We speak with the Syrian-born artist…
Your background is Armenian and you were born in Kamachli, Syria, and studied art in Armenia. How do your Armenian and Arab heritages influence your art?
Especially now that I am so far from both Syria and Armenia, I find myself all the more influenced by the landscapes and aesthetic cultures of my origins. I find direct inspiration in the art of the Armenian miniature and in the Arabic calligraphic arts. I think that my sense of color is also linked to my heritage—the vivid colors of the Armenian miniatures, but also the ochre and more muted hues of the Syrian landscape.
And without being overtly so, my art has become more political with time, (since even just being of Middle Eastern culture in the United States has become politicized in the last decade.) I grew up writing both from right to left and from left to right, and I feel that symbolizes the way I have been able to see the world from different perspectives, which I try to express in my art. If you look deeply, my art is often speaking of tolerance and intolerance, the need to look to the past, the desecration of nature, and the injustices of this modern society.
You perform live onstage with musicians, painting as they play. How did this art form originate?
I call my performances with musicians—in which I create art, mostly live, which is projected on a screen—live visuals. I started doing this with a friend in Armenia 15 years ago, and it has developed since then. The idea came out of the style of painting that I developed for myself in which I paint using a tube of paint to create lines, which I smear into the forms that my inspiration and the paper dictate. In California, where I first lived when I came to the United States, I was dubbed, “The Fastest Draw in the West”, because no one had seen images created so quickly. It’s a personal technique that is well-suited to the form of art as a live performance.
In the past, we’ve seen you work on the Gilgamesh Project with Syrian composer and musician Kinan Azmeh. How did that idea come into being? What was it like working with Azmeh?
I love collaborating with Kinan. We have similar values, ideas and spontaneity, and it’s always very exciting to work together. The Gilgamesh project came to us as our response to the Iraq war. We wanted to show the wealth of the culture that was being destroyed, a culture that boasts the oldest epic committed to writing. Gilgamesh is a beautiful, riveting, complicated story, and it was the perfect subject for us to work on together.
And the Silk Road Project—how did that come about? What was your experience like with Yo-Yo Ma?
The Silk Road Project was created by the famous cellist, Yo-Yo Ma, to connect different cultures through art. Fascinated by the history of the Silk Road, Yo-Yo Ma and his collaborators pulled together a number of talented musicians and artists from countries all along the Silk Road to compose new works and re-interpret old ones using unorthodox but thought-provoking and beautiful combinations of instruments. Yo-Yo Ma is extraordinarily generous as an artist and as a human being, and it is the biggest honor to be able to work with him.
How are you finding life in New York? Any exciting performances coming up?
I live in New York and just finished my first theatrical collaboration with my wife, an actress and singer, at the renowned New York International Fringe Festival. In November I will be working with Rami and Bachar Khalife, the incredible pianist and percussionist, at the Festival du Monde Arabe de Montréal. I will also soon be working with the incredible Colin and Eric Jacobsen, (violinist and cellist with the Silk Road Ensemble, the Knights, and Brooklyn Rider,) and the dancer Maile Okamura of the Mark Morris Company, on a project we will perform at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I have other projects under way, but it’s too early to talk about them…
Finally, how do you continue reinventing yourself? What reinvigorates you?
I re-invent myself by testing the limits of what I can do. The play I just did was an example of that—working with a live actor, with my art as a character… Most importantly, I will purposely destroy what comes out most easily, and I will periodically take short breaks from painting (to concentrate on performing, for example,) in order to examine my own work from a different angle, to figure out if it’s satisfying my own needs as an artist.