Take Five with Negar Ahkami ’92



Negar Ahkami ’92 is a long-term artist-in-residence at Arlington Arts Center in Arlington, Va. After graduating magna cum laude with a B.A. in Middle Eastern languages and cultures, she earned a J.D. from Georgetown University in 1997 and an M.F.A. from the School of Visual Arts in 2006. Ahkami’s work is currently on view in a solo exhibition at Marymount University’s Cody Gallery and in a traveling group exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of Art. Ahkami has also had solo exhibitions in New York at Leila Heller Gallery and LMAK Projects in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Her work has been represented in art collections such as The New Britain Museum of American Art in Connecticut, the DePaul University Art Museum in Chicago, Wellington Management Co. in Boston and the Farjam Collection in Dubai, and has been featured in The New York Times, ArtNews and other publications. Ahkami will speak as part of the Columbia College Women panel “Amplifying the Female Voice Through Art” at The Kitchen next Friday, December 14.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

I was called Negi (my nickname since birth), which I would soon learn made me sound like a Japanese food item. I was young — I just turned 17 a few months earlier. Although I probably would have benefitted from a gap year, it was for the best because I was so eager to get out of the New Jersey suburbs and finally move to “the city.” In high school in Montclair, I would stare out at the New York skyline longingly, and count the days until my weekend indulgences in Manhattan’s galleries, museums, streets and clubs. I thought of myself as worldly and independent: I had been going to the Art Students League of NY since I was 10, where I was the only kid in the room and often the only female, and I had spent a lot of time on my own in Paris during summers spent with family friends. But on day one at the College, I immediately felt like a sheltered local girl! I was in awe of the smart and interesting independent thinkers from all over the world.

What do you remember about your first-year living situation?

Cinderblock! And an amazing campus view on the top floor of Carman. My roommate Donna was super-smart and funny — although her smoking was “less than ideal,” to borrow an expression from my also brilliant and funny suitemate Alisa. We were an odd mix of personalities in our suite, but we really knew how to do birthdays. Getting dressed to go out was in itself an event and the best part of the evening. We would splurge on cabs to Serendipity, or Dallas BBQ, which was not my choice as a vegetarian then. Our dinner would end with an anatomical cake from the Erotic Baker, which probably was my idea the first time, and I would live to regret it. After dinner we would hit a dance club, in late ’80s style, which meant no carding, just a lot of posing and attitude on both sides of velvet ropes. With my ultra-glam Texan suitemate Patty, one time sporting a beehive top-bun that added even more to her 6-foot height, we never had to worry about waiting in line, not even for a second.

What class do you most remember and why?

I loved all of my Core classes. But the framing of the Persian enemy in the Ancient Greek and Roman histories — and the way it seemed to parallel the portrayals of Iranians in the news at the time — left me wanting to learn more about the Persian version of history. I felt so inspired in my “Ancient Persian History” seminar with Ehsan Yarshatar. I was one of very few undergraduates around a table of grad students in a celestial corner classroom on the top floor of Kent. My professor’s accounts of Persian history and culture, told with his gleaming eye and scholarly, international accent, ignited daydreams about ancient Persia and inspired me to dig deeper into Iran’s visual legacy. I sought out an internship at the Met’s Ancient Near Eastern Art section, and would spend all my free moments in those galleries and in the Islamic section. All of this had a lasting impact on me as an artist — alone in those galleries, I worked out so many of my ideas about art that would surface in my work years later. I last saw Professor Yarshatar at the opening of my 2013 solo show in New York. He had been so supportive of me as an artist, and it meant so much to give him a walkthrough. He passed away in September, and it’s such a big loss.

Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?

The view of campus looking out toward Butler from the Low Steps. It’s even more spectacular when you come upon it from behind Low, or from the East Campus foot bridge. That view provokes a response in my body that only the best views and works of art can do for me. It invigorates me, and inspires me to learn and connect with the world, and be the best version of myself. It’s even better knowing that downtown Manhattan awaits beyond it. The closest thing I can think of to that feeling is being in Central Park around the Jackie Onassis Reservoir, or at the lower end of Central Park looking at the Midtown skyscrapers beyond the trees. But there is nothing like Columbia’s scholarly urban oasis.

What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?

I’d spend less time in the library my first two years, and more time having fun, being less shy and getting more involved in a few extracurriculars I dabbled in. I was so inspired and challenged by the Core classes, and felt out of my element as a primarily visual person. I felt like I had to work harder than others and maybe had to prove something to myself. By senior year, I was finally ready to play just when people around me were getting serious about grades and applications. Also, don’t even get me started about not doing a semester at Reid Hall. Negotiating the feast that is college is a little like the work/parenting juggle. At some point you just have to do your best with the limited time you have and not be so hard on yourself about it. Or so I tell myself.