Abol Bahadori is a prizewinning painter based in the United States, whose multicultural upbringing shines through his vibrant abstract works. From his early beginnings tracing carpet motifs and blue mosaics in Tabriz, Iran, to his teenage years sketching from the masters in Paris, Bahadori’s story is rich in art and experience, spanning countries and cultures. In this interview, follow Bahadori on his journey from Iran to France, England to the United States, all in the pursuit of creation and adventure.
Hello Abol! How does your hometown inform your art?
I was born in Tabriz, the largest city of the Azerbaijan region and a historic capital of Iran. Tabriz was also one of the main Silk Road cities and one of the birthplaces of the Persian Miniature. Its unique carpets are still world-famous.
My earliest memories are of tracing the carpet motifs with my index finger and trying to match the colors with color pencils and crayons on paper. I believe crawling as a baby and taking my first steps on the vivid colors and motifs of the Tabriz carpets had the most significant influence in my youth. The unique blue colors of the mosaics of the Blue Mosque in Tabriz are the most difficult colors to reproduce. I made that a challenge for myself in my early school days, experimenting with mixing all sorts of paints and inks and holding the result against the Blue Mosque mosaics themselves. I could never perfectly match those colors. So, I learned at a very early age that manufactured modern pigments have lost the ancient secrets and simply couldn’t match the organic and mineral colors used in the past.
How did traveling abroad at a young age influence your artistic journey ?
When I was four years old, my father went to do his PhD in Rennes, France. My mom, my younger brother, and myself all moved there for two years. My preschool teachers noticed my talent for art and admired my unique abstract style, reminiscent of the carpet motifs. They advised my parents not to get any art teachers for me and allow my natural style to develop on its own. So, I owe my liberty to the city of Rennes and France as far as my artistic development is concerned.
From ages 11 to 16, I spent most summers in Paris where my aunt was studying at the Beaux-Arts in the 70s. Her influence and the Paris art scene really opened my eyes. I used to take my sketch pad to various museums in Paris, regularly sketching from the masters. I was mostly copying classical and impressionist paintings either from the actual paintings in the Louvre and Jeu de Paume or from photographs.
What eventually led you away from Iran?
The revolution and war in Iran forced my parents to send me and my brother abroad for our further education. I still regret not begging my parents to send me to Paris, as I knew Paris inside out and I wanted to do fine arts. I was too shy to tell my parents I just wanted to do art—we were all supposed to become engineers and doctors. Leaving Iran for further education, for good or bad, was a major turning point in my life.
My brother and I were sent to Manchester, England for further education. I had the choice to take art as one of my A Levels, pre-university in the U.K., and I got an A+. I passed my math and science courses too, but because my art was so exceptionally good, the Manchester School of Architecture sent me an invitation without me even applying. However, the new Islamic Republic in Iran did not consider architecture as a “vital” subject and did not allow my parents to send my university fees. I immediately switched to Textile Design and Technology at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology.
Learning textile design and pattern art had a huge influence in the way I am painting now at a subconscious and automatic level. This was when my early childhood sketches of carpet motifs were all of a sudden awakened, as if I was born to be a textile and graphic designer. Creating seamless organic patterns and geometrical motifs came natural to me. One of my university professors encouraged me to do my masters in Graphic Design/Application Design. The desktop computers were new in the late 80s and I created an application for a simulation of knitted fabric that was purchased by a textile machinery manufacturing company in Switzerland. I had enough cash as a graduate to start my own graphic design company in Manchester which was fairly successful.
How has your location influenced your artistic style?
When I was younger, I painted many portraits of family members, Azerbaijani landscape and the local life in Tabriz, as well as realistic floral themes. Sometimes I abstracted the floral paintings inspired by Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings which were popularized by poster-size prints in the 70s. My depiction of local Islamic art did not continue beyond my early childhood because I was so influenced by Western art. But it certainly was already ingrained in my psyche.
Now, I am really lucky that Washington, D.C. has one of the most prominent art leagues in the U.S. with a great school. I started taking classes in abstract art in the late 90s and early 2000s. Even now, I still attend certain workshops there to keep myself up-to-date and to work with other local artists.
So how did you end up in Washington, D.C. where you are now?
It all had to do with the Berlin Wall. The wall came down in ‘89 when I was still living in Manchester and working as a graphic designer. Prior to that in ‘86, I went to Baku, the capital of the formerly Soviet Azerbaijan. We Azerbaijanis were also divided between the two countries just like Germans but for even longer. We all had distant relatives in the north. It was a dream to go and see Baku and the other side of the Araz river, our Berlin Wall.
After my trip to Baku and connecting with energetic young journalists my own age, I started writing articles in the English press. One day, I got a call from the Voice of America (VOA) asking me to become their remote reporter for radio broadcasts in Azerbaijani and conduct interviews about what was going on in Baku. They soon hired me full-time and brought me to Washington, D.C. I sold my business in Manchester and moved here. It was an easy decision because I had many close relatives living here. However, I continued my art and design on the side, and as soon as the internet became part of our lives, I left VOA and started working for various IT and marketing companies in Washington DC area as an Art Director and Creative Director.
What’s your favorite thing about every place you’ve lived in?
In Tabriz, Azerbaijan, Iran, my favorite things were the colors and abstract motifs. In Rennes, France, it was the confidence and liberty of relying on my own creativity at a young age. The full exposure to Western art was the highlight in Paris. Manchester, England, was where textile and graphic design made a lasting impression on me, and currently in Washington, D.C., it is the abstract art.
Any must-visit art addresses you can recommend in Washington, D.C.?
I am a member of the Art League here near Washington, D.C. and thanks to them, I’ve been lucky that my art gets frequently recognized and awarded by various jurors from all around the world. The Art League is located in an amazing complex called Torpedo Factory which once was an actual torpedo factory and now houses many local artists studios. It is located in the Old Town Alexandria, which is one of the oldest European settlements in the U.S. The National Gallery of Art is also a must see. It houses one of the largest collections of art in the world. It has free admission and you will be surprised how many famous pieces of art are actually here. Not far from it is the Smithsonian complex of museums all with free admission, including the African Art Museum, Freer Gallery of Art with a large collection of Middle Eastern and Asian art, and the Hirshhorn, a modern art gallery. We also have an incredible number of private art collections here, including the Philips and Corcoran collections. I’ve been lucky to live in a city that has so much free access to international art with frequent temporary exhibits from all around the world.
Where do you call ‘home’ now?
I’ve lived in Washington, D.C. for 27 years—longer than anywhere else. Especially when it comes to my art, I’ve become known here. My first solo show was in Washington, DC with 89 paintings on display in 2011. I’m settled here. But I still dream about Tabriz, Manchester, and Paris. I miss them a lot. They have formed my culture, personality and inner art.