Forever drawn

Forever drawn

Forever drawn

| 1992 Tehran | Iran 

| Freelance illustrator and graphic designer 

| Graduated in Graphic Design from Accademia Belle Arti Roma in 2014 

| Work and live in Berlin, Rome and Tehran.

It is the shortest descriptor of an artist I have ever seen. This is all Iranian artist Saleh Kazemi says of himself on his eponymous website. On the home page is his silhouette. His hair long, his frame lithe. Wearing a half-sleeved tee and loose trousers, Kazemi is standing on a chair with a pen in hand, adding that last stroke of black on the crowded milieu, 440x250 cm acrylic-on-wood mural for Giselda Forno Cafe in Rome. 

Muffins. Croissants. Coffee mug. Salt shakers. The hands of the clock striking five. A man in a pair of round spectacles, another with a walrus moustache. A wine glass sitting on a book and a fedora standing by a column. In that mural, my eyes were riveted on the gnarled knuckles and striped eyebrows. I was waiting for Saleh Kazemi, and as curiosity gathered, I clicked through his website. Under Drawings are Cello Players (pen on paper, Rome, 2014), Irish Pub (Linz, Austria, 2015), Naked Drawing Class (Berlin, 2015), The Tram No.2 (Rome, 2014). The drawings as if ready to come alive on cue. There is no fantasy, Kazemi is portraying life the way it is. Even the naked male model, curled on the bed with artists engrossed in capturing his contours on paper. 

I was waiting for Kazemi. ‘Saleh’, his Persian given name, means peace (I Googled that), but in the self-portrait in the corner of the website, peace is not mirrored in his eyes. There is no wrath either. Before I could decipher the emotion in those pair of eyes, Kazemi walked in. Tall. Lithe. Bearded. Deep-set eyes. A low-key hint of widow's peak. No long hair. No wrath in his eyes. A backpack with his drawings of Goa for the Mirror of Everyday Life exhibition in Museum of Goa, sketchbooks and a laptop that hoards his life’s work. A life that has only seen 25 summers yet. 

I question him about the shortest descriptor of an artist on his website. Kazemi goes to the beginning, to Tehran, where he was born and studied until high school, where he drew casually, excelled in academics and dreamed of being an architect. But a six-month crash course in Italian brought him to Rome, Italy, because “Rome was the easiest, cheapest way to step into Europe.” He enrolled in a course in graphic design and picked up photography assignments in Italy, Germany and Switzerland.

Kazemi had always “drawn.” Drawing, however, was not his dream. Certainly not the abstract of a full-time love/occupation. It happened when he ran out of Persian books to read during train journeys between Germany, Switzerland and Italy for photography assignments. “One day on a train journey between Rome and Milan, I read the last page of the last Persian book I had. I had no more books to read. Nothing else to do. So, I pulled out my sketchbook and started drawing. Then, I drew more. And more. I quit photography and graphic design. Nothing else mattered thereafter. Draw is all I did.” With three exhibitions so far, Kazemi stores the world — and his own emotions — on handmade paper with 0.05, 0.1, 0.8 black ink pens. 

Welcome to India

India just happened to him. One day over a luncheon in Rome, Jenepher Bramble, who calls London, Rome and Goa her home, popped a question. “Why don’t you come to India?” In Kazemi’s list of must-visit countries, India always fell in the ‘difficult’ category. Long-haul travel and expensive. But Kazemi accepted Bramble’s offer and six months later, he was in Goa, bringing along the India images that he had imagined after reading Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, a novel that deals with the spiritual journey of self-discovery of a man named Siddhartha who lived during Gautama Buddha.

“I always begin my human drawings with the eyebrow. It is not a conscious, rational choice. That is how I always begin,” Kazemi fumbles with the interpretation of his own art. “I have no imagination. I am logical,” he confesses. “I can fit all my worldly possessions in a bag. I have no home. The idea of a permanent home frightens me. I want to travel, see new countries, meet new people, learn about new cultures.” In one long breathless monologue, Kazemi lists his dreams. “I am hurrying through life. Maybe I will not get old. Maybe I will meet the fate of Egon Schiele, my favourite artist who lived and worked in Vienna. He died at age 28. I am 25, I only have three years left.” 

Kazemi’s foreboding stumps my questions. For a moment, I forget about his art and cling to his earliest connection with spirituality and detachment. “I was barely 12 when I read W Somerset Maugham’s final novel, The Razor's Edge (1944); it is the story of Larry Darrell, an American pilot traumatised by his experiences in World War I, who sets off in search of some transcendent meaning in his life.”Kazemi did not mention it, but I know that the title of Maugham's novel comes from a translation of a verse in the Katha Upanishad (Part 1, Chapter 3, Verse 14): ‘arise, awake; having reached the great, learn; the edge of a razor is sharp and impassable; that path, the intelligent say, is hard to go by.’

Kazemi gathered his drawings and sketchbooks, and walked away. That moment, saleh (peace) pervaded. Did it stem from the artist’s detachment or the black lines in the sketchbook? I do not know yet. 


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