Shokufeh Kavani is an Iranian contemporary artist living in Sydney. An embodiment of the multi-skilled creative, she maintains an art practice as a painter while balancing life as a working nurse and renowned translator. Known as an abstract painter of the post–Islamic society of Iran, her lived experiences, history and beliefs inform her practice, describing her own style as “emotional, political and feminine”. Emma Saunders spoke with Shokufeh about her artistic practice, exhibiting globally and the humanitarian overtones of her work.
You’re a painter, a nurse and a translator. Do you find that these practices support each other or do you keep them separate?
This is a very hard question to answer. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. Being an artist definitely has made me more sensitive to the events which happens and affect all of us, especially in this chaotic world today. Painting is a demonstration of my inner feelings and translation is a way of understanding the literature in the other countries – especially Australian Aboriginal Culture – and transferring them to my mother language, Farsi (Farsi or Persian language which is widely spoken in Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan). Being a Nurse definitely puts me in contact with the real people and society to gives me a real picture of how the events affects people and their reactions to these events. All I can say is that combing these three practices have been a challenging but interesting experience for me.
You grew up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution, are now based in Sydney, and have exhibited all around the world. Do you find that places influence your work?
Of course. I consider myself ‘An Eastern woman living in the West’, although there is no East and West, any more in my opinion; we are living in one world, in a global village which is very similar but yet different. The doors are open for understanding and sharing but so many of us still refuse to go through this door. I have experienced three major events in my life which is chromatic enough for a life time:
1979 Revolution in IRAN which changed the world totally and still does. I was only nine when that happened and still remember the events quite clearly , especially the decade after the Revolution (the 1980s) which can be considered one of the darkest era in Iranian history , considering so many horrible events such as the Iran-Iraq War, two massive mass executions of the Iranian political prisoners and establishing so many hard rules against people’s freedom and democracy, such as compulsory Hijab and restriction of freedom of speech, freedom of the press and so on.
Iran-Iraq War which lasted for eight years with no winner resulting in lots of dead and casualties in civilians, army and warfare plus the destruction. It was a vain war which eventually finished by acceptance of the UN 598 Statement. The memories of going to the shelter during the missile attacks and air raids while still studying in high school is still fresh in my mind, even after two decades.
Migration to Australia in 1979 which made me to face so many challenges like establishing in a new country, studying all over again and trying to find new friends in order to find my place in the society.
What is your artistic process like?
It is very complicated. It is not planned in a way that I want to paint today. It all depends on my personal feelings. What happens around me and how I feel towards it and what I see in a blank canvas. Some of my works takes weeks or months to complete but there were ones which I have finished in few hours or a week. My work is very personal, very emotional, political and feminine.
There is nothing to hide, especially considering the fact that I come from a culture that everything is hidden under a carpet, especially a woman’s feelings.
Your work has been exhibited at the Florence Biennale – can you tell us a bit about what that was like?
It was a great experience as the Florence Biennale opened by Mr. Kofi Annan and Mrs. Prada. Meeting lots of artists from different part of the world plus learning a lot about the art and history of Florence and Italy definitely has been something which happens in my life every day. I suppose it took my work to a different level. Three of my paintings have been exhibited at the Florence Biennale which hopefully opens the door to presenting my work in other important exhibitions and Biennales, all over the world. I was under the impression that having my artistic work in Florence Biennale would change the monopoly of art for me in Australia, but unfortunately, I still found (and find) the door closed in Australia. I suppose there is a specific art powerhouse in Australia which doesn’t let people in. It is very conservative and frozen in time. There has been no major and important Iranian – Australian artist in Australia since the 1970s, although two new generations have changed in Iran and there have been several massive waves of new Iranian migrants to Australia.
It is very hard to get into commercial and serious Australian art world and it seems there is a hidden policy which keeps the migrant artistic work in the community level which hopefully changes soon, as we leave in a global village and can’t ignore each other.
As a member of the art group ‘TAH, Art for Humanity’, you aim to tackle themes of discrimination and racism. What do you think the role of art is?
Art is like the eye of each society and to be exact, eye of the humanity. We live in a world full of lies, hatred, discrimination and injustice. Artists act like the conscience of the society who sees things as they happen and judge accordingly. It is our duty to keep this eye open and let this conscious grow and flourish in the hope of living in a world full of peace, harmony, happiness and free of war, hatred, racism and injustice one day.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
I am working on a series of works of collage – paintings which are a combination of eastern and western celebrities and characters whom influenced and shaped my life while growing up in Iran, especially during the 1980s. You know we live in a world which is ruled by media but we still don’t know each other very well, although we are closer than we imagine. The key to break down these barriers is conversation and dialogue. We have to let each other in, as we are in this world together and every single incident and change affect all of us. The moment we understand this and try to help each other, hopefully everything will change for the better.
My future works represent these characters in my life and hope to find a good gallery to represent my works, as it deserves it.