The Blasphemous Drug Art of Taravat Talepasand

By David Jenison on February 6, 2017

Drug prohibition, rebellious youth and a bizarre fascination with Kim Kardashian are not exclusive to the United States. The same trends occur in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and its religious leaders describe this westward lust with the pejorative term “gharbzadegi,” which is commonly translated into English as westoxicated, weststruck and Euromania. Taravat Talepasand is an Iranian-American artist conceived in Iran yet born in the States, and she boldly explored these prohibitions earlier this year in an exhibit titled Westoxicated at Zevitas Marcus in Los Angeles. Trained in Persian miniature and ancient art techniques yet constantly pushing new boundaries, Talepasand crafted oversized meth pipes, painted with butane hash oil and created pieces associated with opium poppy, acid and cannabis leaves for her latest exhibit. PRØHBTD spoke extensively with Talepasand, and in the first of a five-part interview, we discuss the Iranian Revolution, cosmetic surgery and drug culture. Upcoming installments will focus specifically on opium, acid, meth and the seriously proposed idea of Kim Kardashian as a secret agent. 

You were born in 1979, the same year as the Iranian Revolution. How would you characterize Iran pre- and post-revolution?

Iran is not the authoritarian dark place most Americans and media coverage portrayed it to be. I have explored my own experiences growing up outside of Iran as a citizen to an émigré family, a product of Iran born into the melting pot of America. Based on photographs and stories told byfamily members and friends, I know pre-revolution Iran as a non-oppressive country in line with fashion, arts and culture between Europe and America. Women were not legally forced to wear veils back then, so they could wear mini-skirts, go-go boots and crop tops, especially during the ʼ60s. Iran idolized Paris and London and New York City and wanted to be at that same level. Unfortunately, [Ayatollah] Khomeini was in Paris at the time, and he was trying to infiltrate the country. I guess if you believe in conspiracy theories, the Shah of Iran was having problems with the U.S. government, so at some point the leadership roles flipped. Khomeini took the Shah’s place, mandating that every woman wear black veils and changing the country's name to the Islamic Republic of Iran.

My understanding of post-revolution Iran is based on the [exhibition] title Westoxicated. I was first moved by this term while reading Lipstick Jihad by Azadeh Moaveni. According to Foucault, human beings use systems of production, signs, power and self to balance their identities. Living under the Islamic Republic of Iran targets all these systems to recommend new ways of being, comment on the loss of talent, knowledge and energy in Iran, and represent women and intellectuals not as powerless puppets or “westoxicated” others. The “Islamic Youth” have mobilized a sexual and social revolution to speak back to a regime with which they were unhappy. Because the regime was so overly focused on their bodies, physical appearance, moral code and sexualities, they were using these very tools to speak back to their oppressors. The frustration with tradition and cultural norms mandated that they live constricted lives, while their counterparts in the West were able to progress. However, young people’s image of the West is a product of the globalized media constructed by MTV and satellite TV. Assumptions have been made to equate sex and drugs with the West, due to the Western media to which they are exposed, and thus they believe certain sexual behaviors or using certain substances is more “Western” and perhaps more in style. Lines have been drawn by the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the youth who push and cross those boundaries inspire me to paint and create. 

What year did your parents move to the States?

My father moved to the States in 1977 on a full-ride scholarship from the University of Oregon in Eugene, and my mother followed in late 1978. Iwas conceived in Iran during a visit by my father to see his wife and my older sister Tannaz. I was born on the U of O campus. Growing up, I remember people saying, "Oh, Eugene's the armpit of America." "What does that mean?" They're like, "You know, hippies, the Grateful Dead, smoking weed, drugs, acid." Very interesting how my parents chose to be at this very open small town in Oregon. 

The Blasphemy pieces highlight the hypocrisy of covering women up in public but expecting them to look like western-style sex symbols behind closed doors. Please explain this cultural phenomenon.

During my visits to Iran since the 1980s, I lived through the black veil and strict cultural codes as Iran became one of the world’s Top 10 countries performing plastic surgeries. Nose jobs, breast implants, face lifts... I was absolutely stunned. What is the point if you're going to cover it up? I saw people go to great lengths to rid themselves of Persian distinctions like their noses. That's when I started noticing a trend that crossed borders and the idealization of beauty. Women and men on the street had bandages on their noses long after they had their surgeries. It's a sign of status, like, "Look at me, I can afford to do this. I'm more beautiful than you." I just could not understand any of this. Whenever I traveled to Iran, I never took makeup. I brought one pair of shoes, one pair of jeans and a few shirts and some underwear. That's it. I'm covered the entire time unless I’m at home with family and friends. 

While researching this phenomenon online, I stumbled upon images of Iranian women posing nude on the internet. They're not on pornographic sites either. These are writers, artists, professors, educated women who chose to put their bodies out there. The first image I found was an Arab woman with huge fake breasts. I painted her several times in my work over the last decade, then I painted her as a sculpture and finally she’s been created as a mold and bronzed. On display at the show is a porcelain sculpture tagged, stickered and defaced. The graphite drawings are of Roxana Shirazi, born in Iran and based in London. She wrote The Last Living Slut: Born In Iran, Bred Backstage where she talks about her childhood growing up in Tehran, Iran during the Iranian Revolution, and the sexual and physical abuse she suffered from her friends and family. Roxana also gives us a peek into the X-rated life most of us couldn’t imagine following Guns ‘n’ Roses and sleeping with Slash. She sent me a photoshoot, and I started drawing this badass Iranian. The hash-oil paintings are of an Iranian-born woman living in Germany who posted beautiful images of herself naked proclaiming the freedom of her body. All these images I'm creating exist. They're already out there. All I'm doing is selecting what inspires me to create as paintings or drawings or make into installations or sculptures. When you create a piece of art, it’s viewed in a different way than seeing it online or in a pornographic magazine.

Why did you name the series Blasphemy?

The word “blasphemy” was given to my bronze sculpture Pathétique by the inspiring architect and art enthusiast Amir Mortazavi in San Francisco. He approached my work on display at Peter Kirkeby Studios and said, "Ugh, this is blasphemy." This is really hardcore work, so from that point on the term “blasphemy” entered my studio practice. For a westerner, it's like, "Okay, it's kind of blasphemous, I guess," but as an Iranian, it's on a whole other level. It is rare to find Iranian artists going in this direction. There is too much at risk if they want to travel back to Iran or they don't want to upset or compromise their family integrity. I banned myself from Iran when I started the Blasphemy series in 2007. If I'm going to be super laborious in making art, I want to do something that really interests me and that’s missing in the art world right now. That's the Blasphemy series.

Tell me about the Blasphemy pieces made with hash oil. 

Drug use in Iran is a historical phenomenon. Opium has an ancient role in Iranian history. Hash is an indigenous drug in Iran: marijuana, Mary Jane or in Farsi Shahdaneh, meaning royal seed. Historically, Iranians smoked hashish, they didn’t smoke weed. However, during the last 10 years, weed has become extremely popular, a shared trend between Iranians and Americans. The use of hash oil in these works links a past-time to the present... a similar reason why I decided to paint with egg tempera.

The two amber-colored pieces are made with butane hash oil a friend had studied developing in San Francisco for specific dispensaries. He showed me all the different kinds of glass and the butane, and I was like, "These are beautiful colors.” He said, "Yeah, maybe you should paint with them." He created my very own hash oil in a jar titled TVAT “That's your own hash," he said. The hash oil is almost impossible to paint with, yet another challenge for my practice. The viscosity is really gooey and thick like hard molasses. I tried so many different ways to paint with it. Do I heat it up with a hair dryer or in the microwave? It hardens too quickly. I figured out a way to give the butane hash oil a water-base consistency, so I'm able to apply it like I would with a watercolor. Every layer gradually becomes darker and darker. For example, the [woman’s] anus is super dark. That's because I layered the anus about 10 times with little dabs of hash oil paint. Somebody could technically scrape that off and smoke it. That's the conceptual challenge. It's an art piece, it's in a gallery, but once somebody buys it, you could do whatever you want with it. 

Westoxicated includes hash oil, opium, meth pipes, acid and cannabis art. Weren’t you concerned the coca leaf would feel left out? 

Cocaine has been become a regular feature at parties among Tehran’s richer residents. Youth throughout the cities smoke marijuana, pop ecstasy and pharmaceuticals pills, inject heroin. Opium is still widely popular regardless of age as it’s considered more culturally acceptable. More recently, the use of methamphetamine has been in demand across the social spectrum, from tired workers to women seeking weight loss. DIY YouTube videos on how to make meth are a nod to Hollywood in offering Breaking Bad in Iran. 

I left coca leaf off my materials list because it's already been done. Nir Hod is an artist in New York City who created a series of paintings on black-mirrored glass with photo-realistic painted lines of cocaine in oil. An artist in South America recently shipped this massive painting created with cocaine to a gallery in Europe, and customs confiscated the work. While I’m sure cocaine exists in Iran, I don't hear much about it. 

We interviewed the Bolivian artist who had his coca leaf work confiscated in the Netherlands. The court demanded that customs return the art, but they had already destroyed it. 

When I do art fairs in Europe, I can't have any of my drugs exhibited there. Last year while I exhibited in Madrid for the ARCO art fair, I asked, "Why? Who gives a fuck? It's art." The gallery was like, "Well, they confiscated this guy's work recently and destroyed it," and I just started laughing. I was like, "No way." Also, my first show in New York [featured free swag bags of blunts and acid], and right next door was the New York Bomb Squad. About a year ago, New York Police confiscated a million dollars worth of marijuana in a crate labeled “art.” They found no paintings or sculptures. Instead, the shippers were moving some 300 pounds of marijuana. It’s not the first time criminal shipping practices have overlapped with the art world. My purpose isn’t to smuggle drugs. Rather, it is simply a form of material that I use to create artwork when conceptually appropriate.

What similarities and differences in drug culture exist between the United States and Iran?

The war on drugs. This is a major similarity in that both countries claim to have an urgency to resolve it. Here is an example of how Iran ismischaracterized as a monolithic pariah state. Iran’s drug policy and war on drugs seem to be more complicated than what I have experienced here in America. Iran treats drug addiction as a public health problem, and there are published discussions on how to regulate the drug market. One idea is to allow certain substances like cannabis and opium to be used under specific circumstances. Sound familiar? How interesting that so many states have finally legalized marijuana. You see, there are many similarities in a variety of cultural practices that both countries deem as inappropriate! Illegal! Blasphemous! Westoxicated!

The war on drugs and the war for freedom link Iran and America right now. Oppression since the revolution in 1979 is mostly due to harsher prohibitionist laws, and a person smokes, drinks, shoots up, whatever, in hopes to escape and go beyond themselves and their surroundings. It's something a lot of Americans don't realize. When they see my work, they're like, "Really? Meth pipes? In Iran?" Because alcohol is banned in Iran, they think, “If you can't drink, how can you do drugs?" Once you tell somebody you can't do something, they're going to want it even more, and it's going to find its way. The harder the prohibitions, the harder the drugs.

David Jenison ( is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD. Talepasand photo by Lindsay Upson. 

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