Iranian contemporary artist Ala Jazayeri explores through her works the relationship between place, memory, and dislocation. We met with Ala to discuss her practice, growing up in Iran, and her journey as an artist.
Where are you from and what was your upbringing like? How has this impacted your work?
I was born three years after the Iranian Revolution and one year after the onset of the Iran-Iraq war. I am from Ahvaz, Iran; an industrial city in the South of Iran, where I lived until I was 18. Later my family moved to Tehran. I think my whole life has been impacted by my childhood experiences and living in a city on the warfront. Sirens, food shortages, rationing, loss, desolation and displacement were a large part of growing up, even while my family always sought to minimise the effect it had on us and despite the circumstances we always managed to hold on to moments of kindness, tenderness, joy and love. It’s also true that we didn’t fully appreciate the scale and significance of what was occurring. My parents always did their best to hide their own fears and anxiety for the sake of my three siblings and myself.
During the war or immediately after it, there was not much to do in the city. Our only entertainment I would say was family house parties and on weekends my parents drove us outside of the city to have picnics and go for a walk. I think my artistic life was somehow born out of growing up around vast meadows and green hills.
Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. Have you gone through the traditional route of art school and what was your experience?
Art was always my main interest as a child. My mother was always buying me art supplies; small oil paint sets and small canvases. I think I was 14-15 when she got me a book of Cezanne’s paintings, which became my bible. But I never knew I could be an artist by profession, nobody around me was. Also, having been brought up in an Iranian middle class family, from a very young age you’re constantly instilled with the idea of becoming an engineer or a doctor. But I always knew that I needed to channel myself into more creative pursuits. After high school I studied Graphic Design at university, which I thought might work as a compromise. After working as a graphic designer for a short period of time, I realised it was not something that I wanted to do indefinitely. I realised I wanted to create something for its own sake, not something which had a commercial target or is constrained by factors and consideration beyond my control. With painting there was a freedom and spontaneity which I hadn’t entertained previously. My artist friends introduced me to a well-known Iranian painter, Hossein Maher, who was mentoring a limited number of students. Attending his classes was one of the best decisions I ever made. After a couple of years I decided to follow this journey outside of Iran and from 2012-2015, I studied Fine Art at Wimbledon College of Art and from 2015-2016, I attended Goldsmiths, University of London. My course was supposed to be a two year MFA degree, but after the election of Donald Trump and the re-imposition of sanctions against Iran, our financial situation, like many other Iranians in Iran and outside, fundamentally changed and deteriorated beyond belief, and I could no longer afford to attend. During 2018-2019 I was a part of the Turps Banana correspondence painting course, which I think had a big impact on my paintings.
What’s the message of your work? Are there themes/narratives/purpose?
The inspiration for my work comes from life, my personal experiences, often exploring the relationship between place, memory, and dislocation in relation to the emotional and affective investments they provoke and generate. One of my ongoing projects is related to an image that my cousin sent me more than two years ago of my grandparents house in Ahvaz, which was a huge part of my childhood. The new owner had destroyed this beautiful and traditional home, with its classic courtyard and orange trees, turning the house into a grotesque set of modern flats. In the photograph some parts of the old house were still there and I could still see the blue/greenish walls beyond the massive scaffolding. I think that image stuck in my mind and I started to paint some scenes of abandoned places as life continued from one day to the next. Some of them are imaginary scenes and some are a vague memory of the places I had previously lived.
Also I am working on a series of paintings which I think originate in photographs of people protesting in Iran. Following the news is part of my daily routine. I think this started when I left my own country; somehow this is a way to feel more connected to where I come from. I don’t look at any specific photographs as a source of painting, everything comes from memory or a process of imagining what has occurred there.
Where do they come from? How would you describe your aesthetic?
My paintings are not representational, nor abstract. They are a combination of both, I would say. At the same time, I think they have the journey of art history in the background as well. Although I lived in the UK for 8 years, I think they are quite distinct from paintings fashionable here in London and also different from Iranian contemporary painting, which I still follow more or less.
Who and what are your greatest influences?
I look up to many artists. From time to time I get obsessed with one artist’s works and move on to another; From Rembrandt, Degas, to Michael Armitage and Nick Goss. But as a woman I am mostly interested in female painters and their journey: Georgia O’keeffe, Marlene Dumas, Louise Bourgeois, Cecily Brown, and Virginia Chihota.
Are your works planned? What do you want people to take from your work when they view it? Do you have the audience consciously in mind when you are creating?
Yes, in some ways I plan every painting. I sketch on paper, sometimes just a small line drawing, other times with an oil painting on paper or canvas. But most of the time the larger painting comes out very far from the initial sketch and becomes a very different work from what I planned or had in mind.
I don’t think I want my audience to entirely comprehend what I had in mind and the exact concept behind the work. I think I enjoy seeing people have different readings of my works. Some people might just see the brush strokes and mark making and some might look for a meaning behind the works.
I would say that I don’t have any specific audience in mind when I am painting; most of the time I don’t know where I am going to show the work. But at some point I try to get feedback from fellow artists, family and friends and try to understand what they see as a spectator.
What events in your life have mobilised change in your practise/aesthetic? How has your art evolved? Do you stick to one medium? Do you experiment? Do you see any parameters to your work?
I think moving to the UK and art school contributed considerably to my journey and gave me structure to work with. When I was younger I knew myself as a contemporary artist, not a painter. I was working with videos, photographs and installations, but I think when I was at Goldsmiths I decided to be a painter and stick to that, following that Turps School helped me to carry on and grow further. I began to reflect more and more on the joy that I get from making paintings; something which I don’t get from anything else in the world. I can’t say it’s unalloyed joy, it’s more like joy and pain at the same time. But the feeling of getting lost in that world, I would say, is something which made me addicted to the creative process. I see myself as someone who needs to make paintings, rather than wanting to be a painter. Although it might sound like a bit of a cliche.
I think oil paint works the best for me, apart from the hassle of brush cleaning and the smell of turps. It gives me some time to sit back and think and reassess the work. I take a couple of photographs and look at them later when not in the studio. Sometimes I print them out and change the composition or add different colours, or use tracing paper and change some elements and plan the next one. Sometimes if I am really stuck with a work and I really want to finish it, I use photoshop to change some colours and textures and then go back to it and rework those elements I’m not satisfied with. I would say each work has its own process. Sometimes everything just happens very quickly, even whilst doubts and concerns continue to be ever-present. Other times it takes weeks and I have to turn the work over to ignore it for a while. Then I rework it when I’m ready to return to it, until I feel I’m done.
What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a “good” piece of work?
I have a shared studio at the Old Police Station in New Cross, London. It’s near Goldsmiths which is a nice space. Since lockdown, I actually realised that a home studio works best for me, providing I have enough space. The reality however, is that living and working in London is a costly venture. When I work at home I can work and paint as inspiration and the creative impetus strikes me. I tend to read a lot during the mornings and undertake relevant research to the series I’m currently working on – reading about and studying those artists and developments which provide me with inspiration. I tend to paint during the afternoon through to the evening.
How has your art practice been affected by self-isolation? Are you creating new work while social distancing? How are you staying creative?
I don’t have access to my studio and avoid public transport, so I was unable to finish several works that I was working on and they are still occupying my mind.
I turned one side of my bedroom into an artist studio but I don’t have a big space to work on larger pieces, so my work has become smaller and I’m working mostly on paper for the time being. My problem is that I cannot make a mess at home and for me, mess is very much a part of the process of my work. At the same time, because of the lockdown my days are longer and I am focused on my practice more than anything else.
Also it feels like our lives have been put on hold for the time being. Like many other people I guess I am going back to old photographs of my childhood and holidays and I think that has had a huge impact on my work. My colour palette is very different. It’s something that I am still exploring and I’m not sure where it will end up.
It’s not very easy to stay creative but I’ve realised that I have a routine and starting my days with some exercise and many coffees helps me to feel like I’m in a rhythm and able to get work done. At the same time I work when I feel I want to work on painting and I don’t put pressure on myself to be productive. I read unfinished books, watch many good movies and artist interviews, which always give me energy and motivation.