28 February 2020 | Interview

Interview with Shantia Zaker Ameli

I wish I could tell you a cool story about how I casually stumbled upon Shantia’s works, was amazed, and asked him to work with me. But it was nothing like that. First of all, Shantia is already a well-known artist in Iran and the Middle-East. So plenty of people knew about him far before me. And secondly, a dear friend of mine is currently studying with him at the Frank Mohr Institute in the Netherlands and introduced me to Shantia. So, mystery solved — nothing fancy behind it. Shantia’s works, however, fascinate. Reason enough for me to quiz him about his past, his present, and his future.

Velártez: Shantia, you were born in Iran in 1980. How do you remember your childhood?

Shantia: The year of my birth, also marks the beginning of the Iran-Iraq-War, which ended in 1988. So the memories of my infancy are mainly influenced by war scenes. You can’t forget the bombardments of the cities during which we even lost members of our family. One night, one bomb hit a house very nearby, causing us to flee to a nearby village. Two weeks later, my father and I went back to see what happened. Our neighborhood was like a ghost city, wholly abandoned. If I think again, my path to becoming a painter is rooted in my childhood. I was six years at that time.

Velártez: That was in Isfahan?

Shantia: Yes. Isfahan is the second biggest city in Iran after Teheran. I have spent most of my life there. In my opinion, it’s even one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It is like in a fairy tale of the Arabian Nights. You would love it. But at the moment it is not in the right conditions. The violent attack of modernization is paying its tribute, and those marvelous, historic pearls are slowly decaying.

Velártez: How did your daily life look like during the war? Could you even go to school?

Shantia: During the first and second year of primary school, sometimes we could go for a few days. But when the attacks started, nobody was thinking about learning at all. We caught up with the missed classes during summer vacation.

Velártez: You just said that you were six years old when you decided to become a painter?

Shantia: Not precisely. But when I look into myself, I get to the conclusion that my path as an artist started there. It’s difficult to grasp in words. It is more like a philosophical concept. For instance, because as a child, I only encountered the dark sides of technology, I view the icon of technology as something that does not improve your life but instead is disastrous. The bomb for instance. I believe that art can fight technology and can narrate a story differently. And I think that my paintings, maybe, are based on those horrible experiences.

Velártez: How did your life proceed after the war?

Shantia: After graduating from high school, I went straight to the Art University of Isfahan, where my career as a professional painter begun. I started painting, however, at the age of twelve. Our teacher in Junior-High-School offered private art classes. During the week, I was eager for the weekend to come so I could paint again. My teacher had a collection of old, Iranian masters: postcards, landscape images, and oriental scenes of Iran painted with watercolor. They influenced me a lot. Especially those early, romantic scenes of those abandoned remains of ancient cities. In the beginning, I just copied his postcards, but later I visited those biblical sites myself and created my very own original works. That is why in my paintings, sometimes, you see traces of ancient ruins. I can become interested in everything I see: images, art, and architecture. These images nurture my visions.

Velártez: So why is it that sometimes you go back to these ancient motives? Sometimes you are even hiding them in your work.

Shantia: I try to keep my paintings close to my life. In parts, they manifest experiences, which I am treasuring. I don’t want to make those memories the most crucial part of my work. But I also don’t want to keep them out.

Velártez: What are you trying to accomplish with your work?

Shantia: I don’t have a distinct goal, which I am trying to achieve on a long term basis. Sometimes I fight with a particular ideal. Another time I produce work intended for sale. Seldom I visualize my emotions on canvas. Currently, due to this study program, a unique concept is rising into me. I don’t want to disclose too much at this point. But it will be beautiful.

Velártez: Can we discuss your development from your early paintings to today?

Shantia: After my first steps in junior high school, I enrolled at the University of Art in Isfahan. In my 2nd year, the internet spread like a virus. The first time I surfed in it, it was like an eye-opener. It was like a window that was closed for my whole life and suddenly opened. Since my country is a bit isolated, we were not aware of what was happening around the world. I didn’t even know the Venice Biennial, or the Documenta, and the Manifesta (laughing). The internet taught us a lot, and we got aware of the rest of the world. Suddenly we were eager to participate in all those global events around contemporary art. I can say that the internet, and also becoming more acquainted with the process of contemporary art in the world influenced my paintings, my esthetics, and my style.

Velártez: When I take a look at your work, very often it is a typical daily activity or situation that can be common in anybody’s life. And all of a sudden, unexpected characters appear, like Godzilla, or Pink Panther. Why?

Shantia: It’s a complicated concept of the image. Photography is the most central concept in my art, which I often use. My paintings are also contemplating about photography. It emphasizes my doubts and raises the question of whether the photograph shows the reality or not. Is it all reality that you can perceive from the world or not? This question is always echoing from my works. Even if there is no supernatural creature or apparent happening in it, still something invisible might be hidden in it. But sometimes those supernatural creatures appear, and those intangible things get visual. It’s like playing with the concept of visibility or invisibility.

Velártez: And why do those family motives attract you so much?

Shantia: The concept of family is fundamental in my culture. But in my view, two sides within this concept accompany anybody’s life. One is the safety that the family provides, and one is also its limitations that it offers. I sometimes play with those double reverse concepts.

Velártez: Shantia, in 2003, you graduated with your bachelor. And fifteen years later, you decided to come to the Netherlands. Why?

Shantia: I made this decision mainly to improve my work. I hoped that by experiencing a new atmosphere, my art would profit from that. I was hoping to get additional influences that could enhance my skills. But frankly speaking, I was not too optimistic at first. I could not grasp in which way the course would develop my personality and thus my work. But now, one and a half years later, I believe that it was a great decision to come to the Frank Mohr Institute.

Velártez: What can we expect from you in the future?

Shantia: Before I came to Groningen, I regarded myself as being a painter. But now I am more of a researching painter. So the researching part has been added to my skills. In Iran, for me, researching was a more vague idea. But this course in the Netherlands developed my working process. The researching part will deepen my work.

Velártez: What is your most crucial tool when painting?

Shantia: That’s a difficult question. I don’t know if I can answer it. The process of painting and the act pf painting happens in a complicated way for me, which I can’t figure out myself. For instance, in the past six months, I haven’t done many paintings, only a little bit of drawings. But starting this week, I feel that I need to paint. I don’t know why it is happening. Maybe it is coming from the spiritual world (Laughing).

Velártez: Which artists, moves and styles do you like the most?

Shantia: I prefer Casper David Friedrich, Paul Kelly, Marcel Duchamp, the romantic movement, and the Russian Avantgarde. But Rothko, I adore. And not to forget the German degenerated art before World War II. But we have to clarify your definition of art. And that understanding comes from the Western culture and from a particular time, namely the Renaissance. So I can only point out prominent, internationally known figures. But aside from those, there are many pre-modern “makers” that have influenced me a lot. I don’t bring them up because they are not artists as of the definition that we have in our minds today. So the ones I mentioned doesn’t mean that they are the only ones in my life.

Velártez: The reality is that 75% of all artists make less than $10.000 a year through their artwork. On the other hand, there are a handful of artists who make millions. Jeff Koons is selling a Balloon Dog for over $45 million. Or Piero Manzoni, producing 90 cans, each filled with 30 grams of his feces, which today get sold at auctions at prices above $200.000. Is art nowadays a joke?!

Shantia: Art itself is something different, which can be very difficult to talk about. But the things you mentioned are more about the market. And the market is trying to create an image that the artist is a genius and to make him a wealthy, unreachable superstar. That’s the capitalist system of the contemporary world. But beneath this prosperous scene is a deplorable system, which contains the majority of the artists.