“Sometimes I wish I was a potato farmer.” Mohsen Khalili, 37, utters these words with a far away, dreamy look in his eyes. “I mean, what good is what I do? How does it help anyone? At least potatoes feed people.”
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A self-trained yet accomplished artist, Khalili recalls his first brush with art. “When I was in grade 5, my aunt gave me two small books on new art for my birthday. I didn't like the presents much; that year, I really wanted a bicycle. So the books were thrown to one corner, unopened. When I was 17, one day out of boredom, I picked up one of the books and cracked it open. The page opened to a work by Van Gogh. The picture was as small as a stamp, but that was all I needed. I was mesmerized, I knew immediately that this was what I wanted to do till the day I die.”
So he started painting, copying great masterpieces at first, and eventually finding the courage to bring his own ideas on canvas. His mother, a physicist, was not very impressed with his choice of career, but accepted it graciously.
At first, he was not satisfied with his techniques. He tried various schools, but found them confining. “The problem with schools is that they show you a road and say this the right way to do things. Eventually, everyone is merging unto the same highway, doing the same old thing. Schools should create cul-de-sacs and barriers so that the artistic mind can find its own path, carve its own way and speak its own language.”
He is uncomfortable talking about why he became an artist. “I would rather talk to you about what I saw and did to get here from Abbotsford. The path I had to take, the journey I made. I prefer to talk about what I felt when I bumped into a friend I hadn't seen in six months, a beautiful woman I flirted with, and the annoyance I felt at not being able to find this address right away. I don't believe in souls and spirits. I think everything is a result of an action or reaction. I became a painter because that was what was in me, I had no other choice.”
Mohsen suffers from acute arthritis. He also has a mechanical valve problem with his heart. However, instead of holding him back, his ailments provide him with more material to work with. “My work is quite dark, many people look at my work and call it abstract, call it fun and colourful, but it's not. My work is like a cut, it bleeds, you can feel it. You have to live with your life, your victories and pains. You have to live with the reality of yourself.
“I went to Salmon Arm [British Columbia, Canada], met this girl there. Absolute genius. 15-years old. When she draws, I have never seen anything like it. I drew some sketches of my hands and feet, and I sat her down, and asked her to sketch my hands from my point of view. I wanted someone else to see me. To see if others see me the way I do. My hand and feet. She made them, and now I am printing them on old plates. So when you eat, instead of a colourful cute picture you see arthritic hands and feet.
“Friends say everyone knows of the dark, of the pain, why should we be forced to look at it in your art? So I say that when I draw these, my work is not nearly as important and real as the reality. You cannot survive a second of that reality. Painters are cheaters. When you draw a glass, you cannot drink water in it. Your mind believes that you can. Blood trickling down a face, it is beautiful, it is colour in the chaos. Your mind starts creating within chaos. You become depressed or sad to see it, but you don't get that reality, you are not in that reality. My job as an artist is to make you look at this ugliness. You go home and say 'this bastard, he depressed me with his artwork, but this is important to me, you remembered it. If you go home and do not think about the work, then I have failed'.”
In response to how he comes up with the end product, he says: “I have a starting point, but it does not necessarily stay at the vision I have. The initial concept always changes, the final work is an amalgamation of the initial concept and the changes. I want to enjoy my work more than any one else does. The discovery of what the piece is going to be is very much enjoyable. It is like going out with a beautiful woman. One's heart is thumping, there is an anticipation, day dreaming.”
So far, Mohsen Khalili has three main series of work: Autoportrait, is about what he has been through. More about his experiences and feelings, rather than his physical self. A short film was made based on this series, entitled He and His Birds which was screened at five International Film Festivals.
Funeral for Toys, another main body of work, is quite another story. “It is about how we have all become toys. I started this series on September 1st 2001 and when September 11 happened, everyone — my friends even — looked at things differently. And so it made me feel like we have become toys, tools, can't do anything for ourselves. And thinking I am just a witness, I can cry for myself, and see people die so easily — on both sides — those who die in attacks as victims and those who bring it on. We have this prescription for the world, saying that out of 5 people in this planet 4 suffer and one benefits, and it's such brutality. I am not political, but politics has become such a part of us, we cannot get away from it. The world is not what we see, we live in a fantasy, a toyland. We don't want to know what is going on, because it keeps us up all night. I cannot allow myself to joke about it, there is nothing funny about all this.” The result was the said Funeral for Toys, a series of mono-prints, oil-based work on steel which has been pressed on paper.
There are also another untitled set of prints, as well as a ceramic sculpture series. These are more upbeat, quite colourful and based in various other experiences Mohsen has lived through: love, rejection, pride, friendship.
And what does the future hold for Mohsen Khalili? “My arthritis will prevent me from working in a few years. My hands will become useless. So I am working on a series of sculptures. These are shaped liked tools, when you look at them that's the first thing you see. But when you try them, they are somehow not working properly. Dysfunctional Tools, is what I want to call that series, like my hands.”
Recently, after the devastating earthquake that destroyed the ancient city of Bam in Iran, Mohsen donated one of his paintings to be sold at a fundraising auction, all proceeds to be donated to the earthquake relief fund.