio practice giving me the conviction to include it in the works for Westoxicated.

While researching my own fascination around opium use in Iran, I started making clear and precise theoretical connections between opium found in Persian miniature paintings and its control and deterioration of man as described in my painting Andarooni, BIrooni, Lies and Man. Here you will find the opium flowers breaking through the Islamic cleric’s bust while uplifting his own turban. I redefined the opium flower as a source of power representing itself as the femaleness of the country that was once historically described as the rising sun. The female sun is described as part of the old Iranian flag and found in artwork during the Qajar Dynasty of Iran. I proclaim the opium flower in place of Iranian women, breaking the codes written by the Islamic clerics that govern the country of Iran. 

For Westoxicated, I rendered stickers in the shape and form of an opium flower, both blooming and leaking its sap, titled Opium Tears I and II. Rendering the flower as a sticker or decal is my own gesture in describing the discipline of realism to challenge the subject's meaning: slapping a sticker onto a painting leaving a corner to be ripped off and used by the viewer. Whenever I travel, I’m always interested in finding graffiti, murals, decaying walls as if they hold together the purest form and cultural histories of the human hand. The opium flower, its tears and stickers, is my own tag.

For me, the War on Drugs is really about a War for Drugs. As a kid, I remember D.A.R.E. telling you, “Don’t do drugs,” and public school health education proclaiming, “Weed is the gateway to trying other drugs.” This scared the shit out of me until I stepped out of my first puff-puff-pass hot box. I thought, “I love weed, why would I want to try anything else?” Still, I continued hearing and learning about the [War on Drugs] phrase over and over again, like a hook or a chorus to a bad commercial jingle. When America and several other countries started occupying Afghanistan, I coined the phrase “War for Drugs” because the black market and trafficking of drugs have supplemented the economy of many countries.

President Richard Nixon originally coined the phrase "War on Drugs" in America. Nixon led the United States government’s campaign of drug prohibition, military aid and military intervention, with the aim to reduce the illegal drug trade. Since then, America sided with Iraq to declare war on Iran, sided with Kuwait against Iraq, declared war in Iraq, and continues to occupy Iraq and Afghanistan today. There are a variety of reasons as to why one country goes to war with another. I am focused on its relationship to narcotics and the global control of certain resources made available by the nations' fertile lands while their citizens suffer the consequences.

Allegory plays a very important role in my practice and in my life. I source my pigments from around the world, often times from places that I visited, all to create my own paints for egg tempera paintings—both Eastern and Western historical painting techniques. My materials and practices are rooted historically and include illegal substances such as hash oil that offer a range of beautiful variations of amber that I can’t find in any pigments on this planet. My use of drugs in my work proclaims the materials that are widely found and used in the 21st century. Acid doesn’t offer me a tint, hue or texture that can be detected by the human eye. Having a hit of LSD on sanctioned Iranian currency gives back its value in the United States, and probably more if that crossed borders. You see, for me, there is so much more than just the act of painting and creating art, which at times can even involve including drugs. I seek to find challenges in my work where the materials and its meaning create their own balance of good and evil. 

Maybe some of the drugs had their time in the past, but now you can find hash and hash oil in a lot of dispensaries. You really didn't see that so much before, but it's coming back. Same thing with acid. If you knew someone who did LSD, it was like, "Whoa dude, you're really out there,” or you probably just did it during the 1960s. Now you've got people microdosing, and it’s a really big thing. I'm tapping into our times and putting those substances and materials physically into the paintings. 

Living in San Francisco one soon learns of the city's history of narcotics from the glory days of peace-love-and hippies, marijuana fog, mushrooms grown in the parks and homemade LSD. There is a sense of freedom for drugs to be found within the Bay Area. Rather than be that female artist who paints the oppressed women in black veils, I aim for materials that give the narrative a life, and in some cases, to proclaim justice.

While the American economy boosts itself by legalizing recreational marijuana with the streets soon to be lined with dispensaries filled with candy buds and hash while pills continue to leak from prescribed pharmaceutical bottles and the daily thrill of microdosing LSD now catapulting into the mainstream… Iranians and Americans together are now experiencing dramatic changes in the political, social, and religious landscape, making drug addiction an alarming problem in modern day Iran and America. Perhaps Trump and his followers prefer the opposing team get high to summon people to take to the streets in protest, similar to Iran’s tactics against their restless, oppressed youth by introducing western narcotics. I say we take whatever the fuck we want against the hardliners' weapons and let their drugs flow free to numb the pain. I submit my work to challenge it all, to capture the beauty of social chaos and the balance of good and evil that all of us share regardless of age, sex, religion and patriotism.

David Jenison ( is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.

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