Iranian Diaspora Spotlight: California-Based Artist Keyvan Shovir and Movement Between Tradition, Modernity, and Diaspora

By Delaram Hosseinian, Center Intern, University of Leiden 

For Keyvan Shovir, being an artist is fundamentally about being genuine.  

Born in Iran in 1985, Shovir’s passion for art started when he was ten years old when he participated in a school painting contest. He was the only student who drew an airplane and a dinosaur, with the flower model in front of him relegated to the corner of the drawing. Being able to manifest the trauma of the bombings and missile attacks he experienced as a child during the Iran-Iraq War became the catalyst that made him want to become an artist. He wanted to express what he felt. Shovir also says that he recalls how much he loved sneaking into his uncle’s studio, who was a graphic designer and play with the paints, pencils, and materials.

Growing up in Tabriz, Iran, Shovir was raised with attention to Islamic traditions and motifs. The classical training he received in art classes in Iran taught him that a good artist portrays reality. But even as a student, Shovir always imagined painting different designs over the hallways. He wanted to break free from restrictions; he found inspiration for a kind of artistic freedom in graffiti and street art. As one of the first street artists in Tehran, Shovir created a fusion of modern art with classical Islamic designs in his street graffiti.

During his adolescence, Shovir passionately skateboarded through the streets of Tehran and often met with friends who were skateboard enthusiasts. But because the sport was never supported or established in the country, the focus of their rendezvous became talking about socio-cultural issues. He refers to that period in his life as a kind of ‘‘diaspora itself– in terms of personal interest and feeling alienated and out-of-place.’’ Shovir says that he and his friends used the public space of the park, not only to skateboard but also to discuss and challenge the barriers imposed on their generation, particularly for those who grew up during the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq War.

Some of the inspiration for Shovir’s street art grew out of his fascination with the rich tradition of Iranian calligraphy and it continues to play a significant role in his work. When he was in Iran, he used calligraphy in his graffiti to depict his thoughts and emotions about different socio-cultural issues, even though, he says, “my only materials were markers and a minimal amount of time to create and skate to the next location.’’ As a graffiti and mural artist in Tehran, Shovir says, “you never have the support or the occasion to relax. You are engaged in a kind of guerrilla art project. It was always challenging to find space to display the art, and because it was new to society and the art world in Iran, has always been misunderstood.”

Shovir came to the San Francisco Bay Area in 2011 to further his interest and education in art. He began an MFA program at California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco. After residing for a decade in the San Francisco Bay Area, Shovir says ‘‘the term diaspora itself has changed in my view.’’ Talking with friends and acquaintances, he says, made him realize how different life was for the generation that immigrated decades before. “For them, sending letters home that might never be received has turned into a ritual for us that relies on instant video calls with family back home,” he says. “I now think of home in a more complicated way—it is as a landscape of cultures, languages, and art,’’ he adds. For Shovir, the idea of diaspora is much larger than what he originally understood. “It’s far more diverse, and not just a matter of Iranians who undergo this journey of moving from one country to another,” he adds.

In his MFA program at CCA Shovir did not limit his art practice to graffiti. For him, ‘‘postmodern art was essentially an expression of the diaspora experience. Generations of immigrants and refugees have brought parts of their culture, perspective, and narratives to their host country,” he says.

Shovir believes that ‘‘art is energy’’, and how artists perceive this energy plays an essential role in what they create. Similarly, he adds, “skateboarding is like art for me; it is a symbol of joy and freedom.’’ In his 2009 “Messenger” collection, Shovir uses laser-cut acrylic skateboards as a kind of oracle depicting the social transitions that were part of his generation in Iran and the diaspora. He uses lines from Molana’s (Jalal Al-Din Rumi’s) poetry (laser cut) on the back of his azure skateboards, a color he says is strongly identified with contemplationShovir says he wants to use “the everyday medium of a skateboard—popular as a symbol of the uninhibited and daring energy of youth—to express his own navigation of the journey of being a diaspora Iranian.” The poetry he imprints on the skateboard, he says, “empowers the rider to overcome feelings of alienation and move from tradition into modernity.” Expressing the experience of transition, collective journeying, and moving from traditional ideas to more complex modern ones, are some of the features of Shovir’s art, adding that his art is a response and reaction to all that has shaped him. 

Shovir remembers when he first arrived in the US, seeing the “Blue Devils” aviation display over the Bay and it triggered his feelings about the war back home. “I felt immediate terror and remembered the deep fear I had during the bombings of Tehran during the war,” says Shovir. That experience prompted him to use his art to express and narrate the story of his generation. His “Ascension Series” (2017) is a sculptural installation of warplanes and drones that are “adorned with an Iranian flag, Islamic patterns, and Arabic calligraphy. They are metaphors for the paradoxical monetary and military history between these two world powers– Iran and the US,” he says. The series, like other installations by Shovir, was also inspired by the Sufi poet Farid Ud-Din Attar’s Conference of the Birds in which flying is a symbolic movement, away from terrestrial dilemmas toward inner harmony.

When Shovir first came to the Bay Area, he worked in galleries, but soon after, the structure of the city and its prevalent graffiti inspired him to extend his artistic practice outside the museum and gallery world. Viewing art is an amazing experience, he says, but “I’ve always been interested in the connections between art and its presence in public spaces.” During his part-time work at museums, assisting other artists, Shovir had the opportunity to be involved with the process of exhibition preparation—from seeing art in the homes and studios of the artists to their exhibition in a final destination. “From that experience, I learned how curators and galleries treat or categorize the work of art and how the ‘display’ of it transforms it,” says Shovir. 

This process gave Shovir insight into the ways that art sometimes gets consumed by and circulates in largely elite circles. “I reject the idea of art as an elite enterprise–whether we are talking about galleries or canons,” he says. In his view, skateboards and graffiti characterize art apart from curatorial culture or museum policies. He believes that “street art surpasses spatial, temporal and financial limits, and should not be undermined due to its nature.” He affirms, ‘‘it signifies independence and freedom.’’

In collaboration with fellow artist, Shaghayegh Cyrous, Shovir has created work in Bay Area public spaces that depict Iranian cultural heritage and make it visible to wider audiences. “One of our goals was to change the public’s view about Iranian art and feminism, particularly in challenging the way Western media portrays Iranian women,” says Shovir. Using the technique and palette of Shiraz miniatures in their mural project, Shovir and Cyrous, portrayed three feminist idols and prominent 20thcentury poets: Forough Farroukhzad, Simin Behbahani, and Simin Daneshvar—in colors of light pink, yellow and turquoise.

In addition to traditional arts that find their way into his projects, Shovir is attached to the world of poetry and its profound influence on his early imagination. During his childhood, Shovir’s father would read to him from Abolqhasem Ferdowsi’s national epic The Shahnameh. “He also read me Rumi and Attar, and I was fond of The Conference of the Birds, the thirty birds who crossed seven valleys to find the legendary bird, the Simorgh,” he says. “I feel this poetic story is relevant to the diaspora. The US resembles the Ghaf mountain, the ideal destination,” he adds. In Shovir’s “Simorgh,” he constructed an installation of thirty birdhouses set into a spiral.“Each birdhouse emanates individual bird sounds, which together represent different people around the world,” he says. 

In his second sound sculpture installation based on Attar’s poem, “Simorgh in a Cage” (2018), Shovir suspended seven birdcages in the air above the others, a commentary on the US travel ban imposed on seven Muslim countries, including Iran. Shovir used the calls of seven birds from those seven countries as a reference to Attar’s seven valleys.

Shovir talks about Rumi’s influence over his work and how, at this stage of his life, he adheres to the seventh precept of Rumi’s philosophy: ‘‘Either you appear as you are, or be as you appear.’’ To Shovir, this means being “genuine” and expanding his perceptions. He says these are the most valuable traits he adheres to in pursuing and creating his art.

Shovir urges the new generation of Iranian diaspora artists to ‘‘try to step out of (your) comfort zone and move beyond the barriers, no matter what. Do all you can, and have an artistic view toward life, and always create.” 

We were honored to include some of Shovir’s work in our “Once at Present” exhibit, as part of our “Forty Years and More: International Conference on the Iranian Diaspora” in 2019, which you can view in our archival material and on our YouTube Channel.

All photos courtesy of Keyvan Shovir. 

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