by Barry Dougherty

“I truly believe that artists and their artwork are as unique as fingerprints–if the artist and their feelings are raw and genuine, it shows through their work,” says Iranian-born artist Sahar Khalkhalian. Her words sum up her own works that reflect the often-traumatic emotions she presents with each brushstroke she makes. Immigration, family, war, depression, love, and culture are laid bare throughout her pieces.

Khalkhalian’s art is a mirror into her experiences. As a child growing up in Tehran, she lived through the 8-year war between Iran and Iraq. “I first-handedly experienced how humanity could be ripped away from the people around you in a fleeting moment. How your daily routine and simple events such as playing in the yard and going out with your family could be raided into nothing but a nostalgic memory,” recalls Khalkhalian. Shortly after, Khalkhalian and her sister immigrated to Germany by themselves at just 13 years old. They completed high school there yet they were labeled as outsiders and treated as outcasts. Khalkhalian suffered extreme hardship but like many artists adversity made her stronger.

Immigration is a subject Khalkhalian has depicted in her paintings, admitting, “Immigration is a concept that is dearly personal to me as it is something I have been through throughout my life.” Her images feature sculpted blank faces, figures clinging to each other, and covered up mouths representing the forced silence. Culled from her experiences, the figures are symbolic representations of those forced to restart their life completely naked. While Khalkhalian never explicitly mentions what political or cultural theme she’s covering in her works, they speak for themselves and directly reflect the political and cultural climate she’s experienced. “Immigrants go through such hardships and pain that it often leads to them becoming mere shells of humans that experience a severe loss in identity,” says Khalkhalian, hoping to deliver that message through her paintings.

Even her relationship with her sister was put to the test when Khalkhalian was cut off from her sister for a year. “I was in a deep period of depression. After we were able to mend our relationship, I came out with the Turbulent series, where it reflected that time of being separated from my best friend and the depressive episode I went through,” says Khalkhalian, acknowledging how her life story and her emotions play out on her canvases. It was her grandfather, an artist himself, who instilled in her a love of art and inspired her to explore her artistic curiosity. She even wrote a book for him, a biography sharing his artwork, collections, and exhibitions. 

Khalkhalian’s life experiences are a roadmap to her art. She traveled to Kenya and lived with the Maasai people while creating a documentary. She claims that her time with them has been present in her work ever since as it was then that she felt truly connected to her surroundings. Understanding “the big picture” gave clarity to her portraying humanity and love in perfect, yet chaotic, balance. It’s no surprise then how the impact of her parents separating would upset the balance of family and be reflected in her work, placing the subjects in her paintings in huddled groups. “I have had an intense desire to be a part of a tribe and was always in search of a support system,” notes Khalkhalian, adding credence to her art being strongly influenced by her time with the Maasai.

Having traveled the world and currently living in Canada with her family, Khalkhalian admits her Iranian heritage remains a constant and comes through in her work. “I’m still an Iranian woman in my roots. We’re all stuck between traditional Persian values and our desire to achieve a more modern outlook and lifestyle, which is evident in all of my collections that are a mix between traditionalism and modernism,” she contends. Khalkhalian also admits that finding her soul mate, who has never asked her to compromise who she is as a person, has kept her works of art authentic and true to her nature and feelings.

To Khalkhalian, art is not to be treated as a nine-to-five job with the work relegated to being done at a certain time each day. Her art is derived from her emotion, “I’m either extremely happy or devastated because I genuinely do believe that it impacts the work,” says Khalkhalian. She views art as incomplete if there is not a force of emotions behind it, noting, “I only work when that certain intense emotion is present and even when my art is political, it is on events that have emotionally moved me.”

Those moments when Khalkhalian takes a stance via her art and her audience gets it and responds is a highlight for her. “My whole purpose is to try to tell my audience deeply rooted feelings and messages that are hard to say out loud through my work,” says the artist. To see an incredibly large turnout to an exhibition (she is astounded that she once had 2,500 people at one of her openings) lets her know that her voice is being heard. “Nothing is more gratifying than watching people watch your work and being able to tell from the turnout and the expression on their faces that they’re feeling what you’re feeling and they understand,” she says. Clearly, Khalkhalian’s voice is being heard, and loudly. Audiences are keeping a close watch on Khalkhalian’s art, observing her emotional journey, hearing her messages, and appreciating the artistic fingerprints she is leaving behind.

To view Sahar’s works available for sale, visit her ARTmine page.

Barry Dougherty is a New York writer whose articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, Antiques and the Arts Weekly, and The News Times, among others. He is the author of several books including How To Do It Standing Up and The Friars Club Encyclopedia of Jokes. He has been the head writer for the Friars Club Roasts and is a contributing writer on the Living Out Loud: Writers Riff on Love, Sweat & Fears essay tour. He is the principal of BMD Communications, a multi-faceted writing services company specializing in writing, editing and PR.

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