My paintings, as my life itself, can be summarized by the word palimpsest. Palimpsest means to draw and erase over and over again, having diverse layers or aspects apparent beneath the surface.
My life, as my canvas, consists of building a life, collecting memories and abandoning them, only to start over; painting and erasing and painting again. But each layer is not entirely erased. It is there, just hiding underneath the new layer and providing it with depth and background. I express the layers of my life, blending together old and new, layer upon layer, creating and erasing, building and abandoning. Just as every layer of my life left an impression on me, although it was abandoned, so every layer of my painting, even after being scraped away, still leaves its mark on the canvas. The past, or the last layer, becomes the solid foundation for the next one.
My painting, like life itself, is a process, layers of experience and memories. I scrape decisively and fearlessly, erase the layer without giving it a second thought, just as I left each abode without regret, without looking back, because I knew that nothing I left behind was worth going back for. I strove to go forward, and add the next layer and put on a new texture. Through my migrations, I drew the strength to abandon and erase with no hesitation, and then add an even thicker and richer and more textured layer. And thus I express my entire life, I create and I erase with confidence. The heavy brushstrokes, the layering and the smears reflect the motion of my life.
The past forty years of my life carried me to Iran, Israel, Maryland, New York, Mexico, and New Orleans. One cannot help but notice the layers, the texture, the gaze, the stillness, the movement, the palette - these are, very humbly I might add, all unique to my work.
My very first migration was in 1962, when I was but a couple of months old. My parents, a young couple in their early twenties, migrated from Iran to Israel. They did what is called Aliyah - one does not immigrate to Israel but ascends there. The social and economic situation in Iran was fairly good and anti-Semitism had been on the decline as a result of the reforms introduced by the Shah. The State of Israel was recently established and my father was caught in the flame of Zionism. He wanted to take part in the fulfillment of the 2000 year old dream, the establishment of the new Zionist State. And thus began my life of wandering.
The Six Day War in 1967 was a morale boost for the young country, as it was for me. I have no recollection of the fear of war. All I remember is the parades and celebration and the pride I felt in belonging to such a noble people.
The importance of this first migration is in the memories it etched into my being as a painter. I remember my childhood in Israel as an idyllic happiness. A young boy could play in fields of wild flowers and run through the sprinklers in total freedom. It was a safe and fertile ground for a child to explore and grow. Those were my only memories of a sunny, carefree childhood.
Circumstances forced us to return to Iran, or to descend from Israel.
With one stroke I erased the life I built in Israel and began my new painting on top of my memories. This descent was both physical and emotional. Migration to Iran at age 6 turned out to be traumatic as my life changed dramatically and chaotically. The culture was foreign to me, the people alien. I immediately knew that I did not belong.
Our first night there was celebrated with the horrific slaughter of a sheep in our honor. We were revolted by the lifestyle and the customs. There were no more fields of wild flowers but busy streets and the barren desert, no more sprinklers but drops of polluted rain and freezing winters. Our freedom vanished.
My parents enrolled me in a private school for children of foreign diplomats. To our family we were foreigners and we did not belong. To the school children we were Iranian and did not belong. I, more importantly, felt alienated. This was a frightening experience for a child. I mourned my carefree childhood and I stared emotionless at the new reality and decided to stand by and wait for the day that this would be over. This resulted in lack of motivation and a stagnant life.
I waited 10 years. At age 15 my parents enrolled me in a boarding school in Maryland, embarking on yet another migration, my third. This move was positive - an escape from a sterile period of my life. I left a passive life behind me and looked forward to a new beginning.
With new motivation I scraped that stage of my life. But the colors of the desert remained in my memories and thus in my paintings - these earth tones are all reminiscent of the desert.
1978 brought with it the outbreak of the Islamic Revolution and the abdication of the Shah. Iran was in turmoil.
Circumstances beyond my control forced me back to Iran for a short period to renew my visa to the US. A short stay which ended up having a massive influence on my life.
Immediately upon my arrival, the situation deteriorated further with the arrival of Khomeini. I witnessed mobs dressed in black pumping their fists in the air as they marched down the streets shouting slogans of hatred. It was frightening to a 16 year-old boy who felt total helplessness in such a situation. Anti-Semitic sentiment and the fear of conscription to the Islamic Revolutionary Army were traumatic. My only salvation was the American Embassy. Miraculously, and with the help of a marine guard, I was handed the papers to reenter the US, and headed directly to the airport to catch the last flight out of Iran.
I spent hours hiding in a car on the airport tarmac, waiting to be smuggled onto the plane. The sound of my heartbeat is lost to me now in a tangible sense, the palpable fear is gone, but the sensation and the memory will forever be there.
With my father's courage, and that of other heroes who will remain nameless, I calmly walked on to the airplane and sat there as if invisible. I distinctly remember the sound of revolutionary guards, moments before take-off, storming into the plane to pull a man off at gunpoint, thinking all the while that they were coming for me. I stayed calm, emotionless, made no eye contact. I was invisible, and waited to be free. No, none of those feelings can ever truly fade away. These memories, reside in me - they are engraved in my paintings. These emotions are reflected in the gaze of the subjects in my paintings. This gaze expresses my will to transform this horrifying experience into a source of strength.
A layperson might assume that before I pick up the brush I plan the outcome of my painting. When I paint, I am in what one might call a total state of Mushin - without mind, the state of consciousness where the body responds spontaneously and naturally, without undue interference from the mind. And thus, my paintings and subjects emerge from my brush. The interpretation is done only after the fact.
What does one see in the multiple faces? People often ask me who they are. My response is that they are the reflections of whoever looks into them. And thus, they are reflections of me - all of them. They are all me, all self-portraits. Their gaze is emotionless and invisible just as I was in those traumatic moments of escape. The subjects are all in solitude. They are not laughing, crying, sad or happy. They just are.
Mercilessly, I tried to erase and scrape away those memories; but surprisingly, in a state of mushin, they force themselves out into my subjects and reveal themselves to my viewers.
This harsh experience, although traumatic, did not break me. I overcame it, bursting to life with even more strength; and this time, I painted with an even richer texture and thicker paint. The strength that it engendered inspired yet another thick layer in my paintings. I started my life anew in the U.S., appreciating every moment of freedom and attacking life and its challenges with full speed and direction.
Graduation brought with it the freedom and the desire to wander yet again. My passion for art carried me to New York. I was in control of my destiny - I had a purpose and a goal to reach. The path which I now traveled was molding me as an artist. One can find himself only when he is free to search for himself. The weight of helplessness denies one his real self. One who is chained by the demands of survival does not have the luxury of free expression. The physical and spiritual freedom discovered in this migration broke through barriers which restricted my creativity.
NY provided only an opening. I needed more. So, I did what I knew best, I left. Again, I scraped a layer and prepared my canvas for yet one more layer of paint. I made my way to Mexico and lived in the mountains in solitude, and projected my environment on my canvas. I painted lonely landscapes, people alone in fields, faceless people with their backs turned to me. My solitude allowed the exploration of my new life as a painter, and for the first time, my paintings were my only source of expression. I experienced nature through my palette. Again, the same hues found their way to my canvas.
The language of painting is not in words but in imagery. In my work, it is in the technique, the palette and the motion of my brush. Through my brush I paint the emotions, the challenges, the adventures, the failures, the successes, the weaknesses, the fears, the pride and the enormous strength of a wanderer, an exile.
Again, it was time to scrape. At last, I was a painter. I had an identity, I had a profession. And I found myself in New Orleans.
Penniless, but rich with direction, and determination, I started a new life yet again. After all the fateful migrations, some with destinations and some without, I planted my stake. For the first time, I belonged, and it felt safe, just like the moment when I decide that a painting is complete.
With my identity and a feeling of belonging, I began to discover enormous creativity and success. I found a stillness and a desire to settle down, and thus, the movement found its way into my paintings. My subjects are still, but there is motion all around them. I learned to move with paint, so now I myself, could settle down. With this feeling of stability, my canvases grew larger and my sculptures grew with them. No more was there a need to keep my art portable. But one cannot ignore the speed with which I paint. I am subconsciously in a state of rush, I need to finish and move on.
My entire life has been one of migration -- building bonds with a community and then being forced to desert it, creating memories and being compelled to leave the comforts of familiarity, abandoning cultures I knew and creating new memories.
The successful immigrant is one who makes a decision, takes a strong step towards a goal, and makes what seemed unreachable a reality. He does not mourn what he left behind; he does not occupy himself with what has passed. He has faith in his strength and ability to overcome all obstacles in his path or at least has the courage to face them. He achieves fortitude through perseverance that renders daily obstacles meaningless to him.
My life has included many such migrations, escapes and adventures, wandering and searching, from one country to another, one culture to another, one life-style to another, from one home to another, sculpting the actual day-to-day experience of the immigrant.
It has been a great journey; and through my brush I tell my story.
© 2004 David Harouni
This page and all contents copyright 2004 David Harouni
All rights reserved
All artwork copyrights are held and retained by the artist David Harouni. Images are not to be printed, copied, appropriated or distributed without prior permission of the artist. Purchase of artwork does not convey copyrights. Permission is granted to the public to desktop print these art images for the sole purpose of evaluating artwork for purchase.
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