As an undergraduate at Simon Fraser University, Ricardo Khayatte became captivated by the ideas of U.S. philosopher Martha Nussbaum. Her landmark book, The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy, opened Khayatte’s eyes to the impact, depth, and roots of patriarchy in western civilization. Quite simply, her writing blew the Vancouver painter’s mind.
“Until my undergrad, I never really, really, really thought about how this world has been shaped by patriarchy,” the Chilean-born Khayatte tells Pancouver in an interview in the Parker Street Studios.
“There were so many moments in history where it could have switched,” Khayatte adds. “I can get into religious wars and all sorts of stuff—and leaders of other tribes that were women. If they had won, it could have changed the course of history in the Middle East.”
Nowadays, Khayatte sees the impact of patriarchy all around him. It permeates language. It’s embedded in discussions around the ethics of artificial intelligence.
He also maintains that patriarchy imbues the legal system. To cite one example, he says that this manifests itself when women go to the police, tell them what happened, and are then asked to provide evidence.
“Maybe there would be a lot more belief in what people say if the legal system had been shaped not by patriarchy,” Khayatte declares.
In a nod to Nussbaum, Khayatte has named a series of his layered mixed-media (acrylic and gold dust) abstract paintings “The fragility of darkness”.
“I usually paint very, very colourful layers underneath on purpose,” Khayatte reveals. “I’ll make sure there’s a huge amount of colour behind it.”
In the next step, Khayatte allows this paint to dry, then he’ll usually add what he calls a “straight colour”.
Khayatte embeds gold dust in his art
In The fragility of darkness series, that straight colour is black with a bit of purple and red. After laying this down, Khayatte waited for anywhere from 35 minutes to an hour-and-a-half. At that point, he poked holes, clawed, and scraped through the darker shades, revealing gorgeous patterns underneath.
For these paintings, he also scattered gold dust and dust from different coloured leaves on each canvas, adding splashes of gold, green, orange, red, and brown until he found a sense of peace. He was able to obtain bags of this dust on his trips to Chile.
“I really wanted to talk of the fragility of this paint, what breaks through, and maybe, this breaking through of matriarchy going underneath patriarchy in this style,” Khayatte explains.
In his Storytellers Series, which is also on the wall of his studio, one painting, What is really going on here, reveals a burst of colours, reminiscent of India during the Hindu holiday of Holi. The sister painting, Icicles in the Atacama is much cooler as a result of Khayatte pouring some cream-coloured and white paints over top.
According to Khayatte, What is really going on here is grounded in magical realism. He describes “thick layers of bright and chaotic textures meant to inspire pride and resilience against what might have been”, while exploring “the enduring effects of postcolonial pressures”.
The sister painting explores “warm and cool pigment pairings with gold dust poured over semi wet acrylic”.
“As the layers dry, a hardened old brush pounds against the surface, scratching layers and revealing moments past,” Khayatte writes. “In the end, a thin layer of white silk reveals textures but buries almost everything else.”
These are potent ideas, but Khayatte still stops short of describing himself as a “professional artist”.
“I’m just someone who’s going out and expressing themselves on canvas,” he quips.
Then, he lightheartedly recalls someone asking how he would do something “as a professional”.
“I said, ‘I’m not a professional artist—I’m an emotional artist.’ ”
Inspired by his daughter
Regardless of the terminology, Khayatte has still come a very long way since beginning to paint nearly two years ago. His mother is realist painter and she taught him the basics of starting with a canvas. But it was his daughter Isa, now 10 years old, who gave him the courage to take this step.
Khayatte is also a musician and songwriter, perhaps best known locally as a member of the alt-folk band The Reckoners. So. it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he used to write songs with his daughter.
“But she would move towards drawing and painting and colours,” he says. “And she would ask me to draw with her. I was always nervous about it.”
Isa, however, would tell him that he was so good at drawing. Nowadays, she also paints, sometimes alongside her dad in his studio.
To Khayatte, there are similarities between the songwriting and painting processes. But there’s also a key difference. When he writes music, it’s often about things that have happened before, which can, on occasion, induce anxiety.
“It would always bring up feelings about the past, whereas painting was always very present for me,” Khayatte states. “So, it brought me nothing but joy.”
He describes himself as a little bit obsessive. This was certainly the case when he pursued his musical career and later as a journalist when he founded and edited the now-shuttered Vancouver Weekly website. He also threw himself into abstract art. Khayatte reveals that after his daughter goes to bed, he’s been known to go out on his Yaletown balcony, painting until 2:30 or 3 o’clock in the morning.
A diverse family history
He also devoted a great deal of time researching artists whom he admires. They include Willem de Kooning, Tracey Emin, Egon Schiele, Lisa Brice, Francis Bacon, Pat Steir, Gordon Smith, and Cy Twombly
On the wall of Khayatte’s studio is a recently painted, unnamed diptych drenched in blues. surrounded by white, and amplified by flecks of colour.
“I was really trying to work with different types of lines, trying to keep to a monochromatic style, but I added a lot of pink to it afterwards,” he says. “Then with the background, I painted it afterwards.”
As the interview draws to a close, Khayatte elaborates on his heritage. His dad’s side of the family was Armenian. In 1915, Turkey launched a genocide, forcing millions of Armenians, including Khayatte’s ancestors, to flee to other countries. His dad was raised in Buenos Aires.
Many Armenian surnames end in “ian”, which Khayatte says means “son of”. But during the genocide, his ancestors changed their surname to Khayatte, which means “tailor” in Farsi and Arabic. This was to avoid being detected as Armenians.
Khayatte says his mother is half-Basque, which means she traces her roots back to the Basque area straddling the French-Spanish border.
“My daughter’s mother is half-Basque as well, so my daughter has a lot of Basque,” he adds.
Khayatte was born in the capital of Chile, Santiago, but his parents moved to Quebec City when he was three years old.
“I spent three years there when I was a kid,” Khayatte says. “They felt it was too cold, so they moved to Vancouver.”
Vancouver’s Eastside Culture Crawl runs from Thursday (November 16) until Sunday (November 19). For more information, including hours and names of participating artists, visit the website. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia and on Instagram @PancouverMedia.