You might not know Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s face, but you probably know the faces of the women she sketches. You should. They’re plastered throughout streets all over the world. And while they are all different in the most beautiful ways, they share similar expressions: Unapologetic. No nonsense. Powerful. Don’t tell them to smile. Don’t mistake their presence for your entertainment, pleasure or approval. Their messages are clear. Fazlalizadeh has worked to make sure of that, while carving out a space to address harassment and women’s rights through her public art. Here, we get a sense of the 30-year-old Brooklyn resident’s roots, her creative process and the artists she connects with the most. Fazlalizadeh has gifts. Her surname is from her Persian father, Daryoush Fazlalizadeh, who was born and raised in Tehran. Her godmother bestowed upon her the Russian name Tatyana after a lovely perfume. And her affinity and talent for creating art? She got that from her mama, an art teacher who spent years drawing, painting, sewing, and screen printing. She supported and encouraged her daughter’s artistic development, as well as her decision to move to Philadelphia from her hometown of Oklahoma City to study art. The gifts of her past, her upbringing, cultural experiences and past residences, keep Fazlalizadeh anchored in the present and shine through in her work. She pulls on them to inform her process. “My childhood and family surely influence the content of my art. When I’m making work that portrays blackness and womanhood, I’m remembering young black girls in the south and midwest.”

 

When it comes to Fazlalizadeh’s now widely known Stop Telling Women to Smile campaign–she’s plastered hundreds of portraits of women and captions about street harassment on walls around the globe–her choice to display her illustrations on the sides of buildings rather than on white gallery walls was quite intentional. In choosing the former, the painter and public art activist takes the issue directly to the victims, the offenders and the otherwise oblivious, for the strongest impact. “It’s one thing to talk about street harassment online through blogs and social media, and another to see conversations happening right on the walls of the streets.” Simply put, it is hard to see one of her posters and not formulate an opinion about it. The opinions of some, whether in favor or against the messages, can be seen scribbled on the art itself. However, Fazlalizadeh has gotten the most feedback from the subjects of her series. “While I have heard and seen conversations where men are taking a look at themselves and the idea of masculinity that perpetuates this behavior, it’s been women whom the work has had the biggest impression on. From women telling me they feel more assertive when responding to men in the streets, to women stopping me in Brooklyn to say thank you.” And while a lot of Fazlalizadeh’s art reflects the realities of women, her work overall is rooted in sociological study encompassing more than women’s issues.

Aside from the STWTS campaign, she has also painted portraits of some of the young Black men who have been slain, Mike Brown, Sean Bell and Oscar Grant, the latter two with targets on their chests. “I’m generally interested in how individuals experience the world, or how the world experiences someone, based on that person’s identities,” she explains. “Both gender-based street harassment and violence against black people are examples of this.” It is clear that her art and the parts of her identity it reflects are just the beginning of the world experiencing her. 

Fazlalizadeh on some of her favorite artists:

LORNA SIMPSON

“I love Lorna Simpson’s work, and she’s always been a source of inspiration for me since beginning of my art career. Her use of text and its relationship to the image is brilliant. I think her images and her text are beautiful on their own, but together they incite thought so beautifully.

I’m hoping that in my own work where I’m incorporating text, the same is true. I also love the way Lorna presents her subject matter to the viewer in her early photography work. Her images of the black woman body are framed in captivating ways – with their backs to us, or from the neck down – that quietly tell stories and reshape our ideas of representation.”

BARKLEY L. HENDRICKS“I’ve always found a connection to Barkley Hendricks’s work. He paints black portraits, mostly on flat colored backgrounds. So do I. Examining his works closely, we even paint in similar styles. His subjects are always reflective of the current time we live in. I’m not sure how Barkley feels about blackness or race, but to me his work is very black. The figures are vibrant with personality and style, bold in a black aesthetic and type of cool.

I love solitary portraits that are seemingly simple, yet make such compelling pieces of art. I’m usually working with a single figure, painted straightforwardly, on a flat colored background. And I’m questioning how I can make the painting complex within that framework. I’m also painting people that are reflective of a current culture and time – young, queer, black. Inserting this representation of everyday blackness into a style of oil painting that’s historically represented whiteness.” 

ZANELE MUHOLI

“Zanele Muholi’s work is fantastic. What’s unique about her work is the idea and practice of archiving real lives. Her work is saying “We were here. We are here.” And there’s something so beautiful about that. She’s addressing the violence against lesbians, cis and trans people, by presenting these people directly to us. As their beautiful, fly selves.

We are both working with portraiture and a sort of storytelling. My work is about taking women, their voices and their faces, and forcing the public to view them – to hear them. And the process is to talk with these women, to hear their stories and experiences, and to reflect those stories to a larger audience through the art. Zanele is similar in that she’s experiencing these people she photographs – she knows them, and is reflecting their lives to us. One of my favorites is Refiloe Pitso Daveyton, Johannesburg, 2014 (above).” 

SHIRIN NESHAT“Shirin Neshat’s work is bold and confrontational and beautiful. Words that I’m referring to when creating my own work. I sometimes go back to Rebellious Silence from her Women of Allah series. There’s so much to unpack in this one, stark, beautiful photograph. What I’m mostly drawn to is her gaze paired with the rifle.

As a Black and Iranian woman who identifies firstly as a black woman, my work is focused on women of color but, firstly, black women. Even within that, I’m concerned with the greater treatment of women in general. Shirin is an Iranian woman and her work is very much so for and reflective of that experience. I see in her work the celebration of personal identity, cultural experience and imagery, while simultaneously challenging a larger oppression of women.”