Stvdio El Sham :: MMX-MMXV: An Interview with Tarek Moukaddem & Omarivs Ioseph Filivs Dinæ

Stvdio El Sham :: MMX-MMXV is the first photographic exhibition showcasing the collaborative work between Lebanese photographer Tarek Moukaddem and Palestinian designer Omarivs Ioseph Filivs Dinæ.  In this interview the artists talk to guest blogger Aimee Dawson about their exhibition and ongoing artistic collaboration.

Omarivs Ioseph Filivs Dinæ and Tarek Moukaddem for Nour Festival of Arts

Abu Saleh, The Official Portrait © Omarivs Ioseph Filivs Dinæ & Tarek Moukaddem 

The three collections of works in your exhibition really show a process of development as each work inspires the next.  They also show the story of your creative collaboration, which began in 2009, bringing together designer and photographer.

O: Each of the works has been shown in different formats at different venues internationally but this is the first time they have been shown altogether as framed photographic prints – as artworks if you will.  And I think the relationship between photography and performance/pretence can be traced through each.

Can you say something about The Official Portrait – what was the inspiration behind this work?

O: The Official Portrait is the final production phase of The Ceremonial Vniform project, in which I set out to create an imaginary uniform for the imaginary Palestinian state.  The project was a response to, and critique of, the Palestinian National Authority’s (PNA) 2011 bid for membership of the United Nations and the consequentl (defeatist) acceptance of the 1967 borders for the future State of Palestine.

The Palestinian authority is obsessed with creating symbols of Palestinian nationality and statehood at the expense of liberation and emancipation.  The uniform in this work is the manifestation of this ridiculous compromise – all the same, it’s not a caricature.  There is a parody to the work, there is something funny and cynical about it; however, it is not about emasculation or diminishing the actual men within the images.  The design work and research are very serious, perhaps even more serious than the actual statehood bid which the PNA is so obsessed with – that is where the irony and mockery of the Palestinian political establishment lies.

Omarivs Ioseph Filivs Dinæ and Tarek Moukaddem for Nour Festival of Arts

Abu Zuhair, The Official Portrait © Omarivs Ioseph Filivs Dinæ and Tarek Moukaddem

Could you explain your process behind taking the images for Stvdio El Sham [MMXIII – MMIII]?

T: I consider Stvdio El Sham [MMXIII – MMIII] more of an ongoing experiment than a project.  It came at a time when selfies were becoming very popular, and taking a picture of oneself has become very mundane and something that is too easy and quick to do.  From my perspective as a photographer, I wanted to see if we could change the experiences of some people by putting them in a different context altogether.  So we attempted to set up a photographic space that felt more like an old photographic studio set with an abundance of clothing and props to see how they might react differently and how they would present and represent themselves in such context.  It was playful, about self-reflection and self-portrayal; how you see photography; and how you perceive yourself through photography if you have an altogether different concept of time and resources to do it.

O: In the past, our collaborative projects have been about me showing my work by seeking Tarek’s support as an accomplished photographer.  In the Stvdio El Sham [MMX – MMXV] exhibition I wanted to show how the image making was really about both of us: both of our technical abilities combined to create images, as glimpses into an imagined reality.  We are both very particular technicians who understand our mediums very well and know our own abilities and limitations.  I consider myself a designer and never an artist.  Indeed, it is almost insulting for me to be considered an artist as that reflects a vague notion of skill and understanding of one’s medium as opposed to design.  Anyone could be an artist, but few could claim to be a painter, sculptor, draughtsman or photographer.  All of these require a true mastery of design and a sensory understanding of material to begin with.  Concepts are altogether irrelevant if they are not inherently supported by their material mediums. So many pseudo intellectuals writing and theorising, claiming to be conceptual artists are indeed nothing but ‘con-artists’!

Omarivs Ioseph Filivs Dinæ and Tarek Moukaddem for Nour Festival of Arts

Paper V, Silk Thread Martyrs © Omarivs Ioseph Filivs Dinæ and Tarek Moukaddem

Who were the people in the images and what was it like working with them? Was there a negotiation with them in creating the photos?

T: I know most of them but not all of them closely.  We put out an open call inviting people to come to the studio and some of them were friends and some of them were random.  It was very playful – we didn’t want to make too many rules but we wanted it to still have an old studio style.  We had a lot of props and so they could make their own choices but they also asked us for our opinion.  So it was more of a collaboration.

O: In the exhibition there is little information about the sitters beside the images.  When you are trying to explain the person in the photo it defeats the purpose of the image-making.  We want it to be about the image in and of itself, not literature or history.

Why did you choose to only photograph males in this latest work?

T: We were looking at gender issues and the way that the male is represented in Arab societies, and especially in our own societies; challenging the idea of the ‘macho’ stereotype.  Most of my photography work focuses on the male body.  I think there is a lot of focus on the female body of the ‘Orient’ and the issue of veiling and so on – there is comparatively little photography of men.

O: It is simply more honest or genuine, as two males, to photograph other males.  It makes sense for us to represent bodies that are familiar and ‘phenomenologically’ relevant to us.  We are not looking to represent anyone other than ourselves.

Omarivs Ioseph Filivs Dinæ and Tarek Moukaddem for Nour Festival of Arts

Joe, Stvdio El Sham [MMXIII – MMIII] © Omarivs Ioseph Filivs Dinæ and Tarek Moukaddem

What other things have you been working on recently?

O: I was in Beirut this summer researching and working on a project as part of my MA in Social Anthropology on Palestinian embroidery techniques with INAASH (Association for the Development of Palestinian Camps in Lebanon).  The project is called Fifteen [XV] Stitches Embroidery Project.  The aim is to identify and understand the techniques of different Palestinian Bedouin and peasant embroidery stitches and to try and push them further than the tedious and overrated cross-stitch, which is mere surface embroidery and ornamental.  This was already done in Palestine with a great aunt of mine and in collaboration with Sunbula, an NGO based in Jerusalem in 2010. In Beirut I was, and will be in the near future, sharing these techniques with the Palestinian Refugee women embroiderers who work with INAASH.

Omarivs Ioseph Filivs Dinæ and Tarek Moukaddem for Nour Festival of Arts

Najaf IV, Silk Thread Martyrs © Omarivs Ioseph Filivs Dinæ and Tarek Moukaddem

I consider the cross-stitch the most superficial and mundane part of the rural Palestinian dress system – there’s a lot more which is functional and structural that reflects true design and the diversity of a complex society.  My belief is that Palestinian dress, or Palestinian costume as it is widely known, has been reduced to ornamental embroidery by the Palestinian intelligentsia, artists and urban middle classes, who are anxious to justify the Palestinian cause on nationalist narratives and ideas of authenticity by creating symbols and images around which contemporary Palestinians can rally.  All this, some serious and scholarly work on the subject by international and Palestinian researchers notwithstanding.  I am more interested in design and functionality and how form is the product of technique influenced by local sensibilities and nuance – how such techniques are made and themselves actively make the individual.

Stvdio El Sham :: MMX-MMXV was on show at The Muse At 269 Gallery/Studio in London until 8 November, as part of Nour Festival of Arts 2015.

A Message of Hope and Support From One Child To Another

Syrian conflict message of hope

A message of hope from Isla to a child living the Syrian conflict

As part of the Creative Learning Program in Nour Festival, renowned Syrian children’s book author and illustrator Nadine Kaadan read to students from the local Oxford Gardens Primary School her latest book Ghadan (Tomorrow), the story of a little boy living through civil war, facing the uncertainties and anxieties of many Syrian children.

Syrian conflict message of hope

A message of hope from Sami to a child living the Syrian conflict

In response, the children created postcards with drawings and messages of hope and support to children living the adversity of the Syrian conflict and sent them out to those currently living in refugee camps.

Syrian conflict messages of hope

A selection of postcards sent out to children in refugee camps

Kaadan was uncertain about the impact this story may have on children in the UK as she explains in her Arab British Centre blog post:

I’ve read this book to Syrian children in different circumstances – many of whom had to flee their homes and live in refugee camps to escape the war.  I found that the story helped to give them a safe space to share some of their own anxieties and trauma with living through the war.  At first, I was a bit worried about the idea of explaining a painful conflict to children in the UK, and wondered what their reactions would be, but I was touched to see that they arrived to the workshop with such empathy about what Syrian kids were going through.

Syrian conflict message of hope

A message of hope from Freya to a child living the Syrian conflict

Syrian conflict messages of hope

A selection of postcards sent out to children in refugee camps

This workshop which was held at the Damascus Room Exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum enabled 16 children to send out postcards to other children facing anxieties and uncertainties at refugee camps.

Marwan: Not Towards Home But The Horizon

Marwan Kassab-Bachi at Nour Festival of Arts

Marwan Kassab-Bachi, Untitled, 2014

The Mosaic Rooms, a well-appointed privately funded institution, makes an excellent showcase for the work of the Syrian painter Marwan Kassab-Bachi, generally known just as Marwan.  Based in Berlin since 1957, he settled in Germany by chance but is now well integrated into German society.  In fact, fellow student Georg Baselitz is a more obvious influence on his artistic development than any Arab forebears. Marwan has children with his German wife, and became the first Arab member of the prestigious Akademie der Künste in 1994.  That said, Marwan has kept in touch with his roots in Damascus, and his paintings might be seen as applying western modernist methods to Oriental concerns.

The exhibition is spread out over three rooms: the first contains seven large oil paintings of semi-abstracted heads, the subject on which Marwan has concentrated for the past forty years; the second is dedicated to the series of etchings 99 Heads; while the third gives fascinating background material through paintings from the 60s, recent works on paper, and sketchbooks.  The large untitled examples shown are from 1977, 1987, 1992, 2001, 2019, 2010 and 2014.  The earliest has a more clearly delineated head, and established more volume than the flattened planes of the later works – though, even they retain a ghostly echo of the cubist language which sought decidedly opposite ends.  Longer-term, there is a move from the dark, dense, multi-layered build-up of paint towards a more open, fluid, brighter and thinner application, becoming gradually more lyrical as we move through to this century’s work.

Marwan Kassab-Bachi at Nour Festival of Arts

Marwan Kassab-Bachi, Untitled, 1992

The faces aren’t hard to perceive, given the brain’s pareidolian instincts, but they are abstracted enough to come in and out of focus, so that image and surface take turns at the front of our perceptions.  This to and fro imparts a restless energy, which might suggest ‘inner faces depicting mental conditions always in flux’, in Jőrn Merkert’s words.  This leads to the question: what conditions are being expressed here?  You might say that Marwan uses the face merely as a ground for abstraction, were it not that the face is such a strong subject that it almost automatically picks up an existential aspect.  The titles of Marwan’s shows have tended to play on this:  ‘Topographies of the Soul’ preceded ‘Not Towards Home, But The Horizon’.  Merkert is in no doubt: ‘Marwan is obsessed by faces because for him they are a means of expressing the dramatic depth of life.’

Marwan Kassab-Bachi Exhibition Installation Shot

Not Towards Home But The Horizon, Exhibition Installation Shot, The Mosaic Rooms 2015

Such readings are in tune with the fragmentary presentation of figures, and the anonymity – and hence universal applicability – of the faces.  While the show’s catalogue states that: ‘though the nature of his work calls attention to the surface, Marwan is in fact concerned in revealing what lies beneath’, I’m not persuaded that this is in the paintings themselves.  One cannot read facial expressions or emotional states into these landscapes of the mind – if that is what they are – so any ascription of feeling must come from the viewer.  I suspect the existential aspect is a projection built from statements about the work, and given additional weight by the fraught nature of German and Arab history over Marwan’s lifetime (he is 81) and the current trauma of Syria in particular.

Marwan Kassab-Bachi Exhibition Installation Shot

Not Towards Home But The Horizon, Exhibition Installation Shot, The Mosaic Rooms 2015

The etching series 99 Heads, 1997-98, making its London debut here, pushes the heads further towards the unrecognisable than do any of the paintings.  That’s largely a function of small scale and lack of colour to guide the eye, assisted by the insertion of horizontally aligned heads, and half-seen heads looking over tables, as well as the usual frontal portrait formats.  The series references Sufism and the 99 names of God, a place always being left to represent the 100th name as a place of God’s light.  Curiously, although there are 99 etchings arranged as a grid which covers a suitably sized room, some contain more than one face.  Consequently there are in total more like 105 heads, which left me scratching mine with regard to the match with 99 names.

Marwan Kassab-Bachi at Nour Festival of Arts

Marwan Kassab-Bachi, Munif Al-Razzaz, 1965

The third room has early – graphically and directly expressive – figures and marionettes, drawings, sketchbooks, large watercolours not dissimilar in effect to the most fluid recent oils, and my favourite part of the show: heads painted in rapid impasto directly onto the small boxes in which the paints came.  The sculptural projection, everyday material and direct link to the studio process all feel appropriate.  As in the etchings, the severely reduced scale works naturally with the lack of image resolution, leaving us with the spontaneous essence of Marwan’s project.

This review was written by freelance writer and art curator Paul Carey-Kent who regularly contributes to The Art NewspaperFriezeFAD Art News and Photomonitor among others.

Algerianism Part I – The ‘Art Of’ Being Algerian

Souad Douibi, ‘Howa we Hiya: This is Me, this is my Story in Algerianism for Nour Festival of Arts

Souad Douibi, ‘Howa we Hiya: This is Me, this is my Story, 2015, textile, doll installation. Image courtesy the artist

Algeria is a North African nation situated between the Mediterranean Sea and the Sahara desert. It shares its borders with Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger and Tunisia.  Due to its strategic location between Africa and Europe, the country has been occupied by a seemingly ongoing succession of different rulers, including the Roman, Byzantine, French, Ottoman and Umayyad empires.

Until the 7th century, the country was inhabited primarily by an ethnic group known as the Berbers. Today, Arabs represent the majority of the population, with Berbers still comprising 30% of the country’s population. Algiers is the capital city and the origin behind the country’s name.

Yasser Ameur, ‘We are You’ in Algerianism for Nour Festival of Arts

Yasser Ameur, ‘We are You’, 2014, acrylic on canvas, 65 x 50cm
Image courtesy of artist

In the 1950s, natural gas and oil were discovered in the country.  To this day, Algeria continues to export natural gas to Europe and is recognised as one of the world’s largest oil exporters – bringing in a significant amount of income for the national economy.  Another important event began that same decade, with the country seeking independence. Algeria’s relationship with the French came to a boiling point in 1954, with the country gaining independence in 1962.

Amidst this rich cultural tapestry and complex political situation, contemporary Algerian visual and performing arts are blooming.  Through the lens of the past 50 years of independence, Algerian Event Manager Toufik Douib and Algerian born artist Patrick Altes bring “Algerianism Part 1” to the Nour Festival of Arts 2015.

The term “Algerianism” was a literary movement first coined by Algerian and French intellectuals – also known as the Pieds Noirs – in the early 20th century to unite the two disparate groups around a shared ideology. After independence, the term took on a different meaning – namely, one of patriotism and nationalism. In context of the exhibition and through the various lenses of each artist, “Algerianism Part 1” seeks “to bring an engaging vision and powerful message of tribute to a nation that is in full reappropriation of its cultural identity with past associations to exploring new parameters.”

Hania Zaazoua in Algerianism for Nour Festival

Hania Zaazoua, ‘Princess Zazou’: ‘The Fly’ , 2015, digital print on canvas,
Image courtesy of artist

Six visual artists are participating in “Algerianism Part 1”:

  • Patrick Altes (b. 1957, Oran, Algeria) is a French visual artist of Spanish origins who was born in Algeria. His work explores the complex nature between nostalgia, politics and history and he hopes to “contribute to more open, tolerant and accepting Franco-Algerian relationships.”
  • MIZO’ Hamza Ait Mekideche is a visual artist who utilises accessories and symbols to interrogate the use of traditional garments by contemporary Algerian women.
  • Souad Douibi (b. 1982, Hussein Dey District, Algiers, Algeria) is a performing artist who “questions the evolution of Algerian society and issues of generational miscommunication” through her work.
  • Kaci Ould Aissa (b. 1983) is a photographer who works for Algerian fashion magazine Dzeriet. His recent work has captured portraits of the population at the Sahrawi refugee camp in southwestern Algeria.
  • Hania Zaazoua ‘Princess Zazou’ (b. 1976, Algiers, Algeria) is a visual artist whose images can also be found on furnishings and miscellaneous objects. Zaazoua also founded Brokk’art and has collaborated with designers Bergson and Jung.
  • Yasser Ameur (b. 1989, Blida, Algeria) is a visual artist who explores the human condition in contemporary society. Yasser has worked as a street artist which, he says, provides him a place to “raise questions.”

According to Altes, contemporary art from Algeria is becoming an ever more important bridge between Africa, Europe and the MENA region (Middle East North Africa), while remaining true to its diverse, multi-cultural identity:

The Algerian cultural space keeps on opening up to the world in a powerful way. In weaving national and international influences, it succeeds in keeping on a par with the rest of the world as well as maintaining its own idiosyncrasies.

Kaci Ould Aissi, The Housewife in Algerianism for Nour Festival

Kaci Ould Aissi, ‘The Housewife’, 2014, 50mm photography, 47 x 70cm.
Image courtesy the artist

“Algerianism Part 1” runs at The Tabernacle from 26 October until 8 November 2015.

This profile was written by Lisa Pollman, a freelance writer who connects Asian and Middle Eastern artists to the world.