Body Double: The mysterious Safarani Sisters draw back the curtains at the Morris Museum

The Safarani Sisters, twin artists from Iran.
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By Marion Filler

Since affiliating with the Smithsonian Institution in 2019, the Morris Museum has become a happening place.

The stately walls of the former Frelinghuysen Twin Oaks Mansion in Morris Township now share space with artworks intended to challenge and enthrall visitors.

The latest example is Body Double: The Safarani Sisters, an exhibition of paintings on canvas superimposed with video.

Ethereal and hypnotic, the paintings can stand alone. They are realistic and spare, often depicting a barely furnished room with large windows covered by sheer curtains and drapery. The lighting is dramatic, with sharp contrast between light and dark.

Video: Moving paintings

The Safarani Sisters at the Morris Museum, for the first exhibition of their art, November 2021. Photo by Marion Filler

Sometimes the artists, sisters Farzaneh and Bahareh Safarani, 31-year-old identical twins from Iran, are part of the composition. They usually are expressionless, dressed in black, and as mysterious as the scenes they inhabit.

As the projector turns on, everything changes. Reality is compromised.

An additional layer of movement and light is imposed on each piece: A shadowy figure, always one of the sisters, moves around the space. She stirs the curtains, sits in a chair, comes down a staircase, throws herself on the bed.

A ray of light appears on a dark surface. A moment later, shadows fill a corner. Wait a minute, was it always that way? No, not likely.

Artwork by the Safarani Sisters, at the Morris Museum, November 2021.

The Safaranis are even more fascinating than their creations. Painting since the age of 12, they are inseparable in work and life. They studied fines arts at the University of Tehran in 2013 and came to Northeastern University in Boston for their graduate degrees in 2016.

According to their representative, Roya Khadjavi, it has been seven years since the women have returned to Tehran. They did not venture home even for the recent death of their father.

“We could never go back because of the problem with visas,” said Bahareh. “It might be impossible to get back to the U.S.”

Video: Meet the Safarani Sisters

They could never bring this exhibit to Iran either, said Khadjavi, explaining that the female form integral to their work, even when amorphous, still is sensual and would be unacceptable.

Artwork by the Safarani Sisters, at the Morris Museum, November 2021.

“Even if they did another body of work, they might look at their website and say, ‘Hey, they are doing this and that.'”

It also could pose problems for the parents. “They live in Iran, they are merchants in the Bazaar and as far removed as possible from this world.”

The sisters paint together, sometimes on the same canvas, using their studios, homes, furniture — and themselves — as props. The painting comes first, but video is always part of the original concept.

“We do the composition and then we see a movement,” they said, finishing each other’s thoughts. “Everything is at the beginning.”

There always is a narrative, and symbolism. Red ropes (umbilical cords), open windows and sheltered space (or is it confinement?) are the clues.

“We typically depict interior scenes that serve as a safe haven for women, with the walls and empty spaces acting as a barrier between ourselves and the outside world,” the sisters said in a statement.

The statement further described common elements such as mirrors, windows, and half-drawn curtains “that represent how the women hesitate to make full contact with the outside world. However, any breeze or light that comes through the windows represents the hope that the real world is free, peaceful, and safe, like their walls.”

This is the first museum show for the Safarani sisters, though they have exhibited in galleries across the country and internationally, according to Khadjavi. Their work will be on display at the Morris Museum through April 22, 2022, and they will return for an event on March 3, 2022.

The Morris Museum is open from 11 am to 5 pm, Wednesday through Sunday, at 6 Normandy Heights Road in Morris Township. Admission: Free for members; non-members, $8-$12. Children under 3 and active military members, free. Call (973) 971-3700 for more. 

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