Unravelling: Sara Madandar’s Another Birth

In Another Birth, Sara Madandar continues her exploration of identity through patterning, the aesthetics of deconstruction and the grid. A native of Iran, Madandar has more impetus than most to consider textile a fertile ground. She explores the arbitrary conventions of covering the body with fabric, painting women in various states of dress. Through formal ruminations on the physical qualities of fabric, she found the inherent grid of the woof and warp.

Much of Madandar’s work supplements the vertical and horizontal structure of the canvas with an applied pattern, both echoing and subverting the grid. Her pattern is organic, deconstructed, rough and textured. Often using thread or human hair sewed into the canvas itself or alternatively painting with a loose watercolor, she transforms her otherwise traditionally figurative paintings from slick realism to poetry. In one portrait, she makes that poetry literal, building the grid with a transcribed poem, both obscuring the portrait and echoing the plaid of the sitter’s shirt as it conforms to the curve of the body rather than the arbitrary geometry of the pattern.

Madandar implies in her two-dimensional work what she makes more explicit in her performances: societal conventions control and cover identity. She describes how her treatment of the canvas relates thematically to her performance, “It has [a] kind of violence or tension because it’s hard to paint the canvas and then unravel it.” (1) She embeds her work with the grid even as she renders it moot with curves, pointing to the falseness of conventions in art as much as in gendered society. Sometimes her grid turns into intricate embroidery, echoing the borders of Persian rugs and ceramics. Despite the delicacy of her two-dimensional work, it remains confrontational. Madandar’s painting is, above all, a beautiful exploration of her own identity as an Iranian woman away from home. She is free of the hijab, even if her paintings are not, but masked with a new sort of artificial persona as a newcomer in a profoundly image-conscious place.

(1)  Artist interview with Elizabeth McLellan


Essay by Elizabeth Welch, a Ph.D. candidate in Art History, whose research focuses on 20th century American art and visual cultures of performing arts. She served as the 2014–2015 Curatorial Fellow at the Department of Art and Art History’s Visual Arts Center.