I create my work because it’s the only way I can clearly express myself. I speak out about it because I have never been one to be silent.
The young American artist Panteha Abareshi has a story to tell you that may break your heart, and renew your faith in the wonder of art. No matter what new forms of sexual and racial oppression might find their ways into our every day lives, there is still strength to be found, expressed in a raw artistic beauty. Welcome this radical way of living in the world, it’s one of the few ways we may be allowed to see the inner workings of the artistic heart..
As an art historian and curator, I have repeatedly been honored to bear witness to an impulse that exists in the artistic heart, a need that is like no other. We might name this a calling of sorts. It functions to transform feeling, pain, imagination, lust, nightmares or fantasies and make these places and these hauntings real. As onlookers, we are in the audience, and it is in its purest form such a calling seems wholly removed from the expectations or hierarchies of the outside world, a storm of turbulence in one’s own mind….
Perhaps, in this malestrom, an artist is pushed to place these images on paper and canvas or to make these entities breathing and moving in sculptural form. Impulse means that we are witness to the dynamics of imagination, intellect and artistic wonderment. The story of Panteha Abareshi shows us this process in a rarefied way.
In her life, art has taken on the purest and rawest form, the impulse to navigate and transverse her own experience. Panteha’s drawings bring us into a narrative that is at once lucid and yet deeply painful, an emotional tableaux punctuated by a series of symbolic motifs.
Her work has a visceral quality that has garnered comparisons to Frida Kahlo, the jagged black lines that push and pull between illustration, neo-surrealism, graffiti and patterning seem to resist definition, so distinctly Panteha, a style strangely turbulent and self-contained.
In response to these comparisons, she notes the omnipresence of Kahlo’s aesthetic in her native Arizona. But is more that these formalism, it is the voice that emerges from the fire of suffering that ignited the work of Kahlo and is also seen in this young artist’s work, a sisterhood of
“strong, independent disabled women of color who are expressing their own struggles with mental illness and pain through their work.”
It seems to me, that happily, Panteha exists outside of the art world proper, and this feels like a place of liberation, even while the content is so profoundly and disturbingly intimate. The artist’s accounting of suffering from sickle-cell anemia and mental illness binds you to her, and a great sadness may overwhelm. Yet this seventeen year old artist cannot allow you to remain here, her voice is too strong:
I live with misunderstanding, stigmatization and trivialization of my experiences and suffering constantly, and my art is my way of coping with that. It is also a way to express how I feel in a way that I feel those around me can more easily understand. It’s a severely isolating thing, to suffer and be told that the way you’re feeling isn’t valid, and it’s something that I have and will never be able to take silently.
Rosa JH Berland: Tell me something special about yourself that drives you to make this deeply personal work?
Panteha Abareshi: I’m driven to do this work by my own suffering. My art really, simply is a coping mechanism first and foremost. It’s deeply personal because I don’t make it for the purpose of consumption by an audience. I make it for myself.
RB: You are self-taught, how did you learn to draw?
PA: I made myself draw every day for about the first year, and because of that I improved really quickly I think. I think the biggest turning point was when I became good enough to express how I was feeling through my work. For a while, the finished pieces didn’t capture what I had intended simply because I hadn’t become skilled enough yet. Once I reached that point, I do think my work became what I wanted and needed it to be.
RB: How do these images come about, what materials and techniques do you use? Do you plan ahead or is it more spontaneous?
PA: I never distinctly plan ahead for a piece in terms of what it will look like.I am inspired to work by my own depression or anxiety, so my own emotions and sadness is what drives me to begin a piece.
I do write down phrases that encapsulate my feelings, and when I go to being the piece I sometimes incorporate the text directly into the work. I begin with pencil, then ink with pen and india ink, and then go in with color. I do multiple layers of color, more ink details, details in white ink and then final layers of color. It’s a very cathartic process that is important that I go through with each piece. It’s very easy for me to find motivation, because I struggle with my mental illness constantly. But, at the same time, my mental illness makes it very hard for me to find the motivation to begin pieces (or do anything, really). It’s a constant and frustrating battle. Sometimes apiece will take a week to finish because of this, and sometimes I’ll work for hours and hours non-stop. It’s dictated by my health, by my emotions and by my mental state so it’s constantly changing.
RB: Tell me a bit about the documentary film The Girl Who Loves Roses, and your collaboration with the directors Kelsey Bennett and Remy Bennett.
PA: I am so so lucky to know them, they are two of the most talented and intellectual people who I’ve met, and they’ve become such close friends and partners. They reached out to me because they were curating a show called LIFEFORCE in the summer of 2016, and wanted to see if I was interested in contributing work. We had a long and amazing conversation about the future of feminism, and I mentioned how I was always fathoming these sort of characters…. strong women of color that would fill roles like Korbin Dallas in The Fifth Element, or Deckard in Blade Runner. Talking about these characters that I envision, and also emulate in my work the very first time we spoke was when we all sort of clicked together on ideas and concepts that we were passionate about. Working on the actual piece and being in NYC with Kelsey and Remy was, without a doubt, the most fulfilling experience. I learned so much from them, and the kind of creative energy we have working all together is so strong.
RB: Have you had important mentors or are there any historic or contemporary artists who inspire you?
PA: I am really inspired by artist Nathalie Du Pasquier, and her design work for Memphis Milano. Her pattern designs and use of color really is something I admire. I also really look up to Eva Hesse and Yayoi Kusama. I’m inspired by their mentalities, dedication to their work. and their craft.
RB: I see many people compare your aesthetic to that of Kahlo, what do you think about this?
PA: The suffering that radiates from her work is what has always made me feel so close and connected to her. While I don’t draw direct self-portraits, each of my pieces is certainly a portrait of my emotional state and feelings. Before I knew I wanted to be an artist, I was still drawn to her because of her strong convictions, and the story of her romantic life.
I remember being a young girl and going on a road trip with my Montessori school to the Tucson Museum of Art to see the Frida Khalo Exhibit. I read all about this brave, intelligent, proudly communist and disabled woman and saw her hauntingly powerful pieces, and it was such an important moment for me because I was so starved for women of color role models. Everything from her work, to her beauty, to her pet monkey fascinated me so much, and since then this has mellowed out to a deep and rooted respect and love that I will always have for her. To be compared to her in any way is such an honor.
RB: What do you think about people calling you subversive? Is it subversive to tell the truth?
PA: I make my work to help organize my emotions, and deal with my severe and crippling metal illness. I’d be honored to have people call my work subversive, because that would mean that my work is challenging the societal notions that are causing the stigmatization and misrepresentation of mental illness.
The Girl Who Loved Roses, a mini documentary and artistic portrait about Panteha Abareshi, is directed by the curators and filmmakers Rémy and Kelsey Bennett as part of the series Under Her Skin, organized in cooperation with The Front,
I make my art for my own personal expression, and as a coping mechanism, but by creating work that is about mental illness, I am making a statement whether it’s intentional or not.