Last month, Toronto-based artist Mahyar Amiri, who usually creates bright and playful pop art pieces, was concerned that Canadians might gloss over news flowing out of Afghanistan after the Taliban retook Kabul on August 16. So, instead of sitting on the sidelines, he put his talent to use and created a public mural in downtown Toronto.
“I just wanted to do something that could maybe open some people’s eyes and not turn their back to what’s going on in the world, and use my art to do it,” he says of the five-foot by seven-foot work that’s located at 300 King Street East near Parliament Street.
It’s not the first time Amari has strayed from his usual pop culture themes. Last summer during the BLM protests, he painted a mural to support the movement. This year, his girlfriend, who’s Afgani, encouraged him to use his platform yet again, this time to raise awareness for the turmoil unfolding in her home country.
Despite his artistic talent, Amiri is actually a numbers guy. After high school, the 24-year-old enrolled at Western University, ready to pursue a degree in structural engineering, but he dropped out after just two months. The Iranian Canadian then shifted his focus to business and completed a four-year Business Commerce program at York University.
The whole fine art career is a bit of a fluke, he says.
But the truth is, the business-minded outlook he developed during his undergrad has a lot to do with his success as an artist so far.
We caught up with the creative to learn more about his latest public work, “Revolution,” and also talk shop about pursuing a career in the competitive art industry, what makes an artist successful, and how his next series is shaping up.
Your most recent mural, “Revolution,” was painted right after the Taliban retook Kabul, Afghanistan in August. What made you decide to create something about this political unrest?
This mural was inspired by my girlfriend. She said, you know, “Why don’t you do something in regards to what’s going on now?” So I painted that mural.
I picked two boys as the subjects. One of them is holding a tire rather than playing with it, like he normally would, because something’s wrong. It’s showing the tension. And then the other kid is holding the Afgani flag, protesting and being very rebellious.
The mural is located at 300 King Street East on the new SPACE building. I asked the owners if I could do it, and they said yes, but wanted to know what they could pay me. I told them I didn’t want to be paid for it, that it was free for the community. There are many days to make money and some days you just have to focus on doing something for good and using the platform you have, whether it’s small or big.
Tell us how you got into the art industry without any formal training.
When I was younger, I was always one of those kids drawing in class because I didn’t want to listen to the teachers. About two years ago, I started drawing in my bedroom again and painting for fun. I posted some of my drawings to my Instagram and on my Story, and some of my friends started reaching out, you know, asking, “How much is this? How much is that?” And originally I told them that it’s not for sale. But then I started to say, “You know, why not like $100 bucks, $50 bucks, whatever?” And I sold them.
I thought, you know, maybe if I take this more seriously, I can sell more expensive works. A year later, I sold a $12,000 painting and it just snowballed into a full-time occupation, which I’m really grateful for.
What did your family think about you pursuing art?
After graduating high school, I was enrolled at Western University for Structural Engineering, so I was studying that and my family had very high hopes for me becoming an engineer. And I thought I was going to do that, too, but after two months, I dropped out. My parents were upset, of course, but I went on to study business at York University.
When I told them I wanted to get into art after I graduated from York, they were like, “OK, this is another Western scenario; you’re kind of acting crazy,” but I told them I was serious, and so I followed my passion. I saw that people liked what I was doing, and it was the first time in my life where I really felt like I had a purpose and a passion for something.
It just shows that the only person that should believe in you is yourself. And, I got to the point I’m at now from doing that.
“I saw that people liked what I was doing, and it was the first time in my life where I really felt like I had a purpose and a passion for something.”
What would you tell someone interested in getting into the art industry?
Being a businessman and having a business background is as, or if not more, important than being an artist. Anyone can paint. Like, I came from St. Elizabeth Catholic High School, which is a fine arts high school, though I wasn’t involved with the art aspect then. But everyone there studies how to paint at a very high-end level, but to sell a painting is a whole different story, and then to make a living out of it is something else. I think business is heavily tied to being a successful artist full-time.
Most visual artists show their work in shared gallery space, but you decided to open your own gallery. What gave you the courage to do that?
Not Art opened on January 8th, 2020—my 23rd birthday—and I chose to open my own space because I didn’t like depending on other galleries. I knew it was the norm for an artist to work on the artwork and have a gallery represent them, but to me, I thought, you know, it’s a little bit naive of me to do that kind of route when I know I can do more and I can take control of situations. So, I thought of opening up my own gallery to essentially represent myself the best I could.
You named your gallery Not Art. What’s the story behind that?
I wanted Not Art gallery to be a separate entity, so I could represent and support local artists in Toronto in the future. I know how it feels to be rejected by other galleries, and I hate that feeling. So, eventually, I would love to expand, get a bigger space and support local artists that might be struggling to make it into the art industry.
Do you have any regrets about opening your own gallery space so early in your career?
Typically, you know, artists, they’re not gallerists, they’re artists, right? So, making that jump was kind of risky, but it’s paid off. Now, clients, builders and designers can see how passionate I am. It also makes me unique in the market because typically artists just have a website and not a gallery space, too, like I do.
What are you working on right now?
I’m finishing up a series called “CASH ONLY,” which is a series of 100 original silkscreen prints of $100 bills, and then my next series that I’m working on is called “Classic”—you’re actually the first person I have told besides my close friend group. It’s going to be a series of large scale silkscreens, like four feet by seven feet, that involve classic images of people from the past, like Frank Sinatra, that I find iconic.