Atusa Jafari’s nude paintings document the moments when no one's watching

The Berlin-based artist's oil sketches capture the joy of being home alone.

by Juule Kay
28 April 2021, 7:00am

“Get ready to go nowhere”, reads the title of one Atusa Jafari oil painting. “Ikea beds and fake Uggs”, reads another. Divorcing her subjects from the typical grandeur associated with a traditional medium, the 21-year-old Iranian-German artist's work elevates the most mundane moments into something sublime. But it's not just the domesticity of these scenes that you'll find so relatable; it's also the way she so naturally portrays the body language of her subjects. Looking at her work, you feel as though you're peeking through the crack of a door left ajar during their most private rituals. 

Having been forced to spend so much time indoors over the past year, the profundity of a home as a safe space — to live, to create and to recharge — has certainly heightened. Meanwhile, without much of a sex life for so many, the nude became something more poignant too. For fans of Mical Valusek's voyeuristic photo series, Home Alone, which captured glimpses of people undressed in the most natural, unassuming ways in lockdown, look no further than Atusa's paintings.

A self-taught artist whose notebooks have been filled with sketches of naked women since she was at school, Atusa's work feels mature beyond her years. Born in Darmstadt, she's now based in Berlin, her home of two years ago and a place that has helped her work evolve. Here, we talk about finding home within yourself and why staring in the mirror can help to make you feel better sometimes. 

a painting of a nude women in uggs lying on her bed

First of all, let's talk about what we don't see in your paintings: the story behind them. How can one imagine the process until the work is finished?
It's very intuitive and all about what I see and feel. I usually go to my friend's places, and we're hanging out; the rest happens quite organically. We're taking some analogue photos, or I do some quick drawings. It's important for me to recreate the vibe instead of a copy of a picture. Back in my studio, I always reflect on the moment, but in the end, painting is a compromise that makes room for coincidences. 

Why is it so important to paint your subjects in their homes? 
At home, you dare to be honest with yourself. It's interesting to see how someone lives, if there's stuff laying around on the floor or if the kitchen is used a lot. You see what someone is interested in and can discover so much about a person in the way they decorate their home. It almost feels like you see their personality reflected in all these little things. 

two nude woman rolling around on a bed, one wearing black boots

What does home mean to you personally? Did the idea change over the last year with spending so much time inside during lockdown?
Home is a place or a feeling of honesty. It means certain freedom. I need my home to charge my batteries to do what I'm striving for. It's my safe space, and I decide who's allowed in it and whose energy isn't. Due to lockdown, home took on many different functions. From a workplace to a fitness studio or a café: it got more and more difficult to draw a line, and that's also the reason why it's so important to feel at home within yourself. 

Who are the people in your paintings?
It's my friends and my family, but I also paint people I don't know that well. As long as they touch me with their character or their confidence to show themselves, I'm hooked. Luckily, all of my friends here are so open-minded and don't have a problem taking off their clothes in front of me. Even though the people I'm surrounded with tend to be mostly women, it's not about gender — it's the human behind who fascinates me. 

a nude woman wearing stockings with long blonde hair

And still, there are a lot of female nudes hanging in museums, mostly painted by the male gaze. 
I never really thought about the fact that I'm doing it from a different perspective. I rather see it as a huge advantage that I can see them in a different light because I am a woman myself. I can sense what they are feeling in the way they are presenting themselves, in their gestures and movement. The body often becomes something you look at rather than something a woman owns. A woman's body is their weapon, it's her power.

Before Covid, you often went to the public swimming pool to study the human body. Where do you go now to get inspired?
Nowhere! I recently ordered a huge mirror and put it up in my room to draw myself. It may sound weird, but you start realising how much you're actually human when you get confronted with every little flaw of your body.

a woman in a tank top pulls down her underwear slightly to reveal a tattoo

Did you learn something new about yourself?
That I have super long arms! I also noticed that I sometimes want to see myself differently than I actually look. It's so beautiful to experience how much you can still learn about yourself and your body. I sometimes look in the mirror and start liking something I didn't like before. It's often not me who's judging myself but society or standards you want to meet even though you can't. The crux is to know that you're as good as you are. At the end of the day, it's society that wants us to be unhappy with ourselves in order to buy things — it's deeply intertwined with capitalism. We tend to look outwards instead of inwards and only see what we could be instead of what we already are. 

What does beauty mean to you?
For me, beauty means that someone accepts themselves and that you see their character reflected in their face. All your wrinkles make you beautiful — it shows if you're laughing a lot. Beauty in the Western sense lost its value; it doesn't matter to me anymore. Every time I paint someone, I wish they'd know how beautiful they really are. Painters often see things differently. It's never the “perfect” face that is the most fun to paint. 

a nude woman wearing thigh high black leather boots looks away
a woman wearing jeans and no top looks at her phone
a woman in baggy blue jeans, underwear and no top gets changed
two naked women get ready in a bathroom, one applying makeup in the mirror as the other watches

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All artworks courtesy Atusa Jafari