In a recent Instagram post, Maryam Keyhani — painter, sculptor, designer, wife, mother, surrealist and hat enthusiast — wears an outfit that’s part oversized kimono, part nightgown, accessorized with a forest green and gold scarf draped over one shoulder and topped with the pièce de résistance: a cream hat that resembles a massively overgrown, and slightly askew, thimble.
Underneath the series of adulations that follow any image Keyhani posts of herself (“You’re amazing!” “Unbelievable!!” “❤️❤️❤️❤️”), one commenter has simply asked: “How are you real?”
The instinct, scrolling through Keyhani’s fantastical Instagram feed (feathers, silk, ruffles, brocade, embroidery, bows, polka dots, lace collars, outrageously puffy sleeves, voluminous dresses draped like teepees and hats of every shape and size), is to suspect she is not. Or at least, not of this world. The truth is that while Keyhani lives in Toronto, she has created an entirely unique reality, a world of surreal fantasy that transforms her very life into an artistic act. This makes her one of the most fascinating people to follow on Instagram, where her feed is a meditation on motherhood, femininity, absurdity, beauty, love and art, and — undoubtedly — the platform’s most captivating worshiper of hats.
And that, in turn, is bringing her increased fame. Keyhani has earned attention from media in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, including recent praise for her escapades in millinery in Vogue. Her paintings and sculptures have been exhibited in Europe, including recently in Berlin, her part-time home. She’s on the cusp of launching her own line of hats, and she was one of five featured artist at the recent Art Gallery of Ontario blockbuster gala fundraiser, Art Bash.
Keyhani’s aesthetic is purely intuitive: “Things that need to come out, come out in forms of capes and feather hats,” she said simply. The iconic shoe designer Manolo Blahnik once approached her to ask: “Who are you, marvellous being, and what are you wearing?” To a recent Vogue event at Holt Renfrew, she wore a cascading plaid gown she made from curtains. One of her favorite emojis is a circus tent. (Keyhani, blessedly, also has “leggings days,” like the rest of us.)
Manolo Blahnik once approached Keyhani to ask: “Who are you, marvellous being, and what are you wearing?”
She also makes sculptures of fanciful characters and paints figures that seem to be drifting in a melancholic dimension of pastel pinks. There is no special conceptual context for the work. Despite social anxiety and a desire to be alone for days on end, venturing into the world, dressed exactly as her whimsical self, makes Keyhani feel "whole.”
The origins of Keyhani’s perspective lie in her lonely childhood in Tehran as an only child (she immigrated to Canada at 13). “It wasn’t very magical,” she told me. “Because of that, I kind of created by own universe.”
In Keyhani’s world, objects are characters, even friends: one “meets” an antique chair with its own biography, a teacup might be a she, or a he. It’s a worldview, an aesthetic, that is part escape, part survival — a response to the harshness and pain of daily life and an unrelenting news cycle, an armour worn by a particularly sensitive soul, and a defiant statement not only about the value of playfulness (“adults need more play,” she says), but of the effort it takes to cope. If dressing up as a marble column and wearing a towering face mask of baby’s breath flowers seems outrageous, well, so does the deadly plight of migrants and the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford — which she’s also posted about.
I have times when I can’t get out of bed, I have times when I’m not producing work. I’m a mother, and I find sometimes that can be heavy.
“I have times when I can’t get out of bed, I have times when I’m not producing work. I’m a mother, and I find sometimes that can be heavy, so it’s also complex,” she said of living in her magic realm. “I never take it for granted and I think it's such a privilege, like actual privilege, that I can make work and have this escape, and I don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t do this.”
For Art Bash, Keyhani was paired with something of a kindred spirit. The event was dedicated to the life of the Marchesa Luisa Casati — an infamous art patron from the early 20th century known to wear her own extravagant array of costumes and walk her pet cheetahs through the streets of Venice. For it, Keyhani created sculptural beings who wore her collection of hats — a word that woefully understates her creations.
To fashion lawyer Anjli Patel, a member of the event’s organizing committee, “the sculptural quality of Maryam's work really underscores that continuum between fashion and art.” Keyhani, she added, “practically exists in a Renaissance painting.” Her close friend Diana Alepian promises that nothing on Keyhani’s Instagram feed is contrived: “It’s all true,” she told me, which is exactly what we, her faithful followers, have been hoping.