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She Eluded Travel Ban, and Now Her Artwork Skewers Its Champion

NEW YORK — Nasrin Sheykhi’s latest Donald Trump painting was on the counter, but she was talking about an earlier piece. “I made his character a wild animal stamped ‘Made in Russia,'” she said.

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She Eluded Travel Ban, and Now Her Artwork Skewers Its Champion
James Barron
, New York Times

NEW YORK — Nasrin Sheykhi’s latest Donald Trump painting was on the counter, but she was talking about an earlier piece. “I made his character a wild animal stamped ‘Made in Russia,'” she said.

After all the headlines about Russian interference in the 2016 election, her fans call her prescient. But what makes Sheykhi unusual is not just her work as a caricaturist. It is also that she is a Muslim woman from Iran who had never been to the United States until after the Trump administration’s ban on travel from several predominantly Muslim countries. She came — first to Philadelphia, now to New York — only after the government had given her a green card.

To listen to Sheykhi is to hear another account of women in a country where the government has relentlessly tightened its grip on both women and freedom of expression. It is also to hear about someone who says she was “a noisy girl with infinite energy” when she was a child. Now she seems to have infinite fearlessness.

Sheykhi, 29, received what is known informally as an “Einstein visa,” — officially an EB-1A visa — which often goes to famous people who the government decides have “extraordinary ability” in such fields as science, education and the arts. Sheykhi took some of the government’s terminology and used it in the title of an exhibition of her works that opens Tuesday at NoMo SoHo at 9 Crosby St.: “Alien of Extraordinary Ability: the EB-1A Tour.”

She is following caricaturists from Thomas Nast to Al Hirschfeld who have given their subjects chins that were wider than wide, cheeks that were more jowly than jolly and eyebrows that were longer than long. Sheykhi’s Michael Bloomberg has a nose that looks like the Flatiron Building. Sheykhi meant it as a compliment — the Flatiron Building is “a symbol of New York for me,” she said, “and very classy.” Besides, she likes Bloomberg. “He did a lot for New York and he did a lot for art and he’s very rich,” she said, “but he never mentioned ‘I’m very rich,’ unlike Trump.”

Two of her other recent caricatures, of hard-living retro soul star Amy Winehouse and of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, are set against the red-and-white color scheme of a pack of Marlboro cigarettes. Sheykhi, who does not smoke, copied a pack a friend gave her. Then she used the actual pack in yet another portrait, this one of Mick Jagger. She said she could sense “the smoke from his talking.”

It is not the only found object she has used in collages. She made James Brown’s toothy-looking smile look toothier with a round container that once held cheese wedges. The mouth of an earlier Jagger was a shiny CD.

As a student, she acquired a following outside Iran thanks to social media and competitions in other countries that she entered online. When she applied for the EB-1A, her lawyer, Joseph E. Best, submitted 700 pages of material, including testimonials from other artists. Among them was one from Steve Brodner, whose work has appeared in major publications since the 1970s and who has taught at the School of Visual Arts and the Fashion Institute of Technology. Of Sheykhi, he said, “There has never been a portraitist who has so successfully combined collage and caricature in the interest of commentary.”

Illustrator Jason Seiler said he had been so impressed that he showed her work to art directors at The New Yorker. “The business I am in is very competitive, so I rarely will do something like that,” he said.

Her lawyer, Best, said he had argued that her recognition beyond Iran “and the potential political value of her resisting the theocratic interests of the government in Iran” were in the United States’ national interest.

“To my complete surprise, we got the visa,” he said. He said it was exempt from the travel ban. Sheykhi can come and go as she pleases.

Shekykhi said that when she heard that the first lady, Melania Trump, received the same kind of visa in 2001 when she was a model, “I was thinking maybe that visa is not as good as I was thinking,” she said. “Melania?”

She mentioned John Lennon, another “Einstein visa” recipient. “I was very proud” to be in the same category, Sheykhi said. “Melania is not like that. For example, the jacket she was wearing. What genius would do that?” Sheykhi was born in Bushehr, Iran, a Persian Gulf port city, but soon moved to Kharg Island in the Persian Gulf and lived there until she was 8. It seemed far removed from the rest of a country that hard-liners increasingly dominated.

“On that island, the government could not control the channels” on television, she said. “Me and my brothers, we were watching cartoons, ‘Tom and Jerry’ even. Then my mother decided to move to Shiraz. She said it was for the quality of education there. I could see no channels — no cartoons, and there was Islamic music. After a while, she told me, ‘You should wear a scarf.'” Her mother also discouraged riding a bicycle, something she had enjoyed doing.

“I could not understand the difference between me and my brothers,” she said. “They were boys and I was a girl. I still cannot understand why there is a difference. Men and women are the same. A woman’s brain and a woman’s heart are the same.”

She enrolled at the Shiraz University of Art and Architecture and organized a 60-piece exhibition of her cartoons and caricatures. She hoped she would meet other student caricaturists who came to her show.

“This is when I discovered that I was the only caricature artist in the student body,” she said.

She did paintings of women, only to be told by a gallery manager that it was illegal to show them. She said she asked one of her professors why he had bothered with teaching her to draw them.

She said his answer was, “I don’t know.” He also said, “This is what I have to teach you, this is our society, and you should be careful.” She said it reminded her of “The Castle,” a Franz Kafk novel she had read.

She said another professor told her she could be a great artist if she didn’t get addicted to drugs “and if you get out of this country.”

So she did.

Now, about the Trump caricature on the counter. It is “Donald Trump No. 4,” a teeny image surrounded by a big white frame. Her Janis Joplin painting, by contrast, is much larger. “She was more important,” Sheykhi said.

She said that a president should be as big as the frame. And, in this case, she meant for the frame to symbolize the White House.

“He is not matched by the place where he is as president,” she said.

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