By Shahrooz Shekaraubi
A self-taught artist, Ala Hashemi was born in Iran and has lived in Germany and the United States. He showed a keen interest in art at a young age, often forcing his grandfather to sit down and draw with him for hours on end. He held his first exhibition at the age of sixteen in a private house in Tehran and has since exhibited in Chicago as well. Ala's paintings combine expressive colours and textures with the portrayal of subdued emotions in his subjects to allow the viewer to be moved into a contemplative state. He also dabbles in sculpture and political cartooning in his spare time
S.S: In the D.C. art scene, artists appear to be producing curators and critics the context that encourages the success of their artwork, what does it mean for an artist to resist contextualization and or/ analysis?
A.H.: I see art as a conversation between the viewer and the artist. Of course, some of the pieces I have produced in the past are meant to be a reflection of an internal dialogue. However, for the pieces that I present to an outside audience, my aim is to engage them as a participant and not just a mere observer. There needs to be a certain amount of back and forth that needs to occur for that engagement to happen. If I were to dominate the conversation by "imposing" my art on the viewer, or if I were to allow the views of the critics and the audience to dictate my art, the conversation will become very one-sided and the art will not be as engaging. In that regard, I feel it is important to strike a balance in which each of us brings something to the conversation.
S.S: So what is it that you aim to gain from engaging with viewers? Do you think it is important that the viewer make their own connections about your art?
A.H: Not to belabor the conversation metaphor, but the art is simply my way of initiating a dialogue. Where it goes from there is dependent entirely on the experiences and beliefs of the viewer as they are free to make their own connections. In fact, what I find most rewarding is when a viewer makes a connection that goes beyond what I had originally envisioned for the piece.
S.S: Have you ever had a piece you created open up any thought processes or methods?
A.H: Every time I see one of my pieces through someone else's eyes, I am sure a new way of thinking is born within me. If I were to close myself off to that completely my art would stagnate, and I will have nothing new to say. I try not be too conscious of it though lest I start merely aping the views of my audience. That would be an inauthentic way to pursue art.
S.S: When and how did you start pursuing art?
A.H: I've been drawing ever since I can remember. When I was a kid in Iran during the war (with Iraq) sketchbooks were hard to come by so my parents would gather blank calendars and day planners for me to draw in. I put on my first show in Iran when I was 16. It was mostly a family and friends affair. Art has been a part of my life for so long that I never saw it as something that I should pursue professionally. At least until a few years ago when as part of a change of direction in my life, I got serious about painting and other artistic pursuits. I feel like I am just starting to find my voice.
S.S: Some of your more recent works draws inspiration from politics, but pop culture also plays a large role in your work. What are some of your influences behind your political works?
A.H: Growing up in a society like Iran, political satire, especially cartooning is a very important outlet because it allows the artist to make a powerful point without directly running afoul of the authorities. I used to be a voracious reader of Gol Agha, a magazine of political cartoons, and I used to try to emulate the tone and style of the artwork. That has stayed with me even when I'm not doing a political cartoon. My work might be seen as political sometimes, but it is not my intent to push my views on anyone. More often than not, it is a way for me deal with what is raging on within myself. Leaving Iran and getting that distance has allowed me to take a more critical look at certain elements of Iranian culture and society. I still love my heritage, but that does not mean I will turn a blind eye to those aspects of it I think could use some work.
S.S: You just moved from Chicago to Washington DC recently. Tell some of your experiences with the dynamics of the Chicago and DC art scene.
A.H: Art is a well respected and serious part of the Chicago cultural scene. People from all walks of life come in droves to art shows regardless of distance or weather. Chicagoans support artists that speak with an authentic voice. It affords a certain amount of freedom to pursue that which inspires you. I have not had a chance to explore the art scene in DC as much to offer a point by point comparison. My impression has been that the art scene over her is much more cerebral and analytic, which is exciting because I can expect a whole new reaction from the audience.
S.S: What projects are you working on now?
A.H: I am currently working on a series of paintings depicting the lives of Iranians - both in Iran and in the diaspora community - using the Qajar style. I feel there are many similarities between what was going on in the lives of Iranians at the turn of the last century and now. Therefore, I feel as if the Qajar style is not a mere nostalgic gimmick; rather it allows me to explore how Iranian society has changed and how it has remained the same in the past one hundred years or so. These will be my first series of paintings that deal directly with Iran and Iranians as subject matters.
S.S: You use a lot of different shades of Red in your work. What does the color red mean or symbolize?
A.H: In my last show, I painted a series using different shades of red. For me, red is the color of life and passion. It's exciting and the vivid color grabs your attention right away but it takes a little while for the viewer to process the different shades of red and work out what they are actually looking at. It introduces an element of discovery that makes the art more interesting in my opinion