Q and A

System of a Down's Tankian joins activism and art in exhibit

Sun, Feb 12
System of a Down's Serj Tankian.

Rockstar Serj Tankian wants to draw Kiwis' attention to the blockade of Armenians in central Asia, as he opens a new exhibition combining art, music and advocacy.

The Armenian-American is best known as the frontman of System of a Down, the 90s heavy metal band known for hits like Chop Suey! and B.Y.O.B. Throughout the band's existence, it has developed a reputation for activism. In particular, Tankian is known for his advocacy for the international recognition of the Armenian genocide.

"Most of what we do as activists, through art or just activism, we may not see the fruits of our labour in our lifetimes, but it doesn't mean that's what we should be doing," he told Q+A in Auckland's {Suite} Gallery.

The Ponsonby gallery is filled with a selection of the artist's works. Many are accompanied by a musical score, accessible through an app that scans the paintings.

Tankian began painting about 10 years ago. He sees it as an extension of his advocacy.

"I love the way art, just like music, can be interpreted in different ways — actually, even more so…Art moves through the collective subconscious.

"At best, we're just skilled presenters. It's all there for us to perceive and attain."

A recent focus for Tankian is the latest flare-up of tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Since December, Azerbaijanis calling themselves eco-activists have been blocking a key corridor between the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia. It's left more than 100,000 ethnic Armenian residents short on food and medicine.

In a hearing at the International Court of Justice in January, Armenia argued the protests have been orchestrated by Azerbaijan as part of an act of "ethnic cleansing".

Azerbaijan rejects both claims.

Tankian said no one seemed to be taking action — like placing sanctions — against Azerbaijan. He added New Zealand hadn't said anything about the dispute.

"Most of the New Zealand public doesn't know about this because that region of Nagorno-Karabakh and those people living there may have nothing to offer the West. May, I say."

The singer divides his time between homes in New Zealand and Los Angeles. As a fierce critic of American foreign policy in the early 2000s, Tankian moved to Aotearoa with an admiration for the Labour-led government's refusal to send combat troops to Iraq in 2003.

"I miss Helen Clark's New Zealand in some ways," he said of the "independence" of the country's foreign policy at the time.

He said that "independence" exists today but "there's some international pandering — more so than there used to be".

Serj Tankian's Kiwi in Pangea is exhibiting at {Suite} Gallery in Auckland and Wellington until February 18.

Q+A is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air


More Stories