Kymia Nawabi, Original Photo: Courtesy of Bravo

Not your average competition show, Bravo‘s “Work of Art: The Next Great Artist“, is a series revolving around the art scene’s hidden gems looking to be discovered.

Eager to prove their creative ability, the artists competing in the second season of  “Work of Art”, will go once again be living out their artistic processes in front of the camera.

A total of 14 highly-gifted artists will be up against one another in New York City and “under the watchful eye of art world elites” who will ultimately choose one winner.

The prize?

A coveted solo show at the Brooklyn Museum as well as a cash prize of $100,000.

Judges include: Bill Powers, a New York Gallery owner and literary art contributor, Jerry Saltz, senior art critic for New York Magazine, China Chow, who also hosts the show. And world-renowned art auctioneer, Simon de Pury continues his role as a mentor to the contestants while guest judges this year are: Adam McEwen, Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, KAWS, and Mary Ellen Mark

The challenges are said to “range from inventive street art to the use of Parkour” and each week we’ll see the artists take on the task of creating “an original artwork in the medium of their choice, including, but not limited to, painting, sculpture, photography, collage, industrial design, and performance art”.

Perhaps one of the best shows on television–simply because it promotes the arts in such a positive, tasteful, and productive way–“Work of Art” is giving us one more very major reason to tune in this season: Iranian-American artist, Kymia Nawabi.

Recently we had the pleasure of interviewing Kymia (whose name means: Alchemy) on her experience as one of the lucky chosen few on “Work of Art” and her life journey as an artist.

Below, enjoy our interview with a Persian girl who has the power to transmute an ordinary substance or object, into one of great value. (As her name suggests.)

“Work of Art: The Next Great Artist” premieres Wednesday, October 12th at 9/8 c on Bravo.



Where were you born and raised?
I was born in San Diego, CA and raised in Durham, NC.

Have you ever been to Iran?
I still have not yet visited Iran, and I have wanted to so badly for quite some time now. In the meantime, I refuse to go without my mother who has not been back since she left 33 years ago. It would be such an emotional experience that I really would like to share with my mother and sister.

On a scale of 1-10 how “Iranian” do you consider yourself?
A five. I think I am half American, half Iranian. I do wish I could speak [Persian] better.  My sister and I grew up within an Iranian community with our parents throwing and attending “meh-moo-knees,” (Persian: parties), as well as our American friends parties and functions. I grew up celebrating both American and Iranian holidays, and learned to speak English and [Persian] simultaneously. So all in all, it feels as though the two cultures were infused equally within my sister and me.

Do you speak/read/write in Persian?
I can speak Farsi, but like I said, I am not as fluent as I would like to be. I can understand almost perfectly, but I speak very clean and simply with no slang or obscure words. Sadly, I cannot read or write in Farsi and I wish I learned to while growing up.

What’s your favorite Persian dish?
Kabab barg (lamb) with safron rice, tadig, torshee, somagh, maust eh kheear and grilled tomato. NOTHING BETTER!

How supportive were your parents of your decision not to become a doctor or lawyer like most Persians?
Well, my father passed away when I was 15 in high school, so, sadly, my dad was not a part of my career building years of college and graduate school.  My mother has been very supportive, but worried about my future of course.  I figure she has to have been supportive enough because I have made it this far, haven’t I? Some parents are so hard core, you really have no choice.  I am very lucky to have had the support I get for my art career from both my mother and my sister.

How does your Persian background influence your work, if at all?
Being a first generation Iranian-American was not exactly easy growing up in Durham, NC during my younger years.  I felt an extreme disjunct socially and environmentally because of being a minority.  My sister Kathy and I, both experienced our moments and events of discrimination in school, even in college. Kathy was spit on at UNC by another student at a 9-11 memorial, just because of our middle eastern background. The comments made from time to time, and the difference in the way I looked compared to the majority of my peers ultimately led me to develop a severe depression and social anxiety disorder beginning at eleven years old. I have overcome this disorder for many many years now, and, in a sense, being Iranian from my perspective is what I made work about from middle school even up until graduate school.

What’s the first piece of art you made? How old were you?
It is so hard to say when because I probably was too young to remember it really. I was making art at a very young age my mom tells me. If I were to remember the beginnings of feeling very serious about practicing art, it would have to be while I was in middle school. I was making ink stipple drawings of magnolia buds and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I remember I was attempting to copy one of Miriam Shapiro’s paintings when I was in the sixth or seventh grade; I was 11 or 12 years old.

You seem to have a very emotional perspective, where do you pull inspiration from?
My main inspiration is to deeply explore issues concerning humanity’s age-old common phenomenons concerning temporality of time, death, afterlife, spirituality, our bodies and why we are here. The older I am becoming, the more questions and fears I have concerning the universe and our existence. Nor my questions or fears seem to have any concrete answers or warnings. I believe there are answers (or clues) all around us within nature, our behavior, character and instincts. These clues are what inspire me everyday.

How would you describe your artistic point of view? What do you hope to communicate through your work?
Observing the peculiarities and wonders of individuals, to one another as well as to their environments, I create mythologies from this stock of my phenomenons concerning our world and its’ inhabitants. My works portray personifications of our human abject experiences, which embody abnormal physical and psychological states.  These abnormalities of existence manifest from the interplay of ourselves in our ordinary, “real world,” capacity, versus us within the occurrences of our daily internal fantasy lives.  Fantasy, referring to our mind, soul and body’s intangible, yet real and deep felt phantom world, not sensed by others. These internal phantoms range from our darkest desires and fears, to uncertainties of time, the fragility of life and what lies beyond this existence. I am fascinated with the mental forms that are conjured up while pondering our universal phenomenons.
It is not where you are or what you are physically doing in the real world that I am interested in, rather your perceptions of where real life places you in your mind’s landscape; who you are and what you are doing there.  This is what I am interested in recreating. With every scenario I introduce another cast of psychic characters and landscapes with particular operations, fusing together their personalities and functions from a curious inventory of psychoanalytic readings, past experiences, and research.  The works can be seen and understood as if the body has been turned inside-out, and upon closer observation, reveal symbolic pattern-work and textures.  Through my allegory of human behavior the viewer is given another realm of reality through my perceptions of what is irrefutable that is often felt but not seen.  Thus, through the lens of my own experiences, observations and beliefs, I direct the viewers’ visions to the complex, deep-level, make-up of who we are, and make us dwell on what we are- the abject human.

How did you get involved in Work of Art?
I simply applied, auditioned and was accepted to be a contestant. I should mention my sister, Kathy, made me do it, because I thought it would be a shot in the dark. I cannot thank her enough!

Did you watch the 1st season of Work of Art? What did you think of show and the talented winner, Abdi?
Of course I watched the first season! I have had the pleasure of meeting Abdi, and he is a very warm and charming person. Abdi seems to be extremely passionate about art and making work which I have a deep respect for.

Who was your favorite judge, and why?
My favorite judge? This is very difficult to answer because each of our judges has such a well-informed opinion as well as their own flavor of motivating constructive criticism to give, so I have to honestly say that I enjoyed working with all of our judges equally.

How would you describe the experience of being on Work of Art? Would you do it again?
Being on Work of Art was like re-experiencing graduate school or an art residency but with ultra-super-sonic lightning speed! I was extremely exhausted and nervous, but my deep excitement overpowered everything. I felt very alive and oh so proud to have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Masochistically enough, I probably would do it again, but there is something to say for entering the unknown, you know?

How has Work of Art helped you evolve as an artist?
I got a chance to explore using different materials and scale.  When you are tested in such a way where there are not only restrictions on your concepts, processes, materials, and time, but your lifestyle as well: unbelievable growth occurs. I not only believe my work reached new levels both formally and conceptually, but I learned a lot about myself and what I never knew I was capable of. Really.

What was your personal biggest challenge on the show?
I think the biggest challenge for me was to not let myself psych myself out. There are so many talented, intelligent and interesting artists you are up against that you easily feel inferior and defeated.

Any funny/interesting behind the scenes stories/moments you can share with our readers?
All I can share at this point without revealing too much was that we [were] a singing bunch, and we made each other laugh constantly. I miss the madness so much.

What is your creative process?
My works, vastly ranging in size and media, take the viewer on a grand tour of extreme psychic visions with almost hallucinogenic power.  The display of my mythologies are designed to heighten the viewers’ human ness and actuality.  By cobbling together an ever-growing vocabulary of psychoanalytic metaphors, visual puns, and classical drawing skills, I reinvent the human form with each effort, for the drawings are a strange sort of portraiture. With each work I introduce new themes of transformations and transcendence through deconstructions and reconstructions of the human form and our abject human experience.  From grand, out-sized, multi-media drawings on paper, to multi-media sculptural forms that seem to have been plucked from the two-dimensional works- I attempt to create pieces that amaze, inform and sometimes, deeply unsettle the viewer as s/he participates in my visions and beliefs.

What time of day/night do you feel most creative?
I feel most creative during the early evening. I am not a morning person.

How hard is to get your work noticed or exhibited for young artists like yourself?
I think it is very difficult to get gallery representation as a young artist, especially (in my opinion) if you have not attended college or graduate school in New York.  It is very easy, unfortunately, to get your work involved with dishonest, bad people. As far as simply exhibiting work, that is really about getting connected, applying for residencies and grants, meeting other artists, etc. Once you begin doing all of these things for your work, opportunities to exhibit work will come.

What are your favorite materials to work/create with?
Although I am a multi-disciplinary artist, I have such a strong affinity for drawing. Drawing with ink, paint, graphite, you name it- I love to work on large stretches of paper making drawings. I am not the best when it comes to technological based tools. I am not a great photographer or working with film and video. This is not to say that I do not want to get better at any of these mediums. I want to be able to make anything I envision without any limitations based on limited knowledge of materials.

What colors/shapes/subjects speak to you the most?
For all of the above: anything that functions for the inner workings of a particular character and landscape for a particular piece within my mythologies.

Who are your favorite Iranian artists?
Marjane Satrapi, Shirin Neshat, Armita Raafat and Golnar Adili. All utterly amazing women.

Your favorite non-Iranian artists?
Kiki Smith, Henry Darger, Yun-Fei-Ji, Folkert de Jong, Tim Burton, Marcel Dzama, Kent Williams, Wes Anderson, Brothers Quay, Jan Švankmajer, Kristofer Porter, Robert Dandarov, Philip Guston,…

What is your career goal?
My career goal is to be a full-time working artist. Plain but not simple.  I want to make work continually, without hitting plateaus formally or conceptually. To have a wonderful, productive gallery that treats me like a professional, is of the utmost importance, as well as having collectors and buyers for my work.  I want making art to be my full-time job, and although I already consider it to be so, I would like for it to be my only occupation.

What’s next on the agenda for you?
Like every artist has to do at some point or another, I am in the midst of a lot of administrative work at the moment: new website, new business cards, search for a new studio (to then make new work), sending out applications for residencies and grants, looking for work etc. Basically preparing for 2012. Once the show airs this October, I think a lot of positive energy and opportunities will come my way, I hope.

About Author

Sanaz Khalaj-Santos

Sanaz is Founder and Editor in Chief of Persianesque Magazine.