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Latin American Ilustracion: Nargol Arefi

By David Schonauer   Wednesday March 2, 2016


Last year, Nargol Arefi  painted with her left hand for 100 days.

That wouldn’t be remarkable, except that Nargoli is right-handed. She decided to work with her non-dominant hand as part of the #the100dayproject, in which people undertake a challenging project for 100 days.  

“I pledged to paint with my non-dominant hand for 100 days,” she says. “The reason that I picked this project was that I always adored a certain naiveness in art work, and I thought that as long as I was working with a skilled hand, it would prevent me from some making mistakes and a kind of braveness that I like to see in my work. So I started painting portraits with my left hand,” she says.

Working with her left hand was hard at first, she says. “It took me a really long time to finish a painting, but after a few days I started to get better and better at it,” she says. “I was painting different people with different styles. A client commissioned me to paint Napoleon Bonaparte, and when I posted that on my Instagram feed it was well received. Then I thought of painting other characters.”

One of these was the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, who Arefi had first learned of while growing up in Iran and watching the 2002 film Frida, starting actress Salma Hayek.

“My mom was familiar with Frida, so she got the movie,” Arefi says. “I wasn't an artist back then and didn't know about Frida. We watched the movie, and I was moved by her story and her strong will and determination. I remember that I thought she created such unusually bold paintings. It was only after years of studying art that I realized that how important she was to the art of her time, and even now.”


To her delight, Arefi’s bold portrait of Kahlo became popular after she posted it to Instagram. “I sold many copies of it in the first few days,” she says. It was also named a winner of the Latin American Ilustracion 4  competition.

Working with her left hand wasn’t the only obstacle facing Arefi during her 100-day challenge. “I was pregnant at the time, and I had a hard time sitting behind the table and fitting my big eight-month belly behind my desk, so a few days after that I had to stop painting! I only got to paint for about 55 days out of 100, but it was an amazing experience and I will repeat it as soon as I can,” she says.

Arefi came to the US in 2005 to study art, first at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, and later at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore, Maryland. “I got my BFA and MFA from MICA in illustration practice and then started teaching at MICA after I graduated,” she says. After a few more moves, she and her family are settled in Chicago, where she is now establishing a painting studio.

“I moved so many many times — from Iran to US and then a couple of times from East Coast to the West Coast, until I finally picked the Midwest,” she says.  “I used to love moving because it gave me the opportunity to live in new places and explore, but I think at this point, with a baby, I am done with moving adventures for a while and we will reside in Chicago!”

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Dispatches from Latin America