Attilia Fattori Franchini in conversation with Behrang Karimi

Attilia Fattori Franchini: We spoke a lot about your painting process, mainly happening at night, your relationship to the studio, often defining the mood of your works along with signifiers such as specific music or scents. Can you tell me more about it?

Behrang Karimi: My everyday life routine is structured around my responsibility as a father. I try my best to spend time with my family and look after my tasks at home, like housekeeping, food shopping and cooking. The kitchen is my territory, my fortress, my shelter. I am kind of hypersensible with food, so I always have to cook for everybody. I don't know where my need to feed everybody comes from? Maybe Fatherhood? It can be really annoying as well, it is in a way a form of control over your surroundings. It is hard to let it go when you are constantly responsible for your own decisions in the studio. My best ideas originate when I clean the kitchen or the bathroom. I find it strange to realize that, when your hands are busy focusing on conscious or unconscious actions, your mind starts to wonder. And many things activate in your head. I really love this kind of daydreaming. Of course this state takes place only when all everyday worries are put to one side. The good thing is that when you have no money, it does not bother you to live with less. This is how my life is constructed, and by now I am very happy with it. I think I may never again be able to work in the daytime. It would make no sense, I would miss the time with my children and everyday tasks and organization. My personal time in the studio starts only by late evening. Then my preparation begins, cleaning, thinking, looking, slowly drawing, reading or not. When I have a good day/night, the focus gets right and it creates energy. I can then forget my body and the time passing and I can draw and paint without thinking in an usual sense. This is mostly what I am looking for. You could compare it with a hunter in the forest, who needs to be very focused and concentrated to not take the wrong step or make too much noise while sneaking through the woods. To respond to your question about music: it is the most powerful tool to get your mind into energetic moods. But that is a controlled and conscious move. I choose the music for this special moment in the studio, to get into the rhythm of working and painting. Music is connected to the body, but more interesting is how emotions work and get stimulated, by nearly everything which surrounds us. We just learn to not listen to it, because we don´t need to in the industrialized world. The instinct changed, you don't fear the danger in the dark woods anymore, “we have other issues now.”

AFF: The work Gastarbeiter zur Schenke (2021), playful at first glance, reflects on cultural and racial integration in Germany. The work inserts an outside provocative perspective, biographical perhaps, which remains present throughout the exhibition questioning subjectivity.

BK: This is a good and quick description. Germany has a very interesting cultural history after the II World War. I mean not only Germany–I should say nearly the whole world–was in rotation and transformation and there is potentially much more to say here, but that would take very long. So I guess in the work Gastarbeiter zur Schenke (2021) a lot of moments and ideas collide. When I started to paint “Gastarbeiter” I was in conversation with a curator about the question of feeling at home. Which I really can't even think of. As a migrant you get asked this question always and as I can remember the last 20 years, that happened very often. So this question creates an atmosphere which makes you feel that you are not at home. It implies that you are still a guest (even if you got the citizenship of the country you have migrated to). It is just the situation you are in, and I affirm this without blaming anyone. So I associate Fassbinder's Ali:Fear eats the Soul (1974) with this particular painting. I think of the same atmosphere. Which was very similar to when I worked for a short time in a pub. You observe a lot of different things. I try to capture some of these meaningful moments with my practice and return them for collective reflection and exchange.

AFF: Upon entrance in the exhibition, visitors are confronted with They came to ask (2020) a large canvas, loosely depicting Saint Francis walking through grass, birds and nature joining him. Why are you interested in this figure?

BK: It is more the story of Saint Francis and its depiction that I am Interested in. I love Giotto’s painting of Francesco di Assisi (1295-1300) called  “Birdprayer” as it has a structure that reminds me of old Persian miniature paintings. Even the colours and how the figures are located in the composition, reminisce Persian figuration. So also for this work a mixture of impressions inspired me to paint this motive. The interesting difference present in They came to ask (2020) is that the main character has female connotations rather than male. The story narrates that St. Francis–as  you called him–came to Bevagna and found a place with a lot of different birds and started to talk to them about the creation of God and the incredible miracle of flying. I really liked to think of this as a beautiful story and somehow very Asian and similar to other (religious) ancient stories. I was always very interested in spiritual beliefs and religion without really being religious myself. I was born in Shiraz where you can find a lot of different kinds of ancient beliefs like zarathustrianism, bahai and some older nature cults. All in all Pantheists, like my family, grew me up. So there was always an attraction and respect for nature as a higher being and also the idea that nature creates chaos and order as well.
In this particular work there is enough space to find yourself thinking about your position within things. That was my hope at least.

AFF: You have also recently painted Nero, the Roman Emperor, why?

BK: The city of Cologne, where I live, was part of the Roman Empire and the most important Catholic city after the Vatican. Nero was the son of the empress Agrippinia who was also the founder of Cologne, originally a Roman Colony. The whole history of Nero is filled with intrigues, murders, fights for power and so on. I find interest in these narrative elements, as if they would be a good theater-play. In the work  Nero is depicted as a young Emperor shown in the act of burning down parts of Rome where people had started demonstrations against hunger and poverty. What caught my attention is that one of the reasons why Nero initiated the fire, is that the demonstrations disturbed him while he was concentrating on writing poems. Nero was more attracted to the arts than the politics of Rome and scheming plans to be a powerful Emperor. He would have loved to be a sculptor or a poet rather than a political leader. I really was amused and fascinated by this hybrid personality, its madness, which you might compare to some of today's corruption in all systems such as politics, finance, class and social structures. This story became for me a symbol and has brought forward a certain Marie Antoinette’s complex in my work. History narrates that when people screamed for bread she famously answered :''if they don't have bread, then give them cake.” This paradox was a very inspiring starting point for a series of works depicting historical characters. And I still try to find out where my fascination for these things is coming from.

AFF: I would like to think about your practice, from a storytelling almost cinematic perspective, which is also reflected in the way that SPIT was hung. The symbolic work of Jean Cocteau comes to mind, its double meanings and flirtatious relationship to reality. Your paintings, varying in form and style, point at different moments in history and art, embracing a quest for representation whilst leaving space for personal interpretation.

BK: This perspective and approach became much clearer in this show, almost unexpectedly I mean yes, in most works I really have ideas and often places or stages, where figures seem to be the actors. But in general, I guess, I try to work myself through all items and issues which originate with the work in the studio. I am led by forces like material, gravity, time etc. there are some phenomena which I need to find out. Also the appearance of things itself, the metaphysical questions.

AFF: SPIT is divided into chromatic chapters, which also appear as themes in an artist book we are currently working on. What are the chapters?

BK: I chose three wall colours for the show and imagined them as follow:

- Green Grey for Dawn
- Vanilla Yellow for the Day
- Indigo for the Nocturne

The chapters should be seen as pillars to create a path towards order.
They also describe the chronological motion in the show and a narrative or a possible mode to look and perceive. A lot of my paintings play with the appearance of light itself, proposing various associations to history. You get to think of other eras and ideas which for me are more located in the future as infinite possibilities rather than the present.