The idea that pain begets art is perhaps the most ubiquitous of art tropes. Yet Bahareh Safarani speaks about anguish in such an honest way that the tired concept becomes fresh.
"If we had a happy life, we wouldn't even be doing any painting, because it's when you have something that you want to let people know, that's the time to do something. You won't move if you're happy," she said.
Bahareh is one half of the 27-year-old Safarani identical twin sister duo. Their work is rooted in their identity as Iranians in the United States at a time when they feel their country has been stigmatized. The sisters moved to Boston from Tehran to study at Northeastern University.
After graduation in 2016, they were so broke they moved into a professor's small, wooden power boat in East Boston. They had to leave the boat anytime they needed to use the bathroom. "We could sleep, but it didn't have a bathroom. You had to walk like five minutes to the bathroom. It was one of the hardest times of our life," said Farzaneh, the other sister.
Because of U.S. sanctions, their family in Iran couldn't help financially. It was then that the sisters learned how to tap into their isolation, to burrow in it and seek beauty in it — to search for themselves in moments of duress and release that in their art.
"One of the things that we like to discover in our life is the inner world of ourselves. We would like to sit in the house and think about our [own] beings and understand them ... we start by knowing ourselves before doing the work of our paintings," Farzaneh said.
Their autobiographical paintings show their bodies portrayed in a classical, figurative way but in amazingly large scale -- some paintings are at least 13 feet wide. The paintings show the sisters in minimalist interior spaces, all depictions of actual homes they've lived in. Their silhouettes are often wrapped in translucent veil, or simple black cloth — symbolizing Islamic burqas, engaging with themes from their native Iran. Subtle video projection within the paintings create illusive movements, like the flutter of a curtain. The sisters' gazes are often transfixed, their expressions austere.
Farzaneh believes that displaying and interrogating her and her sister's distress through their paintings also illuminates them.
"When you show a woman that is in pain, it's also the most beautiful way to show a woman," she said. "It brings so much beauty [to] their presence."
The sisters showed their work to curators and galleries until they landed their first solo show at Adelson Galleries in Boston in the fall of 2016. That show unleashed a sudden and surprising demand from collectors.
"We could hear our names from people that we really didn't know or hadn't met. And that was all the people who were talking about us and our works," Bahareh said.
The sisters don't live on a boat anymore. They now make a living from the sale of their artworks. One of their largest paintings shows the sisters standing in a bare room, with the paper of a shooting range target pasted on the wall. Bahareh said the sisters painted the piece after a vacation to Florida, where they visited a shooting range, trying to release stress stemming from President Trump's original travel ban on Iran.
"We have called this piece the 'Interrogation of the Self' and that's what we really did by doing this piece, we were interrogating ourselves. They put a stigma on our country and that's how we are living now," Bahareh said.
The painting — striking and emotive — conveys the sisters' unrelenting interrogation of grief, of discomfort, of the messy parts of themselves and, ultimately, the grace of humanity to find beauty in distress.
"Sanctuary: A Solo Exhibit With The Safarani Sisters" is on display until Feb. 9 at the Amalgam Gallery. To arrange a visit, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This segment aired on January 31, 2018.