Mahsa Merci’s textured paintings reference the multi-dimensional nature of queer identity
By immortalising the queer community that surrounds them, the Toronto-based artist wants to revolutionise the way we perceive the art world and raise question as to who should uphold it.
It’s hard not to become utterly transfixed by Mahsa Merci’s paintings. Depicting a plethora of individuals from the queer community, numerous faces lock eyes with you from the canvas; their unique disposition highlighted by differing hair colours, meticulous eye makeup and tattoos. So varied in their identifying signifiers, yet unified by Mahsa’s distinct style, it almost seems as if Mahsa’s subjects could step right out of the canvas. In part down to the intensity Mahsa has created through her compositions and dedication to personal details, this fact is also accentuated by the artist’s penchant for texture. Using acrylic and oil paints in abundance, Mahsa’s approach to materials is much like her approach to society – a complete rejection of the norm.
Mahsa’s rebellious work is inspired by other rebellious figures and groups, namely the Guerrilla Girls – an anonymous group of feminist artists formed in 1980s New York who used protest to demonstrate the sexism, racism and corruption rampant throughout the art world. Much like the Guerrilla Girl’s project, Mahsa endeavours to revolutionise the way we view art, who it ‘should’ depict and the people who uphold its very lucrative world. “When you visit the most important art museums you see wealthy, powerful, heterosexual cis white as the most important people in art history,” Mahsa says. “I capture people from the queer community, I spotlight those who have been forced into the shadows for so long, and I want to document their existence, rather than ignorance.”
“I spotlight those who have been forced into the shadows for so long, and I want to document their existence, rather than ignorance.”Mahsa Merci
Mahsa’s practice also interactacts with their personal experience growing up in Iran, where they struggled significantly with the governing powers’ rules, restrictions and teachings. “It was very complex to discover your authentic self and create art in a society where being queer is forbidden, and leads you to execution,” Mahsa shares. It was due to this “censorship and oppression” that Mahsa then began working “metaphorically”. Using parts of the body, like hair, nails, eyes and feet, and accessories like fur, false eyelashes and fishnet stockings, Mahsa’s works subtly nod to visual aspects and signifiers of various queer identities. A pair of stilettos are worn over a pair of white Nike socks, a figure’s head rests intimately in amongst the fur coat of their companion, and bright blue acrylic nails softly skim the stubble of a sitter.
Originally, Mahsa pursued a degree in graphic design from the Tehran University of Art. But, as soon as they graduated, Mahsa tells us that they knew the medium didn’t “satisfy” them. Beginning to draw and practise more analogue methods of expression, Mahsa joined a painting class with a professional Iranian painter. Teaching the class the basic painting requirements for the first semester, the next involved still life painting. However, Mahsa found herself thoroughly unenthused. “I remember vividly telling him I didn’t want to paint the set,” Mahsa recalls. “He asked me, 'What do you want to paint?' I told him: 'I want to paint anything that comes from inside'.” Their teacher then gave them the freedom to paint “fluently, intuitively and unconsciously”, soon resulting in the first time Mahsa found herself truly enjoying the art she was producing.
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Mahsa Merci: Miss You (Copyright © Mahsa Merci, 2022)
Since Mahsa had no formal art training when she began painting, she also began to use her materials in quite unconventional ways. “When I first began to paint a portrait with oils, I poured the colour straight from the tube and onto the canvas,” Mahsa explains. “I was instantly fascinated by the texture.” Soon, this use of paint, layering and “sculpting” became the central method to Mahsa’s work. But, rather than simply being an interesting visual effect, the method is also one that directly references Mahsa’s subject matter, and their use of texture also references the queer experience. They use impasto – rough and heavy-painted brush strokes – to reference the complex and often unpredictable nature of being a queer person, as well as “transitioning identities, queer aesthetics and violence against queer bodies” Mahsa lists. Additionally, they strive to draw attention to defining features of each individual, hair, clothing, accessories and tattoos. “By highlighting these features, the paintings combine two dimensional and three dimensional effects, a metaphor to emphasise the queer community’s presence in society.”
While interacting with Mahsa’s experience in Iran, their work also looks to highlight the country’s complex history. Their ongoing Mirror series is inspired by the book Women with Mustaches and Men Without Beards: Gender and Sexuality Anxieties of Iranian Modernity by Afsaneh Najmabadi, an Iranian-born American historian, gender theorist, archivist, educator and professor at Harvard University. “According to the book, being queer was not forbidden in Iran back in the 18th Century. After European imperialism, our culture was altered,” Mahsa details. Therefore, the project – which sees portraits surrounded by a mirrored frame shaped in “traditional Islamic forms” – is to reflect back to Iran’s once more liberal, un-Westernised approach to gender, body, politics and society.
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Mahsa Merci: Untitled (Copyright © Mahsa Merci, 2022)
Overall, what Mahsa most endeavours to do is to give a varied perspective on the “authentic” queer experience. “By immortalising the queer community in art, we can create a revolution in various aspects of human society,” Mahsa details. But, she knows she can not be one to do this alone, and that concrete change calls for much more encompassing and wide-spread action. “It may start with art, but needs to continue into education for children, teaching them to unlearn their perspective on gender and the human body,” Mahsa ends. “I hope my works raises questions for people, and helps them to find their authentic selves, embrace the variety of human beings, and to have more freedom in all countries for the next generation.”
Mahsa Merci: Untitled (Copyright © Mahsa Merci, 2022)
About the Author
Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English literature and history, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.