Joobin Bekhrad is the super cool kind of guy everyone would like to meet and have a conversation with. Well, we’re glad to say we did. Other than being an award winning writer and a musician, Joobin is the founder of REORIENT, a publication celebrating the contemporary arts and culture of the Middle East and the surrounding region, and providing a positive, modern perspective on art-related topics.
A very important cause to keep rising nowadays, given the lack of exposure and support offered by the institutions towards promoting cultural diversity in the art fields. “You can’t be what you can’t see” cited the motto for a social campaign on gender representation in the media launched a few years ago. That’s the point and it applies to every socio-cultural environment: we need more representation of our multicultural society’s beautiful artistic diversity in the media, and as Griot we’re very excited to have joined the cause and to contribute in this sense.
We discussed these issues with Joobin as well as Reorient, his personal background, his love for Freddy Mercury and rock’n’roll, and his work as a successful writer.
Griot: What was your educational path? When and how were you introduced to the art world?
Joobin Bekhrad: Well, I studied business administration in Toronto and I studied management in London. So I come from a business background from an educational standpoint, but I was never really interested in that. To be honest, I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I was in high school, so that seemed to be the lesser of all the evil and I just went with the flow.
So I did that and afterwards I had to think about what I actually wanted to do, that’s when I got involved with a startup in London. I was the editor of a publication there for a short-while and my father was in Toronto at the time, he had just come back from Dubai where he had stayed for around 10 years. He had his own company and he wanted to get involved in the world of contemporary art, Iranian art specifically. So I started helping him out from London and soon I developed an interest in what he was doing and I decided to join him in Toronto. That’s really when I got interested in contemporary art, but my love in terms of the arts was always for music, first and foremost, and second literature. Even if people think I’m an art guy and that art is my main thing, it actually came last.I started off with music, with the guitar. You know, just listening to records and stuff. I wanted the whole rock’n’roll thing, but I didn’t see myself becoming famous, I just wanted to be in a band and play guitar. Then at university I rediscovered books, because at school the teachers had put me off and I avoided everything having to do with reading and writing. It took a while to recover from the damage they caused, but eventually I rediscovered literature and my roots and I just devoured everything, it didn’t matter if it was books or films or music.
I didn’t know anything about contemporary Iranian art at the time, that really came about when my father got involved in the art world and we set up our own business that is still going, ArtClub Projects.
So, is it right to say that you come from an “artistic family”?
Well, kind of. My father is an architect and an engineer by training, so he has an art background through architecture. My mother is a financial planner and studied communication in the US, but in Iran she used to work at a cultural centre, reviewing films before they got approval – this was after the revolution of course so it wasn’t all that glamorous. But nonetheless she was rubbing shoulders with some of the industry’s giants at the time and she was always into literature, films and art, unfortunately I can’t say music. But my parents were definitely into the arts and had a passion for them but they weren’t artists by profession.
Have you ever thought that you’d end up running a business with your father?
Never. In high school I didn’t know what was gonna happen, ideally I thought I was gonna end up in a rock n roll band. Then when I got involved with the start up in London I realised that I enjoyed writing, not only reading. I’ve always had this fear of writing, because I used to think along the line that once you write something, it’s there forever and it may come back to haunt you! Not that I’d write anything damaging or destructive, but just putting your thoughts out there forever, especially in this age with the internet, that scared me. And I remember as a child I used to write songs and poems, and I would scrap them as soon as I’d written them or weeks later saying “That’s rubbish, I could I write such a thing?”. But when I realised I liked writing and managing a team of writers, I had the idea of having a publication and the two sort of happen simultaneously.
And I guess this is how REORIENT came about. Why and how did you found it?
I founded Reorient in 2012 after about a year I had gone back to Toronto. I wasn’t doing any writing after I left the startup in London, but I was working full time for my father’s art business. But that passion remained with me and I just wanted to get back into writing and to set up a publication and it happened on a whim. I knew what I wanted it to be about but there was no grand scheme and everything just sort of happened. That’s how I do most things, there’s never a lot of planning involved.
What about your team?
I run it by myself, but my father takes care of things on a administrative level, which is a huge help. In terms of editing and managing the website and doing everything related to social media, I take care of it, but that said we have a network of contributors in all corners of the world. Without them, Reorient would still exist, but on a much smaller scale because I’m involved in many other projects and I devote the bulk of my time to writing my own books. So in theory I’m alone, but there are quite a few of us behind it.
Being a creative from Iran, what do you think is the biggest misconception about art and the creative industries in the Middle East, specifically in Iran?
Sadly these misconceptions exist amongst Iranian here and elsewhere in the diaspora as well as amongst non-Iranians. In general a lot of people don’t know what on Earth is happening! The other day I was talking to someone and they asked me: “What is contemporary Iranian art? What do artists create over there?”. I mean it’s like asking someone: “So what do American artists do? What sort of art do they make?”. What sort of question is that?
We have all sorts of artists, doing all sorts of disciplines with all sorts of mediums, you can’t generalise Iranian art in a statement, nor encapsulate it in a paragraph. Yes, Iranian art has a huge history and artists draw on these traditions but it’s not as if there is one mode of creativity that they all live by. It’s just the same as everywhere else. What are English or French artists doing? It’s so vast. The question itself is ridiculous, I can’t put it any other way. You can talk about the activity and the art scenes, which artists are prominent… but still, they are artists and they happen to be Iranian, that’s the best explanation I can give.
So what do you think could be done in this sense to make Iranians and non-Iranians more aware of this vast artistic scene?
Well, I’m doing my part by writing about contemporary Iranian art and Iran in general, because everything I write has to do with Iran in one way or another. I think it’s all about exposing people to these subjects, exposure is what we need if you’re not exposed you don’t know about it. It’s like Iranian cinema. How has the world come to know about Iranian cinema? Yes, movies are screened here and there, they’re recognised by the Academy Awards. But really, if critics aren’t writing about them and festivals aren’t awarding them, how can we expect people to know about Iranian cinema? Same with art.
Do you think exposure is the only thing? Are there other factors involved?
We need more people promoting Iran and Iranian culture in general because there are so many misconceptions about this country and its people that you can never have too many people sharing the efforts and doing what I and others do.
I have a friend in the South of France who set up a foundation called Behnam Bakhtiar which supports Iranian contemporary art and culture. We regularly hold private viewings of Iranian art over here in Canada, but institutions and galleries are just not open to it, in that respect Canada is really behind. People here say it’s a pity that they don’t know not just about Iranian art, but about art from elsewhere.
Everything here is so Canada-centric and they have their own idea of what constitutes Canadian. There are so many different artists of Iranian origin here, they’re Canadian citizens, they’ve been here all their life, but the art they produce isn’t considered Canadian, which I think is a huge problem that needs to be redefined. I mean, who says that Canadian art means Christian, Anglo-Saxon art? For instance, Parviz Tanavoli, the most important living Iranian artist is also Canadian and he divides his time between Vancouver and Tehran.
However, he is not really recognised as being a Canadian artist, nor it’s art is considered to be Canadian art. It’s outrageous – that’s the only word I can use – Canada is a country of immigrants, everyone is from somewhere: Ireland, England, Scotland and so on. Should we call it Irish or Scottish art? Why do we make a distinction between them and let’s say, Chinese-Canadians or Iranian-Canadians or Armenian-Canadians? It seems that passed a certain point on the map after Italy or Bulgaria everything is “middle-eastern” or “ethnic” or whatever term you wanna use. It’s problematic and it has to be changed.
Which three Iranian artists working in different art fields do you recommend us?
In terms of visual art, I do love Parviz Tanavoli.
In terms of music, Freddie Mercury. He was of Iranian heritage, which is something a lot of people don’t know. I remember growing up telling people about it and there wasn’t the internet in those days where you could go and google something, so they would always be defensive and say that he couldn’t have been Iranian cause he was cool and he was a rock star. So, definitely him.
In terms of literature, my favourite book of all time is My Uncle Napoleon by Iraj Pezeshkzad. It’s the most beloved Iranian novel of all times and it’s not only my all-time favourite, especially because it was turned into a TV series during the 70s, shortly before the revolution. So many people love the series and don’t know about the book, but it is of course based on the novel, which is a classic also available in English. You can find it anywhere.
I know you’ve got another book coming out soon, With My Head in the Clouds and Stars in My Eyes – Stories about Iran and elsewhere. What stories? Can you tell us something about it?
I’ve been working on this book for over two years, but I didn’t start with the idea of having a book. I wrote very personal stories and over time I found that I’d amassed these stories with common themes and thread links running through. So after I had written about half of them, I realised it was turning into a book and my aunt and friends that I share my pieces with said the stories looked like the chapters of a book. So that’s how it really came about and of course, as the subtitle suggests, all of them have to do with Iran as I reflect on my Iranian identity. But there’s also a piece about an exhibition of contemporary Arab art and another one about a Moroccan singer and a Kurdish writer from Turkey.
Any other projects you’re working on at the moment that you wanna share with us?
The book should be out in the summer time and I also have a small volume of poetry that I hope to release in the summer as well. And then, I’m working on another work of fiction – one came out last November, Coming Down Again, it’s about 20th century rock’n’roll and the influence of Iranian and Persian culture on it. So a lot of different things really, art, literature, Reorient and other projects!
Cover image | Iran, Iran, Iran, by Taravat Talepasand
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