His work is brave (as his first name, Shoja, suggests, in Persian), cleverly inquisitive, and unaffected.
And yet, these aren’t the only reasons why we find ourselves seduced by Shoja Azari’s très originale aesthetic.
Azari’s work on the globally well-received series, Icons, was based on “images that I saw everywhere in Iran,” he tells us.
“I grew up, before the 1979 revolution, and saw these images of Imams everywhere–especially coffeehouses.
“Now the images are illegal. The more I kept looking at these pictures, it struck me to cover the beard on one, and then I realized how very feminine, beautiful, sexually-charged, and homo-erotic they looked to me: Similarities can also be seen in Christianity; images of Christ, especially during the Renaissance, are a good example. Sex sells.”
Born and raised in Shiraz (home to the Shiraz/Syrah grapevines) along with his five siblings, Azari has a degree in Psychology and briefly attended film school.
“I took classes, but I was always bored.” Azari says who just came back home to New York from Egypt, where he and his equally-gifted (and beautiful) wife, Shirin Neshat were “doing research on Om Kalsoum” for their next collaboration.
“Being in Cairo was an unbelievably inspiring and informative experience,” recounts the unconventional talent.
Azari works with quite a few different art forms: Writing, directing/film-making, photography, and video-painting. But he says his favorite form of expression is: “writing and directing.”
“It is most consuming and challenging. But each activity has its own merit and beauty.”
Considering all the creative energy flowing around his household (Azari’s son is rising rock-star, Johnny B. of the Dirty Pearls), we can only imagine what’s yet to come from the modern art-scene’s currently reigning royal family.
Enjoy our full and exclusive interview with one of our favorite subjects thus far, Iranian artist Shoja Azari, below:
PEM: What’s the first piece of art you made?
SA: I wrote poetry when I was young. I don’t quite remember the first poem, but I think I was 14 or 15 and living in Shiraz.
Any chance you’ll publish a book of poetry? Or just a book?
I was writing poetry and short stories in Iran, and when I came to the US, I continued writing for a while, but I felt like I was so far from the language…It was becoming from reality and immediate emotions. And I was only going back to my memories. I tried to write poetry in English poetry and I wasn’t good at it.
Who’s your favorite writer or poet? (American and/or Iranian.)
I have many, but a few in particular are: Nima, Shamloo, Haze, Rumi–these are people that I always go back to constantly. Right now I’m reading Mahfooz, and am really enjoying him.
What stimulates you most to create?
Human struggle, moral compulsion and emotional engagement.
What is your favorite part about exhibiting your work?
When common people see the work and share their views with me.
Why do you think Iranian artists are getting so much praise recently?
I think, perhaps the specific circumstances of living under a theocratic rule and the heightened socio-political contradictions in Iran has a lot to do with the necessities of resistance, questioning and examining the autocratic and moral fabric of this imposition. Iran has gone through an enormous change in the last thirty years…I think art has always been the breathing thermometer of the soul of a nation and culture. It is not surprising to see artists search for new forms and means to tackle these most complicated, contradictory and repressive conditions.
Do you think the global media gave enough airtime to what happened in Iran in 2009?
You know very well the nature of the media in US: sensationalism, branding and sales. As the uprising and resistance in Iran changed its form to a less politically confrontational and more disguised and long term civil struggle, it is understandable knowing the above mentioned nature of media that the interest ebbs. I do also think that the opposition outside of Iran due to lack of cohesion and organization has a lot to do with this.
Why it important for Iranians outside of Iran to keep the story of their countrymen alive?
Almost 10% of the population of the country has been uprooted and displaced within the last 30 years. I don’t think there is much choice in the issue. The situation is not that they have a responsibility to keep the story of their countryman alive, but that their own existential condition demands this. They are part and parcel of the unfolding narrative of their lost home and the struggle to keep their sanity outside.
You and your wife are probably one another’s biggest fans, but do you critique one another’s work as well?
We are so drastically different in every sense. It actually works for us really well. It is like having a mirror in front of you. We are vicious critiques of each other. Nothing will be left unchallenged. We never let the other person get away with ease. I think, art is created very little by inspiration, but mostly through hard work and openness to criticism and accepting to constantly revise and edit and reedit. Many artists become so protective and defensive of their work and lose the capacity to see the work from a different point of view. I think, as an artist you should have a circle of uncompromising compatriots that are honest with you and can see through your ego and bullshit.
Do you and Shirin write together in the same room, with regular office hours?
No, we do not have regular office hours. In fact I don’t think if the work ever stops at any particular time or hour. When an idea is being born, it is pretty much around the clock. We are engaged completely for the duration of the time it takes for it to be completed. We talk about it while eating, walking, traveling, in bed and even in social occasions. The writing is usually done separately. I do a draft and then she takes on and so forth.
Your favorite piece of work, made by your wife?
Do you have any more collaboration projects with your wife coming up?
We are working on two feature films. “Paradise” a film that I will be directing and she would take the back seat and a project of her own on the life of the legendary Egyptian singer Om Kalsoum, which I will be helping her with.
Name five songs on your favorite play-list right now…
“Zemestan” by Shajarian. “Symphony #5″ by Gustav Mahler, “My Little Birdy Flew Away” by Johnny B. Azari. “Egypt My Heart” by Om Kalsoum. “The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” by Henryk Gorecki.
What’s something people would be surprised to learn about you?
I am a smoker and proud of it. (At least at this point.)
Best piece of life advice you can pass on?
Vice, transgression and risk taking.
Are you living the American dream?
No. The American dream is living me!
How can fans who may not be able to afford to buy your pieces, quench their thirst(s)?
I think they should steal the work. Produce, reproduce and do all they want with it, if there is any worth in it for them…They have my blessing.