The painter on how his latest series is an act of mourning and the way early exposure to cinema gave him a love of storytelling.
You just moved to London from Southern California a few days ago. Can I ask what compelled you to make the move?
Well, there are many reasons and at the same time, no specific reason. My wife, who’s in science and not in art, teaches at a university and she got a good position. That was one reason. But she always wanted to move to live in Europe. We're both from the Middle East: I'm from Iran, she's from Turkey. She just wanted to be closer to the family and all that. Being in the US, especially for us immigrants dealing with immigration, it's not that easy to get out and come back.
Also, a year or two ago, when we started talking about moving, we were still in the process of getting our green cards and things were, as always, shaky. We were kind of tired of the situation. And Trump happened. I've been in the US for 12 years and it always felt like home. I got to the US in 2010 to go to school and from the beginning, it was like home. I loved it, and I was comfortable. But after Trump, I just wasn't feeling it anymore. Even though Biden came in as president, it's still something I cannot forget. I had this bitter taste.
And at the same time for the last two years, I don't know why or how, there has been more interest in my work in Europe, specifically in London. I got into several shows even though I've been based in the US. I still haven't figured out why that is. So, when the opportunity came and we decided to move and my partner got this position, we were like, “OK, it seems like everything is directing us to London.” I've been here for less than a week and I'm so happy. I think it was the right decision. I love it and I've never been before. This is my first time in London.
Expand on that for me if you could. What are you enjoying about it most so far?
I mean, my favorite place in the whole world is New York City and I never had the chance to live there for a long time. I've been there for two months for residences and stuff like that. Usually, I just visit for a week or so, but I always love it. I feel so comfortable because it's so big and you can disappear. I just feel comfortable in big cities in general. For the last 12 years I've been in the US, I happened to be living in small towns mostly, so I kind of missed that. Every time I go to New York, I'm just so happy.
And London's like that too. I was telling one of my friends today that I feel like London is a mixture of Tehran and New York. I love both these cities because they're huge and crazy and filthy and alive cities. London is a combination of both and it's just fascinating. There’s history everywhere I look, which I didn't have in California and I didn't have in the Midwest. I’ve lived in the east, west, East Coast, Midwest and West Coast. I've been all around.
I'm crazy about history, historical stuff, artists, everything. And London has all of these museums. But more than that, it's just the liveliness of it. And diversity. I had no idea how diverse this place is. I know the rest of the country is not like that, but London is just crazy. I love it. I can hide easily here and that makes me so comfortable.
I feel like this might lead into a larger conversation, but what is it about that sort of anonymity and being able to disappear that is so appealing to you?
I don't know, maybe because I'm a coward. Maybe it's a shield of protection. Whatever it is, there are just so many people and so many interesting people. I’ve taken a couple of trips on the tube so far and like in New York City, I love taking the subway because every time I just go watching. That's what I like to do in life, watch people. I'm not big into talking, really. I try not to talk as much as possible, but I like to watch people. And in big cities, New York or London, on every corner, you just look and you see a character and it's just fascinating, amusing, entertaining. But in other places, everybody's the same in a way. In California, it's like generic Californian people, in the Midwest the same thing. I mean, I hate to generalize. I know I'm not right, but this is the feeling I have. Here, there is just a lot to look at.
One thing you mentioned was your experience of being in the US, the particular context of coming here and what that means. In reading about you in preparation for our conversation, I read that move caused a splintering of identity that a lot of immigrants experience. I was wondering if you could describe how that manifested for you.
I never consciously attempted or even thought about making work about or somehow related to being an immigrant because to be honest with you, I never felt I was an immigrant. Although the government reminds me when there are issues with visas and stuff. But other than that, I never felt like I'm an outsider, although it changed after Trump. But before that, I felt I belonged here and I was so comfortable. It felt like home. It still does now. Although I love it here in London, I feel like I'm away from home.
How about when it comes to things outside of your work?
I guess in my work and also in my life, everything I think about is a collage of things. When I make work, when I come up with a picture, 99 percent of the time, it's made of a collage of other things. I work based on some sort of drawing. I'm not a painter that goes to the canvas and just makes an image. And those drawings are usually collages of different drawings that I have, which I made at different times. Some might be from two days ago, some might be from a couple of years ago. And everything comes about like that. Especially in art, I'm interested in many genres, and I try to keep that kind of practice in my studio. I draw in different styles. Every day, it could change.
Now that you're in London and it's another new setting, have you started your practice again, or are you still just getting settled in and waiting to tackle that?
I got a new studio actually, thank God. I still don't have a permanent place to live, but I got the studio and I'm going to move in in about a week. For the last couple of weeks, I haven't been working really because I just had a show in LA right before I moved; the show is still going on. I haven't been able to work really for the past couple of weeks, but I just started sketching today actually. I have another show coming up in October in London and I still have to finish some work. I have to get to the studio as soon as possible, as soon as I'm done with the reality of life and these things that I have to take care of.
That's exciting that all that is coming up for you. I would love to ask you more specifically about the works that you have on Platform. Could illuminate that series for us and go in-depth about what inspired it?
I started the Martyr Series at the end of last year, November or December 2021. Usually, I work with male characters, that's the summary of my work, and different scenarios. Sometimes, they deal with sexuality, sometimes they deal with the history of Iran. But mainly, it’s these male characters–whatever manhood means, I'm dealing with that. And every picture usually has a kind of made-up narrative that doesn’t really have to be specific. They don't talk about any specific story because everything is made up, everything is collage and as I'm painting it, the story emerges and the character emerges and I work on that.
There was really no specific historical story behind my work until I started the martyrs–at least consciously. In 2019, there was a big protest in Iran. For the last 43 years or so in Iran, there have been countless uprisings and protests, but this one was on a different scale. I've been away for 12 years, but I still read the news and my family is still there. I'm aware of what is going on there, but after a while, there's a distance that grows, and you kind of become numb. And sometimes I also escape and decide to not be aware of everything because it bothers me. But the scale of Bloody November was just so big that you couldn't avoid it.
I was really closely involved in the sense that I was following the news, I was talking to my friends on a daily basis and some of them were part of the protests. And then at the end, when they shut it down slowly over a couple of weeks, the news came out about how many people actually got killed–which they believe is about 1,500. And this time, it was very different because many or most of the previous protests in Iran, political protests, came from students or middle-class or upper-class people, people who have enough stability in life.
But the main reason for these protests was not economic. Most of these 1,500 people were workers and people who came to the streets asking for bread and water and basic needs. The whole thing really just shocked me. Every day the news come out, you could see who these people were and they weren’t asking for much.
It really bothered me and for two years, I just kept it inside. I knew I had to do something with it. And so somehow I made a picture, a painting last year that was a dead body in a morgue. I finished that painting and I started thinking about it. I figured out that this is kind of about that incident because it was weird to me. It was like, “Why am I painting this?” I didn't know what it was. And then I realized what it was. It just had so many ideas, not just one. I felt like I had to make it a series. The series that we’re showing on Platform is still going on. I don't know when I'm going to end it. So far, I have about 20 works in the series. And I've also started smaller ones that are half the size of the paintings I showed in LA.
To be honest with you, I wasn't planning to show them. They were something for me. I don't want to say it was like therapy or something like that, but maybe it was a little bit. It was something I had to do just to show my respect. I wasn't trying to make any political statement or anything like that because that's just not what I do. I personally don't think art, at least what I make, is capable of doing anything, creating an actual change. It's not something I think about, so this was on a really personal level. It was just like me mourning, really, crying for these people who were, in a way, friends, people that I kind of belong to.
I started these and really quickly I started making more and more and somehow they got out and then I couldn't stop, so I started showing them. The emotional force behind the whole project and idea was really powerful. It made me want to make more and more. But pretty quickly, I started thinking about formal things because that's the reason I make images. I'm interested in formal aspects of art making: shapes, colors, all those basic things. As I said, I'm not trying to make a statement. That's not the main reason. Maybe it's the secondary reason.
These works are basically portraits of these people, but they're not based on any actual picture of a martyr. These are made up. I'm just imagining them in the streets or in the morgue because most of them are naked. It's like that moment that they're dead and they're in transportation from who knows where. We don't know where many of the people are buried. Even the families don’t know. So, I was imagining some of them are in boxes, perhaps in big boxes in the back of a big truck going somewhere.
I decided I want to frame them in a picture as if the border of the picture is a kind of frame itself. I was thinking these are all inside boxes or graves or something like that. That's why you see the whole body. I didn't want to crop anything. I was imagining that we are going to look down at them because these are defeated, dead, suffered bodies.
Every single one I start is really challenging. I have to make many collages, cut them, repaint them. It's weird because it’s so much fun. I have so much fun making these works, which considering the theme, is ironic. But I think unconsciously, my mind is doing that, giving me even more pleasure than working on other things because otherwise, I wouldn't be able to deal with them. When I'm making them, I’m sorry to say, it’s pure fun. That doesn't really happen when I make my other stuff. I don't remember having this much fun making something, which is really bizarre.
That's really interesting though. There are two things I want to ask about what you said. Part one would be: After the works started to get out, was it a difficult decision to begin showing them more openly? And then part two would be: Because these are different kinds of works for you, has the response that you've received been any different?
Yes and yes. I still feel a little weird about sharing them and I'm not sure if it was the right thing to do. To be honest with you, I kind of feel like an asshole. And this is an ongoing struggle I always had about artists who work and deal with stuff like this, political or social matters. Although I always had respect for artists who do that, sometimes it's hard for me to believe their integrity. I'm not sure if I have the right to talk about these things. I'm sure I have, I know the right answer is 'yes, you can talk about anything you want, nobody can stop you, nobody should stop you.' But internally, I'm not feeling great about it, to be honest. And I think it's related to your second question.
The response I got was kind of phenomenal. I don't have any of the works any longer. All of them are gone, either sold to collectors or being shown or scheduled to be shown in exhibitions. They happen to be really popular for some reason. They're not usually popular for the right reasons. I mean, I don't care. Like all my other works, whatever the viewer sees in my picture, I'm happy. The main thing for me is: Are the works visually appealing enough so people can enjoy, engage with, or think about them however they want?
The response was kind of beyond my expectation. And I think that also makes me feel worse to answer the first question: It's like, "Oh, you are taking advantage of something." I don't really have a definite answer for myself.
I could go on all day about what you just said, but to keep things moving a little bit, one of the things that you touched on was about men being a really prominent motif throughout all of your work. I'm wondering two things: first, throughout history, we've seen so many artists who feature women as the main subject of fascination. What is it about men that you find so interesting? And second, what is it about depicting men in our current era that you think is intriguing?
Women appear occasionally if I need them for a certain story, but even if they appear, they're usually not the main characters, they're in a supporting role. That's how I see my pictures, as movie scenes or theaters. So when I say 'characters,' there are leading roles and supporting roles.
But I recently thought about the reason why I depict men so much, and I think it has to do with growing up in Iran after the revolution. All boys and all girls were forced to go to separate schools. Boys go to a boy's school, girls go to a girl's school, until college, and in college then they're mixed. But how many years is that? 12 years, 13 years from elementary school to college when I was surrounded by boys all the time. That was always the case unless it was during family gatherings when I could see my extended family, girls or friends outside of school, which we didn't really have all the time.
Because of that, I've been observing men for a long time. We were talking about observing people and I guess I always had that. I didn't really have that opportunity to observe females. Also, I don't have any issues with women the way some artists do. My sister, my partners, my girlfriends, everyone is great. Yeah, there are flaws, but I don't see anything coming from them as a negative thing because of their sex. But with males, it is the opposite. All the issues I have in life are related to men. Again, I know it is a black-and-white thing, but that's how I see things. And I tend to think and work with issues more than the good things in the world. Men are just really fascinating creatures. I mean, I identify as a man myself and I feel like this is something I have the right to talk about because I'm talking about myself in a way. What was your second question?
The second part of my question asked if there's anything that you find compelling about depicting men in the present time?
There are many people dealing with the subject, and it's fantastic and challenging. At least when it comes to the work that I get to see depicting males, the ones that interest me are mostly coming from queer, gay artists and the work is from that perspective. I'm bisexual myself. But my work is not really about that. Although, most of the time it gets confused.
There’s a lot of work out there exploring this, and I think we are just more aware of it now. The more I get to dive in deeper and see it almost every day, I discover work from the ‘70s, ‘50s, ‘40s. It has always been there, but unfortunately, the works were just hidden. And now we are in this time that we get to see them, many by artists I've never even heard of, but with fantastic work depicting the male body in a very interesting way.
But at the same time, it's a little challenging for me, especially recently. To be honest with you, I don't even care how I am categorized, but it's a little tricky. It's tricky because of the way people decide where you should be placed. For example, I've been asked to participate in group shows with other artists that mainly deal with a celebration of gayness, queerness. I'm part of that, but again, that's just my personal life and my work is not necessarily always about my personal life. It's not an issue, it's just something that I'm slowly trying to make sense of for myself.
It’s really interesting to hear you speak about the people that you're depicting as characters. I'd read elsewhere that you grew up having a love for a lot of different films. What drew you to the kinds of films when you were growing up?
I was born in the middle of the Iraq-Iran war, four years after the revolution, so everything was new, and nothing was working. Back then, we didn't really have access to media that much. There was only national TV, which only had two channels. That was the only source of entertainment, really, with all the hardship of the war, and revolution, and the restriction, everything. All the money went to war, so there was no money for producing anything.
Before the revolution, we had a huge archive of movies and every kind of art. What the new Islamic regime did was just censor those according to Islamic rules. These are all just masterpieces. I tell it to my friends here, and nobody believes me. At the time, I'm 5, 6, 7 years old. The only thing we can do is just watch TV. Every night, they would show a movie, usually late, because that's the time everybody gets home and they need to entertain people. At the same time, there was so much happening inside the country besides the war. There was resistance and opposition, so they had to entertain people however they could.
Because of that horrible situation, we got lucky by getting to watch great movies. Because there's nothing else to do, you would just sit and watch whatever they show you. So, as a six-year-old, I would watch Kurosawa. I watched Tarkovsky. I watched Bergman. Obviously, as I said, they're all censored. But if that's the only thing you have, you learn to enjoy it, right? I mean, we didn't know these are great pieces of literature and art. They were just images.
As you can imagine, as anything really serious, anything really great, it always leans toward darkness and that kind of atmosphere. Most of these movies are really, really dark and serious. I don't remember watching any comedies or anything like that.
They only showed this darkness, I think, because they were also using this as propaganda against Western culture: “This is Western culture. They're also fucked up. They're also dark.” They thought people wouldn't think, "Oh, these are talking about bigger themes. These are about existential, universal things. It's not about Western culture." We got lucky to see these and it was a great education.
Because of that, I keep watching the same kind of movies. We also had to watch tele-theater, theater recorded for TV. That's how I got introduced to Shakespeare as a six-year-old. I didn't know who Shakespeare was, but these were great stories. And surprisingly, mostly with male heroes, male characters. That's another level. Back then, I couldn't really understand. But now when I re-watch them, I knew Shakespeare before even reading any piece by Shakespeare because of all these movies.
This aspect of theater, movies and a little bit of Shakespearean tragedy that I think is in my work, I think it comes right from TV. Recently, somebody else told me the cropping I sometimes do actually comes from TV. It's that kind of format, that kind of media.
Just to close out: What's something you're looking forward to?
In art, the only thing I am looking forward to is that I'll be able to do this for the rest of my life. The shape of it is not that important really, as long as I'm able to do it. Right now, I've been lucky. I'm doing it comfortably. But even if it gets harder, it doesn't matter. As long as I can make work, I'll be happy, I think.
In life, I don't know. I hope I don't bother or I don't destroy things more than I've done so far, for other people. If I can do that, it would be great. The older you get, these things creep up on you. When I was younger, I didn't give a shit about anybody, really. But now, that's something that is important to me, that I am as kind to others as I can be. Not that I want to be kind to everyone, I'm not like that. But for the people who matter and deserve that. I'm not saying that I'm doing it, but that's something I want to be able to do. I just want to create less harm, as much as possible, if possible.