The Initiative in Holocaust, Genocide, Memory Studies invited Kevork Mourad to visit campus in April 2020, but regrettably, we had to postpone when all campus events were cancelled due to the outbreak of Covid-19. Kevork is a Syrian-born, New York-based Armenian artist who works both in 2D and 3D. He produces large-scale installations, ink drawings, illustrations for animated films, live-action sketches to music, and mixed media pieces for visual performances. An overview of images from Mourad’s diverse portfolio can be found on his website: https://www.kevorkmourad.com/
Helen Makhdoumian, HGMS and English graduate student and the mover and shaker behind our annual Armenian studies events and genocide commemorations, had met Kevork and greatly admired his diverse and moving work; we were utterly thrilled both that he graciously accepted our invitation and that we received generous support from MillerComm, Spurlock, IPRH, CWL, English, Fine Arts, Jewish Studies, and REEEC to bring him to campus and to Chicago for a multi-part visit. The wonderful director of the Spurlock Museum, Elizabeth Sutton, was delighted to host an on-site installation and exhibition of Kevork’s work and we had put out a call for art students to volunteer to help set up the exhibit. In addition to a major talk at the Spurlock Museum’s Knight Auditorium entitled “Conceptualizing Migration, Memory, and Place through Art,” Kevork was to have given an HGMS faculty seminar series workshop and a lecture in Chicago at the Illini Center. All of this has now been postponed until next spring so please mark your calendars for Kevork’s talk at the Spurlock at 7pm on 21 April 2021.
During the pandemic, I conducted an online interview with Kevork in May 2020:
BK: Starting with the pandemic in which the whole world is currently embroiled, you made a series of videos that are very moving and very timely while in quarantine. One of them, “Social Distancing,” features a series of beautifully drawn people socializing at a café who sort of float away from each other as social distancing makes our former physical proximities impossible. Can you talk about that piece? [Links to the videos can be found at the bottom of the page]:
KM: That video was my first quarantine piece. While all of us have been forced to live in quarantine and in some ways have been having similar experiences, some groups have felt the consequences of this quarantine more strongly and immediately than others (those who are in the arts, for example), which is why I have the musicians end up the last ones in the frame, playing alone in an empty café.
BK: More than most visual artists, your work incorporates music—especially cello—but other musical instruments and genres as well. Can you talk about how you see the connections between the visual and the musical in your pieces?
KM: I come from an illustration background (one of my degrees is in illustration) and my grandfather was a troubadour in the Kurdish part of Syria near the border with Turkey. With time I realized that to illustrate music was something natural to me and organic to my work, and I treated my drawing tool like a sort of bow hitting on strings. I’ve often felt like the gestures of my drawing directly translate the rhythms of the music.
With this quarantine series, I’ve been treating the videos like visual poems related to the present and inspired by the emotions I receive from the music. Regardless if the music is cello, percussion, bandoneon or duduk, I receive the emotions and feel compelled to put them into the visual dimension.
BK: It feels as though part of your artistic practice very consciously involves collaborative projects such as the site-specific installation you were scheduled to produce with art students here at the Spurlock Museum and which has now been delayed until April 2021. Can you talk about the importance of both creating work in a space for a space and also of working in conjunction with other (emerging) artists?
KM: For my installation pieces, I have the idea of what the piece is about, but the space in which the installation will be created dictates, by virtue of the size and layout of the room, how the piece will be viewed exactly—from which angles, from what height. And this in turn affects the creation of the piece because in order for the piece to translate the ideas well, I need to know exactly how it will be physically experienced.
My installation pieces are large endeavors and would take months to create if I were alone, so having a team of young artists to help in the technical aspects of the creation is essential, but I also received so much energy from the exchange of ideas I experience with other artists. I openly share with them my techniques but also enjoy the inspiration I get from their sharing their own works with me.
BK: Much of your work revolves around the traumas of displacement and the Armenian Genocide. And yet so many of your images are of homes, villages, abodes, often very closely stacked together and very imaginatively configured. Is that a way of registering the importance of the very thing which so many people living in exile find hardest to secure?
KM: I think that many people in exile seek a sense of community, which can be hard in our societies. I grew up in Aleppo in which we did grow up in spaces where we felt like we lived on top of each other, many faiths together, families and communities stacked up in a city that is full of the history of centuries of all these people living together. My art, in which I recall the architecture and the energy of the city I grew up in, celebrates and is nostalgic for the idea of this multiculturalism and tolerance that is today so easily forgotten or erased.
BK: How do the large scale, global, refugee crises impact your work and compare with the experience of Syrian refugees from the civil war?
KM: I myself am the son and descendant of refugees. Wherever refugees go they try to bring with them and recreate some of the beauty that they left behind. I am indebted to the heritage and the strength of my ancestors and of the Syrian people who welcomed them and allowed them to thrive in a new place. I can’t speak to the exact experience of Syrian refugees today since I am fortunate not to have suffered what they have, but my heart and therefore my art is full of the courage they have shown.
BK: In addition to beautiful, still drawings you make videos. Can you talk about what it feels like to work in so many media and how you perceive the differences between them?
KM: Growing up, I felt like you were expected to choose a box and stay within it; you were not encouraged to cross media. Here in New York, in this time, I have discovered that working in different media has been essential to me be able to use whatever tools seem most fitted to the project at hand, the message I need to get across. No matter the medium in which I’m working, I am playing with similar ideas of time and linearity, even while exploring whatever theme the individual pieces address.
BK: What has it been like to be in New York City during this pandemic?
KM: It has been a curse and a blessing to be in New York at this time. It’s a hub of creativity and it has been devastating to see things so quiet and to know how much suffering is around us. At the same time, the energy of this place is always with us and I feel like more than ever I have a duty to speak up through my art and show that art is always essential. We need the ideas and hope to inspire us forward, even in the midst of a time that feels like it’s about basic survival.
Kevork’s videos made during the pandemic: