Niz Yashar lights a cigarette beneath a glittering canvas hanging at eye-level in her room. Embroidered on the silver canvas are two bright-red words in languages I can’t read and don’t readily recognize. Various shiny garments are strewn about the room, and she apologizes profusely for the clutter, explaining that she’s just had to vacate her studio space at OTIS College of Art and Design upon her recent graduation.
From there, Niz launches into a description of the concept behind her senior show, born from her experiences studying abroad in Jerusalem for a year. “A year later and I’m still decompressing,” Niz tells me. The world she describes to me flies in the face of any preconceived notions I might have held about Jerusalem: “I thought I was going to go to Jerusalem to focus because it was so quiet and religious, but the young people go out to play! They party on a different level.”
via: Instagram | Niz Yashar
The year Niz spent in Israel completely shattered everything she thought she knew about the world’s holiest city. Though the religious significance of the region is central to her faith as an Iranian Jewish woman, Niz was completely unfamiliar with the Holy Land outside of its theocratic implications when she first made plans to study there. Living in Jerusalem as a student, however, she began to experience the youth culture of the people close to her age that inhabit the city.
Jerusalem is home to a thriving underground techno scene; all-night parties, drugs, glitter and thumping music are beloved among the young people of Jerusalem, who are always looking for something to do on any given night. “The Hasidic neighbors couldn’t call in noise complaints because their faith doesn’t allow them to use the phone during Shabbat, which is sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday,” she explains to me.
That cultural juxtaposition--the world’s most devout Hasidic Jewish community brushing elbows with club-kid culture--was deeply inspiring to Niz, and as she moved about this strange new world she became enamored with the people and the culture of Jerusalem’s youth underground. She quickly made many friends who took her to places she’d only dreamed of, and her understanding of Jerusalem rapidly transformed before her eyes: instead of the reserved, modest religious city she expected, she was gifted a hazy, shimmering underground fantasyland that never seemed to end.
But the dream eventually ended, as all dreams do, and Niz returned to Los Angeles. Now back in her own corner of the world, Niz found herself faced with an entirely new challenge: how to interpret the transformation of her worldview, this yearlong binge of disparate religious and personal experiences, into visual and performance art?
via Instagram: Niz Yashar
Niz had been raised by devout Iranian Jewish parents, and in the wake of her newfound independence she began to take notice of the ways in which she had been subtly oppressed by the religious-based expectations of her upbringing. Her family originally outright forbade her to see her partner, for instance, but not for the standard parental-objection reasons: Niz’s partner is Arabic, and because of the long-standing Arab-Israeli conflict, Niz’s parents had resentments towards her partner because of his ethnic and religious background. Now that she was back in Los Angeles, Niz was surprised to realize that many of the frustrations in her life were actually the result of religious oppression. “It’s a time and place where it doesn’t seem like that would be happening, but the pain is the same for all of us,” she says. “Before Israel my whole studio was pink and when I came back, I painted it black.”
Niz recalls the scene at her senior show in thick detail: her father was “disturbed” at the number of Arabic people in attendance at the gallery, and three different people left the show in protest. While Niz was a little shaken by these reactions, she nevertheless holds onto the feeling that art is supposed to be her safe space. The great project of her work as an artist, it seems, is reconciling that feeling with her clear and present desire to communicate difficult subjects through her work--to tackle the topics so many of us are often afraid to face.
The glittering silver canvas that now hangs on her bedroom wall, she explains, reads ‘my love’ in both Arabic and Farsi. “Arabic and Farsi have the same alphabet but Arabic [speakers] can’t read Farsi and Farsi [speakers] can’t read Arabic,” Niz explains. “I’m talking about these very dark subjects in a very pretty way. I have a message that I’m so passionate about saying and I have the responsibility to be clear when I am representing the people that I have met and the things I have learned.”
From what I’ve seen, it’s clear to me that her art--a living tribute to a place and period in her life that permanently shifted her worldview--already embodies that goal.