The Ties That Bind Us, a comprehensive exhibition at Studio La Città in the city of Verona in February 2022, explored in-depth the artist’s production. The show featured large architectures and smaller-scale works inspired by the Middle East, to which the artist is deeply attached. Mourad employs unique drawing and painting techniques perfected during his training as engraver: using an ink tank and a brush, he traces and blurs his drawings with great speed and precision.
Born in Syria to an Armenian family who fled Armenia during the genocide, Kevork Mourad moved to Yerevan to pursue his Master at the Institute of Fine Arts. He currently lives and works in New York. Growing up in multi-ethnic Aleppo, he was exposed to a melting pot of different cultures, languages and traditions that he weaves into his work.
Mourad uses his live drawing and animation technique in performances with musicians, and has developed numerous important collaborations with performers in institutions around the world. I met with the artist at Studio La Città to talk about his research in the round.
I would like to start from the exhibition’s title. How does it relate to your work?
Kevork Mourad: When I left Syria, many of Aleppo’s historic areas had been destroyed by the war. As an artist, I think it is important to do my part to reconstruct and reconnect to a lost past. I feel like it’s time for me to tie together all the influences that have made me who I am today.
I’ve always been fascinated by how cultural activities bring us together. I grew up in Aleppo in a multicultural environment, where my neighbours were Syrians, Arabs and Kurds. When Armenians arrived in Syria, brought our precious handicrafts and our music into this very different Arab culture. Unconsciously, the shapes that belong to our culture influence the way we see other cultures’ aesthetic forms and ornaments.
Walking through the streets of Aleppo, I observed the way the fabrics were dyed and hung in the streets, their different colors and shapes. I stored this knowledge unaware, to discover only later that it had become part of my narrative, of my own fabric.
You said that it is very important for you to create a ‘universal memory’. Can you explain how you try to achieve this?
Kevork Mourad: In the past, much of my work targeted a specific geography, that of Syria. Later, when I was studying in Armenia, this geography expanded, but I still worked mainly with Syria in mind.
After I moved to America, I started creating work inspired by my Armenian ancestors. There were still specific references, Syrian and Armenian architecture and Middle Eastern influences on the latter. But every time I create a work, I want it to grow, to convey the message in a more universal way.
So, step by step, I began conceiving forms from the vocabulary that I acquired by listening to and learning from other cultures, merging all my experiences, Syrian, Armenian, American and even Italian. I want to create a mirror where anyone can reflect and feel connected. I believe that now, more than ever, it is important that art creates connections.
Can you describe what struck you most about Aleppo and its architecture, the urban landscape in which you grew up?
Kevork Mourad: When the Armenians arrived in Syria, particularly in Aleppo, they settled in an anonymous working-class neighborhood crowded with concrete blocks. But we built a community there and thrived. Every Sunday I walked to the Armenian church with my family and friends. The church is located in the historic part of Aleppo, with its cobbled streets and old fairy-tale mansions.
The church had a beautiful iconography and some of the stones looked as if they had melted down, worn out by the generations who touched and kissed them. For many years I walked those streets. Some of the old houses, owned by the Arabs for hundreds of years, were later transformed into restaurants. This was at once bad and good. I could finally enter into the tiny doors and discover huge patios overlooked by multiple rooms upstairs, the fountains and the incredible mosaics and carvings that until then I had only seen in books. I want these memories to be part of my work.
How would you describe your Armenian experience, when you travelled back to Yerevan to study?
Kevork Mourad: I didn’t feel connected. The Armenian diaspora and the native Armenians are two different cultures. We Armenians of the diaspora must be discreet because we have the perception of being in someone else’s land. This mentality penalises us and we feel we must always work hard to be accepted.
In this society, you are judged constantly and made feel that you cannot achieve the goals you have set for yourself. The notions I had about art when I arrived in Armenia were intuitive. I grew up poor, without access to ‘high’ culture. I didn’t know how to fit in, but the good thing is that when you’re repressed at some point you explode, and I did, doing what I really wanted to do.
Adapting in America was somewhat easier. Though, at first, I wondered how I could compete with this vast world and with the large amount of incredible talents. I thought: I will tell the story of my ancestors without even thinking of competing with anyone, and maybe someone will appreciate it. And that’s how I’m here.
How do you cope with the hectic pace of N.Y. city, coming from a culture that bestows value on slow time?
Kevork Mourad: The interesting thing about life in New York is that it has phases. As soon as I arrived it was all too fast, everything in New York happens 24 hours a day. I had two really hectic years, I didn’t think I could survive. Then everything changed: I created my own bubble, my neighbourhood, a couple of museums and galleries that I visit regularly, my studio, some friends. Everything became very quiet. But if I want to, I have an incredible cultural offer at hand.
Would you describe the making of your work and performances as a form of visual stream of consciousness?
Kevork Mourad: I would say that my work is heavily influenced by Middle Eastern calligraphers. In handwriting, you do not rehearse or sketch, the gesture reflects your creative thinking in a continuous flow. If you are hesitant, first of all the paint will dry out, secondly the handwriting will not reflect your feelings at that precise moment.
I spontaneously create my work as if I were a calligrapher, telling a story but trying in a symbolic way to make it ‘raw’, unfinished. I don’t try to go back and correct it, I always go forward. It’s almost like an intimate conversation between me and the material.
Your grandfather was a storyteller. Is your penchant for storytelling part of your family heritage?
Kevork Mourad: Some people see my work as a form of scenography that viewers have access to. For me, my works tell a kind of story, but I leave the viewers free to decide what stories they want to see.
I remember that in the cafes in the Middle East I listened to storytellers animate tales such as The Thousand and One Nights. My Armenian grandfather made music in Kurdish, trying to make his voice be part of that culture. My work certainly derives from my ancestors who contributed to Middle Eastern society with so many art forms.
My performances, on the other hand, are a direct form of narrative, they must have a beginning, a central part and an end like any other story. But I create fluidity between my work in motion, and my static work.
Is the tragedy of the Armenian genocide experienced by your ancestors also indirectly rooted in your work?
Kevork Mourad: I think that this partly depends on one’s personality. I am optimistic, I always look on the bright side. My ancestors took refuge in Syria and started again from scratch. I too started from scratch in Armenia and then once again in America. But like storytellers, when you have to start over, you bring your memories with you, something to sow that later can blossom.
The pieces you see on display here are like the sails of a boat, they are going somewhere. They can be carried in a small box, folded to be reopened like tents. They have already traveled a lot. It is comforting to know that I can take them with me, open them and make them my home. This concept of traveling and creating something new elsewhere, like real architecture, is very bohemian and symbolic.
Is the idea of carrying your home with you, even if metaphorically, linked to a past troubled by uprooting and persecution?
Kevork Mourad: Something very serious, like genocide, affects generations. My parents’ generation hardly talked about it. The inability to express this trauma affected their generation, mentally. I realized that many families faced this problem.
As refugees, the Armenians were proud to share their culture and took their handicrafts with them wherever they went: beautiful jewelry, musical instruments, carpets. All this I put into my work, you can see it in the details. And this is a form of healing.
You often perform live and your performances are quite complex and spectacular as they incorporate a good amount of improvisation. How do you feel about the vulnerability that is implicit in this?
Kevork Mourad: When you know you are vulnerable because you can’t go back in time to fix things, you have to live with it. I have been performing for over twenty years. At first it was unnerving; over time, you realize it’s a conversation with the audience. But when trust is mutual, you create a bond that becomes part of the audience’s memory. When people leave my performances, all the drawings move in their minds. It’s a privilege for me to animate their imaginations.
It is a form of storytelling, sometimes with drawing, sometimes with dance, architecture and even the illustration of the Opera. For example, for Beethoven’s Fidelio at the Korean National Opera I recreated the city of Seville in my way. The singers were like life-size figures within my work. The alternation of stasis, animation and live performance becomes my way of giving depth to a story.
You have performed in many parts of the world. Do you feel that different audiences affect your performances differently?
Kevork Mourad: I feel the audience incredibly. I’ll give you an example. Since 2012 I have been performing a piece called Home Within with Syrian musician and composer Kinan Azmeh in many places in Europe and the United States. The work is about the Syrian refugee crisis and reconstruction, but I also wanted to broaden the meaning of the performance, make it universal.
We once performed in Lebanon, and I didn’t know that the audience was going to be mostly Syrian. They were in tune with each phase of the piece, the energy in the room was electrifying. It was one of those unique moments that I will always remember. It was emotionally exhausting, in the end I was in tears and so was Kinan. We felt the total involvement of the audience.
In 2016, in an interview for Art 21 magazine, you expressed your views on the Syrian crisis as an artist. What is your idea of the relationship between art and history?
Kevork Mourad: The interview involved three artists and we told the story from three different points of view. I believe this highlights a crucial role of art. To put it symbolically, each artist brings a different piece of stone and all together they make a construction.
Collectively we document history, express concepts, impressions and feelings from different eras and events. Take Picasso’s Guernica or Goya’s war paintings as an example. We cannot rely on the objectivity of biased or corrupt news, but if we look at what happened from the point of view of several artists, we can get a more complete idea of the story.
You mentioned Italo Calvino as a source of literary inspiration. Can you tell me about it?
Kevork Mourad: When I read Calvino’s The Invisible Cities 20 years ago, I recalled the streets of Aleppo: every time I go back there I feel like I’m traveling in a different historical period and in a different city. I created works inspired by Calvino’s descriptions of those cities.
I was recently asked to create a performance inspired by The Invisible Cities with dance company, from a contemporary angle. Like everything powerful, Calvino’s book is timeless: it was written 50 years ago but it contains food for thought on climate change, rising waters, overpopulation and the waste problem. I want to look at the book from this perspective to be able to inspire new ideas in people.
What other readings trigger thoughts for your work?
Kevork Mourad: I always come back to Borges for inspiration. The Library of Babel, for example, makes me think of different languages. I feel that when I create a work I invent a new language. The Aleph, also by Borges, is a collection of short stories, but it is fascinating to see the universe compressed in such a small place.
Then the astrophysicist Brian Greene is one of my sources of inspiration. He wrote a book called Until the End of Time. It’s about the universe, but it also tells how humans are undervalue the precious thing we have in this very specific and particular instant of the cosmic time.
Speaking of writing, can you explain the role of calligraphy in your work? You said that you use both Arabic and Armenian characters but that due to the technique you use they are reversed and that this has an implication.
Kevork Mourad: Most of my work starts with the monotype. Basically, what you create will appear backwards. Armenian is written from left to right, Arabic backwards, from right to left. At first, I hadn’t thought about this, so much so that when I create a sort of Armenian script, a kind of Arabic script comes out and vice versa. This creates a contamination of the two languages.
In the Tower of Babel, a six-meter-high suspended installation that I made for London’s Ismaili Center in 2019 made up of six overlapping cylinders, to which the public had access to through a small opening.
Through the windows and doors carved into the fabric, you could peek into the interior, which was covered with illegible calligraphy and symbols, looking almost chapel-like. The idea was that the whispers of our ancestors reach us from doors and windows, but it is up to us to walk in and really listen to them.
You said that you started using fabrics as a support by accident, but that it is also associated with Syria, where people use it to protect themselves from snipers in the streets. I was wondering if there are other associations in your choice of this material.
Kevork Mourad: Yes, it was by pure accident. My first two layered pieces were made on paper, but when working on paper on a large scale, it is difficult and expensive to move the work. In 2018, I was invited to take part in an important international group exhibition in Yerevan, Armenia. I had seven days to carry out the work. But I couldn’t find sheets of paper large enough, and there was no more time to get them from abroad.
I went to a local fabric shop, I had no other choice. At first it was difficoult, the fabric is soft and absorbs the paint much faster than paper. I created a layered architecture and called it Time Immemorial. It was inspired by Ani, a medieval cultural capital of Armenia, which has a sad and magical history. This bustling city, then in Armenia, now on the eastern border of Turkey, is said to have had 1100 churches, imagine what an elaborate architecture! Now there is nothing left but a monastery in ruins, mainly due to vandalism and deliberate destruction.
I decided to reconstruct it with a three-layers work. The rear layer is inspired by Babylonian culture, which in turn influenced Urartu, the ancient kingdom of the Armenian highlands. You see, the layering of my work stems from the idea of observing slices of history and time from the side.
Creating this first work on fabric I realized that it was easy to store and that I could easily travel with something that once unpacked becomes a very big city!
You mentioned that our present requires more concrete actions from art. You first mentioned Home Within, the 60-minute audiovisual performance that documents your feelings during the different phases of the Syrian war. Is it a work in progress? What are your next moves?
Kevork Mourad: Home Within is expanding with the addition of three new players, so now we have cello, oud, percussion and clarinet. Today it is part of Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road project [translator note: a non-profit organisation, started in 1998 by cellist YoYo Ma, which promotes multicultural artistic exchange and collaboration between artists and institutions.]. We’ll start a tour on March 28th in Santa Barbara, and will have twelve shows in the US.
I also have a new project with the talented Scottish composer and harpist Maeve Gilchrist. There are incredible similarities between Celtic and Armenian art forms that I want to explore to create a piece inspired by visual memory.
Then I’m working on an opera by Monteverdi with the tenor Karim Sulayman for the Spoleto Festival USA. I want to create a performance that complicates the idea of linear time, involving three dancers, who will sometimes perform live on stage, others will appear on multiple screens creating a sort of mirror between reality and projection, and interacting as well with my drawings. We start rehearsals at the beginning of June.
In short, you really are very busy! What will you take home from this Italian experience?
Kevork Mourad: It is a great privilege for me to be surrounded by Italian culture. Italian art has been a great source of inspiration for many artists. It is fantastic to see that Italians really love and appreciate my work, I have not perceived it to this extent anywhere else. It really makes me feel like I’ve gotten a great deal of recognition.
Sources and insights: Kevork Mourad website Studio La citta' Confronting Crisis: An Interview with Syrian Artists Tammam Azzam, Sara Shamma & Kevork Mourad. Art21 Jan/Feb 2016 Issue.