Raoof Haghighi — Lingering between Past and Present Worlds
Raoof Haghighi is a Persian artist who paints the human figure in settings filled with symbolic narrative. Born in Shiraz, Iran, he grew up in an artistic family. Inspired by their father — a well-known and highly respected painter of ceramic tile and murals — all six Haghighi children became artists as well. While five siblings carry on their father’s tradition of ceramic painting, Raoof studied and then taught graphic design and music, and embarked on the challenge to paint realism.
In 2009 — at age 32 and only speaking Farsi — he fulfilled a lifelong dream to see the world, moved to the UK, and taught himself English. In London, he explored museums where he came face-to-face with traditional classic realism; the impact continues to be enormous. Haghighi says he learns most by observation, so spending long hours gazing at Old Masters in person increases his focus, enhances his understanding, and broadens the scale of all he has learned so far.
Haghighi’s piece entitled Fetus is an early self-portrait, which he considers a major breakthrough due to its level of realism. This painting marked a new direction which has led to a passionate quest to accurately capture textures in exacting detail within an ambience that prompts an emotional response. Fetus shows Haghighi with a nude torso wearing jeans (western-style clothing), lying on a Persian rug in a fetal position, symbolically describing a time in which he felt alienated and lonely, unable to connect artistically with neither his natal roots nor his newly adopted culture.
Haghighi feels he connects best with others through his artwork — his paintings speak for him, erasing his natural shyness and language gap. Looking through his body of work I notice Haghighi expresses himself in various styles as well as mediums. He explains, “I received an artbook when I was young and marveled at all the different approaches. I’m passionate about trying them all out. To me, this is like traveling to another world.” He is aware that his contemporary realism receives much more recognition than his other work, but doesn’t care much about notions of popularity, preferring to follow his heart. He consciously breaks with the art world’s tacit rule of having one signature style in one chosen medium, adding that he wants to experiment with egg tempera soon. “Painting is the only freedom I have and I’m not going to limit myself.”
Haghighi’s painting Mirror shows a professional artist model he met during a workshop at the National Portrait Gallery in London. They connected on a personal level and Haghighi felt inspired to paint her, allegorically depicting her experience of being looked at and judged for just a small part of who she really is — challenges we all share.
Haghighi’s piece, entitled Roya, is a portrait of his only sister at a time when her husband was abroad for many months. In this poignant painting, she is waiting for him, exquisitely expressed in her desolate yet hopeful pose. The melancholic longing is palpable, sparking a recognition within me that takes my breath away.
Haghighi met fellow artist Sarah on Facebook and was struck by the classic beauty of her sculpted face. When they met in person he discovered a deeper connection through shared similarities, indispensable ingredients for Haghighi’s work. Initial sketches and a photo shoot led to this striking portrait in which Haghighi skillfully captured not only Sarah’s beauty but also her elegant poise and personality.
Haghighi’s moving piece Surrender illustrates a difficult period of suffering and loss. The idea for this painting came into being when Haghighi noticed ethereal light reflected on his kitchen floor and imagined a nude curled up, sleeping there. The model’s posing wasn’t without problems; Haghighi recalls the floor was so cold he had to heat it up with a hairdryer for her to be able to lie down. Haghighi says, “Many people interpret it as a feminist painting, yet to me it is about surrendering, about acceptance, the decision not to fight…”
The portrait depicted on the kitchen wall is of Harold Klemp, the spiritual leader of Eckankar and an author Haghighi admires. Eckankar teaches that the Soul — the true self — may be experienced separate from the physical body and travel freely in full consciousness in other planes of reality, which perfectly relates to how Haghighi experiences the creative act of painting.
Take me Home is a symbolic self-portrait describing Haghighi’s sense of feeling torn between the old country and the new. Western clothing symbolizes the mask he wears to fit in, yet he’s wearing the traditional Qajar, a cylindrical 18th-century Persian hat in reference to his native culture, showing the discrepancy between who he is today while carrying the legacy of circumstance — i.e., the utter lack of choice we have in our given nationality, family ties, and other circumstances we are unwittingly born into. He’s holding the string of an invisible balloon — a higher force — keenly aware it is not powerful enough to lift him up and fly him home. The abstract painting on the wall represents the “uphill way” he seeks in life, symbolizing the realization that it isn’t easy to go back.
Another self-portrait, The Reader, shows Haghighi in his studio, surrounded by what’s most important to him; his art, his music, and his contented solitude. This peek into his daily life shows his self-portrait on the wall silently observing the world outside his window, while Haghighi engages in deep contemplation.
The introverted and soft-spoken Haghighi doesn’t engage in polemic discussions, preferring to express himself through painting. He is highly aware of being an outsider, and as such he watches the world intently with a clear, profound understanding. He has lived through war and revolution which have made him keenly aware of the power of politics and how — despite historic examples and scientific facts — people continue to fall for talking puppets, completely unaware of the games played out behind the scenes. Haghighi enjoys his isolated life which revolves around his artwork, music, museum visits, and his biennial family visits. Passion lights up his eyes when we talk about art.
To Haghighi, every object, gesture, and detail he paints has a story to tell. He’s fascinated by the fact that sometimes symbolism finds its way into his work unexpectedly, perhaps even unconsciously. It took some effort to draw him out as he prefers not to limit the viewer by imposing his own interpretations; instead he wants the art to speak for itself and the viewer to connect to it on their own terms. Still, his explanations and descriptions are interesting and touching, and I feel privileged to share them here with you.
Written by Lorena Kloosterboer, realist artist & author © Antwerp, Belgium.
Originally published in PoetsArtists Magazine, December 2016.