Like Mother, Like Daughter

The woman who has had the most influence on my life is Pooran Cheknian (1941-2007). She happens to be my mother. The most independent, intelligent, witty and beautiful woman that I have ever met in my life. Her sense of  independence was matched by no other, including all the Western-celebrated, theoretical feminists. 

The above is a portrait of me – so she said – as a Qajar Woman, that mom executed circa 1997. Only a mother could envision her daughter in such a mirage like fashion. 

She only painted in oil, on canvas, often very large compositions. The below paintings are approximately 24×36 inches.

I used to describe her work as Henri Matisse meets Frida Kahlo. She loved it.

About the Artist

Iranian-born, American artist Pooran Cheknian was bornin 1941, in the ancient city of Mashhad on the ancient Silk Road. After completing an advanced degree in nursing, she worked as a laboratory research specialist, until the Revolution of 1979, when she was forced into early retirement.

Early on, Cheknian grew increasingly fascinated by the seductive intricacy and historic significance of the arts and crafts of her country. In the mid 1960’s, Pooran began collecting traditional arts of her native region of Khorasan, including rugs, textile, and decorative objects.

Shortly after immigrating to America with her family, in 1983, Pooran embarked on a career as a full-time and dedicated painter. Without any formal training, she immediately began to paint in oil, one of the most difficult and labor-intensive of media. The youthful strength and character of her newly adopted country appeared to have provided the artist with inspiration and encouragement to continually express and refine her work. A highly discrete individual, Cheknian continued to seek to keep her independence and privacy constant. 

She continued to paint, until shortly prior to her death in Autumn 2007.

About the Art

In her paintings, Pooran reflects upon the traditional and contemporary representations of her fellow countrymen and women by Eastern and Western poets and painters alike. Her paintings challenge traditional Orientalist representation of Iranian women as hopelessly lazy and sexually lustful objects, or the contemporary ones of outrageously stern and wicked fanatics.  

Unlike the sexually charged representation of Eastern women by Orientalist painters – men, women, past and present -, these women are portrayed either in an active state or amidst the complexity of their daily existence, bereft of any sense of judgment or pity. Their costume, posture, gestures, and gaze clearly differentiate them from their former modes of representation.  

In half of the paintings, women read, write, sing, perform music, and dance not for the visual delectation of male viewers but as independently functioning individuals. In the other half, they are shown in harmony, or in tension, with their private space- surroundings. Lacking the archetypal manner of hyper-erotic depiction, the women are seen in the variety of roles that they have occupied in traditional Persian society for centuries.

In Cheknian’s work, complex psychological concerns are veiled beneath her dazzlingly jewel-like and decorative compositions. Graceful curves, floral arabesque, and sinuous patterns of Iran’s visible world are set in scintillating scenes with a jeweler’s artifice.  

Noble in design and proportion, and sumptuous in their richly colored palettes, her paintings demand the viewer’s total immersion. Time stands still as we become enraptured in the scrolling graces of Pooran’s decorative patterns and compositions.  

Vivid in coloring, expressive rather than naturalistic in drawing, elegant fields of lapis lazuli compete with biting yellows and oranges, rich mauves and blues.  The effect is exceedingly unsettling.

Yet, however intricate and ornamental Pooran’s paintings are, they tell their stories forcefully. Every detail is subservient to the action as each moment depicted is chosen for its fullest dramatic impact.  

These effects instill her paintings with paradoxical naturalism and bring to earth the stuff of myth, long-gone history, and even contemporary prejudices that she suffered throughout the years that she lived in the West. The works’ naturalism lies in their observation of humanity rather our Western idea of naturalism as a stylistic device. 

The artist’s fondness for sharply witty anecdotes is exemplified by numerous figures whose attitudes range from heroism, joy, and wisdom to lust, cruelty, and wickedness. Side-glances and cunningly observed gestures stir up waves of innuendo throughout her pictures, as do earthy gusto, flashes of humor, and heartfelt sympathy.  If traditional Persian painters have articulated heaven and earth, she concentrates upon humankind.  In true to life textures and spirit, Pooran is an accurate observer of her people’s graces and follies.  

Much to her courage and credit, this lady artist’s paintings do indeed continue to protest too much.

Homa Taj Nasab, “Colors of Persia : Celebrating the art of Pooran Cheknian,” May 2-30, 2000 at Atlanta- Fulton Library, Atlanta, GA

Trip to Helen, GA (Ode to Pooran)

 

Snuck out at dawn’s dim city glow

beyond her son’s castled delight –

Past lowlands rural sights.

 

To dwell in scent of rising mountain air

Once more a queen of senses –

Content with climbing, winding way.

 

High above

the stream below

on hanging deck –

We sat and ate.

 

Her artists eye bestowed a smile

as colored tubes floundered by.

Young and old clinging on

trusting to the waters’ flow.

 

Childish eyes

chasing circling sky,

some dip

to the rocks ahead.

Shrieks and laughter echoing back,

long after sight was gone.

 

Mother and daughter

while away

As I latch on –

savor that day.

 

To the waters edge

we dare descend.

Her heaving breath

and slow of step –

Calms pace of those who hold her dear.

 

Antlered tree trunks arching out

‘til drunk with waters growth,

sweep upwards curve to green.

 

Upon thick root at rocky ledge

we perch,

motionless,

silent.

 

Woodpecker taps within the wood

 

At dusk,

Quite reluctantly

we rise,

turn towards home –

 

Aglow with nature’s nod.

Frank J Cunningham, 2005