The artist on fusing aesthetic traditions and fostering conversation between cultures.
I’ve read that you like to combine really diverse aesthetic traditions in your work and you’ve mentioned remapping the typical understanding of the East-West exchange. What do you feel are the current issues with that common understanding? And how would you like to see that evolve?
I think the work has been written about specifically as being about the East-West exchange, which is a bit off. I don't know if it needs to be so specifically East-West. I think it simplifies the idea a little bit. There are a lot of things happening in the studio, but just to talk about this idea of Western art and art history versus everything outside of the West, I think that's been a project of mine with a lot of my work. It's looking at how there’s been this extraction of art and culture from outside the West but any reference to those cultures or places is almost eradicated in Western art history. In the works I make, I oftentimes bring those sources back into the conversation and show that relationship so you can see where an abstract shape may have been taken from, like Korean painting, for example.
It happens in the work, and then I've also done this zine project, which I started in 2015, which was based on the show that MoMA did, called Inventing Abstraction. I ordered that catalog and I have the master copy here that I'm still working on. I've gone through and made notations to the texts and kind of cut and glued in pictures to sit alongside the works in the show. My issue with the language in that show was that the idea of abstraction was created in the early 1900s in the West when that’s obviously not the case. It was quite surprising to see someone like Glenn Lowry say that, who I know studied Islamic art. There's so much abstraction in Islamic art, and the narrative didn't include some of that. Essentially, what I was doing was saying, “Well, wait a minute, these artists definitely did have access to travel and to objects that were traded back and forth. And they would have seen these things and been influenced by them.” A lot of the time, artists do talk about being influenced by something outside and it's actually the art historians or the writers who've created a different narrative. For me, it's about looking at the history of what has been passed over and to tie that into my own biography, and then turn it into something new.
That show you mentioned at MoMA is relatively recent. Do you feel like the conversation subsequently has really advanced or evolved around those sorts of themes or not really?
It definitely has. And in the last couple of years, of course, we've seen a big reevaluation, which is great. But I think it's been quite specific. These issues started hundreds of years ago, so we can't expect things to change overnight. But I would say, even with all the positives, there are still oversights. When Trump instated his Muslim ban, MoMA put together a collection of Iranian art. I think it was in support of Muslim artists, or artists from the Middle East, which was great. But at the same time, I know for a fact that there are pieces in the collection that were bought in the ‘60s and were shown for the first time in 2017. It probably would have been helpful to have some of those things shown throughout that almost 60 year period. Instead of just reacting to something, it’s important to think about things long-term. September 11 was in 2001. It would have been good at some point between 2001 and 2017 for art from the Middle East to have a bit more presence to create an understanding and create a dialogue.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems like in going through your work, painting and printmaking are your primary mediums, even though you do explore others. What about those mediums, in particular, are you drawn to? And why do you feel they're the best to express what you want?
It is majority painting and printmaking. There’s also sculpture going on now with ceramic tile and architectural elements. I would say it relates to the value of the things I'm looking at, which are often craft-based, like carpets, for example, or woodcuts. Painting, historically, has this elevated value, so to take a Persian carpet and present that as a painting does shift the value and the perception of the object. With printmaking, which is mostly what I do these days, there's the historical element of printmaking, which is that it disseminated information and helped spread images. There’s something about its accessibility, that it’s made to be shared. And then, for me, looking at things like Japanese woodcuts, and seeing how important those prints were in terms of where we're at today and contemporary painting, in terms of composition, color, flatness. It's such a rich history. I think it deserves a bigger spotlight than what it probably has.
You mentioned all of those different elements that you bring together. When you're looking to begin a work, what's your research process? What resources do you go to?
Everything starts from a personal place, whether that's from my personal biography and family, or the friends that I have here in LA that have become family. When I first moved here [to the US], I went to Santa Monica College, a community college, where you have an enormous amount of international students. There were these immigrants from other places and you create a bond, a family because you're going through the same experience.
This new body of tiger works, for example, started because of my friend Phil. He’s Korean but was born and grew up in Chile, and then moved to LA. He's a tattoo artist and he has this tiger image on his belly. We used to share a studio and then he became a very successful tattoo artist, and I didn't really get to see him anymore. Somehow, I think that tiger image was kind of like him and I brought some of that into the studio. Things organically creep in. Once I get fixated on something, I research. I get to do these historical digs, which start off with just a lot of reading where I get to find out about the creation of tiger ink paintings, or Persian carpets, or Persian miniature painting, or Japanese Ukiyo-e printmaking. In Persian miniature painting, there’s an exchange between Asian and European ideas. That breaks down the idea of something being just Persian or just Japanese or just Korean. That's something that I can relate to because I am mixed race, Persian and English, and then came to the States. All these influences get rid of this idea of a culture being isolated or that things just appear out of nowhere.
It's a pretty important conversation to have because we are at this really weird place today where issues of cultural appropriation have become so touchy. There's some positivity in those conversations and people understanding where things come from. But then the natural flow of culture and art music and food is that it does travel. We don't live in the 17th century anymore. Life is very different.
We just need a better understanding of this moving forward as the world becomes more and more mixed. I think I was reading in a book that if immigrants had their own country, it would be the fourth largest country in the world, and that is only going to increase. It's thinking about that narrative, which I don't think we've had a proper discussion about within the art world. I know this from my own experience showing my first Persian carpet paintings. While part of that work is definitely inspired by my culture and my upbringing with my dad having his little carpet shop, my interest in those was also the cross-cultural exchanges that were happening in order for those carpets to be created. But that was never discussed because there's a very flat reading of Persian carpets and Persian artists. It's not so simple and it's a really interesting time to have that conversation because people are very fired up.
Maybe this is impossible to answer, but is there anything that we can do to foster those kinds of conversations or better communicate about these things?
You know, it's funny because the show I just did with Kavi Gupta in Chicago, we received some pretty intense Instagram feedback and messages. What does happen, unfortunately, with the internet is it does flatten things and take something completely out of context. But what I did notice was that when people were provoked, you ended up actually having conversations about the ideas in the work. Instead of it just being a press release, you're actually having conversations about it because it’s happening in real time. It's something that I'm thinking about now because I'm also doing a seminar at USC as part of a presentation. I'm daring to base some of the readings on cultural appropriation. So that could be a really interesting seminar. I guess I just put myself in these uncomfortable positions where sometimes people will potentially get angry or outraged, but if people are willing to sit down and have a calm conversation about something, we can probably get better.
I remember when I was in Japan, I went to the Metropolitan Museum, and I saw this show of Van Gogh alongside Japanese prints. You got to see paintings next to the prints that he was literally copying from. In one case, he had taken all these images from maybe six or seven different prints and turned them into one painting. That was a completely new way of looking at the work, right? You got to see the references and it felt interactive. That was really helpful for me as a viewer.
To circle back a little bit, you moved to LA from England and traveled a lot growing up. What role does travel play for you?
Travel energizes me. I love to go to new places and spend time there and see new things. My studio is basically right under LAX, so I get to watch the planes come in and out all day long. I have a certain relationship with the airport. I remember when I was a small child we came to LA to visit my uncle. I remember going to Heathrow Airport for the first time, and it was really the first place where I saw all these different types of people and people who looked like me. I just had this feeling of warmth, and it almost felt like I was at home because the area that I'm from in England is not diverse at all. I am very happy at airports and very happy to travel.
What are some things outside of your practice that you’re really passionate about?
Before I became an artist, I was very much into music, and had the idea of going into music production. That interest also came from sampling music, listening to a song and hearing a sample and being like, “Oh, that sound’s from someplace else.” I would go through the little catalogs when you could still buy CDs and trace where things came from. I've also done some fashion collaborations. That's something I'm very much interested in. It’s another way to trace cultural histories. That relates to an interest in textiles and patterns within my own work.
Are there any upcoming fashion collaborations you can discuss?
There's one in the works right now with an Iranian designer who lives in New York and I think is originally from Houston. He's thinking about similar things in Iranian and American culture and heritage in a new line.
I've also collaborated with a fashion line by three brothers from Taiwan. They reached out to me a few years ago, and we did a collaboration because they have the same experience of living in different places. They were really interested in the work I had done and we created these knit sweaters that were crazy. The sweaters took some of the elements of my paintings and reproduced them to mimic the texture of the paintings. I really liked that they were telling this mixed cultural exchange story through clothing and through a little runway show. I'd love to continue to do more of that with people.
Was it different thinking of your work in the context of something that's going to be worn versus something that is a more traditional work of art that might hang on a wall? Something that’s in movement?
Well, you could say that a painting is hugging the wall and a sweater is hugging a human being. In that sense, they kind of function in the same way. But I do really like the idea that friends of mine were able to purchase a sweater and wear it because sometimes, as an artist, you spend a lot of time alone, so just to collaborate in other ways is great. And then I do like the idea of there not necessarily being a hierarchy of a painting being better or worse than an item of clothing. And that is probably also conceptually tied into the things that I'm looking at, things that are considered craft. I would love to bring some of that into an exhibition and continue that path.
Many people have spent a lot of the pandemic taking time to reflect. Is there anything you've been perhaps hesitant to try in the past that you'd really like to now that things are a bit more open?
I don't know if it's a hesitation, but probably just allowing myself to enjoy my time more and to celebrate more. I think there are two things going on now. One is just what everyone else goes through, which is the rat race and just being too busy. And the other is I realized I was still in this survival mode. I'm the eldest child in my family who helped take care of my siblings. I didn’t have anyone else to help me, which I think is a pretty typical immigrant mentality. They just keep working and working. They don't know how to relax. I’m just learning how to relax and enjoy my time.
It seems to be going okay for you so far, just from an outsider's perspective. I think you're doing something right [laughs]! Is there anything you've heard, read or seen lately that really stuck with you?
I've been listening to this Riz Ahmed’s album, The Long Goodbye. That's been on repeat in the studio because I think a lot of the things that he is talking about in his music are very much in line with what I'm doing with my work. It's cool to hear these colonial discussions within real music.
Last couple of questions. Is there anything you'd want to start over?
I don't know how much of this I could control, but I wish my father would have taught me Farsi when I was a kid. If I could start life over and just get the Farsi drilled into me from day one, that would have been great. But I think at the time, he didn't have anyone else to speak Farsi with and I know for a fact that it wasn't encouraged to speak foreign languages. He didn't teach us almost as a way of protecting us. He moved when he was 14, so maybe it was just hard for him to speak the language, or it took him back home and that was probably really difficult for him. Other than that, I'm happy with the rest of my life.
It's silly to ask, in a way, but just so I can hear it from you: why would you want to change that, in particular?
I often find that I’m not able to articulate some of the things that I’m feeling or thinking. There’s this theory that if you don’t speak the language of your family or ancestors, it’s almost like you lose a bit of that ability to communicate. Farsi is very poetic. You don’t just say, “I love you.” You explain deeply and very specifically why. I would really like to have that ability. It feels like a part of me that’s missing. My cousin's taking lessons right now and she’s starting to get to that point where she can have conversations. It’s really exciting, but it takes so much time and dedication. Unfortunately, I just don’t have the time for that right now. It would have been great to just have that installed.
Is there anything you wish you were asked more often?
Goddamn, these are some good questions. Couldn’t you have sent a courtesy email so I could have thought about them [laughs]?
[laughs] Some people have said it’s a little therapy-like.
That’s such a massive question. What would your answer to that be?
I would love for people to ask me about the painful things, the really difficult things about why I am the way that I am. And for them to really want to hear the answer.
I understand that. You create understanding by sharing your experiences like that. I might actually say something along the lines of, “How can I help you?” It’s a way to connect with someone and I’ve found that, when I’ve done it, people will open up. They’ll say, “I have this thing going on,” and I’ll say, “I’ve experienced that before.” And it can be really helpful to share that. Or you could say you have no idea! In general, that could be an interesting thing.
I was at this fellowship and we were asked to turn to the person next to us and share something vulnerable – to a stranger. That was really cool too because you share something and instantly connect. That’s a beautiful thing.
Isn’t it amazing how much easier it is to do with total strangers than with people you know?
It is, right? They’re not part of your life, so you can tell them anything; it doesn’t matter. It’s a fantastic question.