Acclaimed artist, ZOOBS spoke to Madame Soho recently in a heartfelt interview which covered a range of intimate themes.
The London born, Los Angeles based artist bared his soul revealing everything from personal grief and loss to his visceral, artistic inspiration and his experiences of living in Soho.
ZOOBS’ evolution of self has led to a transformation of his work which was previously centered around the notion of perfection, but nowadays reflects the social, political and cultural implications of life in modern society. The themes of his work are an exploration of the complex relationships between parent and child, life and death, society and culture and consumerism and the natural world.
Madame Soho: Hi ZOOBS, it’s nice to speak to you again. Can we begin by asking you where you are from?
ZOOBS: Hi Ray. It’s always a pleasure to speak to you.
I was born in Chelsea, London, and spent the first four years of my life in Fulham. My family then moved to Kingston upon Thames where I spent most of my childhood and young adult life. Shortly after the sudden death of my father in 1980, my mother made the decision to move to Pakistan and I spent a few years of my childhood in Islamabad. In 1987 we moved back to the UK. Having lived in such varied cultures during my formative years, I think I became very open to change. Adapting to new countries, cultures, peoples and ways of life became effortless for me. I had become a chameleon-like creature.
After graduating from university in 1996, I moved to Tokyo to work for the cosmetic giant, Shiseido, and then at their Paris branch. Travelling around the world became a necessity for me. In retrospect, I think I was desperately trying to look for a place to call home because I felt like such a misfit and I didn’t know where I belonged. I visited the Middle East but it wasn’t for me. I then moved to New York in 2007 for three months and loved living there but despite my efforts, my career didn’t take off at that time so I returned to the UK. Then in 2013 I returned to New York armed with a work visa and a plethora of work and experience. Last year I made the decision to settle myself in California, which is where I live right now. I think it’s safe to say that I now consider the world to be my home and I cannot imagine myself staying in just one place. Travel inspires me, it keeps my heart and mind fresh. I am not a nationalist and my ideas and thinking are universal.
MS: When did your life as an artist begin?
Z: I’ve been a creative soul for as long as I can remember. As a child I was moved by music that I’d hear my father play at weekends. I was obsessed with making things. I’d make houses out of Lego. I’d create golf ball sized human sculptures out of tissue. I’d make line drawings of faces from LPs lying around at home. At school I’d be the one helping other kids with their drawings. I was never interested in academic subjects. My teachers would always complain to my mother that I was a daydreamer, forever looking out of the window, staring into the skies. When I was at high school, art was always my favorite subject and I took it up at every level. I studied life drawing at The Slade School of Art for a year after high school and went on to graduate from university with a BA Honors degree in the Arts. When I returned from Shiseido Cosmetics in Tokyo and Paris, I made a decision never to work for anyone but myself.
For quite some time I had huge aspirations to work as a fashion photographer, but my ideas seemed too outlandish for the industry and I never secured a reputable gig. Then in 2005 I met the art dealer Guy Hepner at one of his London shows and everything changed. Guy believed in me, he encouraged me and he started selling my work to art collectors and put me on the map. One thing led to another and in 2009 I started working with Jean David Malat at Opera Gallery in London. That really catapulted me into the art world and I managed to carve a career out of what I loved doing most – creating art.
MS: In your work, you reference iconic musicians from the likes of Bowie to the Sex Pistols. Artists that helped revolutionize music, fashion and identity. How influential have they been on your social, political and artistic viewpoint?
Z: I have always identified with misfits, with people who dare to be different and go against the grain and the status quo. These people were my heroes. They were courageous and they had proved that it was OK to sing your own song and be different, to be oneself, to never conform, and to never be pigeon-holed into any particular group or genre. These were the people who were inspired by love and freedom – universal entities that I also felt very strongly about and believed in. I was, and still am, hugely inspired by such individuals. Their ideas transcend sex, race, colour, class, politics and religion. They stand for love, compassion and courage and they search for their own truth, which is something I’m wholeheartedly interested in.
MS: Does the artist have a responsibility in society?
Z: Absolutely. For me, art is synonymous with love and compassion. Without art, our world would be a cold, emotionless, loveless place. Art touches the soul, it speaks to people in a universal and visceral way and it possesses the power to unite people like no other entity. Art reflects upon the human condition and it possesses the power to provoke thought and makes one ask questions. At it’s best it holds the power to heal the world, which is plagued by so much unrest, pain and suffering.
MS: What inspires you most?
Z: I’m inspired by darkness and death just as much as I am by love and life.
I was faced with my father’s death at a very young age and it shook me. It left a void deep within my heart and I spent much of my life searching for a way to fill it, only to find in time it could never be filled. Nothing and no one could replace this void. You just learn to deal with it better as time goes on, but the pain never goes away. Artistic expression became an outlet for my pain. The creative process became my self-induced therapy. I would create from a place of pain but it was a paradoxical process because my creations would reflect a certain sense of perfection – something I felt was missing from my own life. So there was this constant tension between what I was feeling and what I was portraying in my art. My art imitated a particular kind of life that I craved. I’d have no desire to create during happier moments, but whenever melancholia struck, I’d throw myself into my own world of make believe in an attempt to heal my own wounds. It was illusionary. Artistic expression became second nature, like breathing, it was necessary for survival.
After many years of practicing this paradoxical process, I came to realize that it didn’t serve me any longer. I had achieved success in my hometown London, and I had everything I thought would make me happy. I had high accolade in the art world, people singing my praises and endless amount of money. I was living in Soho, London. I had all the things I thought would make life beautiful and worth living, but I felt empty. Most of my friends were married and were starting their own families, but I felt incredibly isolated and haunted. My art had imitated the kind of life which I naively thought would satisfy me, but this could not have been further from the truth. It was around this time that my cousin, whom I regarded as my older brother, suddenly passed away from a heart attack just a day after my birthday. I spiraled into a very dark place. Reality hit me hard and I felt this incredibly strong need to search for lasting peace and enlightenment. I knew that it was time for my true self to surface and for this to influence the art that I was to produce. So I decided to move far away from everything that I ever knew. In essence I had to step out of my comfort zone. I made the decision to move to the U.S., which I did in September that same year.
The last two years for me have been the most profound of my whole life. After what I now refer to as my euphoric, three month ‘honey moon period’ in New York, and as a bitter winter period started to set in, I started facing the many demons that I had managed to avoid for so long.
New York proved to be the toughest experience of my life. I was living in Chelsea, Manhattan amongst 9 million others yet I felt lonely like never before. I’d enjoyed solitude throughout my younger years but solitude for me is synonymous with peace. This new sense of loneliness was a different beast altogether and by the time it was spring, I started suffering from all sorts of health issues. One morning in the middle of 8th Ave, I suffered my first panic attack. All sorts of psychological and physical conditions ensued thereafter and it was clear to me that I had to leave New York. The eternal summer and vastness of California seemed perfect for me to place myself and start over. I changed my whole lifestyle. Never being an advocate of pharmaceutical drugs, I started looking into nutrition and the holistic and healing powers of food. I educated myself in this arena and learned how to cook. I literally fed myself back to health. Whilst doing all of this, I began soul searching and started writing daily. All of my hopes and fears, every thought was explored and I started to face my own demons head on. All of my life I subconsciously believed that I’d suffer the same fate as my father and die young as he did at the age of 42. When I surpassed that age and made it to 43, I had to reconsider my whole existence. I hadn’t planned for this. A sense of mortality had been kicking in for quite some time and I was faced with vulnerability like never before. This was imperative for me to reach my true sense of being and a new sense of existence. Artistically, I was changed. What inspired me for most of my life was turned on its head. No longer did I feel the need for my art to imitate the kind of life that I never had yet craved for, but rather for my real existence and true emotions to be reflected in the art that I produce, warts and all. This is the inspiration behind my creativity now, and the work that I produce and the shows that I formulate next will be a reflection of this new sensibility.
MS: Has Soho in London inspired you, creatively ?
Z: Soho in London was an area that struck a chord with me from the very beginning. When I was at The Slade School of Art in the very early 90s, I’d spend much of my time there in between classes. There was something about Soho that seemed fitting for the creative soul. The area was saturated with artistic and creative industries, whether it was film, music, fashion or photography. Being within that environment as a young adult somehow seemed fitting. I was just starting out, after years of feeling like a fish out of water at high school, and I couldn’t get enough of it. It felt like home. I’d spend hours walking around the cobbled streets and markets, bookshops and galleries, dreaming and trying to diagnose what I really wanted to do creatively. Gazing into the windows of these huge creative companies with hungry eyes I’d often feel intimidated, whilst at the same time an amazing sense of ambition and a hope to live there one day, and how satisfying that would be. A couple of decades later, I did end up living right in the heart of Soho but by this point the area had become very gentrified. The sense of magic with which I viewed Soho in my younger years was long gone, but I continued to live there for a few years with a fresh pair of eyes that were now seeing the darker side of life. The homeless, the destitute, drug culture and prostitution was a reality that I saw all around, particularly at nighttime. As an artist this gritty reality could have provided me with fresh inspiration to create, but I didn’t feel ready to express it and eventually I felt the need to leave.
MS: Do you have any significant memories of Soho that you would like to share with us?
There was one incident that took place while living in Soho that really changed my outlook on the area. I was working late at night, it must have been 3am and I left the apartment to buy a pint of milk. I was dressed in a hoodie and was headed toward the nearest shop when five policemen approached me from all sides and proceeded to ask numerous questions about whom I was and what I was doing. The streets were fully packed, and people were watching with disapproving eyes. I was searched and my name was run through their system. Eventually they apologized and let me go. A few days later while I was out for a work meeting, that same apartment was broken into and literally every piece of equipment that I owned was stolen. It was reported but never found. This was a turning point for me and I couldn’t feel good about being there any longer. A few months later I relocated to New York.
MS: What does Soho symbolize to you?
Z: Soho symbolizes extreme light and darkness. When I was younger, Soho represented hopes, dreams, and creative ambition, everything that an aspiring artist might conjure up. But towards the end of the time I spent there it represented the darker side of life. I had come full circle and in hindsight I feel that my collective years spent seeing it and living within it provided me with a rude awakening about life. It was a reminder that life is always constructed of ups and downs, light and dark. I feel that it has prepared me for life as I grow older.
All images and artwork by ZOOBS Words and interview by Ray Kinsella