‘I have many muses’

muses_15july081.jpgLAYLA HAROON (Contributor)

Iranian-Assyrian artist Hannibal Alkhas has developed and mastered a unique style of painting deeply inspired by Ancient Assyria, Babylon and Daric-Persia.

He talks to City Times about his inspirations and his artistic journey to date

HANNIBAL ALKHAS, one of Iran’s most influential modern painters, has devoted 60 years of his life to the aesthetic realm.

Human emotions and thoughts are the subjects he constantly chooses and intermingles with the universal notions of birth, death, hunger, the historical lineage of humanity, mythology, and above all war and peace. His greed for subjects equals his thirst to experiment with techniques and materials with the different ‘isms’ of art. He might start a work with an abstract mixture of colours and shapes and finish with figurative rendering.

Nevertheless, he calls himself a contemporary realist in the sense that he uses form to express that to which it is most suited; abstraction for explosion, cubism for space, surrealism for shape, expressionism for moods or naturalism for documentation of the moment.

Deeply inspired by the ancient bas-reliefs and stone sculptures of Ancient Assyria, Babylon and Daric- Persia, the Iranian-Assyrian artist has developed and mastered a unique style of painting that uses the past and present separately and simultaneously, whether through content or form, and expressions appear from six thousand years ago, today and the future.

Your father Rabi Adai Alkhas was a famous Assyrian writer, and your uncle John Alkhas is considered one of the best Assyrian poets of the 20th century.Was their excellence in literature an influencing factor on your decision to become an artist?

If it’s not bragging I have to admit that my father was not only a genius but had an extra photographic memory.

He knew everything and was not impressed with what I was learning in school. I used to see only a child-like surprise when he looked at my childhood drawings. But I didn’t know why I was interested in becoming an artist except for the fact that as a child I was always scribbling and my scribbling shocked my learned father.

Ever since my childhood in Kermanshah, because of a rare disease, I have had a shaky voice and shaky hands. I still have to help my right hand with my left to draw or to write. One of the reasons I became an artist, I believe, was hearing my mother repeating these words: ‘Too bad Hannibal’s hands shake; otherwise we could put him in a class to learn how to draw and paint.’ I heard these words until I was 14 and then I decided to go to art classes myself. And it continued.

What was the first thing that you learned as an artist?

The first good thing that I learned was that quantity is better than quality. Maybe a drawing teacher told me that once. But I have repeated it a thousand times in my classes.

My students still remember my saying and repeat it to their students. It is an advice to draw hands, which are the most difficult features of a figure. My motto to my students was: draw your hands as often as you can and never draw away from drawing your hands.

You seem to use a lot of symbols in your work.Do your paintings tell stories or are they simply decorative elements of the painting?

Both. I tell a story and telling a story in art I have learned from Persian miniature, Byzance and even Renaissance Art.

Michelangelo and El Greco are a combination of what I was inspired by in my early era of painting. I believe two dimensionality is what I have borrowed from miniatures.

For example, if I want to show a woman sitting alone in a window, I have every right to bring it to the surface to show the expressions better.

What inspires you to paint and how do you keep motivated when things get tough in the studio?

I worked as a student at a factory in Chicago. At first I swept the whole salon. Later when I was promoted to stand in front of the printing machine and print telephone charts for eight hours while I was a student of art in the art institute, I promised myself that when I am free if I did not repeat that in front of an easel I would not be a true artist or true to my loved profession.

Sometimes, when I stand in front of my canvases, I feel frustrated. I am not in the mood to paint or the weather outside is too inviting. But I work hard and change whatever I have to do to improve it and to get to the point where I feel that I am floating and things are happening.

I believe that I have kept my promise that I made in theWestern Electric Factory.

Many of your paintings are composed from both contemporary and ancient poets.What relation do you find between the two completely different genres of art: painting and poetry?

I know you can write a poem from Moulana on any Chinese painting and it will sit comfortably there. My combination is a universal combination. I borrow faces from magazines, from ancient paintings and prehistoric works.

Is an artist driven by moods and emotional outbursts? Are you guided by yours?

Yes. I have many muses, and they are my best friends. I paint when I am not sleeping and I am not eating and I don’t have a very dear friend talking to me. I keep drawing and painting as much as I can. Now I start a painting with an abstract form, and in the abstract formthat I create, I see images that I like and clarify them or make them show up. However, sometimes when I have a subject in mind to paint then I create the abstract as a background that fits it.

Why don’t you believe in talent?

I don’t believe in talent. I don’t believe that art is inborn. Life forces sometimes a person to become an artist, then we choose our language, whether music, or literature, or drawing to express our thoughts in the best way we can. I believe a person can decide to become a painter without feeling an interest or reason for it. It could happen accidentally and then it becomes a part of you, until it becomes your only expression…

So, how does your art satisfy the highly creative artist in you?

It does not satisfy me but gives me an enjoyable feeling.

Your exhibition is called the ‘Story of Assyrian’. Did you imagine history taking you there to do murals for ziggurats?

I was inspired by a short poem, one of the greatest written by my father. This poem’s era is the era of a wonderful life. It is symbolic of exactly what happened to the Assyrians from Kermanshah and Hamadan.

The scattering is shown, the exodus of the Assyrians under torture. I show the tortures. The whole painting is inspired by the best poem of my father. I’ve gone beyond… and I have shown the golden era, coming to Teheran, the initiated literature group and the journal called Gilgamesh which itself was an era. I have to insist that I painted that painting non-stop for five years as a fulfillment of the promise I made to myself in the factory in Chicago. I was insisting on keeping my promise in painting that painting. I want to add this that the Assyrian tribe in the painting symbolically relates to all migrating peoples, especially of countries that are in war and have discrimination and people have to move. Thousands of Assyrians have had to move, to find another life. There are many races in the world that have always been on the move, the Palestinians, Kurds, Assyrians, Armenians, and some tribes in India, all over the world after wars, after tortures, after discriminations… and I symbolically describe them all in this painting.

As this is your first exhibition in the UAE, what do you expect from it?

I expect to be successful as far as the audience who will come to see it. I will feel very happy if I know that my language is coherent to them. If the viewer were to be struck by one emotion from my work, it would be my audacity and self-involvement. I do not want to say my ego, but my ardent expression.

What are your feelings about moving into the computer age? Is your art is digitally influenced?

So far I have remained illiterate about computer artistic technology; but my friends and my wife helped me and I now know the computer has done a lot to promote me.

How have you handled the business side of being an artist?

I have never known how to promote myself or how to sell paintings. Sometimes friends with good intentions have helped me. After I was better known in Iran my friends told me that your paintings now are too expensive for our budget. I immediately started painting.

I did 100 mixed water media middle size paintings and then I sold them for a reasonable price, at that time it was about the equivalent of 20 dollars.

Scattered all around the world with no land of their own, the Assyrians have not all been able to study their mother tongue and learn it well enough to understand fully their own literature and poetry. How do you think your art will help the Assyrians with artistic identification?

I believe among the scattered Assyrians we have many writers, poets and artists continuing and moving forward. We have many Assyrian artists of good standing in Iran, America, Australia and in Iraq. I have suggested to every club of Assyrians that I will consider promoting their talented artists.

It seems Iranian art has found its niche in Dubai art scene. Comment.

It is not a surprise and it is a compliment to Dubai’s viewers and Iranian artists.

After the translation of one hundred ‘Ghazals of Hafiz’, what’s next?

My second important translation is the story from Shahnameh called Rostam and Sohrab. I have taken a rash decision to make that story have a happy ending, which could be humorous and funny.

After dedicating 60 years of your life to art and poetry, what do you actually see ‘beyond the horizon’ in your real life – outside your creativity?

I am only thinking of finishing my unfinished projects that are one too many for me to accomplish. I believe that humans will be wise and do what they should do for the ozone, for the water, for the air, and for the millions and millions of poor hungry people.


WHAT: ‘Story of Assyrian’ – art exhibition by Hannibal Alkhas

WHERE: Basement art gallery

WHEN: Till July 26