Interview | Kevork Mourad: Seeing Through Babel

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Installation view, Kevork Mourad: Seeing Through Babel, 2019. Photo: Anne Purkiss, Courtesy of The Ismaili Centre, London

A new exhibition by the Syrian-Armenian artist Kevork Mourad is being staged at The Ismaili Centre, in partnership with the Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, which sees the reopening of the South Kensington-based centre’s Zamana Space.

The work is inspired by the Old Testament story of Babel, which saw mankind punished for attempting to construct a tower to heaven, an act of hubris that led God to create multiple languages to prevent similar happening again.

In this exhibition, Mourad explores this story, using visual imagery as a means to connect people across the language divide, and uses his signature techniques of monotypes and drawing onto the surface of the work to create a work that is designed to allow visitors to walk in and around it, allowing closer contemplation of its themes.

Eric Block spoke to Kevork Mourad to hear more.

Your background is Syrian-Armenian – how did you come to be based in New York?

I left Syria to go to art school in Armenia. There, an amazing woman, very interested in the arts (and distantly related to William Turner), who worked for the International Red Cross (helping with victims of the 1988 earthquake still homeless ten years later), became a friend and sponsored me to come to the United States. I spent a year with her in Santa Cruz (she is still like an aunt to me, close family) and then moved to New York for the art scene.

Can you tell us more about the source of inspiration, the Old Testament story of Babel.
It’s a Christian story, which you are showing in a Muslim venue – what are your feelings about that?

I did not specifically plan to create this work in a Muslim venue, but the universe somehow dictated that this was how I would best be able to make my statement about the importance of diversity. I have worked with the Aga Khan Museum for a long time and I have always felt that they push the boundaries of culture and religion, focusing on art above all, and therefore it is not strange at all to be creating a work about a myth from one culture in a venue dedicated to another.  

The Zamana Space will reopen to the public with this exhibition. How does a space influence your sculptures?

In this instance, the long window, which will be the public’s first entrance to the exhibit, will contain a long piece about the Tree of Languages that will pull the audience in to see the tower piece that will begin in the basement and extend upward. The Tower of Babel sculpture will fit into the space of the venue in such a way that you can explore it from below or from each story, examining its layers frontally or gazing upward into the heights. The tower will be an assemblage of many compartments, each room containing a language. The viewer will be able to peer into these compartments but also take in the structure as a whole.

Installation view, Kevork Mourad: Seeing Through Babel, 2019.
Photo: Anne Purkiss, Courtesy of The Ismaili Centre, London

Can you tell us more about your signature techniques of monotypes and drawing on to the surface of works?

In my art studies, print-making was one of my specialties. I’ve always loved the look of monotypes, which is basically drawing on a surface, and pressing it, receiving a reverse print; I then continue drawing on the print with my own tool. This technique allows me to create the look of ancient world, something that is very important to me.

What do you hope will come from the public witnessing you creating your work? You are also inviting questions?

There is a magical element to the creation of the piece. In a very short time, they will be able to see the piece rise up. It’s risky, because my technique can be unforgiving. But the audience will be witness to the creation and to the idea that you cannot go backwards once you have made your mark.

Music is also sometimes played alongside your installations, can you tell us more of the interplay between these art forms?

My other art form is creating drawing in counterpoint with music, using animation and live drawing; sometimes composers write a piece for me, and sometimes I create a piece for an existing work of music. Music has a huge impact on my work. I choose music carefully to relate to the piece, almost as if the piece itself were singing. 

Installation view, Kevork Mourad: Seeing Through Babel, 2019.
Photo: Anne Purkiss, Courtesy of The Ismaili Centre, London

You showed at the Aga Khan Museum, and now in The Ismaili Centre – what is the connection?

I have a long relationship with the Aga Khan Museum, between performances, exhibitions, and paintings. The Aga Khan Museum allowed me to explore many new ideas, through their support and promotion. The impossible could be done there. My previous experience there was so great that the director of the museum asked me if I’d be interested in creating something at the Aga Khan’s centre in London. Knowing how supportive the museum is, and how incredible the people and environment, I wanted to use this chance to push my boundaries. 

What do you have coming up next?

I am working on four different projects, mainly performances. One is called Armenian Odyssey, inspired by Sayat-Nova, a 17th-century Armenian troubadour, at the National Cathedral in Washington DC. Another is to create the visuals for Beethoven’s Prometheus with the San Antonio orchestra. I will also be working on the opera Fidelio with the Brevard Music Center. The fourth is called Paper pianos, with Alarm Will Sound and composer Mary Kouyoumjian, about an Afghan refugee musician who didn’t have a piano to play on and played on paper.

Seeing Through Babel is on view until 15 August 2019. For more information see: https://the.ismaili/united-kingdom/seeing-through-babel

Interview by Eric Block


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