For Keyvan Shovir, being an artist is fundamentally about bringing truth and awareness to injustice. We talked to Kevyan about his creative journey to break free from restrictions, his commitment to empathy and how through his work he is creating social change.
I was born and raised in Tehran. As an artist in Iran, I became interested in street art and graffiti because I saw graffiti as a platform that offered freedom and engagement with people in general, especially young people my age.
Your work combines traditional Iranian culture with contemporary pop culture. How did you come up with this concept, and what is the intention behind it?
This weird combination and paradox is a reflection of how I grew up in Iran. On the one hand, Iranians are so traditional, but on the other hand, they are modernizing themselves.
As an Iranian artist, what is it like to live, practice and exhibit in the U.S today?
I enjoy the fact it is so diverse. I find it very interesting when people with different ethnicity’s and religions respond to my work. The conversion between artist and audience in the USA is more diverse.
Your practice is multidisciplinary; you use a multiplicity of media and techniques to create your work. Can you tell us more about this and your creative process?
I create my works across various mediums, including painting, sculpture, video art, and sound art. Unlike traditional academic studies in art school, where you have to choose a subject specialism, my art combines multiple areas. Sometimes, a creative project inspires me to write, or start with a small sketch and turn it into a large-scale painting. I can freely explore my vision between different mediums.
Empathy is intrinsic to your artistry. Why is it important for you to address social and political issues through your work?
In the words of Rumi, "Empathy is even better than talking in one language." At a deeper level, we as humans are all one. We are connected. I want to push this Idea beyond religion and race. Imagine a world without separation of race and class. As children, we made friends easier based on our human connection and emotion, and when we grow up, we start to filter out people defining them by faith, race, and social class levels. And the more we move into adulthood, these walls of separation grow higher. I hope to break down these walls with my art.
How did Ascension come about and what is the concept behind it?
The Ascension series reflects political and geopolitical events through the lens of my eyes as a child and adult. It is a series of sculptural installations of war crafts - airplanes and drones - that I witnessed in my childhood. As a child growing up in Tehran during the Iran-Iraq war, I remember the sirens and running to the shelter with my parents and the sounds of Iraqi jets and exploding bombs.
In Sufi teachings, flying towards God is called SoLuk (Ascension). This comes from the Farsi verb Salaka - to follow or travel - a sālik is a follower of Sufism who detached himself from the material world, and sulūk refers to a spiritual pathway. As Atar Neyshapouri describes in the poem Conference of the Birds, Flying is physical and symbolic. A person detaches from earthly material attachments on a journey to know God. In the Ascension series, I explore Flying as sulūk, a personal and political approach influenced by my childhood memories of war.
When I'm looking back to my life about what I experienced, the loudest voice still echoing in my head is the fighter jet sound and sound of an explosion that no child should experience. I hope a world that every child should hear the sounds of laughter, music, and happiness, not war and explosion.
Your series Simorgh is a multi-sound and sculptural installation created from thirty hand and machine made birdhouses. What is the story behind Simorgh?
Simorgh is a multi-sound and sculptural installation created from thirty hand and machine-made birdhouses, installed in a space like a spiral. The juxtaposition of these fragmented pieces in the area unifies them, making them complete each other. The sounds are collected from identified birds around the world. Each birdhouse emanates individual identified bird sounds, which together represent different people around the world. Also, the design of these houses is a reference to the tradition of human dwellings in Persian history.
Simorgh is a mythical bird in Iranian mythology and literature, repeated in two important literature books of Iran Shahnameh (The book of King) by Ferdousi and Conference of the Birds by Attar Neishabouri. It also means thirty birds, and thirty is the symbol of the complete number of groups of entities, and these entities left their land in a journey to find the perfect bird, Simorgh.
You paint murals and have recently completed one in memory of George Floyd. How have people reacted that and why was it important for you to create this piece?
I received a lot of feedback from people, both negative and positive, for my mural of George Floyd. Mostly positive responses. A lot of people are still emailing me and sending love. I appreciate it. But I want to talk about why I felt I should paint this mural of him.
For me, George Floyd is a symbol of a victim of systematic racism in the United States. It shows how cops violently arrest people of color. As a person of color, I experienced a different level of racism through my art, job system, etc. There is many George Floyd's every day in the United States, suffering from this abusive system. There are Mexican George Floyds, Muslim, and Jewish George Floyds. We are all George Floyd, and sometimes as people of color, we can not breathe.
You have received many awards including, Art of Peace from Robby Poblete Foundation, Creative Activism Awards of Culture of Resistance, Rite Editions Gift in Memory of Seven Leiber Scholarship, and Murphy & Cadogan Art Award. How does it feel being recognized for your work and especially for raising awareness of social justice issues?
It feels that I'm a part of a more significant movement working to raise awareness of injustice. It thinks I'm in the right direction, and my art is more than decoration and a fetishized object in the gallery.
What message do you hope to share through your work and how has it been viewed by passers-by in the street and in galleries and exhibition spaces?
I think each of my projects has different reasons and concepts behind their creation. But in general, the common themes that run throughout my work are resistance, bringing truth and awareness to injustice, and my love of painting.
What has been the most memorable response to your work?
I'm a big fan of metal and rock music! one of my favorite bands is Rage Against The Machine! However, the most memorable moment of my life was when the bands of vocalist Zack De La Rocha came to my exhibition in Los Angeles in the Crewest Gallery in 2012.
You also create digital art. What are your thoughts on the growth of digital art and how do you think you can further push the boundaries to explore your work?
Technology was always a part of my work, whether painting, video, or photography. So I'm concerned about how we allow technology to be part of our life and how we depend on it. Plus, I'm a big fan of sci-fi movies and fascinated by movies like Matrix or Ghost in the Shell, which push this Idea's future more.
Also, since Covid-19 hits the nation, so many galleries have been closed down. And some gallery's and museums shifted to virtual exhibitions. It makes me think about how in the future, people might interact and how this shift has impacted the art world. Some of my works have shifted into the VR world.
What does the future of Islamic art mean for you and your practice? What are the future opportunities and potential for Islamic art?
It is fascinating for me, and it is growing. So I think we will see more profound works and more opportunities for Muslim artists in the future, and I'm very excited about it.
For more information check out https://www.keyvanshovir.com/
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