This artist bravely tells his story to allow others to see themselves in a new light and release emotions.
An artist is a master at combining colors and shapes to move our own emotions. Amir H. Fallah of Tehran, Iran has been telling the stories of immigrant identities through his paintings, drawings, installations and sculptures around the world for decades. His work is not only moving but resonates with a deep chord among all people who find themselves caught in an identity crisis. Once we find words to describe the feelings, we can begin to heal. His story is relatable and I found his passion to be very dutiful to his origin and the people he feels connected to. I had the honor of interviewing this visionary artist and he was willing to answer some deep and not always comfortable questions. After getting to know this extraordinary human, I was checking my airline miles to see if I could attend his show.
Q: Your show at Schneider Museum Of Art will be on walls painted like a Mexican jungle. Can you tell us the significance of this choice?
My show Unknown Voyage is an installation focusing on the life and work of French painter Henri Rousseau. In his work Rousseau painted elaborate jungle scenes that were supposedly based on his travels in Mexico. Upon his death it was discovered that he never actually traveled to Mexico and that all his landscapes were based on trips to the Paris botanical gardens. Since he had no idea what the jungles in Mexico looked like Rousseau ended up painting tropical plants next to cacti. He painted Mexicans as if they were African. His paintings were complete works of fiction. I wanted the show to also have that same level of naiveté and chance so I went to Google and typed in “Mexican Jungle.” I grabbed the first couple of images that came up on Google images and used them for the wall mural. I have no idea if those images are actually of a Mexican Jungle. It’s more about depicting the idea of a Mexican jungle rather than the real thing. Hanging on top of the wall mural is a series of paintings that take parts of Rousseau’s biography and combines it with imagery of his work. When looked at together I hope that the show creates a mysterious and complex portrait of an artist that was in many ways ahead of his time.
Q: What do the flags and red, white and blue ribbons represent in your work?
That was a reference to Rousseau’s Parisian roots. His work was all about escapism. He desperately wanted to travel the world but poverty prevented him. He was obsessed with travel. Almost all his paintings alluded to travel in some way. In most of them you can find references to other cultures, or means of travel like hot air balloons, airplanes, boats, and blimps. He was trapped in Paris and lived a life filled with failure and poverty. His work was a way for him to escape all that.
Q: What was it like wanting to be an artist when you were young and where did you grow up?
I was born in Iran but moved to the US at the age of 7. By the age of 14, I knew I wanted to be an artist. From a young age I wanted to be good at something. When I realized I had some talent with art, I ran with it. Lucky for me my parents were extremely supportive of my artistic interests. They never tried to push the stereotypical Iranian occupations like being a doctor, lawyer or engineer. As long as I was serious about art, they backed me 100%. I was very fortunate.
Q: Are there any other people from your childhood that also became professional artists and where did you get your training?
None of my childhood friends are artists but a few are graphic designers or musicians. I went to undergrad for painting at Maryland Institute College of Art, in Baltimore and got my masters in painting at UCLA.
Q: You’ve done a lot as an artist, what are some of the highlights of your career as an artist?
Having a show in Iran last year at Mohsen Gallery was certainly a highlight. I unfortunately didn’t get to go to the show but it was definitely exciting to see photos of my family at my exhibit. I felt as if the work was my surrogate.
Q: What other upcoming shows do you have?
My next big project after the opening at the Schneider Museum is my solo show at Shulamit Nazarian gallery in Los Angeles. The show deals with what it means to be an immigrant in America and is a very personal show for me. It will document not only the lives of immigrants from all walks of life but will also document my own family’s difficult journey from Iran to America.
Q: What is your favorite piece from your upcoming show and what does it mean to you?
Picking a favorite artwork is like picking your favorite child. The most exciting thing for me is working for a year in my studio alone and then one day the work is done and it’s hanging in the gallery or museum. It’s a thrill to work alone for so long and then one day all that work leaves the studio and goes out into the world.
Q: What messages do you bring to society through your work?
Curiosity. I’m interested in reality and people’s stories. Reality is so much more interesting than fiction. I think you can learn a lot from hearing other people’s stories. I think that’s what’s driving all of my work, a curiosity in people and the world around me.
Q: Can you talk about your experience as an artist in America from another country?
My experience as an artist in America has been nothing but positive. The art world is very liberal and forward thinking. The rest of the country is another matter.
Q: What advice would you offer for aspiring Iranian artists?
Look a lot and work a lot. There’s no substitute for knowing your community and being an expert in your craft.
Q: What influence do you think your work has had thus far as an artist now that you have had shows around the world?
I think all artists inherently think different. The most mundane things can be exciting to them. I hope that my work exposes others to alternate ways of looking at the world and by doing so teaches them something about themselves.
Q: What parts of your childhood influence your work today?
My entire life influences my work from the food I eat to the places I visit. I’m a giant sponge soaking it all in.
Q: Did you ever struggle as an artist and how did you find a way to persevere?
Sure. Being an artist is never easy. It’s a bizarre and incredibly difficult career path. I simply keep pushing. Persistence is the only way to to survive in the art world. I can’t imagine doing anything else and am fortunate enough that collectors believe in my work to support it. I wish more Iranians would support contemporary art. We have no problem spending $15,000 on a Persian rug but would never buy a $5,000 painting from an artist. Living with art is incredible. I’m by no means rich but fill my house with art by other artists. It’s an incredible privilege to surround myself with thought provoking and beautiful images and objects.
Q: Thanks for your time. I have just one more question. How do you think artists can help solve issues in society, is it imperative to keep the arts alive and if so why?
As I mentioned artists think outside the box. We need free thinkers in society. It’s not just about creating something beautiful to hang over your couch. It’s about shining the light on something that the average person would walk by. That’s what great art does and that’s what I’m always chasing after.