Los Angeles-based artist Pouya Afshar at his AdvocArtsy exhibition "En Masse". Photograph: Fred Parvaneh
“Memories Disintegrated I,” 2016 by Pouya Afshar. Triptych, mixed media on wood, 29.7″ x 118.5″ (75.5cm wide x 301cm deep). Photograph: Courtesy advocartsy.com

By Fred Parvaneh

Massachusetts-based artist Pouya Afshar has a mixed-media installation on display at Roshi Rahnama’s “The Space by AdvocArtsy” venue in downtown Los Angeles, the second in a series of solo exhibitions by Iranian artists there.

Titled ‘En Masse,’ the exhibition – which AdvocArtsy hosts until 28th January – was inspired by the death of Afshar’s mentor. It examines loss from a personal and historical perspective, through references to Iranian and Muslim Shi’ite mourning rituals known as ‘Ta’zie.’

Pouya Afshar has exhibited his artwork both as an animator and a visual artist all over the United States. His ‘Rostam in Wonderland’ has been acquired as part of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s (LACMA) permanent collection. He will be one of the artists featured in the LACMA group show “In The Fields of empty Days: the Intersection of Past and present in Iranian Art” which opens May 6.

Kayhan Life spoke to Afshar about his exhibition at The Space.

Your exhibition at The Space revolves around mourning and is inspired by the death of your mentor.
 Who was your mentor and why do you think his death had such a profound impact on you and your art?

My mentor’s name was Leo Hobaica Jr. and he was my professor of color and design. He was also the person who got me into teaching at CalArts’ Community Arts Partnership, which is collaboration between CalArts, Sony Pictures, and the City of LA.

He guided me to understand [more] about being an artist in conjunction with my interests. I rarely experienced a genuine connection in academia when I was in Iran, but Leo initiated an enthusiasm in me to view my time in school as a fruitful, precious period. His passing forced me to experiment with catharsis in the process of art making. I tried to guide my creative process into a practical format of coping mechanism.

What is the significance of the exhibition’s title ‘En Masse’ and why did you come up with this term?

‘En masse’ (meaning all together) materializes the mourning ritual of Ta’zie into a communal tool and transforms it into a life hack for me. This approach lets art and catharsis co-exist in an empathetic realm.

It also helps creating a dialogue on how one can recover from a loved one’s death and why community creates a platform to do so by igniting a conversation about the grieving process. I aim to arouse the audience to find their own tools for coping, especially in mourning phases.

Are you a religious person and how do you think art helps with the mourning process?

I am not, but I believe rituals, whether secular or religious, can be helpful for those who become helpless after trauma. We all have some sort of mechanism that helps us deal with difficulties, but recognizing the process of that mechanism can transform this ability into a practical technique.

For me, making art, playing music, sports, and meditation are all very therapeutic.

Where were you born, raised and educated?

I was born in the early ’80s in Iran and moved to the U.S in 2000. My parents were educated in California in the ’70s and returned to Iran during the Revolution.

I finished high school in Iran and moved to LA to start my undergraduate studies at CalArts. I graduated from UCLA’s film school in 2009 focusing on Animation and Digital Media.

How and when did you develop a passion for art?

I think everyone has that passion. Some people simply recognize it as a profession or tool for expressing themselves. I really can’t tie it to a specific time in my life.

Detail from “Memories Disintegrated II” 2017 by Pouya Afshar. Diptych, charcoal on paper, 20.7″ x 49″ (52.5cm wide x 124.5cm deep). Photograph: Fred Parvaneh

Los Angeles presently has a thriving art scene and has become a hub for Iranian artists. How do you think it can be improved? Which other cities do you like to show your art and why?

I believe art should be separated from nationality when it comes to categorizing genres. But whether I like it or not, I’m known as a Middle Eastern or Iranian-American artist, whatever that means! My work has roots in my background, but I tend to not recognize myself as someone who works solely on Iranian matters.

The reason LA is now becoming a hub for Iranian artists is the infrastructure this city has to support Iranian artists, and that’s a blessing. I believe that by separating art practices from religious, political, racial, and economical labels among Iranians, the art scene can be improved, especially in Los Angeles. Our contemporary identity as Iranians doesn’t accept those labels. So if and only if we want to improve as a community, we should think about the enrichment of our culture regardless of the dividing labels mentioned above.

I am currently working on projects to be exhibited in Europe and [United Arab] Emirates, but I would like to expand my practice to NY as well.

What is your relationship to Iran? Do you still have family there and how often do you go back?

My life is divided between two worlds, Iran and the U.S. I’m not completely an Iranian when I go to Iran and never an American when I’m in the United States. That sense of detachment from location gives me the ability to adapt to new socio-political climates.

I tend to go to Iran whenever I have a project in mind that requires me to physically be there. For example, my animated series “Rostam in Wonderland” demanded me to spend some time in Iran and work up close with my subject matter.

Also, my partner and I run an entity called ‘[P]Art Collective‘ that collaborates with artists in socially engaged projects, and we have had the chance to work with many talented artists in Iran. So far, we haven’t had any issues completing our projects and people are usually very supportive.

Kayhan Life has a global audience and in particular targets the Iranian diaspora. What is your message to them?

Be selfless, empathetic, and meditate on accepting others.

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