Homeward bound: Farzad Kohan’s “Migration Stories” at Ayyam Gallery Dubai DIFC

Iranian diaspora artist Farzad Kohan’s newest series takes a poignant look at lives spent in exile. 

The artist’s second solo show at Ayyam Gallery Dubai DIFC examines life, loss and the meaning of home.

Farzad Kohan, 'Migration Stories # 25', 2016, mixed media on canvas, 153 x 116 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Ayyam Gallery.

Farzad Kohan, ‘Migration Stories # 25’, 2016, mixed media on canvas, 153 x 116 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Ayyam Gallery.

Farzad Kohan (b. 1967, Tehran, Iran) is a self-taught sculptor and painter who resides in Los Angeles. Kohan’s work can be found in private collections in the United States and the Middle East, and most recently the Los Angeles County Museum of Art‘s permanent collection. The artist’s sold-out solo show “Migration Stories”, at the Ayyam Gallery Dubai DIFC on view until 19 December 2016, is a continuation of Kohan’s dialogue documenting one of the most serious issues of our time.

Farzad Kohan, 'Migration Stories # 14', 2016, mixed media on canvas, 148 x 115 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Ayyam Gallery.

Farzad Kohan, ‘Migration Stories # 14’, 2016, mixed media on canvas, 148 x 115 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Ayyam Gallery.

Secrets and promises

Migration is not a new phenomena. It is, however, on the rise in certain regions particularly in the Middle East where it seems to be picking up speed. According to the Pew Research Center, a staggering 23 million people are currently considered displaced from the Middle East, their numbers doubling since 2005. With each person comes an incredibly intimate story and this is what Kohan set out to reveal through his new series. As the exhibition press release observes, Kohan painstakingly uncovers the lives and secrets of those who have often fled violence and unrest in their home countries, seeking safety and security in the West:

In his latest body of work, Kohan records the experiences of migrants who have resettled in the United States or Europe, mostly from the Middle East. Detailing their stories with text-based paintings that are written in American typewriter font, the artist adopts the role of a documentarian. This is also suggested with the vertical folded canvases of the series, which recall letters or messages that are shared in secret or tucked away for safekeeping.

Farzad Kohan, 'Migration Stories # 21', 2016, mixed media on canvas, 148 x 116 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Ayyam Gallery.

Farzad Kohan, ‘Migration Stories # 21’, 2016, mixed media on canvas, 148 x 116 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Ayyam Gallery.

A project spanning more than a year, Kohan collected data from over two dozen diverse subjects, gleaned from requests via social media, emails and heart-to-heart dialogue. The artist used a combination of media, paint and stenciling to emerge with canvases that reflect the people themselves, yet allow the subjects to remain anonymous, much like the figures who populate yet remain somewhat invisible, in the many multicultural communities throughout Europe and the United States.

Farzad Kohan, 'Migration Stories # 19', 2016, mixed media on canvas, 147 x 115 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Ayyam Gallery.

Farzad Kohan, ‘Migration Stories # 19’, 2016, mixed media on canvas, 147 x 115 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Ayyam Gallery.

Oil and water

Kohan carefully considered the materials employed in the series, including the oil and water-based paint, which represented a metaphor for migration and the resulting separation that occurs by being displaced from one’s homeland. In addition to the paint, according to blogger and artist Maeshelle West-Davies, other aspects of the works were thoughtfully chosen to reflect the realities faced by the migrant community:

He used both oil and water-based paint that expressed our repelling our original environment. The canvases hang loose and free; mounted only on a thin board at the top, making them ready to roll and be transported at any moment. This also makes them borderless and fluid. They are more likely to respond to their environment.

The words in the paintings are unaltered. Some are even in the native tongue of the writers. This was very important to Farzad, who sees himself more like a medium connecting the speaker with the reader. He purposely chose to paint them in American Typewriter font. As an American, he sees this as neutral.

Farzad Kohan, 'Migration Stories # 22', 2016, mixed media on canvas, 147 x 115 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Ayyam Gallery.

Farzad Kohan, ‘Migration Stories # 22’, 2016, mixed media on canvas, 147 x 115 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Ayyam Gallery.

As someone who fled Iran at the age of 18, Kohan is intimately aware of his lifetime spent in exile. Regardless of his own personal history, Kohan told Art Radar that there is something inherently human about the act of migration and because of this is something that many can relate to on some level:

Migration has been a part of my works for a very long time. Having said that, it has been part of human experience for a very long time as well. There is almost nothing new about migration, only the faces are new and the stories are different. We all migrate. When you look at life – it starts and ends with migration in a way. So, it goes back to how we see this whole experience.

My “Migration Stories” came to life as a result of constant searching. I am fascinated by human experience and behavior and this is a result of over a year of work. It is certainly relevant to everything else that is happening around the world, not only for the participants but also the viewers who found themselves or part of their own life in those stories shared.

Farzad Kohan, 'Migration Stories #18', 2016, mixed media on canvas, 147 x 116 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Ayyam Gallery.

Farzad Kohan, ‘Migration Stories #18’, 2016, mixed media on canvas, 147 x 116 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Ayyam Gallery.

An authentic life 

Despite the challenging subject matter, Kohan maintains that there is something intensely authentic about these stories. As the artist relayed in an interview with Art Radar, this series is one that has given him an extremely unique and rare opportunity to look beyond the surface:

“Migration Stories” was my own idea but again I opened it up to others to be part of the same experience. I tried to create a link between the things people have gone through and how it has changed their life and their views. The meaning of a home comes up all the time and how to adapt and change. It is a story of gain and loss. It is life as it has been lived. If I ever wanted to paint something real, this is the closest I have ever come because it is all reality and not simply a picture that looks like a real thing.

Farzad Kohan, 'Migration Stories # 1', 2016, mixed media on canvas, 150 x 116 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Ayyam Gallery.

Farzad Kohan, ‘Migration Stories # 1’, 2016, mixed media on canvas, 150 x 116 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Ayyam Gallery.

The series includes 25 finished works to date, with 13 of them on display in Dubai. In addition to statements from scholars and filmmakers, there is also one very important story, which appears as the very first piece of the series. It is Kohan’s own story. As the artist told Art Radar, this project has proven to him that we are much more alike than we are different – a sentiment that is very important in these somewhat dark and troubling times:

Pretty much everything was surprising about the whole project! You hear the most amazing experiences that people normally don’t share. By trusting me with their life stories to be painted, I took on the role of a documentarian. I recorded their amazing lives – from having to leave as a child or being forced to leave because of a war.  Everyone said the same thing in their own way. We have a lot more in common than our own differences. We are all in this life together and my “Migration Stories” is a simple reminder of that.

Lisa Pollman

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Related Topics: Iranian artists, migration, identity art, political, events in the UAE

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