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  • Interview by Rosie Osborne

Kimia Ferdowsi Kline

The desire to explore a past that she has never known, a paradise lost, is integral to the work of Iranian-American artist Kimia Ferdowsi Kline. Kimia's relationship with her Persian heritage is one that has always had to survive outside the borders of Iran. As members of the persecuted Baha’i faith, Kimia's family was exiled from Iran before she was born and threatened with imprisonment if they ever returned. Now based in New York, Kimia's paintings have been exhibited all over the United States, in both solo and group shows. We meet in her studio in Brooklyn to discuss the artists influencing her today, a nostalgia for a forgotten homeland and the power of Instagram in the art world.

Kimia's work studio in Brooklyn. Photograph by Rosie Osborne

In 2010, you created a documentary called 'Under The Staircase', about your family’s escape from Iran, recounting the events leading up to your grandfather’s execution in 1982. At the beginning of the film, you say:

'When I was a little girl, the only pictures I’d seen of Iran were in black and white. I had never been there and I knew I couldn’t go. And so I thought Iran was grey. I thought I came from a place without colour.’

Yes, exactly. When my family fled Iran and sought religious asylum in the United States, our surname was blacklisted. To this day, I'm not able to go back without the threat of imprisonment. All of the images that I had ever seen of Iran were black and white photographs that my grandparents had, or news clippings. It wasn’t until I was older that it clicked for me that Iran existed in colour.

Shiraz Morning. Kimia Ferdowsi Kline. Oil on panel. 2015.

What was it like to be barred from a place that is such an integral part of you and your culture?

It was very strange. The paintings that I've been creating since I got out of school are, in a way, love letters to Iran. My work definitely explores that gap that I feel between being over here, on this side of the pond, and not being able to go back because of the threat of religious persecution. All of my paintings are extensions of that experience - small ways of bridging that gap. Painting is the only way that I can try to relate to this kind of 'ghost homeland' of mine.

A Courtyard. Kimia Ferdowsi Kline. Oil on panel. 2014.

Were you creative as a child?

Yes. I always loved painting and drawing. When I was eight years old, I declared to my parents that I was going to be an artist. I don’t remember that, but my Mom swears it's true. They were both really horrified, because my Mom’s side of the family is in medicine and my Dad’s side is in law and business. They promised themselves not to influence me, but they both did, in their subtle ways. I think they thought, 'well, she’s a kid - she’ll grow out of it'. But I just never grew out of it - I grew into it. I think after a while, they realised that maybe I could actually have a career in art after all. Once they saw how serious I was, they were both really on board. I couldn’t have done it without them. It’s not an easy road.

Andromeda And Two Arabian Fish' Kimia Ferdowsi Kline. Oil on panel. 2015.

Which artists influenced you the most when you were young?

Egon Schiele was a huge influence. I remember the first time I saw his figure drawings... It was like a punch to the heart. He died so young and I was really attracted to his story as an outsider. Eric Fischl also influenced me a lot. I loved beautiful painterly painters like John Singer Sargent. But I feel like I've grown out of them now somehow. I'm currently very influenced by David Hockney, Matisse and Danny Fox, as well as outsider artists such as Clementine Hunter.

Bathers. Kimia Ferdowsi Kline. Oil on panel. 2015.

Orange Pillow. Kimia Ferdowsi Kline. Oil on paper. 2015.

Which piece of art from history would you choose to have on your wall right now, if you could pick any one?

Matisse’s ‘The Snail.’ I saw it for the first time in real life at the MOMA last year at the Matisse cut-outs show. I’d only seen tiny thumbnails of it online and thought that it was relatively small. When I saw it and how massive it was... I’ve been obsessed with it ever since! That show was one of the most joyous and vibrant exhibitions that I've ever seen. What struck me most was how relevant his work still is today.

The Snail'. Henri Matisse. 1953.

Has living in New York affected the art you create?

Oh, it has definitely affected my life as an artist - without a doubt. The Brooklyn art community is so supportive. Being an artist can be tough. I visits artists' studios all the time as part of my curating work, and we all kind of commiserate with each other! It feels like artists in this community are blades rubbing up against each other - talent sharpens talent. I'm much more focused now in my studio practice and how seriously I take myself and my work. That’s definitely a result of being in New York and being alongside some of the best, most creative artists in the entire world. When you're around people that are that good, you can't help but be influenced by them. That’s a huge part of the reason that I moved here in the first place.

Two Jackals. Kimia Ferdowsi Kline. Oil and oil stick on panel. 2016.

You also curate the permanent art collection at the Wythe Hotel in Brooklyn, filling the rooms with works by emerging and established artists. How has this role influenced your own painting?

Well, I visit artists' studios really often, and I’m constantly seeing really excellent work. I've never been filled up with as much energy as I am in New York. I've been able to collaborate with incredibly talented artists. It really does feel as though the possibilities are endless.

Eve And The Eggplant Patch. Oil on panel. 2014.

Daughters of the Half Light. Kimia Ferdowsi Kline. Oil on canvas. 2012-2015.

You're very active on Instagram. How do you feel that this tool is changing the art world?

I've connected with so many incredible artists via Instagram. I've traded pieces of art that are hanging all over my apartment via Instagram. There's a visibility and an accessibility that has never existed before. All you need is an internet connection and a smartphone. It really is such a powerful tool in the art world today.

Would you agree that social media has democratised the art world, then?

Totally. When artists say to me, 'we’re not getting shows because we’re not in New York', I tell them, 'no, you’re not getting shows because you're not on Instagram.' Gallerists from London and Paris have messaged me because they've found my account and they're like, 'do you want to be in a show?' It really has nothing to do with whether I have gallery representation or not. It has to do with the fact that I'm putting myself out there online. I always tell artists starting out to get an Instagram account. I know quite a few artists who sell thousands of dollars of their work that way.

Kimia's work studio in Brooklyn. Photograph by Rosie Osborne

Two Heads. Kimia Ferdowsi Kline. Oil on paper. 2015.

What do you think are some of the biggest difficulties facing artists today?

I think that the whole gallery/art fair relationship has always been a struggle for artists. It can really suck the life out of what they're doing. Some artists really cater to that market - long term, their careers may last, but they may not be happy. I think that you definitely have to invest in yourself, even if for a couple of years you're not selling any paintings. If you're investing in figuring out your own visual language, then in the long term, you'll end up being much more successful.

Watermelon Window. Kimia Ferdowsi Kline. Oil on paper. 2015.

The Silk Road. Kimia Ferdowsi Kline. Oil on paper. 2015.

What's your rhythm like when you're in your studio?

What's nice is that my days in the studio don’t follow any schedule at all. Sometimes I'll go a week and I'll just be in here looking at stuff, or listening to artists' talks, or taking notes, or drawing. It goes in cycles and waves. Every day is completely different.

When do you feel most free?

When I’m in New York.

Kimia Ferdowsi Kline in her work studio in Brooklyn. Photograph by Rosie Osborne

Kimia's work studio in Brooklyn. Photograph by Rosie Osborne

Kimia's work studio in Brooklyn. Photograph by Rosie Osborne

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