This article is part of Hyperallergic’s Pride Month series, featuring an interview with a different transgender or nonbinary emerging or mid-career artist every weekday throughout the month of June.
Based in Detroit, Michigan, nonbinary Armenian-American artist Levon Kafafian is a weaver of words, threads, and worlds. Kafafian investigates pre-Christian and Ottoman Armenian cultures and livelihoods, examining archaeological objects and material archives to inform a world that exists in the “Armenian diasporic imaginary.” Kafafian specified that they are not transcribing this built realm, but rather channeling it through their multidisciplinary practice of thread and garments, language and text, and spiritually imbued objects. Amid Azerbaijan’s ongoing destruction of ancient and culturally significant sites, Kafafian breathes a new, queer life into lost customs and traditions, giving them a space to grow with the diaspora.
In the interview below, the artist expresses their desire for a “queer Armenian future,” acknowledging the staunch colonialist and imperialist binary that enforces traditional gender roles. Kafafian’s current exhibition at the Stamps Gallery on the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus consists of elegantly constructed garments and accessories, powerful amulets, and physical renditions of the in-between portal that connects the artist to this futuristic scape derived from the past. “Cloth is vers,” Kafafian says. “Cloth communicates. Weaving uses a binary system to produce non-binary objects that are greater than the sum of their parts.”
Hyperallergic: What is the current focus of your artistic practice?
Levon Kafafian: Thread by thread, I am currently building a story world called Azadistan for an eventual graphic novel titled Portal Fire. This world emerges from the diasporic imaginary of Southwest Asia and is set in a distant future after a digital collapse. As of now, I’m focusing on its cosmology — the spirit beings who protect the people of the land and allow them to practice fire magic. To that end I dive into research on Armenian spiritual traditions, practices, and objects through time, blending this with my lived experiences and desires for the future. As I synthesize these into woven fabrics, costumes, and artifacts, I learn about the character of this world and the beings who inhabit it, generating the written lore and narrative that inform future works.
H: In what ways — if any — does your gender identity play a role in your experience as an artist?
LK: My journey with gender is a reflection of the many spaces of in-betweenness I’ve grown up in and come to terms with — leading me to engage my work with an attentiveness to hybridity, blurred boundaries, and ultimately new possibilities outside of “established canon.” I blend disciplines and interweave my practices: Handcrafting costumes and artifacts helps me intuitively synthesize archival research, familial histories, and personal experience, which in turn helps me generate poetry, short stories, and performance work often centered around play in the expression of gender.
H: Which artists inspire your work today? What are your other sources of inspiration?
LK: I’m always a bit disarmed by the question of which artists inspire me as I’m influenced by an endless parade of creative practitioners. Notably, though, I am inspired by my ancestors, both blood-related and beyond; all my collaborators: Nick Szydlo, Ash Arder, Kamelya Omayma Youssef, Kamee Abrahamian, Augusta Morrison, Lara Sarkissian, among others; and by the copious amounts of sci-fi and fantasy media (graphic and animated, live-action, video games, board games, novels) I engage with; and lastly, the nature, science, language, or history documentaries and YouTube shorts I watch before bed.
H: What are your hopes for the LGBTQIA+ community at the current moment?
LK: At this moment, my hope is that in all the places we are suppressed and under attack, we continue to boldly claim space, showing those around us that different ways of being are possible, beautiful, and intrinsically valuable; that we cannot and will not be erased or silenced; and that we continue to experience abundant joy, rest, and love amidst this struggle.