Features/Q&A/What to SEE/Visual Art

Painting an open love letter

2 June 2023

Vibrant and vital, Khashayar Salmanzadeh’s large scale portraits of members of Perth’s Bahá’í community both explore and radiate love.

Khashayar Salmanzadeh is one of 26 artists emerging artists selected from around Australia to present work at PICA’s annual Hatched exhibition, a survey of work from recent graduates of Australian art schools.

Intrigued by the affection that emanates from Salmanzadeh’s portraits, Nina Levy caught up with him to find out more about what informs his artistic practice.

Nina Levy: Tell me about your childhood, Khashayar. Where did you grow up? What role did art and creativity play in your early years?

Khashayar Salmanzadeh: I was born in Shiraz, Iran, and spent my early childhood there before moving to Perth in 2008 with my family when I was seven years old. While I didn’t get to spend much time there, I do remember it quite vividly.

Khashayar Salmanzadeh. Photo: Bo Wong

As a child I was always fascinated by art. I remember in Iran I would place a sheet of paper over our television screen and use that to trace my favourite characters. Much of my childhood was spent in adoration of superheroes such as Spider-Man and the Hulk, where art would be a way of me studying and growing closer to those I admired.

NL: When did you first become interested in visual arts? And what made you decide to pursue it professionally?

KS: While I have always had a deep attraction to visual arts, I didn’t decide to pursue it professionally until after I graduated high school. I was very lucky to attend Applecross Senior High School via a scholarship in their arts program, which I think helped kindle that inner need I had for creativity.

However, I only realised I wanted to be a professional artist after high school, when I was living in Esperance, in regional WA. This realisation mainly came out of a series of humble gatherings I used to have in Esperance with a group of friends. We would gather weekly and paint together images about a theme we all felt was prevalent to our lives as youth in Esperance. This experience helped me to recognise the passion I had for painting, as well as the discontent I felt in my inexperience and inability. I think those two feelings were the primary driving forces for me to begin studying visual arts.

NL: Having graduated from Curtin University’s Bachelor of Fine Art, you’re currently completing honours at RMIT in Melbourne – what is the focus of your honours project?

KS: In extending my current practice, I am developing a body of work that is concerned with depicting the invisible and intangible aspects of our human identity. With a focus on paint materiality and the combination of portrait with calligraphy, I am seeking to draw connections between our physical and spiritual reality to ultimately advance our knowledge of self.

NL: You’ve worked with Second Generation Collective, a group that makes space for the stories of migrants who fled to Australia from Iran during the 1979 revolution, and their children who have grown up in Whadjuk Noongar country (Perth). How did you become involved with the Collective?

KS: Yes! Second Generation Collective are awesome, I’ve been blessed to know most of the members for many years, so it’s been really lovely being able to collaborate with them in a creative manner. I got involved when the incredible Elham Eshraghian-Haakansson put a call out for film extras for a video work titled Delara. I expressed my interest and in the process of working, Elham found out I was studying fine arts and asked if I would be interested in developing some paintings for a show at PS Art Space. That was a really exciting time and an opportunity I am very grateful for. 

‘Love: Beyond Emotion’ … seeks to reconceptualise our contemporary understanding of love and delineate its spiritual reality’: Khashayar Salmanzadeh, ‘Yek’, 2022. Photo: Bo Wong

NL: Your artistic practice is informed by the teachings of the Bahá’í faith – is this faith part of your upbringing? What is it about the Bahá’í faith that appeals to you as an artist?

KS: Yes absolutely, I was certainly privileged to have been born in to a Baháʼí family. The Baháʼí Faith is a world faith originating in 19th century Iran that’s primary purpose is the oneness of mankind. Baháʼí’s follow the teachings of its Founder, Baháʼu’lláh, whose principles of the equality of men and women, the harmony of science and religion and world unity come to form the guiding framework through which Baháʼí’s seek to raise vibrant communities.  

Personally, I am drawn to the spiritual nobility that the writings of the faith ascribe to humanity’s nature, whereby Baháʼu’lláh states “turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting”[1] and that “he hath known God who hath known himself”[2]. Here, Baháʼu’lláh’s conception of our innate spiritual essence is something I find deeply profound and a complex idea that inspires much of my work.

NL: And how does your work bring together both your Iranian heritage and your Australian context?

‘In each portrait I describe a different power of love’: Khashayar Salmanzadeh, ‘love in circulation, 2022’. Photo: Khashayar Salmanzadeh

KS: My work takes my upbringing with Western portraiture and my ancestral connection to Eastern calligraphy and marries them to produce paintings that could be considered as both a personal reflection as a migrant, but also as an echo of a world that is becoming increasingly globalised.

Situated In an age of cultural hybridisation and displacement, my portraits disrupt these established art traditions to similarly disrupt our longstanding materialistic conception of human nature.

NL: Tell me about the works you are exhibiting at Hatched.

KS: These paintings are part of a body of work titled Love: Beyond Emotion, which seeks to reconceptualise our contemporary understanding of love and delineate its spiritual reality. They are all portraits of members of the Baháʼí community in Perth, depicting individuals with Aboriginal, Iranian, Tajik and Bolivian heritage.

In many ways, this body of work functions both as an enquiry into the theme of love and as an open love letter to my community and the spiritual strength of their character. In each portrait I describe a different power of love, where love is at times radiant and self-consuming, whilst at other times deeply personal and nurturing.

You can see Khashayar Salmanzadeh’s body of work Love: Beyond Emotion at PICA’s Hatched National Graduate Show until 23 Jul 2023.

[1] The Hidden Words (Arabic) n.13
[2] The Kitáb-i-Íqán p. 25

Pictured top: Khashayar Salmanzadeh (WA), ‘Love Beyond Emotion’, installation view, ‘Hatched National Graduate Show’, Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, 2023. Photo: Dan McCabe

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Author —
Nina Levy

Nina Levy has worked as an arts writer and critic since 2007. She co-founded Seesaw and has been co-editing the platform since it went live in August 2017. As a freelancer she has written extensively for The West Australian and Dance Australia magazine, co-editing the latter from 2016 to 2019. Nina loves the swings because they take her closer to the sky.

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