The Halo Effect – A conversation with Mehdi ‘Nami’ Salehi

by | Jan 19, 2018 | Closeup

Time is the only constant between life and death. Whether you measure its worth through an hourly rate or an annual salary, our culture is one that puts a price point on every grain of sand in the hourglass.

Right now, I was wasting someone else’s.

26 minutes and counting.

Running late and trying to avoid the uphill battle of having to right the rude of such tinpot, amateur decorum

It wasn’t ‘traffic’ or ‘losing track of time.’ I was just being a snarky writer at Starbucks… as cliché as that sounds…trying to squeeze out a previous assignment before opening the book on my next. But deadlines don’t discriminate where you get your Wi-Fi from, and God forbid I generate a pool of original thoughts from my brain without the didactic edification of the safety net we call the inter – net.

Lucky for me, America was built on contingency plans. You’re only broken if you can’t be fixed. You’re only wrong if you haven’t made it right.

… So I send a text:

Sorry, running late… stuck at work

Americans respect that. We appreciate the grind. Laboring through the last minute of a 40 hour work week-turned 60, while milking the clock the same way our forefathers pinched their pennies before we transitioned from the pound.

Except this American home – nestled plush against the malice of the 5 freeway and the malic acid of the plenteous Santa Clarita Valley vineyards – has slightly different roots in its soil than the Venice Beach apartment I left on the losing end of the 405.

Tonight’s subject hails from a place I’ve never been closer than 5,000 miles to… my entire adult life.

Iran.

And suddenly I find myself running my fingers through the international manners rule book, wandering what the social standards are for tardiness in a culture I’m only ballpark-guessing at this point is…

… Persian?

There’s a lost in translation possibility my iPhone colloquialism went misunderstood. Or worse yet, unexcused. I put my writer hat on and prepare a little sugar to throw on top of my text when I get one in response. Quicker than I thought.

Which concerns me until I see its cartoon yellow glory. The international symbol of…

‘It’s all good.’

I clear a tall, white picket fence held in place by an undone finger latch, and walk into a front yard terrace that plays with the comfort and reception of a best friend’s backyard.

Meet Nami…

Mendi ‘Nami’ Salehi welcomes me with a sunrise smile and a handshake just overly firm enough to convey his nerves. We sputter pleasantries for a second, but the real hello comes from the orange-creamsicle glow of an oversized, open flame. A barbeque pit full of smoldering briquettes preparing for their courtship with the seasoned skewers impaling raw blocks of lamb, chicken, and Kofta waiting on deck.

“Right on time,” Nami declares as he ushers me past the threshold of his family home. The kitchen table has enough food and fixings to make a Thanksgiving setting blush.

Which is exactly what Nami’s wife, Sou, and stepdaughter, Saba, do after introducing themselves between reverent hugs. Judging by their snappy ‘cas’ attire put together as sharp as the cheese spread on the feta plate before me, it seems we’re not here for an interview as much as we are a celebration.

Only I’m not sure

what we’re celebrating…

And I suspect I’m the only one.

Nami Salehi is a surrealist. An artist whose expertise was launched by the manifesto of André Breton in the early 1920’s. His creative fuel rests its laurels on a mélange of symbolism and Dada, Freudian influences and…

… political fearlessness.

Jean Arp, René Magritte, Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, and Luis Buñuel make up a short list of Nami’s most notable contemporaries throughout the movement’s era.

Born in Tehran, Nami dedicated his life to his art before he even learned to hold a brush. His talents and experience grew alongside an incurable desire to articulate his passion through canvas. A ferocious student, the classroom gave Nami every opportunity his curious mind lusted for.

Knowledge was a drug.

The further he found the rabbit holes ran, the more impetuously he burrowed into the unknown.

As an adult, Nami enrolled in classes from masters Firooz Arjomandnia and Abbas Katoozian; two mentors he would study under for more than 20 years. Eventually, he earned his fine arts degree along with the admiration of the queen of Iran; his work being chosen by her grace and displayed on high in the House of Pahlavi.

This recognition led to scores of exhibitions. His work became lionized, coveted throughout the better part of Turkey and Iran. Nami earned the adulation of fellow countrymen, but without question, his greatest prize was reuniting with his wife, Soudabeh, a CNM (Certified Nurse-Midwife) who had left Iran for work in America.

Sou credits a pomegranate love-potion for helping seduce Nami to follow her – and his heart –

back to the United States where his surreal success picked up almost immediately where it left off. He earned acceptance at the Artexpo New York – and for 3 days in Manhattan – Nami’s work was on display among the likes of Peter Max, Robert Rauschenberg, and Keith Haring in the same cathedral setting and oldest fine art trade show in the country.

Two rights down the hallway and I’m being given a tour of Nami’s private collection. It’s powerful being surrounded by the adornment of originals that transform this quaint, 2-bedroom in Santa Clarita into Southern California’s most preeminent commercial gallery.

Every painting is a sanguine look into Nami’s past that carries with it a complicated, underlying sentiment of richness. A history lesson on all four corners, each wall sparking a new conversation the further down the rabbit hole I find myself racing now. I take the canvasses in with my eyes, but there’s an inhibitor. A preclusion keeping me from fully breathing in the room. Feeling it under my skin.

We can’t communicate.

Nami speaks a spot of English, and makes a conservative effort to captain a verbal ship, but his stories and explanations are so robust, they require a secondhand translation – via stepdaughter Saba –who holds court, administering our 3-way Q/A. I hear everything she says, trying to place her key words and solicitudes to the visuals she so desperately wants to connect my dots to.

But honestly, I don’t get it.

We venture into his bedroom where we find a selection of artwork more personal in nature to Nami. Like walking among the jungle from where the wild things are, the paintings stare at me.

No.

The paintings stare through me.

Eyes all around… Some looking at me with grave curiosity. Some looking away from me in dutiful deference. I feel flush, slightly uncomfortable. The lair swallows me whole – its walls rubbernecking me as I stroll about its innards. Sweat beads build on the back of my neck as though I were the one on display. I pivot. I ask Saba about his Angel Series. Inspired from Greek mythology, eternal love, and the journey of the soul, Nami has a devout relationship with his angels. They’re strewn across several of his pieces, garrisoned among the bedrock of his collection. A series highlighted by his most famed compendium of oils –

“The Prayer”

The painting captures an angel’s moment in time, praying from his knees to the heavens for people to live together with love, in peace and harmony. It’s unclear to me whether the title reads as a verb or a noun. Whether the emphasis is on the angel offering the prayer, or if the angel, himself…

… Is the prayer.

Either way, I appreciate its sly openness to interpretation. Saba shares (through Nami) that his angels have changed over time. That they were born in innocence in Iran. And that now – after 40 years of painting their stories – they have a new home in America.

And they’re all grown up.

“Just like me,” Nami jokes.  And it’s in this jest that I realize just how much they are. Within their linings you see traces of his humanity.

You see the tentativeness of a young boy’s spackling across one surface – his imagination handcuffed and creativity stifled by the political and civil unrest of his then home. Then, across from it, you see the power of a man’s brushstrokes – free, unframed, and fully actualized in the place he now calls home.

Nami gives off the impression his art is less about his mind’s eye, and more so an engraving… something imprinted upon him from the environment around him.

He’s like a piece of stone.

A man with stories that have been etched onto his surface and into his soul, who then articulates them back through a series of portraits that retell his own.

I’m both flattered and equally impressed with Saba’s muli-language facilitation. But it’s time for the horse’s mouth. I ask Nami a direct question.

‘What’s your least favorite piece?’

Cocky, but a fair and rather brilliant question I justify to myself. It’s easy to red carpet down an academy award-winning project.

Straight to DVD is a different story.

Nami struggles. I can sense the piercing inquiry has found its way past my subject’s armor. Now we’re getting somewhere. Though I do hope I haven’t offended my subject. 30 minutes into the interview is a bit above average for that.

And then he pivots.

It’s immediately apparent he isn’t struggling with the question. He’s struggling…

… with the answer.

As in, he doesn’t have one.

Nami is not your stereotypically religious man. I’m not sure if he’s religious at all, but I hesitate to extend such a claim with the sheer number of angels he’s painted throughout his career.

Of course, correlation doesn’t equal causation. I painted a sunflower in grade school once – never got into botany. But it’s clear there’s something spiritual he does believe in, and it must be connected to this question because suddenly this man full of words I don’t understand has been pruned to a toddler searching for his first.

Saba explains.

Nami, and moreover his art, ascribes to Sufism. The esoteric dimension of the Islamic faith influenced by – and closely aligned with – Buddhist beliefs that walk the spiritual path toward a mystical union with God.

Nami sees God as an artist. A parental figure in love with every one of its creations. Whether it be humans, rocks, riverbeds… discrimination is not in the heart of a true creator. Saba explains further that Nami has a unique honor, he feels, to be able to bring creations to life similarly.

Each as beautiful to him as the last.

Each he’s as devoutly in love with as the next.

He tells us in the same way you never get tired of seeing someone’s face you love, neither could he ever bore of a single canvas of any one of his paintings. Good answer.

Dinner time. And right on cue. An escape from the angels in the room; the rouge on their cheeks now matching the embarrassment in mine from that last stupid question.

We make our way out to the patio again, where I’m greeted by both a beer and a celebratory Spanish guitar solo that Sou insists Nami treat us to.

He’s not bad.

And better yet, he’s not shy.

Whatever trepidation he might have shown in our previous quid pro quo disappears behind the instrumental Flamenco pouring out of the sound hole from his acoustic guitar. Nami’s chorus matches the flare of his fingertips strumming violently across the neck of his Cordoba 45, complimented by the showmanship of the barbecue pit embers exploding into the sky. The vibrancies of the spectacle increase as the sun sets itself to sleep.

The family rotates meal preparation, Saba and Nami sliding skewers of Kafta meat between Sangak bread. Nami aptly refers to the meal as ‘straight burgers’ and all of a sudden in some parallel… but very present, ethereal universe…

… we’re somewhere backwoods on the 4th of July.

The first drops of darkness dovetail with the last of my 12 oz. The evening’s fully upon us now – reborn as Nami puts it. He has a kinship with the night.

‘That’s when the spirits come out.

He’s not wrong. Both the moon above… and the Tequila Blanco entering stage right.

The flower embroidered tablecloth fights for real estate among an army of bowls and serving dishes filled with dressings, and hors d’oeuvres. There’s food at arm’s length in every direction, making what started as a Thanksgiving setting looks more like the Last Supper now. Nami opens a nice bottle of red.

The table is rectangular, but somehow the four of us sit in a circle. A family that strikes me more as best friends than they do relatives.

And despite being a stranger to this home – every hour the meal lasts – the unity, the camaraderie, the laughter extends my way as though I’m one of their own.

The circle tightens.

We discuss my background, my upbringing. My portfolio. They’re genuinely interested. We move on to Saba’s school. The politics of her internship and her newfound job. We share war stories of the valley heat, gridlock, and bookstores going out of business…

I search for my last bite, but the hunt proves futile with Nami replenishing the food on my plate the instant the porcelain beneath it comes up for air. A cat and mouse game we’ve stumbled into; his warmth and generosity arm-wrestling with my stomach’s will.

The meal ends as ploddingly as it began. Making way for desert, Turkish coffee, hand-rolled cigarettes, and a shift in atmosphere.

I’m not sure if it was the fullness of his belly, or the beer that made its way to his head, but this once reticent man – conversationally, at least – speaks. More words than he’s shared over the course of the entire evening thus far.

His conversation piece? A 40” x 30” canvas portrait looming behind us; central to our place of congregation. He goes on. And on… And I’m getting lost – fast.

I still don’t get it.

And it’s as if he knows it.

He cares… But instead of taking offense, Nami graciously waives the responsibility of my ignorance, shouldering the blame for my incomprehension.

He apologizes – innately on my behalf – trying not to thrust the interpretations of his creations upon me. Nami knows full well someone who cannot see the sun cannot be made to understand its glory from a secondhand account.

He also knows that despite his creations only beginning to come to life when the paint dries… his work as their creator is finished. He is not an interpreter. He’s not a conveyer. He’s not a convincer of his talents. And as much as the child inside him wants to wave a magic wand around my head and gift me some kind of experience, he knows…

… I’ll never get it if it’s given to me.

The artist’s dilemma.

The torture part of the tortured soul that comes with the job.

Imagine, for a second, how your god must feel looking down. Muted, as breathtaking creation after breathtaking creation goes over our collective heads.

I’m so close to the sun, though.

I may not be able to see it. But I know its warm. I feel its pulse radiating off the spirits – both alive and bottled – in the room.

I want to see it.

I press. I ask why he placed this piece, “Psyche & Amor,” central to his home. What it represents. Where it comes from. I need to know anything.

Everything. Nothing… Something.

The best way Nami knows to answer is through a story. He starts, best I can make out, with his angels. And as Nami’s story evolves, so does his excitement over it.

Saba does her best to translate and share the unfolding saga, but struggles to give her stepfather’s story the justice she feels it deserves. She’d rather just soak it up than have to play camp counselor and re-tell it rudimentarily for the slow learners around the fire.

The communication back and forth starts to swim upstream. The scattered, cross-language tissue is coming apart at the seams. The mythology is being lost – reduced to mere words, sounds, and unintelligible syllables.

The translation’s not going as planned, and Nami balks. You can see in his eyes an inner temptation to tuck his vulnerability and run. To pull up lame around the bend.

When Sou chimes in over us all.

“Oh stop it, Nami.

You tell the story. Just tell it…”

The epiphanic voice of his better half clamors from the kitchen. There’s a deep breath. A reset. Nami abides, and I buckle down as the room nestles in for something special.

Suddenly, Mehdi ‘Nami’ Salehi is Joseph Campbell, Mr. Miyagi, and Hans Christian Anderson all in one. Saba and Sou must have heard this one a thousand times, but they’re engaged like schoolgirls on the edge of their seats. They hold still with eager eyes and waiting ears that accent the “read it to me again, please” written across their foreheads.

The story picks back up.

Nami’s shell comes undone. The bass in his voice drops. The command of this theater is in his grasp. His words flow passionately past his bristly mustache the same way I imagine his art does when it comes off the brush.

And for the first time, I understand every word. I get it.

… Despite the entire parable being spoken.

In Farsi.

Whatever he just said, I’m entirely tangled up in. The raw emotion, the life, the love… The same way you weep for Desdemona lying lifeless on the stage of an Italian opera you don’t understand a single word to, there are different layers to our humanity that fuel us. Affect us.

Move you. Show you… exactly what you’re meant to be celebrating. A special place inside yourself. For the first time EVER looking at a piece of art…

… I want to cry.

There are signals rushing through my head telling me it’s safe to do so. It’s appropriate to let this emotion manifest itself in tears. Telling me to feel.

Better yet, allowing me to.

I get up from the table and take in Nami’s painting closer. I don’t see it as I did two hours ago. I’m no longer seeing it through the filter of being American, middle-class, left-liberal-ish, or whatever other human classification we want to compartmentalize one another as in our society of beings.

I’m none of those anymore. I’ve been broken down. Declassified. Released.

I’m just me. In the comfort of this family’s living room. Unapologetic and entirely liberated. And that’s when I see Nami’s art… for the first time.

I want to let my tears speak my truth. Elaborate on my experience. Share with the world the impact of the portrait before me. The ease with which it speaks to me – communicating in a language I’ve never spoken – but always been fluent in. The angels, the clouds, the colors are all so vibrant around me.

So alive.

And so am I.

Floating like the characters across his canvas. A sense of transcendence about me.  The same way you might feel when you’ve seen the moon your whole life, but never seen the moonrise. Enjoyed the sounds of children playing at the park, but never held one of your own.

… Heard your whole life about love. And then finally made it.

It turns out it’s true what they say. That a picture does paint a thousand words.

But if you really pay attention… you don’t need a single one.
To see more of his art please visit the links below:
www.saatchiart.com/account/profile/1010363
www.instagram.com/namisalehiart/
www.pinterest.com/nami_salehi/
www.linkedin.com/in/nami-salehi-44b6b094/

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