Interview with the world-renowned artist Kevork Mourad

Kevork Mourad in his studio

Kevork Mourad, the world-renowned artist of Armenian heritage, who lives and works in New York, was born in 1970 in Kamechli, a town in the upper reaches of Syria. He received his MFA from the Yerevan Institute of Fine Arts in Armenia. Kevork Mourad is represented by Galerie Claude Lemand and Rafia Gallery. His most recent exhibit was at Galerie Claude Lemand, Paris, with whom he was also presented at the Art Paris Art Fair in 2015.

He has had solo exhibitions at the Contemporary Art Platform in Kuwait, 2014, Gallery Z in Providence, RI and at JK Gallery in Los Angeles, as well as at the Rafia Gallery in Damascus, Syria. His solo exhibition was also shown at the Courtyard Gallery in Dubai in 2010. Five of his pieces are in the permanent collection on the 70th floor of the Bourj Khalife in Dubai.  He has had work auctioned twice at Christie’s Dubai. He also participated in Art Moment 2014, in Budapest, Hungary, with an exhibition and live painting. His digital piece, The Map of Future Movements, toured as part of a group exhibition in Jerusalem and Ramallah, and was in the 2010 Liverpool Biennial.

Portrait of Kevork Mourad: Photographer Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos

Through spontaneous painting—a collaboration of art and music—he has worked with many world-class musicians. His past and current projects include the Cirène project with members of Brooklyn Rider at the Metropolitan Museum, the multi-media play Lost Spring (2015) with Anaïs Alexandra Tekerian, at the MuCEM, Gilgamesh (2003) and Home Within (2013) with Kinan Azmeh in Damascus and at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, among others, performances with the Silk Road at the Nara Museum, Japan, and the Rubin Museum of Art, Lembit Beecher’s I Have No Stories to Tell You, commissioned by Opera Philadelphia, Master Peter’s Puppet Show (2015) with The Knights at Tanglewood, and Barbed Wire (2015), with Issam Rafea, commissioned by The Space, UK.

He has performed at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Chelsea Museum of Art, The Bronx Museum of Art, the Rhode Island School of Design, the Chess Festival of Mexico City, The Armenian Center for Contemporary Experimental Art in Yerevan, Le Festival du Monde Arabe in Montreal, the Stillwater Festival, the Nara Museum in Japan, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Rubin Museum of Art, Harvard University, Lincoln Center Atrium, the American Museum of Natural History, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Central Park’s Summerstage with the Silk Road Ensemble and Bobby McFerrin.

He is a member, as a visual artist, of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, and he appears in the recent documentary about the group, The Music of Strangers.

We are delighted to have an interview with Kevork Mourad and ask about his art, the creative process and future plans.

How did you come to the idea of becoming an artist? Who or what influenced you?

Growing up in a very poor family in a working class neighborhood in Aleppo without parks or playgrounds and in a household without toys, I had to invent my own games. A pencil and paper became my best companions. I was encouraged by my classmates and teachers in my elementary school, and I knew that I wanted to become an artist from the age of six.

The only source for knowing what was out there was the school library, so I was borrowing art books and trying to copy what I found in them. Then I had two teachers who were also artists, and I spent a lot of time visiting their studios and getting inspired by them.

We Are of the Current, 2014, Acrylic on canvas, 60 x 36 inches

Where did you study art?

From the age of fourteen I was making my own money by selling drawings to printing shops in Aleppo, which gave me the courage to apply secretly to art school in Armenia. My parents were uneducated and against the idea of my pursuing art, so I had to apply and arrange everything without their knowledge. I received my Masters in Fine Art from the Yerevan Academy of Fine Arts.

Aleppo, 2015, Acrylic on paper, 115 x 245cm

Could you tell how your background influenced you and your art?

The city of Aleppo was a walking museum. The old traditional houses and alleyways, the ironwork and woodwork, the stone carvings and blue and white porcelain, colorful dyed wool on the rooftops… these all fed my eyes on a daily basis. On top of all this, I grew up with Armenian iconography in the Armenian churches. These elaborate layers of rich visuals fed my imagination and come out constantly in my art.

Being of Armenian descent in Syria, we were constantly thinking about survival and acknowledging our ancestors’ losses, steeped in gratitude toward the country that had taken us in, and we knew it was our responsibility to convey the stories we’d inherited. This idea, inherent in my identity, of being the bearer of a history and stories, influenced the way I saw my work in the world, and it made sense that I would express this need to tell about society (its past and present) through art.

Dawnward, 2014. Acrylic on linen, 127 x 121cm

What is your favourite subject-matter or what are your artworks devoted to?

Historic sites, the architecture of the past where I have my roots, are the first layer of what I most love to create. On top of that, the idea of migration and what you take with you to your new destination, and what you do with what you have transported is a theme I work with a lot.

I Was There, 2014, Acrylic on canvas, 180 x 180cm

What inspires you most of all when you create your paintings/artworks?

Music and stories. Especially now, the idea of re-creating historic places that have been destroyed, to archive them in my art. I feel that artists should be the witnesses of their society, the first documentarians of their time. In my works, I like to create a diary of what is happening around me and in my homeland, using the stories I hear from families and friends.

Woven Reflections, 2009, Acrylic on canvas, 56 x 60 inches

Eros, 2010, Acrylic on canvas, 56 x 60 inches

Could you describe the process of creating your paintings/artworks in more detail?  What media do you use or do you prefer – oil, watercolour, or mixed media?

I have three media in which I work: color on canvas, painting on paper, and performance/video. For the canvas work, it’s mostly acrylic, because I like the idea of creating paintings that are layered. After having the composition in mind, I typically put the abstract colors down as a base and then I start with calligraphic black lines on top of it. This process goes on, over and over—color, black lines, color, black lines. For the paper work, it’s like sound: it only goes forward. I do not erase the lines. I apply black paint (ink/acrylic) without thinking about the option of erasing. In all of my works, I have a custom-made tool of squeezed paint and smudging. Having a print-making background influenced the way I address my pieces. For my video/performance pieces, I create both live and pre-animated pieces. I will sometimes film a dancer and create lines on top of the video, in a stop-motion animation technique. All my video pieces are highly influenced by music and politics.

Immortal City, 2016, Acrylic on paper, 115 x 245cm

Which of the prominent artists of the past inspire you or influenced your art?

I was first influenced by the Renaissance painters, then by German expressionism. Early on, Emile Nolde, Otto Dix, Wilfredo Lam, Roberto Matta, and Arshile Gorky inspired me very much.

Could you name contemporary artists whose works you admire?

William Kentridge, Neo Rauch, Anselm Kiefer.

Do you have a favourite painting/artwork that is the most precious for you?

“Word for All”, done in 2009, which portrays the community in Aleppo. I have a recent black and white piece called “Immortal City” that I also feel strongly about.

World for All, 2009, Acrylic on canvas, 48 x 48 inches

Could you, please, tell about your collaborations with musicians and other performers?

Because music has always been such a huge influence on my work, it was natural that I would find a way to work with musicians. I have been collaborating with musicians and now also theater artists, for two decades. One of the most important collaborations has been with the musicians of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, of which I have been a member since 2005. Kinan Azmeh and I have been touring our pieces Gilgamesh (about the Iraq war) and Home Within (about the current crisis in Syria) internationally for years. And I have collaborated on three theater pieces with the singer/writer Anaïs Tekerian, the most recent, Lost Spring, about how to talk about a history like the Armenian Genocide to the youngest generation.

Lost Spring, 2015, performance. Photographer: Andy Spyra

Lost Spring, 2015, performance. Photographer: Andy Spyra

What is the most memorable response that you have received to your artworks so far?

Recently, at the Syrian refugee camp in Jordan where Kinan and I were giving workshops, a little boy came up to me and told me he wanted to be like me when he grew up. I felt touched by his response to my art, and full of worry and hope for him.

When the Snow Melts, triptych, 2014, Acrylic on canvas, 45 x 45cm each

Could you tell about your lifestyle, do you have hobbies, how do you spend your spare time?

I have several hobbies: furniture-making, cooking, and cycling. I love waking up in the morning and making bread or scones or crepes for my family. I like cycling long distances up the Hudson river. We live in downtown New York and live as greenly as possible—composting our food, biking to the studio, shopping locally as much as possible. I love to create art and construction projects with my two daughters. Because I travel a lot for my art, I love bringing part of other cultures to my home, which is filled with crafts and artifacts and textiles from around the world.

What are your favourite travelling destinations? Does travelling inspire you?

I love traveling and among my favorite places to visit are Armenia, Paris, (Syria), Lebanon, Berlin… Wherever I go I am so strongly inspired by the visuals and sounds that greet me, as well as the strengths and weaknesses I perceive in the different societies.

The Ram, 2010, Acrylic on canvas, 26 x 48 inches

The Veil, 2014, Acrylic on paper, 32 x 52 inches

What are you currently working at?

I am currently working on my short animated film about Syria, for which my collaborator and I won the Robert Bosch Stiftung award in Berlin. Also several video pieces are in the works, as well as new black and white series portraying the current situation in Syria.

What are your future plans?

My future plans are to create a large-scale video/animation work for a Handel opera and a new performance piece inspired by the 10-11thth-century blind philosopher from near my hometown of Aleppo, Abul ‘Ala Al-Ma’arri, among others.

We thank Kevork Mourad for the interesting and inspiring interview and for sharing his thoughts with our readers, and wish a lot of success with the current projects! Our readers can learn more on Kevork Mourad’s personal website www.kevorkmourad.com

Sacrifice, 2016, Acrylic on canvas, 48 x 48 inches