Color of Peace on White Canvas. Hamshahri Newspaper

In Conversation with Amir Hossein Akhavan, Painter and Sculptor

The Color of Peace on White Canvas

Elmira Hesaraki

Amir Hossein Akhavan was born in Tehran but moved to the United States before he turned one. He was raised and educated in the US, but always wanted to remain an Iranian. After graduating from the university he moved to Iran to present his art in his own country. He participated in various artistic events in New York and had a number of group shows, but wanted to have his first solo show in Iran. He is pro peace and speaking in a Farsi accent that sounds like someone who has lived abroad he says, “I want everyone to recognize the peaceful aspect of my work without paying too much attention to the title ‘Soldier’.“ He has some difficulty in understanding the meaning of some Farsi words but tries hard not to use English terms when he speaks. He says he wants to improve his Farsi through visual arts, and to use drawing and sculpting as a way of communicating with his Farsi-speaking audience.

There are many Iranian artists present in the New York art scene. Are you in touch with any of them?

I know a number of successful Iranian artists, and some of them have come to my studio a few times. We primarily have a working relationship rather than a friendship. But when I want to work I often become introverted and focus entirely on my work. Ultimately at a time when relations between Iran and the US were improving I decided to return to my country. When I got here many people asked why I moved back! It’s true that here one has fewer opportunities, but I am always surprised by this question because I always considered myself an Iranian and planned on returning to Iran ever since I was a child. That’s why I decided to move back as soon as I graduated from the university. It was very clear; I knew that I either had to move back to Iran and work in my small studio on Palestine Street, or I could stay in the US and sacrifice my art in order to be able to pay rent.

You lived in New York?

I grew up in Utah, which is similar to Tehran in some ways. I later moved to New York to develop my art. The move to New York was like studying for my master’s degree. After I turned 14-years-old we travelled back and forth between Iran and the US. I really enjoyed travelling to Iran because I got to do many exciting things during these trips.

It seems like you’ve maintained some Iranian traditions in your work. This is clear in some of your paintings. Your previous series, “Di-V” (Demon), seems to have a strong connection to Iran in terms of content. I want to know where this interest comes from? Were you interested in painting as a child?

I enjoyed working with my hands as a child but I never painted. When I was 19-years-old, I became acquainted with an art teacher during a trip. I was looking for work and trying to find myself when I met him. He asked me to work with him, so I moved to Texas and stayed with him for several months. At that time I was looking for a job that I could do until retirement, but I also painted. I thought to myself that painting might not be my permanent job, but I knew I would continue to paint all my life. I became very attached to painting, and after a few months I decided to become a painter. Although I have to say if I’d known about the problems that artists have to deal with nowadays I probably would’ve chosen a different path! But I am really happy that I stuck with it. It is a difficult profession, especially in terms of creativity and coming up with new ideas. Creativity requires a great deal of pain. I moved to Iran after graduating from the university, and spent a long time working without a teacher. It was a very difficult time.

What did you study at the university?

The university I attended had a classical educational program. Their main philosophy was teaching the fundamentals of art. We spent two years learning drawing, painting, and sculpting from a live model. Afterwards we were given a studio where we could do whatever we wanted. The teachers would give their opinion on the work we’d done. I found their comments very interesting. For instance one teacher would say the work was very strong, and five minutes later another teacher would say it was terrible! In any case, we had to decide if the work we had done was good or bad, right or wrong. This is the way art is taught at most American universities and I think it is an interesting method.

So by the time you graduated from the university your artistic style was not very well defined?

My recent exhibition shows what I intend to do. With this exhibition I no longer consider myself a student. The work I presented in this show is of soldiers. These soldiers were also present in my first exhibition in Iran, which included some other pieces that attracted some attention, but I preferred the soldiers to the other pieces. I thought it was the most interesting thing I’d done. One of the reasons I left Iran at that time was the reaction to my work. I thought if I moved to New York my intentions would be understood better. I had tried to have an exhibition in Iran several times but as soon as gallerists saw the title of the exhibition they would oppose it. Now I have finally been able to have this show and it has been received warmly by many people, but they also keep asking why I have painted soldiers of war. I want to say I never intended any of the pieces to be depictions of soldiers of war. None of these pieces are about war; they are about humanity. The soldiers included in my work are soldiers that live in society. When I look at them now I see that they are not the result of any particular intention. I have often heard that if you follow your heart you have taken the right path. I followed my heart and halfway through I realized that what I created was entirely in tune with my feelings. At the same time, this issue is also related to the society we live in. The first pieces I created were filled with anger and brutality, but the later pieces are about victory. This is when I realized all my pieces were subconsciously the result of different moments of my feelings and emotions.

Are the soldiers metaphors?

Yes, exactly! I also believe that it is an important subject in today’s world. The soldiers I have created are not just Iranian soldiers; they include soldiers from Afghanistan, the US, as well as members of the police force. I wanted to say that a responsibility has been laid on their shoulders by society. It’s not like they want to kill or capture anyone…

These pieces connect you to an ancient tradition in painting: large images of slaves and horses…they are similar to large epic screens. Did you intend your work to be epic?

I have a painting on my website that is 6m x 4m. It is an epic piece. It depicts a number of soldiers trying to live together in the ruins of an exploded house. They are American soldiers in Iraq who are trapped in a situation they have created themselves. The painting is so large that if you stand in front of it you feel like you can step inside it.

It is similar to the work of John Singer Sargent in a way.

That’s right. He was a resident of Boston too, and an artist who had a deep impact on my work. I see myself in him, and everything I learned about painting comes from him.

What was the method for teaching art at your school? What was the artistic approach?

We had to study every historic resource and memorize art history. They (my teachers) believed in art up to Picasso, but not anything that came afterwards. They didn’t believe in “Pop Art” and didn’t mention it at all. It may be a bit different now but in those days they were very faithful to classical art. Nonetheless today I have a great deal of respect for “Pop Art”. But if you had asked my opinion when I was a student, I was strongly against it.

What about Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning?

They were considered mythic figures.

Really? I believe these artists have had an influence on your brushstrokes.

What I am trying to break away from these days is abstract expressionism; a style that leads to the creation of a piece that comes from nature whereas “Pop Art” speaks of modernity. “Pop Art” delivers the viewer a beautiful plate of soup. My teachers did not approve of “Pop Art” at all. Back then abstract expressionists did not consider followers of “Pop Art” true artists, and vice versa. They were constantly in argument with one another, but today their interactions have become friendlier.

Were you influenced by abstract expressionism in school?

Very much so. There is an English term: “painterly”.

Do you intend to stay and work in Tehran?

Definitely! I may visit New York, but I have already gotten what I wanted out of New York.

But New York has a larger art market compared to Tehran.

That’s right. An art market may be important in the buying and selling of art, but they also have a great expectation of artistic quality too. Of course you can find mediocre and superficial works among the art present in New York too. But regardless, I believe it is better if I find a place in the Iranian art scene before going to New York. But if I ever gain fame in New York I would like to receive recognition for my exhibitions in Iran too.