ArteEast is pleased to present an interview with artist Levon Kafafian as part of our Artist Spotlight series.
Levon Kafafian tells stories of hybridity, healing and transition, weaving the worlds they envision into tangible objects and ephemeral, sensory experiences. Their practice is fluid and playful, moving from costume and ritual to poetry and thematic social happenings. They employ textile processes to build characters, worlds and scenarios that live beyond modern day borders, gender norms and time, dreaming of obscured pasts and potential futures through a queer diasporic lens.
Kafafian holds a BFA in Crafts from the College for Creative Studies and a BA in Anthropology from Wayne State University, both in Detroit, MI where they are based. They have been awarded an artist in residence at the Arab American National Museum, Rauschenberg Foundation SEED fellowship and are a recent recipient of Creative Armenia’s spark grant. Kafafian has taught courses and workshops at the College for Creative Studies, Michigan State University, the University of Manitoba, the University of Michigan and with community organizations in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
ArteEast: Can you tell us about your work in general and the main themes you return to in your practice?
Levon Kafafian: My practice is a process of bringing new worlds or new modes into being. What I make is what I want to see exist in this world. I hold space for the unknown and accept the intuitive movements of my hands as research.
Working in recursive ways, I may begin with a tiny pinhole into the world I’m envisioning and create an initial object. That object becomes a conduit that widens the scope of vision into that other world, engendering further objects and narratives. It’s akin to a responsive divinatory practice.
Thematically, I often work from the lens of a queer, multidiasporic Armenia⎯a collective imaginary landscape. Building from my experiences between various cultural worlds, hybridity, belonging and boundaries are areas of interest to which I continuously return. This plays out in thinking about how things are categorized, the porosity of borderlines in space and time⎯pushing toward an understanding of things along spectrums of being (and multiplicity) as opposed to hard lines of (singular) differentiation.
Different disciplines lend themselves to different themes and concepts. Most regularly, I am engaged in weaving fabric to be worn on the body⎯whether as scarves, garments or costumes⎯and to that end also dyeing, sewing, beading and embellishing.
Textiles themselves are incredibly generative spaces for me, providing organic places to explore identity expression, cosmology, intersection and the complex ways in which things become related. Working in such a deeply process intensive craft has led me to engage with most other disciplines in similarly process obsessed ways.
Similarly, I take those processes of textile making as metaphors for cycles of transformation, growth and development. I use costume work in particular to manifest concepts, personify ecosystems, seasons and more in humanoid form. This provides fertile ground for the exploration of my ancestral traditions rooted in pre-Christian religion, toward future spiritual modes. This is most visible in my collection of ceremonials focused on the seasons. Old traditions are interpreted into frameworks and blended with novel elements, then facilitated by costumed clerics in installations meant to remove the viewer from the mundane.
Poetry and song, for me, are vehicles for exploring emotion, working out personal histories, grievances and desires. A fair amount of the poetry and song I’ve worked on to date focuses on my personal experiences in the Armenian community and the displacements, both physical and emotional, I’ve experienced that parallel the forced migrations of my ancestors.
My performance work, and often my experiential work as a whole, looks toward exploring different modes of doing, finding what happens when disciplines intersect, or by challenging what belongs where. One example of this was a performance in which I brought a loom to the nightclub and wove a high visibility reflective fabric while dancing in place.
AE: In 2019, you were a resident at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn where you also held a show entitled, Once There Was and Once There Was Not. Can you tell us about this exhibition and the work you developed while you were a resident at the Arab American National Museum (AANM)?
LK: During the residency at the Arab American National Museum (AANM) I was focused on further developing a project titled Portal Fire: a multimodal, iterative graphic novel that may never result in an illustrated text in the traditional sense. Instead, it lives beyond text, composed of physical installations, audio, video, photo, costume and object. The story explores a Southwest Asian inspired parallel world and centers on a non-binary orphan named Maro, their prophetic coming of age, the return of fire magic to the people and the collapse of the established social hierarchy.
The exhibition included three vignettes: Maro’s home life, where they live with their grandmother; the studio where they apprentice with a weaver; and an archaeological museum exhibit displaying artifacts from the time in which Maro lived. The first two provide establishing context for the world in which Maro lives, where the story later develops. The third, a fictional museum within the real one (the AANM), raises questions about what constitutes an artifact, what can be known about the past from objects, what changes based on who proposes these conjectures and who benefits from this excavation and the resulting narratives. On the opening night performers in costume inhabited the vignettes and attendees were invited to chat, lounge, snack on mandarin oranges and sesame candies, and play backgammon with the characters of Maro’s world. For the remainder of the exhibition, looped sound recordings of characters speaking to Maro provided additional context for the costumes and spaces on display.
While at the residency, I was able to learn more about the characters and plotlines of the Portal Fire story and refine the multimedia aspects of the vignette style installations.
I also developed two workshops: one using the images in coffee ground readings as prompts for creative writing and the other using a simultaneous method of teaching rug weaving and the process of world-building through prompts and writing exercises.
AE: Can you tell us about the use of storytelling in your multidisciplinary art practice that ranges from performance to weaving and installation?
LK: Storytelling is the backbone of my practice. It permeates every inch of my installations, providing a reason for why characters (costumed performers) behave and move through the space in the ways they do. Though there isn’t always a short story text on display in tandem with the installations, there is almost always a deep cut of writing that precedes the work in physical space.
In my work, and particularly in my pedagogical approach, I challenge the notion of the monomyth or the hero’s journey and the idea that there are only 7 to 21 archetypes to humanity. Nuance is a pillar of all my world and character building, reflected in the detail that differentiates any given costume.
I often work from generative spaces and like to explore the stories that emerge from prompts chosen by chance. I also incorporate stories of my own personal and familial histories, visions for potential futures, and dreams of what life might be in other worlds. Storytelling does not always need to be presented in a narrative form.
In 2018, after consultation with Jennifer Harge, Ash Arder and I produced a public performance titled The Stitching Hour. We held intensive sessions ‘living in’ the various processes of textile making, pulling every last embodied movement, cultural reference and feeling we could from our minds. From the results we created ‘scores’, or series of prompts for movement practice, focused on translating the essence of the processes of fiber extraction, spinning, indigo dyeing and floor loom weaving. We held process specific workshops with movement practitioners with hands-on demonstrations followed by guided prompt movement exercises using the scores. Each practitioner would then choose the process they identified most with, translating the process into movement which was recorded and layered with process-specific poetry into short video works. As a result, these videos present multiple forms in non-linear ways to present the stories embedded in how the body works through a given textile process.
AE: How do you use happenings and social gatherings as part of your art practice?
LK: Happenings and social gatherings allow me to play with thematic focus and collectively meet queer desires in my community. Each happening is a team effort with much to coordinate. By working with a team of committed creatives, we build on each other’s resources and visions to make things we couldn’t have imagined alone. Gatherings I have organized in the past have served to fill different voids within my community and the city.
Night Bazaar was a vendor marketplace that prioritized social exchange and the art of lounging. This event temporarily answered the need/desire for a late night, public SWANA lounge and marketplace in the city.
Obsidian was a night of performances, art installations and dj sets in a former church centered on the theme of obsidian’s metaphysical properties; i.e. its use in severing unwanted connections. This was the answer to my desire to party in a church and to listen to performances and dance to DJs playing at the intersection of goth vibes, SWANA music and Black Detroit. It was more collectively an answer to the types of spaces available to exist in nightlife settings: it held space to rage, rest, hear each other speak and to be as unapologetically yourself as possible.
WEDDING NIGHT is a forthcoming SWANA wedding party where no one gets married! A night filled with all the things that make a SWANA wedding THE MOST, exaggerated ten fold for best enjoyment with your chosen family. Focused on an expansive definition of SWANA wedding music and organized from a queer lens⎯all the things we’ve ever wanted from a wedding night without any of the judgement.
The focus in these works is the experiential effect and the sensory engagement of the attendee⎯to that end it’s all just a big immersive installation that people can choose to play in for an entire night.
AE: What and who are some of your major creative influences, and why?
LK: I consume an incredible amount of sci-fi and fantasy media, especially when I’m engaged in beadwork, hand stitching, embellishment, crochet or any number of portable textile tasks. The stories, tropes and ideas within the media I consume have become major influences in my work, but also force me to critique the work I view (I am often found shouting at or talking sass back to the television or the text I’m reading). They push me to seek and create better representations of the people, lifeways and ideas missing from that media. Science fiction and fantasy offer once-removed and slightly distorted windows into our realities in this world, the removal making it easier to digest, process and critique the issues, while offering space to test potential solutions. In addition, these genres let us dream with abandon, informing the work we commit to doing towards our own futures.
Particular media that inspires and pushes me includes (all of) Star Trek (lots of critique!), animated shows like Avatar the Last Airbender and Steven Universe, the films of Sergei Parajanov, the works of authors like Nnedi Okorafor and N.K. Jemisin and an exquisite abundance of graphic novelists.
Additionally, I absolutely consider drag artistry and runway fashion to be within the realm of fantasy, so there’s a fair amount of influence there too! The exaggerated and over the top nature of costume and dress in these fields inform my aesthetics and especially where I push back on traditional Armenian folkwear–I want more than priests the privilege to be ostentatious with their clothing.
Even above the media I consume, the greatest influences on my creative practices have been my collaborators. The methods I use with my collaborative partners allow for deep integration of both of our visions, building foundations together so work can emerge organically from the group.
The most mutually challenging and longstanding co-conspirator is Ash Arder. More recent collaborators include Augusta Morrison, Lara Sarkissian, Nick Szydlo and Kamelya Omayma Youssef. In my writing and futurist imaginings I have several guides who have shifted my work into deeper spaces in myself and into collective modes of building: MARS Marshall, adrienne maree brown and Kamee Abrahamian.
My father is also a major creative influence. Growing up watching him prod, test, manipulate and invent methods, structures and objects has had a lasting impact on how I approach my working processes. He taught himself to screenprint, die cut, vacuum mold all toward the production of the board and puzzle games he has invented and adapted. These days he works in dye sublimation and has invented a proprietary coating to make images printed on precious metals last longer. His extroverted social nature and how he existed in celebratory spaces has had an impact on how I move through the world, but also how I throw parties (happenings). Lastly, he is the interface through which I have had to push back against limiting modes of tradition and ideology along with heavy ancestral trauma–we have both grown as a result, in admittedly different ways.
AE: Do you have any shows or projects coming up in 2021 and 2022?
LK: As I continue to grow in my work, the process based work I do extends into longer and more deeply complex projects. Two overarching projects are occupying my near (and probably far) future.
Together with collaborator Nick Szydlo, I have been working on a project combining production weaving and worldbuilding. The Shaded Knot is an interstellar hub where weavers create portals to other worlds by manipulating warp threads in the fabric of space-time. This project will result in collections of scarves, shawls, garments and costumes that come from the worlds we access through these portals. These worlds are created from randomly generated sets of prompts in a collectively filled framework that has roots in Situation Lab’s ‘The Thing From the Future’ card deck and Dungeons and Dragons character building. Eventually, the hub itself will become an immersive installation offering sci-fi weaving tools, curated yarns, hands-on demonstrations and occasional workshops. The hub will also live in web form and be released sometime in the upcoming fall or winter season.
One of the worlds connected to the hub will be the one Portal Fire exists in, though this narrative predates the idea of Shaded Knot. The next iteration within the Portal Fire story world, is a series of spirit beings, the protectors of the 12 clans of Azadistan. They are the bearers of elemental fire magic and are essential to understanding the world’s cosmology and mythology. In addition, in the style of Final Fantasy, the summoner is the 13th persona being developed and costumed in lush assemblages of handwoven fabric, beaded jewelry and lots of evil eyes. Each spirit being represents a different concept ingrained in the diasporic Armenian landscape, incorporating elements of traditional dress and modern markers of subversive cultures.
One of these spirit beings is Vanagad, the protector of the weavers of the spider clan and the bearer of the obsidian flame, controlling the ability to manipulate the threads of spatial reality. Vanagad’s costume is currently on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MoCAD) in a show titled Dual Visions, a 20 pair group show examining collaboration and conversation between artists. Using this costume and working with Lara Sarkissian, I will be presenting an audio visual installation focused on Vanagad on August 7th for Detroit’s Sidewalk Festival– a precursor for our December release of a 10 minute experimental music film depicting Vanagad’s story.
LEVON KAFAFIAN ONLINE: