Shapour Pouyan

Death is Dead

Shahpour Pouyan’s work is a commentary on power, domination and possession through the force of culture. His artwork seeks to transform historical or political issues into a monument of poetic and visual form. He is interviewed for Mater by the curator, Maddie Rose Hills.

A sculpture made from glazed ceramic, the sculpture is holding up a skull (kapala) made in a cast resin

Shahpour Pouyan, Untitled, 2021, Glazed ceramic and skull (kapala) made in a cast resin, acrylic paint on top

Maddie Rose Hills: Please can you expand on your thoughts about craft, function and decoration, and how you believe they have been removed from contemporary art.

Shahpour Pouyan: I have seen people who say craft is dead; skills are dead, as is beauty. It simplifies art by saying an element of art is over, and we shall pass this and that. Expanding boundaries is part of the art world, but this is just one aspect of the art world practice. I never developed or tried to adjust my art practice with the last academic trend or subject matter in the art world. I am not here to follow any trend or theory, but I am here to invent myself. I think that the art historian or theoretician should figure out what I try to do and formulate it in their art-historical approach. Ideas and movement should come after I finish my art. 

I don't make art for theoreticians, and I also don't believe there is only one approach to art. We are all from different backgrounds, experiences, countries and cultures. 

For me, art history is a gold mine: I can dig in different places and use different aesthetics or skills to speak about my subject matter. I like to employ mannerisms from different art historical eras to express my concerns regarding human heritage and identity. 

Image of a miniature painting with the figures removed

Shahpour Pouyan, After Siege of Baghdad, 2018, Mixed media on cotton paper

Skills and craft allow me to adopt different historical mannerisms suitable for specific projects. For example, in my paintings based on historical manuscripts from the 16th century, I adopted the mannerism of Persian painting to question the historical role of these paintings. At the same time, I am also criticising today's sociopolitical issues in Iran. These works look like historical paintings or even documents, yet I don't use the same techniques or crafts used in the past to make these paintings. I adopted the aesthetic, but the medium and concept are about my concerns regarding this moment. 

Can you tell me about your relationship with clay? Because it's a material so many people have a relationship with. 

One day, I realised ceramics was the best form of art that survived human history. The only thing that will endure forever, that's not going to burn, the colour will not change too much, is ceramic. If I'm spending the most precious thing in life, my time, I should make something completely timeless. 

A table in the middle of a white gallery room, on top of the table are a collection of small sculptures resembling domes

Shahpour Pouyan, Still Life, 2014 Glazed ceramic and acrylic, PTSD

One of the first triggers that I decided to do a project with clay was a long time ago in Pratt, in New York. I remember I found this leaflet about PTSD, and I had never heard the word before, so I read that, and it was mentioned that if you have PTSD, one of the standard healing practices is pottery. And it was funny for me because I grew up for like eight years during the Iran-Iraq war, and for me, it was like, this is nonsense if you think you can practise something and you will be healed from 8 years of your traumatic childhood in war. It was like a sarcastic way to practise pottery. So after I finished school, I moved to California. I found two Chinese brothers who are great ceramists, and they taught me how to work with clay. I developed my first solo exhibition titled: PTSD, and it was about the idea of living in America, what it means to be an Iranian middle eastern man, and living in that country. Also, what they think about you, your identity, your culture, and how they demonise Iranians, through Hollywood, through their media, it's a constant war on your identity and your heritage. The whole project was about different matters that are traumatising, and I used clay as a sarcastic way to talk about these concerns. 

A white sculpture that looks like an architectural building. On top of the building there is a dome which is made from a cast human skull

Shahpour Pouyan, Untitled, 2021, Glazed ceramic and skull (kapala) made in a cast resin, acrylic paint on top

Could you explain what a Kapala is?

A kapala is the top part of the skull used in Tibet as a bowl for making and serving alchemical drinks or remedies for spiritual matters. When I saw it, I felt that it was pretty interesting because it's somehow about death, but it's also about life, bridging both of them. There is a big gap between life and death; you have to pass a bridge to go to the next world to connect to the afterlife. When you are dead, you turn into this object they want to get rid of or hide somewhere: turning the dead body into a decorated package and putting it in a hole. 

And the materials that make up that body are still going to be part of quite a visceral material cycle, but because it's hidden in this other world, under the ground, where we like to ignore, it becomes ok. And, the reality is so beautiful that life will continue from death.

There is hypocrisy regarding having a dead body and putting makeup on the face and making it look alive or healthy like the passed person is just asleep.

But, that is not the case in Tibet, if someone passes away, the corpse will be placed in nature, and vultures will eat the whole body and then collect some of the bones, clean them, and reuse them. 

There's another matter connecting this Tibetan practice to my sculpture. I am meditating with the medium, and I am taking time to meditate. Practising craft and decoration is not beauty. Adding that decor and the piece is a traditional way of praying and meditating. 

Is there a significance in the Kapala as a bowl being like an upside-down dome?

The word is the same for kapala and dome, but the other thing was, I think a kapala is somehow like a dome because it protects the intellectual part of our body, which is the brain. It was interesting that what we put under a dome are sculptures and the intellectual part of our civilisation. There is something metaphoric about both the dome and kapala that they are both protectors of our intellectual matters. 

Image of a birds eye view of a large, open roofed temple. There is a hole in the middle of the roof and there are people walking around it. The building is set on top of what looks like a mountain

Tower of Silence

I have studied the Indo-Persian funeral practices and their understanding of death, and how they treat it as an essential part of life. There is a strong presence of ghosts, deities, and supernatural beings in these religions, so there is a blurry border between dead and alive. The dead could visit you. We suddenly removed that in Semitic religions and sent the dead to the judgement day. In the Modern era, we have a solid border between life and death, no ghosts, no God, so suddenly everything is gone; we don't have heaven or hell anymore. And it is interesting to see that when you remove all of them, you don't know what to do with death. It was a reaction to how we treat death today compared to the past. In ancient Iran, Zoroastrians would make these magnificent buildings with no ceilings on top of the mountains (pictured above), they used to place the body there and the birds ate the body. Very similar to the practice they have today in Tibet. I love that practice, and I feel like I want to be in nature and be eaten by animals if I die. All the supplements and the stuff I took from the earth should return to that animal's body and be part of nature. It shouldn't just be burnt. How selfish is that? You are taking all of the stuff and just burning it.

That's very cyclical. It's interesting to think of cremation as a wasteful act.

There must be profit in our death too, and I don’t think putting a body on top of a mountain makes any profit for the funeral industry. It reminds me of the waste in our food industry; if an animal is butchered on a modern farm, only parts of the body that make a profit will be collected, and the rest is waste. But when they kill a sheep in a central Asian nomad family, they use every body part; nothing will be wasted. In Mongolia, they even collect the blood and make food with it, so the animal is fully respected by using all parts.

Shahpour Pouyan’s work is a commentary on power, domination and possession through the force of culture. His artwork seeks to transform historical or political issues into a monument of poetic and visual form. Born in Iran, in 1979, Shahpour Pouyan has an MFA in Integrated Practices and New Forms at Pratt Institute, New York, and has an MFA in Painting from the Tehran University of Art. He previously studied Neoplatonic Philosophy at the Iranian Institute of Philosophy and received a diploma in Math and Physics from Elmieh School, Tehran. Between 2007 and 2009 he taught art history and the history of Persian Architecture at Science and Culture University, Tehran. He currently lives and works in London.