Working across photography, film, painting and new media, Toronto-based Iranian artist Simin Keramati (born 1970) is known for projects that are at once personal and political, featuring moments of introspection with bold social commentary.
Simin studied at Azad University and Art University, both in Tehran. She won the grand prize at Dhaka International Biennale in 2004 and was shortlisted for the MOPCAP (Magic Of Persia Contemporary Art Prize) in 2009. In 2015, she was awarded a grant by the Canadian Council for the Arts to produce video art and a short film.
Here she talks about the stories behind some of her projects and the themes that come up again and again in her art…
You were born in Tehran, and obtained your BA and MA there itself. When did you make a move to Toronto? How do you spend your typical year now? Do you divide your time between Iran and Canada?
I was born in Tehran and lived and worked there for a long period of time. In 2012, I moved to Canada. The reason for this emigration was personal. At that time, I had been diagnosed with cancer and the aftermath of the presidential elections in 2009 was depressing. Even though I was not affected directly, I felt like I needed to distance myself from the situation and create a space of my own.
As I moved to Toronto, I started operating from my new home-studio. I travel to Tehran quite regularly and continue to do some of my work there.
Your themes are described as “socio-political”. What specific social and political issues/events are you most interested in exploring and exposing?
Living and working in a society like “the Islamic Republic of Iran” makes you political. That said, being a woman and working as an artist is political enough. To be honest I believe every artist in Iran is performing a political act when creating a new artwork. Yet, some artists find themselves more explicitly involved with social and political matters.
The social and political themes that I have been focussing on are mostly about: the serial killing of Iranian writers, the Iran-Iraq war, Middle East and the so called “Arab spring”, capital punishment, women’s rights, children’s rights, air pollution, immigration and…there is always this feminist approach present in almost all of my projects.
“I am not a female artist from Middle East in exile, I am an artist” (2014) – this work of yours made quite an impact on me. I’d love if you could elaborate your thoughts on race, gender, migration and creative freedom…I’m sure you will have a lot to say in this area!
This video art is a big objection to everything I have named in the title. The fact is that my emigration was voluntary, in other words I was not forced to leave my homeland. Yet, in many ways, people were addressing me as an artist living in exile. When you are a non-Western artist living and working in a Western society your artistic communications tend to be more complicated. Most of the time, I find it offensive when professional art writers look at me as an exotic product of the Middle East. My gender and nationality are not the museum in which my art should be seen. Well, this video art is in fact questioning the response of Western audiences to the non-Western contemporary art. I have to mention that the title is inspired by Jean-Michel Basquiat’s line “I am not a black artist, I am an artist”. Here I am pointing at the same kind of frustration that Basquiat was talking about, mine deals with more complicated issues though.
As a contemporary artist, my role is to talk about breaking the rules and rejecting the prejudgments, frames and clichés. Here the thought and the mind are supposed to be the focus of the subject and the rest is to be mentioned only as a footnote.
In your blue background paintings, you include yourself with figures like Andy Warhol, Michael Jackson, a character from Sergei Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates (1969), John Lennon, Marina Abramović, etc. I like how you seem to show the ultimately “personal” nature of art—as in how a work of art (be it painting, music, film) that is made for public exhibition and distribution affects people at their particular, individual, subjective levels. In what ways are you attached to the figures you have chosen to portray?
I am a workaholic. I am addicted to the act of creating. Doing the series “The Blue Backgrounds” I was in a new phase after the treatments and surgery, and I was in Toronto living on my own with my only son. I started this series while I was dealing with depression. I started to do some research into and analyse the things in my life that had led me towards the place that I was at the time.
Some characters became bold and certain events began to appear more impactful in the way of my life. I started to write about the most important effects that each event had had on my life. The characters that I have painted have been present in my very personal memories. I started to portray the figures as if I was having a dialogue with them. I wanted to see if I could meet with them, how it would happen. I have used my own figure in all these paintings because of multiple reasons. Most of my artworks are self performances wherein I use my own body and my own face and figure in order to create the scene I want. Many artists do so. Here in this series I am the responsible mind putting these (mostly) public characters in one space (which is blue). I am there as an interpreter or as a defendant who tends to plead guilty to the court that is in the mind of the audience.
This series is an ongoing project. Every now and then I come up with a new subject to work on this kind of conversation.
“Insomnia” is another series that is very interesting. Is this an autobiographical work?
Insomnia is a series of paintings, drawings and video art. This goes back to the aftermath of the presidential election in 2009 in Iran. During the following years a huge number of activists were imprisoned, killed or tortured. And the process was very fast. Some of my close friends also went to prison for a period of time. I mean who could sleep under those circumstances? I can never forget those sleepless nights, thinking and staring deep into nowhere.
In the my paintings and drawings, I am portraying sleepless women with sheets in bed, their faces covered with their hands or their hair, and the drawings are the same. Everything is colourful; I have used lots of geometric patterns in order to question the perspective of the body that was hidden under the sheets.
The video art is black and white, it shows the window of my bedroom, with the white light curtain moving in the wind, and you hear nothing but the sound of a calm city early in the morning, right before the daily sound pollution starts. Unlike my other works, my own figure is not present here. There was no need to portray a face there, I just wanted to frame the endless wait for a moment of sleep. I have also used some monologues from the book The Waves by Virginia Woolf as subtitles of the work.
Your video works are experimental and thematically deep, covering a range of topics—pain, loneliness, space, dreams, silence, wind, water, fire, earth. If you had to pick out your three best projects from this list, which would they be?
Well, that is a tricky question. I am not capable of choosing my best works. My answer to this question might be different under various circumstances. Now that I am going to start my new project my focus is on heroism.
Who are your favourite dead artists and thinkers?
I have a lot of favourite dead artists and characters. In fact, I like all the artists and thinkers from everywhere in the world that I have had the opportunity to read, see or hear. It is really difficult for me to name a number of them here. I can tell you that I have recently watched Close Up by Abbas Kiarostami, and because of a project that I am about to start I am conducting research on human rights activists and I like all of them. I am particularly into the acts of Martin Luther King Jr. these days.
Who are your favourite living artists and thinkers?
I remember I went to this talk by Fran Lebowitz, and her answer to a similar question was quite interesting to me. The interviewer asked who her favourite writer was, and she said: “I have to say that I am a slut of literature, I like every single one of them”. I feel the same way. I like every one of them (this answer is related to the previous one). Still, I can tell you that I have recently reviewed some projects by Mona Hatoum, if I could I would love to watch Mulholland Drive by David Lynch this week, and these days I mostly pick music by Thom Yorke to listen to.
What are your plans for the near future?
My plan for now and for the future is to work. I might plan to go to some place far away for a while. I need to get lost for a period of time. But I will come back. I need to exhibit. I need to create. The day I stop creating will be the day I will stop living.