How does the promise of America that we believed growing up square with the realities of injustice and intolerance? Is America really great or will the things that make it great eventually be its downfall? David Jensen and Cecily Chambers get some powerful insights to these questions from California-based artist, Amir Fallah. Amir’s experiences as someone who comes from an immigrant background solidified his views on how America measures up in terms of justice, equality, diversity and inclusion. He powerfully expresses these insights in this conversation. Amir also talks about other subjects on this episode, including his honest thoughts on Bansky’s graffiti art, the relationship between ambition and rebellion, his unique portraiture style, and outsiderness and success.
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The Promise Of America: Myth Or Reality? With Amir Fallah
Our guest is Amir H. Fallah. He is both a successful artist and entrepreneur. He bridges the worlds of business, creativity and community through his work. We discuss how his global experience inspires his art and he considers how the myth of America squares with reality.
Amir Fallah, thank you so much for joining us on the show.
Thanks for having me.
I remember when we first met, we were sitting next to each other at that CCF panel and looking at artists’ portfolios to give out those grants. I was enamored with your knowledge of the artists that are in the LA community. You could speak to how many hours each artist was in their studio working on their art versus not being as passionate about it or whatever it was. I appreciated that about you and your perspective and this punk rock ethos that you have throughout your life in creating your work. DJ and I felt like you would be a great guest to come on the show.
Amir, what is this punk rock ethos? I want to know more about that.
I don’t even know if we ever had a discussion about that, Cecily. I did grow up in the punk rock/hardcore music community. A lot of the things that I learned from it as a teenager carried on into my adult life. It’s not like I have a punk rock manifesto or anything like that, but subconsciously a do-it-yourself spirit has always been a part of who I am. It started because my family came to America when I six years old and my downstairs neighbor in our apartment complex was into skateboarding. My first introduction to American culture was skateboarding, which in the late ‘80s was an underground culture. I didn’t know it was underground. I did that for many years and through skateboarding, I was introduced to graffiti, which also was a big part of my life for many years. Through graffiti, I developed an interest in art. All of those things have been this counterculture underground activities where do-it-yourself is a big part of it, especially skateboarding back then. It wasn’t corporate like it is now. I remember being in fifth-grade and seeing a Gap commercial where they showed two boys skateboarding and it blew my mind.
You were like, “Corporate America has taken over.”
I thought it was amazing. I’d never seen skateboarding on TV before. I remember calling all my friends being like, “I saw a commercial with the guy doing a kickflip.” It blew my mind that this tiny little thing that back then felt like ten people were into was on television. A lot of those early experiences and early interests, I always gravitated towards things that were done on an individual level. I was never into team sports. I was into skateboarding and snowboarding. A lot of that informs the way I go about things now as an adult.
It’s individualistic-oriented. You’ve got a crew that you might be participating with either on the slopes or in a skate park. You’re also able to have your own creative response. The way in which you might take a ramp and the way in which you might take a mogul on a snowboard. I can appreciate that. How has that translated into the art you make now?
I don’t know if that translated physically into the art. Art is also something that you do usually by yourself in a room. You’re sitting down and you’re making something in solitude for sometimes half a year without showing it to anybody. You then have an art opening for two hours where people come and pat you on the back and then you’re back in the studio. What I like about all these different activities was that you couldn’t fake it. With skateboarding, the only way you could get better was if you practice. With graffiti, it was the same thing. You either went and people saw it on the street and there was proof that you did it or you didn’t. You couldn’t make it up, especially in that pre-internet time. With art, there’s a certain amount of commitment that you have to do the work. I have paintings that take me 2, 3 months to make even with assistance. The work has to be done.
On the graffiti art front, that might be an interesting bridge. We have a tagline in the show we’re using called Rebels with a Cause. When I think of graffiti, I think of many generations starting back in the ‘50s and ‘60s of graffiti artists that have been documented. The artist that I associate with graffiti that’s the most world-renowned is Banksy. When I think about Banksy is, can outsiders be influencers? He’s an outsider who’s an influencer, but how does that translate onto something like Instagram?
The world that I grew up and involved in graffiti is very different. It was more what I would call traditional graffiti, which is different than street art. Banksy started as a traditional graffiti artist but then segued into what is street art now. They’re done on the streets but street art as a whole is a much more entrepreneurial commercial endeavor than graffiti art. Graffiti art is mostly about fucking things up. It’s not necessarily destruction. There is a lot of art in it. It was always looked down upon to paint something legally, where 90% of the street art is done legally. It’s because a lot of it is not done with spray paint. For instance, if you go do a wheatpaste poster somewhere, the chances of you getting arrested for that is very low. If you do the same thing but with spray paint, if you get caught, the chances of getting arrested or getting serious punishment are ten times more likely. They function differently. I got into graffiti because it was fun. Halfway through it, I was like, “This is also creative.” I didn’t think about it too much at the beginning. It was something to do.
For you, it was more juvenile delinquency. You’re going and saying, “I want to be able to express myself. I’m going to do this. I know it’s illegal to defame or spray-on somebody’s building, but it’s still part of a creative expression.”
I was interested in the creative side of it too, but it was a little bit dangerous and exciting, which as a teenager was fun.
It was a little mischievous.To be a successful artist, you have to forget and unlearn everything that you learned in art school. Click To Tweet
I was a good kid except for that. I never got into drugs or things like that. I never drank. It was the only thing I ever got in trouble for as a teenager and as a young adult too. It had a sense of community within it. Graffiti artists had pen pals that they would exchange photographs all over the country and even the world. There was this huge underground community that nobody knew was happening. I used to trade photos with 50 people all around the world that I had never met and we would send photos of each other’s graffiti to each other. This is all pre-internet. I don’t know how people go about it now, but it was almost like a folk-art underground community.
Dick Hebdige, the social historian who also comes out of punk, his book, Subculture, talks a lot about what motivates subcultures, and then how they become part of the dominant culture. It makes me immediately think of graffiti artists from the ‘70s and ‘80s who to your point had this underground exchange network. What did I spray on the side of a building in Detroit? What did I decorate on a New York City subway? What was I doing in Watson in LA? What’s interesting is in my own lifetime, I’ve seen how that became to be viewed as public art. It’s like the way that Banksy ends up making art but in a different form. There’s also an interesting discussion about how you go from something that’s an outsider status part of a subculture, which becomes part of the dominant culture or it gets appropriate by the dominant culture. Your comment about Gap is spot on. Gap appropriated a subculture in order to be associated with a cool factor. To your comment, that’s happening with social media.
It’s funny because when you think of somebody like Banksy, he has a PR firm that publicizes everything he does even when it’s illegal. There’s a whole media blitz that happens around what he does. To me, it isn’t interesting because then you might as well hire Saatchi & Saatchi to do some guerrilla marketing. A lot of the message gets lost in it. It’s well-orchestrated and it’s often clever but for me, it’s not that interesting as art. It’s not interesting as graffiti. It’s most interesting as a marketing and advertising exercise more than anything else.
Do you consider it counter-cultural?
No. What’s counter-culture about it? If you’re hiring a $10,000 a month PR firm to promote these things they are doing, how counter-cultural is it?
To play devil’s advocate, think of some of the imagery that he’s created. Let’s also think of evolution when he wasn’t known. All of a sudden, these public art pieces would show up with a terrorist wearing face mask and bandana around their face but instead of throwing a pipe bomb, he’s throwing flowers. That’s a stark image that originally was found in Palestine. He was trying to make a comment about the oppression of Palestinians on the West Bank by Israelis. It’s a comment about the culture in the Middle East in general saying, “How do we bring people together?” I think of some of his images as incredibly powerful and transformational. At the same time, you do have to question it when you’ve got a PR firm that is being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to strategically place his work.
I’m sure it started as a more counter-culture thing. What happens is a lot of these things that are counter-culture then move into the cultural zeitgeist and then it becomes the norm. How do we take it up a notch and then do something that is more counter-culture from there?
A lot of the imagery that he uses, you can find it in the history of homemade protest art and things like that. He added something important to the graffiti and street art world. For me, a lot of what he does hasn’t stood the test of time. His works are selling at auction for hundreds of thousands of dollars or millions. He’s becoming part of the contemporary art world. I have to filter everything that he does through the lens of contemporary art history and some of the things that happened there. Through that lens, it’s not very interesting. Some of the early stuff he did was interesting. It’s like a punk band that joins a major label.
There’s something about it that loses its authenticity and I get it. I’ll give you an example. In 1996, a high school friend of mine, Matt Dilling, he’s a couple of years older than myself. He’s now a successful neon fabricator in New York. He does all the fabrication for all the best contemporary artists that do neon. We were in high school at the time and Matt was forward-thinking. This guy was doing a Warhol and Rauschenberg riff-off art in high school. He was so smart. We lived in the DC area and he said, “Let’s go down to the Hirshhorn Museum,” or maybe it was the National Gallery, one of the big museums in DC. He’s like, “I’m going to glue this artwork into the gallery without permission. I made a placard for it and everything. It matches the other plaques in the gallery.” I went along with him and I document it. I took photos of it.
In 1996, I had this zine called Beautiful/Decay and I documented some of it in the zine. About ten years later, Banksy did the exact same thing at the Met. Matt did it over a decade before him. The only difference was Banksy had a major PR firm and he was on the front page of every newspaper that gave him his big boost. There was a teenager in high school that was doing that work but he didn’t have that backing. It was this thing that happened for fifteen minutes. Somebody ripped it off the wall once they figured it out and that was it. Through that personal experience, I’m like, “Banksy’s stuff is not that interesting because my friend in high school did that already,” but nobody knows about it.
I’m curious, how did they find out either in the Hirshhorn or the National Gallery? Did you all get caught on security cameras?
We didn’t get caught. This is long ago but I believe we stuck around for a few hours. We saw somebody noticed it like one of the guards. It was a wooden placard and it was like those googly eyes on a springboard. There was a pair of glasses mounted to that and it had a label. It obviously didn’t fit into the museum. You walk by and you’re like, “Why is there a googly eye stuck in the wall?” Somewhere, Matt probably has photos of patrons of the museum go walking by this thing and thinking it’s a real artwork, which was a real artwork.
It is an artwork. It is just not in their collection.
Somebody noticed it and took it down. Matt did a lot of interesting stuff like that in high school. He was done with art by the time he went to art school because he was ahead of the curve. The only difference between him and Banksy is both are two good ideas. One guy had a PR firm and is now a multimillionaire. Matt is doing great and he’s fine but nobody knows about it except for me and five other people.
It begs the question about the relationship between ambition and rebellion or rebellious nature. You’re a practitioner of both. Can you talk a little bit about that? Can you break that down further about how ambition rubs up against an outsider status or rebellious nature and vice versa? Does your rebel underpinning drive your ambition?
I don’t think of myself as a rebel or an outsider. I went to art school for seven years. I went to graduate school. I have a degree.
I love that you say that to be a successful artist, you had to forget and unlearn everything that you learned in graduate school.
I did at least consciously. There’s a lot of stuff that I learn subconsciously. I don’t think of myself as an outsider. I’m very much an insider. I went to grad school when I was only 22 or 23 years old. I was a baby. I went straight from undergrad and I had a lot of ambition. I was like, “I want to be an artist. This is what I want to do. Why am I going to wait around and waste time? Let’s get to it. I know what I want to do with my life.” Not realizing that life experience and being a little bit more mature might help me in grad school.
In grad school, I had all these teachers whispering in my ear and one person would say, “Do this,” another person would say, “Do this other thing.” Because I didn’t have the maturity to have a backbone, I listened to everybody. I removed all the great things that made my work mine out of my work slowly. By the time I graduated, I was making bad work. It took a good 7, 8 years of being outside of grad school, and not having anyone pay attention for me to find my own voice again. That happens to a lot of people. Once I had nothing going on and I was like, “Fuck it, I’m going to make what I like,” that’s when things clicked.
Talk a little bit about the actual work that you make and what you’re trying to communicate through the work.
For several years, I’ve been doing these portraits. They’re portraits of people via the objects that they surround themselves with. I was thinking about the history of portraiture, which we usually identify with somebody’s physical likeness, whether they’re attractive or not, young or old, male or female, fat or skinny, their gender or race. I realized that a lot of these things are misleading and superficial. They don’t tell you who the person is, what they’re like or what they’ve accomplished. I set out to figure out a way to create an alternative portrait. How do you take the idea of a portrait and deconstruct it, abstract it or expand upon it? I came up with this system where let’s say I was going to paint you, David. I would come to your home and I would almost do an informal interview with you where we would walk from room to room of your home.
I would get to know you. I would chat with you. Let’s say you had some weird interesting artifact on the bookshelf. Maybe I’d pick it up and I’d ask you about it. It might be you got this from some decor shop or it might be some family heirloom. You might say, “This belonged to my grandmother who passed it on to me. She died of cancer last year but we were close. She raised me for a few years,” whatever the story may be. Through a series of going from room to room and asking about different objects, I would get to know you on a deeper level. A lot of times, a lot of surprising stories and personal narratives would come out of this process.
I would gather these objects that I would ask questions about and create almost a still life or a diorama around the person with these objects. I would always cover the person’s physical features. I would cover their heads and their bodies with some fabric. It could be a quilt that you had on your bed, a dress, a shirt or something. It was like creating a veil over the person’s body. A lot of people read religious connotations into that and think it has something to do with Islam or me being Middle Eastern. It’s not that’s not in there, but it’s broader than that. It’s about I asked myself, “How do you cover someone’s physical features?” You throw something over their head so you can’t see them.
You can only see these the hands and feet of the person. You can see the form of a body, but you can’t describe what they look like. You’re forced visually to look at all these other things around the structure of the body. It becomes almost like a coded grouping of symbols that the viewer has to interpret. I never paint a person’s skin color. Their skin is usually like a golden, yellowish orange skin tone, which I think is almost like every race skin color, and the body is generalized. I’m trying to taking all the information that we associated with portraiture and then forcing the viewer to describe the person through these objects.
There’s so much we could get in there from an art-historical perspective that I’m sure you’re aware of over millennia about how you represent the human form, how you depict and tell stories about either their status in society. Especially when you go back to Renaissance culture or when you come closer to the 19th to 20th century where you’re depicting the everyday person out working in the fields. Even religious drapery over religious figures or famous humans that were in the construct of the religious hierarchy. That’s mainly from a Christian-Western perspective, but I am sure if we look across the board, we have those other examples. That’s interesting how you’re bringing that. How has that informed you? It sounds like the work is very personal about the communication between your subject and you as the artist. How has that influenced you to make larger statements about art-making or not? Maybe it is that personal relationship that you’re engaged in.
I am interested in personal. Cecily, you probably noticed during the Oscars, the director of Parasite quoted Martin Scorsese. The quote was something like, “The personal is always the most creative.” When I heard that little quote, I was like, “That describes everything that I’m interested in one sentence.” My favorite things to watch are documentaries. I only read nonfiction. The last time I read a piece of fiction was probably in high school or maybe in college. I’m interested in real people and their stories because people are wild and fascinating. Why even bother making something up?Exceptionalism and individualism make America great, but they could also be its downfall. Click To Tweet
I’m interested in people’s personal stories but those stories a lot of times talk about bigger things. I try to make the work as universal as possible, so that it’s open-ended enough that anyone can get into the work. For instance, one of the things that subconsciously led me to make this work that deals with an identity like who people are and where they come from. Growing up especially in America, I’m very dark-skinned for an Iranian. Most Iranians get about as tan as an Italian. They look Caucasian. Our race is considered Aryan.
Even Iranians sometimes can’t tell what my nationality is. They ask me if I’m Indian or Mexican. My wife who I’ve known for many years is Puerto Rican, but she is fair-skinned. She’s got freckles, red hair and she looks Irish. Through the years, I’ve realized that neither one of us looks like who we are or our nationality. What we look like says nothing to the world about who we are, our family, our background. We have a five-year-old son, and he has this weird mixture of both of us. He doesn’t look like either of us. That’s also been a real big eye-opener. If anything, it’s been confirming a lot of the questions that my work is asking. I noticed back when we could go to playgrounds before COVID, I would take him to a playground by myself on a weekday. I noticed a lot of the nannies and the moms that were there were looking at me funny. They were trying to figure out if I was the nanny or if I’d kidnapped somebody’s white child. I get these confusing stares like, “Did he adopt that kid?” I’ve had people ask me if I’ve adopted him before. I’m like, “He’s my kid. There are interracial couples these days.” That’s something that’s always at the forefront of my mind that naturally worked its way into the work.
I know in various interviews you talked about the process of immigrating to the US from Iran. I know it was a pretty challenging process. You discussed having that feeling of outsiderness of not being fully seen as American or Iranian. Do you feel like that outsiderness does influence the success of your work?
Define what you mean by success. Do you mean successful that the work is interesting or like a commercial success? There are many different ways.
How do you define your success or the success of your work?
On an art level, it’s cheesy to say but I view myself as a citizen of the world. I feel free to soak in everything and I’m interested in every race, every culture, every place I go to. Being that open helps do the work. I’m looking at a painting at my studio and it’s being informed from everything like a Renaissance painting to Curious George children’s books from the US, to Persian rug patterns, to Italian sculpture. I feel like I’m a cultural sponge and I can soak it all in and make it my own because that’s how I see the world. I’m like a product of all these different places. Before the age of six, I lived on four different continents. Borders and countries to me is all this invisible bullshit that people made up to create problems and conflict.
Can you speak to the power and the myth of the US versus the reality? The US and America have this grand mythology that’s associated with it. From your experience, how do you feel the mythology and the reality square?
The answer to that question changes every day for me. I remember one of the earliest memories of being a kid was being at a beach in Iran. There was a family friend or relative who had been to America and had come back to Iran. I was 4 or 5 years old. I remember this other fellow young kid coming up to me and telling me like, “Do you know those ice creams that come on a stick like a popsicle or something?” I was like, “Yes.” He’s like, “In America, they have ones that come with 2 or 3 sticks.” I remember thinking to myself as a kid like, “I need to go to this magical place where you can get double or triple the amount of ice cream.”
A lot of people in the East always think of America as this forward-thinking, open and technologically-advanced place. In many respects, it is. I’ve had a wonderful life in America. I feel the most American than any other race. It just depends on who’s leading the country. I’m googling what’s the temperature during winter in Canada because Canada sounds pretty good. It’s getting to the point where I feel fine in LA in my little bubble, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable traveling with my wife and kid to the Midwest. That’s the reality of America. You’re fine until you’re not fine.
I haven’t had to deal with a lot of overt racism, but I’ve dealt with a lot of quiet racism throughout my entire life. I think it’s both true. America’s greatness is true and it’s partially a myth. With all these protests happening everywhere, a lot of the dark underbelly of America is being shown. It’s like you’re looking inside a dark cupboard with the flashlight and the roaches are scattering. There are a lot of problems here. It’s definitely not perfect. It’s a great place to live but we’ve got some serious problems and the country is divided. I was talking to my father and he said something that scared me. He said, “This uneasy feeling you’re feeling now is exactly what it felt like right before the Iranian Revolution happened.” I was born during the revolution in ‘79.
I was going to make that reference. When you said you moved here in the late ‘80s, clearly your parents lived through the Iranian Revolution. You were born in 1979 during the revolution and then you all left six years later. There’s so much to unpack there. It’s interesting, your father’s comment. A lot of people are feeling that. There’s this uneasiness and maybe it will spring back to a more normal state if we can even use that word these days. There’s this uneasiness that America is going through. My question though is the friend that came from America, you’re in the middle of a revolution and cultural transformation of the country. He traveled out and saw another world, and he was bringing that back to Iran. Did that also inspire you and your family to say, “There’s something better we need to go?” How does that impact your art?
We didn’t have to leave Iran. We chose to leave Iran. My dad had his own business. My mom was a nurse. We had an upper-middle-class life. We got to travel even after the revolution when things were fine, but there was a war happening and they kept recruiting younger kids. My parents didn’t want me to grow up not only with an oppressive regime but with this war, that was very close. Another early memory I had is air raids where you could hear the fighter planes flying above you and everybody had to evacuate the building and go into the streets because your building might get bombed.
The one thing that a lot of Americans haven’t had a lot of taste for is having danger and uneasiness right at your doorstep. We’re getting a taste of that now. Anytime we’re at war, it’s happening in some other place and we’re killing a bunch of “savages” that aren’t normal. It’s different when it’s happening or when there are riots in LA. People are pissed off, they’ve had enough and they’re acting out in rage. I’m like, “I remember this feeling.” It feels familiar and I heard more about it than I experienced it. I’m like, “Of course, there’s civil unrest here.” It was just a matter of time. American exceptionalism and individualism, which are two things that make America great can also be its downfall because we’re not used to looking back at ourselves and being like, “We’re not perfect.” We’re used to everyone saying, “You’re the best. Your shit doesn’t stink. You can’t do any wrong.” We have done a lot of wrong.
The reason I’m in America is because America did something. They destroyed the democracy in Iran and put in a king that people didn’t want. That was America’s doing. That’s the only reason I’m here. Otherwise, I’d probably still be in Iran. What makes you wonderful can also tear you apart. A lot of people with all the Black Lives Matter things that are happening, I’ve had personal friends who I know have lived a sheltered life. They’re like, “There’s nothing wrong with America.” There’s nothing wrong because you grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey in your sheltered existence. You’ve never had to walk a mile in the shoes of a black man, a minority or as a woman. There are all these things that are problems that just because you’re not affected by, it doesn’t mean it’s not true.
On that topic, we’d love to get your perspective on a new term that’s being used around diversity inclusion. It is JEDI: Justice, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion. What I like about that is diversity and inclusion can be dismissed easily by those suburbanites in New Jersey regardless of their color because it’s an economic privilege. If you’re living in a suburb, you’re probably middle if not upper middle class, and we can debate that. In general, that would be the profile. You have maybe lived a bit of a sheltered life. I don’t want to beat up on the suburbs because you can live a sheltered life anywhere, but following that scenario that you were giving. What JEDI does is that started in the US with the horrible events around George Floyd and Black Lives Matter bringing a focus to that.
It has expanded to say we need justice for all. We need social justice for all. We needed economic justice for all. We need racial and economic equality. It starts to allow people across the spectrum to say, “Maybe I’m not as equal as I think I am.” Hopefully, it makes that suburbanite wake up and go, “Maybe I need to think about other people’s shoes I could walk in, but even my own shoes. Maybe on my own shoes, I’m living a little bit of a fool’s paradise.” I’d love to get your perspective on this idea that JEDI is allowing a broader audience to stop and think, “Maybe there’s something that I’m missing out on in the American dream that I need to help and be part of the change agent.”
I hadn’t heard about that term before. I was speaking about someone that I spent a lot of time with. He was a fairly close friend of mine that I’ve had to sever ties with because, over the years that we’ve known each other, he’s gotten more and more crazy to the point where I was like, “I can’t fix what’s wrong with you. Your world view is screwed up and it infringes on the rights and happiness of many different types of people that I know. I can’t be associated with it. I don’t want that negativeness in my mind because it’s too painful.”
It’s painful to hear someone that you care about say racist, sexist and homophobic things, zero empathy for someone that’s different than them. He’s not your typical racist. I don’t know if he’s racist. He’s unsophisticated in his worldview. He’s also someone who lacks empathy for things that are different and challenging his norm. Empathy is a big problem in America not just with race or gender, but on a lot of things like everything that happens with the environment. People don’t want to make those sacrifices and question the things that they grew up thinking was the truth.
The thing is the truth is fluid. Just because you were raised one way doesn’t mean that’s just what your parents chose to give to you or impart to you. Some of it are good and some of it are bad. You have to be able to question things and dissect them. Have enough of a world view to be able to walk in somebody else’s shoes for a while. I’m always trying to think about ways to teach my kid empathy because it comes down to that. There are lots of things that don’t personally affect me on a day-to-day basis that I don’t take part in because I know it hurts somebody else.
I follow a lot of things that go on in Scandinavia and Denmark. Interestingly, in the last years, Denmark has required empathy training from kindergarten to high school. You must take empathy as a course in school. Many years on, the results of having a more empathetic society or the society that is more understanding and caring about neighbors are off the charts. I don’t have the numbers at my fingertips, but it has made a significant impact that other Scandinavian countries are adopting that model.
The other piece is going back to your friend. I’m sorry to hear that you lost that friendship, but I understand that toxicity. There’s American exceptionalism and there’s social justice. Those embrace from different political spectrums. American exceptionalism is more from a center-right perspective and social justice. What I think about JEDI is that it’s the combination of the two. It says that America does have greatness. There are great things about it, but at the same time, we have to broaden the ability for others to participate. To me, that’s what’s so great about what’s unfolding through initially the protest around George Floyd’s death, which has turned into a global phenomenon. I was in London and the protests that were happening there were first somewhat violent than peaceful. They were saying the same things. They were saying everything about what JEDI represents in terms of either talking to Corporate America or talking to racists, “If my color of skin bothers you,” or a corporation, you need to have more accountability about how everybody gets a share in the pie. To me, that’s coming together.
A lot of times, I heard this Toni Morrison quote when all those George Floyd stuff happened that I can’t stop thinking about it. It was, “If you can only be tall because someone else is on their knees, then you have a serious problem.” I thought that sums it up. If you have to deny the rights of transgender people because you feel uncomfortable, then that’s a problem. If you have to be successful by paying your employees $7 an hour because you’re being cheap, that’s fucked up. I’m always trying to think about how do you combat that?
It’s complex and overwhelming. It trickles down from the top. This whole conversation we’re having about masks. I don’t even understand it because I speak to other people in other countries and it’s not even a thing. Because it trickles down, the tone of the country is to question facts and science. It starts with the leader of the country. One day, he’s wearing a mask and one day, he’s not. One day, he loves black people and one day, he’s not. It makes no sense. It’s whatever is convenient for his campaign that day. A lot of these issues are underlying but they’ve all come to a head all at once because there’s chaos on every level. The government employs people that then it says are lying. None of it makes any sense. It’s the perfect recipe for disaster.
I do wonder though if all this stuff was on the underbelly and would have eventually come out at some point. Trump in a Buddhist way has shown us the light of how dark we are. He’s highlighted how much work we have to do and it’s incited the people.
I have these memories of being in fifth grade in the US. One of my teachers who I love, she was a wonderful lady and we got along well. I was a loudmouth mischievous kid that would fuck around in class. I wasn’t a bad kid, I just have a big mouth. One day she comes to me and she’s like, “Do you misbehave in my class and talk when you’re not supposed to because your father makes your mother walk 20 feet behind him? He orders your mother around and you don’t believe that women can be in charge.”
Sexism wasn’t even a thing that was in my mind. I’d never even thought about it. It surely wasn’t something that I experienced in the household. If anything, my mother wears pants in my family. If anybody’s listening to anybody, we’re all listening to her. My dad is probably one of the most liberal guys I know. He’s way more liberal and what I would describe as a feminist than my mother. I was like, “No, I’m misbehaving because I’m bored in class. It has nothing to do with you being a woman. I respect you. I’m being a fucking kid.” The fact that somebody had the nerve to say that to a fifth-grader, think about how young a fifth-grader is. I was like, “This is one of those things I’ve got to deal with,” and then it happened again. It’s almost verbatim. It’s the same conversation with a different teacher in 8th or 9th grade where I didn’t raise my hand to answer. It was something stupid that every kid does in class. The teacher asks me if I don’t believe in women’s rights, I was like, “Of course, I do.” People are looking at me and they’re coming with this laundry list of beliefs. That’s a lot of things that other minorities have to deal with and black people have to deal with.There are a lot of great things about America, but we have to broaden the ability for others to participate. Click To Tweet
That’s not only specific to America. These things happen in other countries too. There are a lot of these issues especially after Obama got elected. Everybody was like, “Everything’s fine. There’s no more racism. Our job is done here. You can never call us racist again.” It’s more nuanced than that. Everybody has biases and prejudices. We always have to check them. We always have to question these things and educate ourselves. It’s like science. It’s not static, it’s always evolving and changing. My views on transgender issues have gotten broader as I’ve met more people that are transgender and gotten to know them. I don’t pretend to understand everything, but I would never deny someone to be who they want to be and to live a happy life because I can’t relate. I try to go into everything. As long as what you’re doing isn’t hurting someone else, who am I to say or judge? It’s a process. You get to know someone in that world or in that issue and you try to educate yourself. Usually, it makes sense once you have some rapport. It’s an exposure thing.
It goes back to that idea that you were saying of being empathetic to somebody else’s worldview in life. You’re not there to judge it. You’re there to say, “As long as you’re not harming somebody, I’m here to support you.”
I’ve started to ask questions about my maternal line and find out more about our ancestors’ roots. I’ve been speaking with my grandmother’s brother who’s 89 who almost passed away. They thought he had Coronavirus but it turns out it was pneumonia. He’s doing better now. I called him and chatted with him. He was telling us all about our roots in Lithuania and how they were killing Jews. My great grandmother had to come over on a ship by herself when she was 11 or 13 to the US because her parents were afraid to have her stay in Lithuania. They also couldn’t afford to keep her. She came over and it was a miracle that she wasn’t raped or had some terrible things happen to her on that ship.
Listening to how hard everyone in my family had to work, the backbreaking work that they did day in and day out, dealing with the mafia and all these different things, it gives you so much empathy to relate to other people and say, “There was trauma and there were these types of things in my background too.” Maybe not to the extreme extent that someone that was black or someone of color has dealt with. Still, to understand that and identify with that, it gives you a stronger sense of empathy for sure.
We’re getting close to the end of our session here. This is such a great conversation. I’m going to steal one of Cecily’s favorite questions for guests, which is what kind of advice would you give your younger self where you sit from now? If you could look back and say to your younger self, “Be a bigger risk-taker. Don’t talk so much in fifth grade, whatever it is,” what would you tell yourself?
One of the most positive things about me is that I’m a very curious person. If I meet an accountant, I want to know everything about accounting. I’m like, “Tell me about accounting.” It could be the driest subject because I don’t know anything about it. I want to be a sponge and learn it. Because of being a curious person, which has helped me immensely in life, it also can become a huge distraction. When I was in my early twenties, I thought I could have a clothing line, be a publisher, be a graffiti artist and also be involved in the contemporary art world all at the same time, simultaneously without sacrificing quality in any of those worlds.
Now with a little bit more perspective, there are a lot of people that do a lot of different things well. What I’ve noticed about a lot of them is that they do one thing well. They become super successful at it, then they go to something else and they do that. They wear a lot of hats but they don’t try to wear all of the hats at the exact same time because there are only so many hours in a day. When I was in grad school, part of the reason that the work I made wasn’t that good was because I had a lot of distractions. I had a fairly successful publication. I had employees that demanded a lot of my time. I had too many interests all at once. Now that I’m older, I feel like my number one love has always been contemporary art. I feel like I’m five years behind the schedule that I had set in my mind for different things that I want to do.
I would challenge you to throw that out the window though, Amir. I feel like you are very successful. The fact that you had this publication was an important component for you in understanding how to market your artwork and publicize your artwork. You also understood the business side of creating art. That has definitely worked for you and not against you.
Perhaps, but you just don’t know. I had friends that were in grad school who were a few years older than me. They had their shit together more and had a laser-like focus. Some of those people are extremely successful now and some of them are not at all. It could go either way. I don’t know if I have any regrets but that’s something that I think about from time to time. You’re right, I learned a lot of great valuable lessons too. I had a lot of wonderful experiences. When I think about advice, that’s the one thing that immediately pops into my mind. Every once in a while, I’ll have this idea and I’m like, “I should start doing this.” I have to tell myself, “No, you can’t do that. You’re too busy. Let somebody else do it.”
I have that all the time too.
I love podcasts. There have been 50 times where I was like, “I would love to start a podcast.” I’m like, “No, you’re not allowed. You’re not allowed anymore hobbies or interests. You’re maxed out,” which is true. I am maxed out.
You can ease your way in by just being a guest on a podcast.
I love books and I love print design. I collect art books. I have hundreds of them in my house. I still buy several books every week. I love printed publications. When I made the decision to stop working in the publishing world, my concession is that I’m going to try to publish my own stuff. That was many years ago and it took me a few years. I published a book of my work through a museum exhibit I had. That was rewarding because I’ve designed something like 26 or 27 magazines and probably another 20 or 30 books about other people’s artworks.
Where do we get the book?
There’s a link on my website, AmirHFallah.com. I made 50, 60 publications about other people’s works and promoting other people. I finally got around doing one on myself. Maybe I can’t start podcasts but every once in a while, I’ll be a guest or something on them. I have to consciously stop myself because I’m curious. I get excited about something and I want to do it.
This is outstanding. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us. We look forward to seeing and tracking your work and having you back on.
You’re always welcome to come back. Thanks so much, Amir.
Thanks for having me. It’s my pleasure.
- Amir H. Fallah
- Curious George
- The New York Times: “Vote like your life depends on it.”
About Amir H. Fallah
Amir H. Fallah creates paintings, sculptures, and installations that utilize personal history as an entry point to discuss race, representation, the body, and the memories of cultures and countries left behind. Through this process, the artist’s works employ nuanced and emotive narratives that evoke an inquiry about identity, the immigrant experience, and the history of portraiture.
Fallah interrogates systems of representation embedded in the history of Western art. His ornate environments combine visual vocabularies of painting and collage with elements of installation to deconstruct material modes of identity formation. Portraits of veiled subjects capitalize on ambiguity to skillfully weave fact and fiction, while questioning how to create a portrait without representing the physicality of the sitter. While the stories that surround his subjects are deeply personal and are told through the intimate possessions they hold most dear, his work addresses generational immigrant experiences of movement, trauma, and celebration. Fallah wryly incorporates Western art historical references into paintings formally rooted in the pattern-based visual language of Islamic Art. In doing so, his paintings possess a hybridity that reflects his own background as an Iranian-American immigrant straddling cultures.
Fallah received his BFA in Fine Art & Painting at the Maryland Institute College of Art and his MFA in painting at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has exhibited extensively in solo and group exhibitions across the United States and abroad. In 2015, Fallah had a solo exhibition at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art and received the Joan Mitchell Foundation Painters and Sculptors Grant. In 2009, the artist was chosen to participate in the 9th Sharjah Biennial. Fallah’s painting Calling On The Past received the 2018 Northern Trust Purchase Prize at EXPO Chicago and is now part of the permanent collection at the SMART Museum of Art at the University of Chicago. In 2019 Fallah was awarded a permanent public art commission by the LA Art Commission and won the COLA Artist fellowship. The artist is also in the permanent collection of the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), Miami, McEvoy Foundation For The Arts, San Francisco, Neuman Museum, Kansas City, The Microsoft Collection, Plattsburg State Art Museum, Plattsburgh, NY, Cerritos College Public Art Collection, Norwalk, CA and Salsali Private Museum, Dubai, UAE. The artist currently has a solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tucson.
Photo credit: Shayan Asgharnia