Banner image of Hadi Nasiri by Kourosh Sotoodeh.
When he was 15, Hadi Nasiri was arrested in Iran for the first time. He had given a speech to his fellow students in the school library, addressing what the Quran says about the hijab, and raising concerns about women’s rights. “They needed someone to tell them what equal rights are. There are no women’s rights in Iran,” Hadi says. After his arrest, he was detained for eight hours. They tied him to a table, and poured boiling water over his stomach. He still has the scars. “The government knew my family’s political background, and didn’t want me to become like my father. They were trying to scare me.” This experience led Hadi to realize he didn’t want to follow so closely in his father’s footsteps, and instead, would find a different way to express himself and work toward social change.
Hadi recalls spending time in his father’s office from the time he was just six years old. His father is an underground political activist in Iran, and Hadi remembers being interested in his controversial, often dangerous, work even as a child. “I never experienced a typical childhood,” he says. “I had a thirst for knowledge even when I was young. I was exploring everything, teaching myself how to find answers. In a society like Iran, you usually don’t get answers to most questions. You have to go and find them.”
He began studying and practicing art, and chose to use that as an outlet for his activism. His work often touches on religious, political, cultural, and feminist themes, and aims to provoke thoughtfulness, questioning, and conversation. In a country like Iran, this inevitably meant Hadi would break some well-established taboos with his work. “In general, when you’re open minded, intellectual, it means you’re breaking something,” he says. “When you think, it means you’re breaking a taboo, a barrier. In Iran, in the United States, anywhere—when you step outside the system’s framework, it means you’re making some people upset.”
Two years ago, Hadi left Iran for the United States. Shortly after his arrival in New York City, the 32-year-old artist, activist, and researcher became an Artist Fellow with non-profit organization the Artistic Freedom Initiative (AFI). AFI is made up of immigration and human rights attorneys who provide pro bono legal services to international artists who have faced persecution as a result of their work, and have been forced to flee their countries. AFI works with artists like Hadi to obtain work authorization; secure temporary housing; match artists with employers, university, and residency programs; and promote artists’ work.
AFI also belongs to an initiative called the New York City Safe Haven Residency Prototype, which is a program designed to house, integrate, and nurture at-risk artists. Included in this growing coalition of organizations are ArtistSafety.net, Residency Unlimited, and Westbeth Artists Housing. As an AFI Artist Fellow, Hadi is the first artist to be placed at the Westbeth as a part of this program. Situated on an entire city block in the heart of Manhattan’s West Village, the Westbeth is a non-profit housing complex that provides affordable live-work space to New York City’s artists. Built in 1868 as the headquarters of Bell Laboratories, in 1968 it was converted into the world’s largest living and working space for artists.
While at the Westbeth, Hadi plans to incorporate his commitment to activism and consciousness-raising into the work he creates. “I’m trying to enhance awareness in society. To encourage thinking and questioning,” he says. “But not in a gallery.” Hadi prefers visual performance in public spaces, and doesn’t believe in solo shows at galleries. He says that art critics often pan his work for being too literal, but insists this straightforwardness is deliberate. Art critics are not his audience, he says. With his art, he speaks in clear, uncomplicated language intended to reach everyday people—the people who don’t go to galleries because they can’t afford to buy tickets to the Whitney, he says. Hadi incorporates media and technology into his work as a means to reach his target audience, and views technology as a type of democracy. “It gives nearly the same opportunities to everyone to see something, or say something, or hear something. It’s an equalizer.”
“It’s optimistic to say yes, I’m changing things. You can’t change a person with a painting—it’s not realistic. But, we can try,” Hadi says. While he’s in residence at the Westbeth, he plans to do just that, though he is apprehensive about how his controversial religious and political art may be received, even in the United States. “It’s not just about Islam. I do talk about Christianity and other religions, and I don’t know what’s going to happen. Here in the United States, I’m not going to do only underground things. I’m going to speak loudly. What’s going to happen? I don’t know.”
Ashley Tucker is the Program Director at the Artistic Freedom Initiative, leading planning and implementation of its programs and legal services for at-risk artists. Having lived, worked, and volunteered abroad for many years, Ashley has dedicated her career to international human rights and social justice. Ashley has worked for the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva, the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, the Centre for Civil and Political Rights, and PEN America’s Artists At Risk Connection. She has conducted research and human rights trainings in Haiti, worked on strategic litigation before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and worked as a volunteer in El Salvador and Nicaragua. Ashley received her BA from University of Arizona in Studio Art, and her JD from City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law. She is admitted to practice law in New York. Ashley lives and works in New York City.