Starting from Malevich: a conversation with Nazafarin Lotfi
by, Rossella Farinotti

“…to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery. And one does not get lost but loses oneself, with the implication that it is a conscious choice, a chosen surrender, a psychic state achievable through geography.”

Rebecca Solnit, writing about Walter Benjamin, A Field Guide to Getting Lost


We started the conversation with Malevich’s Black Square. Nazafarin was inspired by his writings and how he simplified ideas, energies, and forces into shapes and colors. His revolutionary gesture took the shape of a minimal black square, an icon that resisted the traditional image making. At the time of our first conversation, I was reading Lucio Fontana’s “Manifesto blanco” on Spatialism. Thirty years after Malevich, Fontana also abandoned classical ideas of space and form, in a somewhat different way, by cutting through the canvas. This coincidence inspired us to continue our conversation over the next few months. Nazafarin started from Black Square, reflected on its “utopian” premise, challenged and abandoned its flatness to develop her personal language that introduced the potential for a new dimension.

Rossella Farinotti:
When did you start studying Malevich’s work? What was it that interested you, and why Black Square?

Nazafarin Lotfi:
I first learned about the Russian avant-garde artists in undergrad when I was studying design in Iran and became fascinated by their abstract language which was political and revolutionary. I was attracted to it aesthetically because it was totally unfamiliar to me then. I grew up with social realist propaganda and had developed a mistrust of it. It was very exciting to learn about these revolutionary artists because their work was not didactic or representational, unlike what I had seen around me and I was so bored with.

But as I studied Suprematism and Malevich’s writings, I understood this work as revolutionary because it resisted straightforward consumption and rejected any particular subject matter; Malevich called it “the beginning of a new era.” These artists rebelled against the traditions that preceded them, and for me that was very exciting since I come from a traditional society for which history weighs so much, and that can be limiting. The resistance in this work, which I really didn’t fully understood at the beginning, was what I needed and identified with.

However, I see my work more opposing the utopian universalism that Suprematism proposed. Also opposing the universalism of the social realism that I grew up with. I think placing myself between two very different aesthetics and ideologies allows me to create a more complicated personal language. And that does more justice to the complexities that I experience as an Iranian female artist living in the U.S.

How did you start with the first piece? I’m referring to Vanished Like Smoke. Did you know where you wanted to arrive?

I started by thinking about Black Square and its relevance to our time, and I was immediately drawn to the idea of seeing through the cracks on its surface and imagining the space inside. There was something irritating about this flat utopian space, and I wanted to work with that. I was excited to imagine what Malevich could have seen happening in there. And I found this relationship, me and this older Russian man, funny. I kept the dimensions of my piece the same as he had chosen. But from the beginning I started building up the surface. And then I cut and rearranged it, and placed my personal objects inside the piece. I did things that Malevich wouldn’t do. I knew part of me was rebelling against a patriarchal figure in my art life.

Your drawings and sculptures are not abstract. They overwhelmed the two-dimensional Black Square, which sort of represents a gate. At the beginning you wanted to enter Malevich’s piece, but you went beyond. You removed the black square from the white canvas, and not only that, but you turned its space inside out.

I gave it dimension and stretched it into the room, and its space became architectural. I wanted the interior and exterior of this space to coexist on the same plane. To create a place that was contradictory or irrational. These unstable places allow things to develop outside of their constructed binaries.

It seems to me you found new dimensions in these works. Maybe dimensions that are architectural. Also, the negative spaces are crucial. You literally cut into the piece and showed us what is inside. I also want to bring up the title you chose for the show, Negative Capability. Can you talk about it?

I’m an Iranian citizen living in the U.S. in the era of the travel ban. Living in a country that doesn’t welcome you is a contradiction that brings the politics of geography and place to the fore. Thinking about utopia and what it means, its contradictory nature attracted me. A place that can be conceptualized or imagined but not experienced; a place that cannot be. I was working with spaces that negate themselves.

“Negative capability” is a term that the English poet John Keats used to describe when one is comfortable in doubt, mysteries, and uncertainties without control, reason and fact. I was thinking about this in relationship to the political uncertainties that we’re experiencing today as well as the complexities of our personal lives and identities. It’s a time when we know that things can’t be seen or understood or interpreted one way anymore. I wanted to allow the negative spaces and what’s not known to take control. To open up a conversation that can fluctuate between political and existential, personal and universal.

Politics is a latent presence in your work but not in a didactic way. It’s been part of the conversation around your work. I remember this piece, Encounter (in place), from 2014, where you were going around your neighborhood in Chicago and taking pictures through a piece of punctured paper. The act of looking for something that was beyond the paper—which represented a window to frame reality or see through—is political.

In the recent drawings, your approach to creating multi-dimensional spaces is similar to the wall sculptures. Some are combinations of different perspectives and others refer to multiple spaces, which suggest movement of some sort. This reminds me of the performance you did with your sculptures at the park during your residency at the Arts Incubator. In these recent works, you are dealing with an inner shift of material and movement in viewpoints and eye-level. But in the performance you were physically moving the sculptures.

I like your comparison of the body penetrating space by walking and sculptures penetrating space as they are being made. And how bodies and sculptures interact with space. As you mentioned, the drawings describe movement through a set of shifting perspectives. In the performance the movement was more a vehicle to know and learn about my presence and the presence of others in the environment. Movement naturally deals with change; as you move your perspective changes. In all the work and its movement there is an attempt to discover something new in unexpected places. This movement literally and conceptually opens up space for experimentation.

I like what the artist Teresita Fernández says in her famous commencement speech: “Art is about taking the risk of engaging in something somewhat ridiculous and irrational simply because you need to get a closer look at it, you simply need to break it open to see what’s inside.” I find the engagement that she’s describing here crucial for our lives because it leads to action. The movement in my work, whether it is tangible or not, is a form of restless engagement with materials, ideas, and the environment.

Your approach is not only aesthetic or ephemeral, it actually becomes a real reflection on time and space. Considering movement and your new environment, since you have recently moved to Tucson, I’m thinking about you attempting to extend the boundaries of your body in this new place. This feeling of living in an unfamiliar place intensifies the perception of everything around you. I am thinking about that in relationship to the potentiality of being lost and Solnit’s interpretation of Benjamin: “to be lost is to be fully present and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery.” Your work demands slowing down and paying attention because we don’t know immediately what we are looking at.

I also noticed that in these recent works you moved towards using color, how did you choose the colors and how did they enter the work?

I associate the grayscale with mental space and color with the physical world. The orange came from a piece of fabric that I found at the studio. I introduced yellow ochre and earth-tones in contrast to the gray in order to add weight and also to evoke my daily landscape. As you mentioned, this sounds like an attempt to ground myself in this new unfamiliar environment. And also an attempt to look closely and pay attention. I want to create different kinds of spaces in the piece. Spaces that associate with different times, perspectives, and spatial axes.

In the work that you produced for Negative Capability which you will show at Regards in Chicago, you conceptually and visually developed a new dimension or a third space. Don’t you agree?

Yes, a third space or a hybrid space that is not simply material nor mental. I describe it as a space that opens up a conversation about our distinctly different personal, political, and historical experiences. A space that questions the common reductionism of this versus that. I like to imagine a place where new subjectivities are possible and it allows for difference; difference in seeing, looking at things, and being seen. These ambiguous conditions are places where resistance, imagination, and rest are possible.


Rossella Farinotti is a contemporary art critic, curator and writer. She is the co-author of the film encyclopedia il Farinotti; contributor to publications and magazines such as, Flash Art, Arte, Exibart, Sofà, Pagina99. She is the executive director of Gio Pomodoro’s archive (Milan). In 2013, she published il Quadro che visse due volte (Milan: Morellini Publishing, 2013), a book on the close relationship between art and film. In 2014 she realized Arte contemporanea: Giants in Milan (DNA Production) a documentary on contemporary art in Milan, directed by Giacomo Favilla. From 2009 to 2011 she was the assistant of the Ministry of culture of Milan. In the last years she curated various exhibitions on young Italian artists. She has a degree in Fine Arts from the University of Milan, and an advanced degree in Communication and Organization of Contemporary Art from Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera in Milan. Since 2014 she lives and works between Milan and Chicago.