Blue Blazes
Blue Blazes

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Blue Blazes

The artist Massoud Hayoun was once a journalist and his paintings unfold in the same cyan as a ballpoint pen in a lined notebook. Often featuring figures at a table, the viewer gets the sense of having burst in on a dinner party. Nine times out of ten Hayoun paints faces turned towards the viewer in a theatrical manner reminiscent of a mural.


Massoud Hayoun, Can You Believe Some People in this Country don't Eat on Purpose?, 2023. Acrylic on canvas. 76.2 x 101.6 cm

In Can You Believe Some People In This Country Don’t Eat On Purpose? (2023), a lion has come round for dinner. One of the men sitting next to him raises a quizzical boomerang of an eyebrow, as if daring you to find this symbolic. The scene is blue except for the lion’s yellow eyes and a red pomegranate cut in half to reveal white pith in the shape of a peace sign.


Massoud Hayoun, Après Quelques Années de Retard, le Déjeuner • Les Feuilles Mortes se Ramassent à la Pelle • 8:15, 2023. Acrylic on canvas. 91.4 x 121.9 cm

Pomegranates turn to peppers and red mountains and chechia hats. Peace feels fleeting. The works are somehow both diaristic and dreamlike, too faux-naive to be nightmares. Another night, maybe. In one scene, star-shaped autumn leaves roll across the streets like a consortium of crabs invading. They whisper, Shhh, something’s coming.

Between Broken Promises, Harissa at Larkin Durey, London is Hayoun’s first UK exhibition.

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Massoud Hayoun, “ceda el paso • bodies on the gears • embouteillage divine • el pueblo las abraza”, 2024. Acrylic on canvas. 76.2 x 121.9 cm

Sammi Gale

Where does the exhibition title come from?

Massoud Hayoun

The show is called Between Broken Promises, Harissa, because harissa — the Tunisian red pepper paste that was a staple of my childhood home — is to my mind a symbol of indignation and the ongoing, international movement against autocracy and its sibling the patriarchy. The paintings often feature my Tunisian grandmother, who raised me together with my Egyptian grandfather in Los Angeles, hollowing peppers to make harissa. The peppers are a phallic symbol. And insofar as most autocracies in recent memory have espoused very rigid views of gender roles, the implicit castration of my gadfly grandmother's harissa production is a countermovement. She converts the phallic object into the feminine mounds in which harissa is typically sold at shops in her homeland.

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Massoud Hayoun, 21st Century Occidentalist Portraiture, 2023. Acrylic on canvas. 76.2 x 121.9 cm

I find it very enjoyable that a distinctly Tunisian symbol — a symbol from a tiny country with an impact on world politics disproportionate to its size — is used to discuss world politics. As an American, I frequently see the rest of the world forced to use our cultural references. It's compelling to me — in the way Frantz Fanon describes the last becoming the first — for one of the world's smaller nations to export its symbols to the international contexts I portray in my paintings. I use harissa to reckon with immigration politics in France, with the legacy of the Dirty War in Argentina, with the pitfalls of extremist capitalism and communism in the United States and China. In the world I'm creating, I'm not waiting for the meek to inherit the Earth, per the promises of organised religion — In my world, they already have.


Massoud Hayoun, Between Broken Promises, Harissa, 2023. Acrylic on canvas. 76.2 x 101.6 cm


It seems like there is fire everywhere you look in the titular work — a fire on the hob at the canvas' bullseye, flanked by fireworks top right and a fiery orange sea top left. Lava-like shrouded figures surround the women chopping hot peppers. Elsewhere, you have painted people who are on fire. How do you see the significance of this motif, here and elsewhere?

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Massoud Hayoun, Il-Kahina, 2024. Acrylic on canvas. 91.4 x 121.9 cm


I never began to interrogate where my family was from until the 2011 Arab uprisings for accountable government started in large part by the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi, the Tunisian produce cart vendor who was alienated from his nation's corrupt economic apparatus. Whenever I paint, there is a burning to say something within me. I want a very different world. I am not alone. This year in the U.S., we have a presidential election where we are meant to choose between a bigot opposed to the rule of law and a neoliberal who does so little to stop the former. And insofar as the U.S. forces itself upon the world, there are so many Trumpists out there. There is genocide, there is kleptocracy. There is widespread indifference about the loss of basic human rights. In the U.S., the separation of Church and State has been so deeply eroded that many low-income women no longer have access to reproductive health care. In short, if you're not feeling yourself to be on fire right now, you're just ignoring the smoke detectors. Maybe I'm overly anxious. But that was how my grandparents expressed love — Anxiety that I not fall to ruin. That's the love I'm showing the world. I'm screaming with these paintings that we have very little time left to fight for life and liberty.


Massoud Hayoun, Portrait of a Faceless Matriarch, 2023. Acrylic on canvas. 61 x 76.2 cm


There is a lot of food in your work, tables, meals and breaking bread. Why is this important for you?


My training is in journalism, and I worked briefly for Anthony Bourdain, who made me care about food for the first time as more than just a source of energy and comfort but as a potent manifestation of our politics and a sociological indicator. And being from Los Angeles, which was formerly Mexico, I feel a great love for Laura Esquivel's novel Like Water for Chocolate, in which all food is symbolic. With each painting, I use fruit and animals and faces to tell full narrative stories, in the way I used to write books and articles. But paintings are accessible even to people without the privilege of time and education necessary to read books. And food in particular is a common denominator that unites us all. It's certainly food for thought I'm serving.


Massoud Hayoun, No Man's Land, 2023. Acrylic on canvas. 61 x 91.4 cm


Do you think your experience in journalism has an effect on your work as a painter?


Absolutely. I got into journalism because of a leftist love of people. I studied existentialism extensively in university, and I was deeply inspired by the idea that all we have is our relationship to others. That's why my work is figurative. I'm trying to say something about the human experience. I'm meditating on different walks of life and how and why we continue to exist together. Those are the things that animated my work in journalism too.

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Massoud Hayoun, An Arab Movie House in 2024 Watches the Scene in Battle of Algiers where Little Omar Steals the Mic and Tells Them to Take Heart, 2024. Acrylic on canvas. 91.4 x 121.9 cm


Could you say something about how your work explores your Jewish Arab roots.


In 2016, I began to co-write a book called When We Were Arabs with my Tunisian grandma, who raised me. It was a political theory of Arabness as applied to her and my grandfather's lives that I then apply to current events. It ended up winning an Arab American Book Award and was a U.S. National Public Radio Best Book of the year. We had yet to see any book ask what Arabness was in that way and we wanted to embark on that project together. But she died three months into our writing. The book talks about how at the onset of the European colonial regimes in our homelands, there were specific policy documents describing a process of acculturation targeting wealthier Jewish Arabs — which is to say that the very poor were not included in this effort — intended to instrumentalize our communities in the conquest of our homelands. Our ethnic and cultural identities were warped by people in halls of power very far away in support of a politics of divide and conquer, the effects of which we are seeing unfold today. The painting meditates on the same questions of identity and politics and their impact on current events in a more electric and accessible way than I could ever hope to do with my writing.


Massoud Hayoun, Christmas under Capitalism, 2023. Acrylic on canvas. 101.6 x 76.2 cm


Could you say something about the way you paint people? Why the Joni Mitchell blue?


First, Joni Mitchell is one of my all-time favourite artists. She's originally Canadian — like most amazing North American artists — but she conjures for me a Topanga Canyon Earth Mother vibe that is so quintessentially Californian in a way that predates the obnoxiousness of the Kardashians and the Real Housewives franchise. I often listen as I paint to a A Case of You and think — ‘I am a lonely painter / I live in a box of paints.’


Massoud Hayoun, العسكر اللیل • Night Soldiers • Re-Nahda • الكوكب و ا/فندیة. Acrylic on canvas. 76.2 x 101.6 cm

I started painting my grandparents in blue because to my eyes, they looked ghostly in blue with those highlights. I loved that you compared it to the Joni Mitchell album cover. That image is impressed upon my mind as something similarly ethereal. Ultimately, I started painting myself and others in that same blue, after meditations on the fact that all these works are set in the past, and even the living are no longer what they once were. My gradual blueness — I observed once, in my meandering thoughts while I paint — is proof that the more you hang out with ghosts, the more you become one. I am ghostly in Los Angeles. I move through our street and our crazy but whimsical public transportation system, observing silently like a phantom of the underground. I'm doing the same thing I always did as a journalist — silently watching, not involving myself too much, even with the burning desire to be part of humanity tucked into my chest. This is where I am now, in my practice and in life. I hope to talk to you about a very different series of paintings after I figure shit out.

By Sammi Gale

Cover image: Massoud Hayoun, La Lucha Sigue (diptych), 2023. Acrylic on canvas. 50.8 x 50.8 cm each panel


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