There is not much difference between Iran and the US, except in terms of comfort
In Conversation with Amir Hossein Akhavan
Being an artist has always been considered an attractive concept, perhaps because of how we imagine an artist’s life. Many young people decide to pursue art but not all of them manage to reach their goals, and in times of disappointment every person finds a different excuse for his lack of success. In this issue of “Donyay-e Ghalam” monthly, we speak with a young Iranian artist who lived in the United States for many years where he learned painting. He moved to Iran in recent years and is now pursuing his artistic path here.
Amir Hossein Akhavan: I was born in 1980 and moved with my family to the United States when I was a baby. I always enjoyed working with my hands but it wasn’t until I turned 19-years-old when I decided to become an artist. I had been wondering what to do with my life when I met a painter. He accepted me as a student and I moved to Texas to work with him. After several months I enrolled at Boston University. A lot of attention was given to drawing and formalism at this school and their philosophy was that a painter must first learn to draw, just as an author needs to become familiar with literature first. After learning drawing and technique, in the third and fourth year we were allowed to create our own work. After graduation I decided to return to Iran. I had travelled to Iran several times before but this was the first time I came here to live. The result was that I had to work without the guidance of an art teacher or an academic setting and learn what painting really means and how an artist creates a work of art. The artistic process is such that an artist often turns inward and focuses on himself, but art also has an audience. Every culture retains some works of art that are put in museums, and every artist wants his work to become permanent in this way. I worked in Iran for five years and had exhibitions here, but I was still not sure when a painting was considered complete. I feel like I was still practicing during that time. Afterwards I returned to New York again and socialized with many artists. The artist from Texas that I began my artistic career with came to New York too and we worked with each other for two more years, not as teacher and pupil but as two artists. During this time I learned what I had been seeking, which was to know when a work of art is finished, what its point is, why it is important, and why it deserves consideration. I am pleased with the work I did during this time, which speaks about society. I have brought my work to Iran to have an exhibition and gauge the reaction of the public.
You grew up and worked in another country. What was the public’s reaction to your previous exhibitions in Iran? How did they interact with your work?
I had an exhibition at Etemad Gallery in 2008. I found it very interesting that a number of people told me the quality of my lines and my technique was foreign, and that I painted like a foreigner. One of the reasons for this is that I grew up in the US, but these comments made me think. You can find a variety of techniques when you look at works of art from around the world. So it made me wonder why the majority of people who saw my work considered it the work of a non-Iranian artist. It all comes down to the quality of the line. Someone who has written in Farsi all his life inevitably draws differently from one who has written in English. English text has sharp angles and broken lines, whereas Farsi text is full of curves and you can see its effects in Iranian art. The angular and broken quality of my lines stands out very clearly in my work.
What you mentioned is about technique. How did the atmosphere where you were raised influence the content and subject matter of your work?
Most of my feelings and internal emotions are about Iran, I can never be entirely American or entirely Iranian. This is an issue that has always been present in my life. But the subject of my work is mostly about human issues, things that I come to as I paint, without choosing them beforehand. The series I have brought to Iran includes images of soldiers. I have never experienced war, but I have had interactions with the police both in Iran and the US. What I found interesting in all of these interactions was that essentially they are all human beings, but at first we only focus on their profession. I would see images of soldiers in different newspapers and magazines, depicting them in terrible situations of war. My intention was to show that these soldiers are all human beings. For instance when I first moved back to Iran I found images of Friday prayers very interesting. In my opinion these are religious ceremonies and not anything violent, but outside of Iran they are seen as political events and all attention is on what is said during Friday prayers. In the US, I try to use my work to change the way Iran is depicted because the current point of view on Iran is completely distorted and incorrect. Whenever I talk about my childhood memories of Iran it is always interpreted incorrectly, so I am careful about what I say. For instance I bought a car when I first moved back to Iran. One day I took a one-way street the wrong way without realizing. A policeman stopped me. I looked at him and said I didn’t know why I had been stopped. He asked if I was a Christian. I asked him what that meant. He laughed and let me go. He realized I wasn’t from here. But if I retell this story in the US it may be interpreted incorrectly, and people may think Iranian police have a negative attitude toward Christians.
In Iran you were told that you paint like a foreigner but you believe you are neither entirely Iranian nor American, that your internal inspiration is primarily from Iran. In the United States, do they recognize your eastern and Iranian roots from your work?
I have not had any major solo exhibitions in the US yet, and have only participated in group shows. The people who see my work don’t recognize my roots, but the people who sell my work often mention that the artist is Iranian, which attracts some attention.
How did life in Iran affect your work?
After living in Iran I moved back to the US and worked there. My life in Iran affected the work I did in the US. What I had absorbed over here became present in my work over there. Life in Iran changed my perspective about the world. Iran and the US are not as different as people think. They are both developed countries and both societies have hardworking people. But reaching a certain level of comfort is easier in the United States. There are many educated people in the US who work as simple laborers. I had a similar job for a while and I don’t think that’s so bad. Many people in Iran have a similar situation. In general I don’t think Iran lacks much compared to the US.
How do you interpret creativity?
There are different theories about this. I believe creativity is when you reach something that is deeper than what you expected. A work of art always begins with an idea. But if the artist gets locked within this idea he will never reach creativity. It is important to make new decisions during the process and to create connections with the work. I believe creativity is important in every profession and leads to advancement.
What do art viewers expect from the artist in the United States? What does a work of art need to have in order to be seen and purchased?
If you step outside your house in New York and run into ten people, it is almost impossible that they will all be Americans. New York is an international city and people there have a variety of different ideas and beliefs. Nothing will shock you there. You may see many strange things but you won’t be shocked or surprised by them. Strange acts have become an integral part of New York. An artist must constantly redefine himself to keep people interested in his work, and everyone there is interested in learning about your “story”. More than the technique and method used in the work, it is its story that they focus on: the story’s importance and why it deserves consideration. Over there you have to be able to answer for what you do. Viewers seek meaning and a story within the work. You may see works of art that are not beautiful and lack technique, but are interesting because of their concept. But in my opinion it is a mistake to consider the story more important than the piece itself. I believe a work of art has to reach a level where it can be interesting even without a story.
Who are the people who buy works of art in the United States? What socio-economic class do they belong to?
It is usually collectors and people who are very wealthy and buy art as a form of investment. These people usually have advisors that tell them what to buy, so a lot of peripheral professions have developed in the field of art. There are galleries with a limited number of clients who listen to everything the gallerist tells them, because gallerists speak from experience and know which works of art will raise in value and are worth investing in. For instance 80% of Andy Warhol’s works have been purchased by a single wealthy family, and this can be dangerous because time is no longer what determines the value of a work of art; money and economics have become standards of evaluation too. On the other hand, this isn’t so bad because money also gets spent on the creation of works of art. But ultimately such opportunities are limited to a small number of artists.
What is the situation like for a young person who wants to enter the world of art and become an artist? How receptive is the artistic community in accepting young artists? What are the differences between Iran and the US in this area?
I believe creativity is a great opportunity that allows one to do anything he wants. I don’t think that context is too crucial and I believe a true artist can enter the world of art under any condition. But I agree that one also needs help. It wasn’t so easy in the US. I worked hard to go to the university and become an artist. As I mentioned before, the story behind an artwork is very important in the US; the subject of a painting, how exciting it is, and how it relates to the present world plays a significant role in its acceptance in the art scene. Ultimately collectors need to approve of the work. These are all like pieces of a puzzle that need to be put together for an artist to be accepted into the art community. I always thought that it was others who arranged these puzzle pieces, but over time I came to realize that it is the artist who needs to work on it every step of the way.
Artistic movements have been defined by western art for many years. You have experienced and understood the current movement in the US. What is it like to work in such a context and how does it affect an artist’s creations?
Conceptual art is currently very popular in the west; installations based on visual concepts and with aesthetic qualities. I was recently at one of the best art universities in France and viewed an exhibition of its Master’s degree graduates. The majority of the exhibition was conceptual art, and this was the first time I was seeing conceptual art that clearly related to a subject matter. But as a painter, I have stepped outside of the western narrative and have tried to make artistic discoveries on my own. I believe every good painter does the same thing, and the difference between artworks is due to the differences between the people who created them who can’t all fit in the same mold. This is my experience and it might not be accepted anywhere else in the world. Every artist wants to do something new. But I believe everything has already been done before and there can’t be anything new, except for the artist himself and his individual experiences, which is what he must focus on.
How did your family affect your decision to become an artist?
There was no resistance from my family when I made my decision and they actually supported me. I didn’t understand how lucky I was back then, and I didn’t know how difficult it would be to be an artist. Many families pressure their children into selecting professions that will enable them to have easier lives, but this wasn’t the case in my family. They pressured me to work hard for something that would last and be eternal. This point of view comes from my grandmother. She had a gallery in Tehran and we were always surrounded by works of art. She worked very hard and managed to establish an art gallery in Iran in the 1960s. She always said, “Whatever you do, be it eating or brushing your teeth, do it artistically.”
Have you ever regretted the path you took?
A few times, especially when I first graduated from the university. I was very preoccupied and kept thinking about the meaning of art and when a work of art could be considered complete. These sorts of ideas lead to the development of an artist, but at the time I felt it would’ve been better if I had studied something that would’ve resulted in a clear-cut profession. But now I am pleased with the path I’ve taken.