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.

ARA-B-LESS? : An Interview With Riffy Arts Collective

Meriem Bennani; the New York-based artist who was recently featured in the New York Times is one of the selected artists by Riffy Ahmed and Sarah El Hamed for the ARA-B-LESS? project at the Saatchi Gallery.  Our guest blogger Aimee Dawson speaks with Riffy to learn more about the project.


ARA-B-LESS by Riffy Arts Collective for Nour Festival in London

Project Poster

How did you conceive the title ARA-B-LESS ?

The project title ‘ARA-B-LESS ?’ is a neologism born of a play on the word ‘Arabness’ (Arabism). Two designs hint at the meaning behind “ARA-B-LESS ?” –  the first emphasising ‘BLESS’ suggests that Arab identity is a blessing, while the second emphasises “LESS’, the ways in which what it means to be Arab have evolved over time, perhaps losing something along the way. ‘ARA-B-LESS?’, as a question, also focuses on whether we, the artists, consider ourselves to be more or less Arab for having been born and brought up in the West, albeit by parents from Arab countries.

Can you describe the show a little? What does the performance description mean by three different ‘landscapes’?

The show integrates live performance art with video, sculpture and installation work. Operating in the interstices between reality and fiction and inspired by Grayson Perry’s Map of an Englishman, 2004, ARA-B-LESS? invites the audience to embark on a journey through three conceptually cohesive spaces each posing a unique challenge to current codes of conduct as well as questioning the existence of multifarious stereotypes and framing devices. The result is an extensive yet playful investigation of the ways in which identity is constructed as well as the ways in which it might be deconstructed and reconstructed in the realm of the hyper-real.

ARA-B-LESS by Riffy Arts Collective for Nour Festival in LondonHow do you think Arab women are perceived and represented? Are you looking at it from a ‘Western’ gaze or Middle Eastern/Arab or…?

The short answer is both from a Western and a Middle Eastern/Arab gaze, there is no limit to the ways in which women’s identity might be interrogated in the work of each artist – the whole point is to explore and ask questions. ARA-B-LESS ?, designed in broad terms to explore notions of Arabness and more specifically to explore the representation of women in these different cultures, is an essentially collaborative project. The result is a series of ongoing conversations between artist-curators Riffy Ahmed and Sarah El Hamed. Together, they have selected works by artists who complement, counter, and complicate their thinking about the representation of identity.

ARA-B-LESS by Riffy Arts Collective for Nour Festival in London

How is the work interactive? What can people expect?

There will be three performances (each 10 minutes in length) by Ahmed and El Hamed (visitors will be informed and directed by staff before each is about to start) as well as a durational performance inspired by Hassan Hajjaj’s photographic portraits. The subject of this performance, who will pose throughout the evening in a Hajjaj constructed environment, will also wear clothes designed by the artist.

Visitors to Shadi Al Zaqzouq’s work will also be able to participate by purchasing or simply trying on his eccentric creations – hijabs adorned by colourful variations on the Liberty Spike Mohawk. There will also be live music throughout the evening courtesy of Algerian singer and guitarist, Nedjim Bouizzoul.

The ARA-B-LESS? performance takes place on Wednesday 4 November, 7pm at Saatchi Gallery, Duke of York’s Square.

To book tickets click here.

Nour Festival Special on K2K Radio

We are very pleased to have K2K Radio as Nour partners this year.  Listen to this Nour special on Maha’s Music as she talks to Yazz Ahmed on her upcoming performance at The Pheasantry and Enas Masalha on her debut opera Silk Moth composed by Bushra El-Turk.

Nour Festival Radio Special on K2K

Nour Festival and K2K Radio Special

Another Member of The Nour Steering Committee

Having spoken with Aser El Saqqa and Roya Arab, today we learn more about Alnoor Samji who looks after the evolving Volunteers Program for the Nour Festival.


Alnoor Samji of Nour Steering Committee

Alnoor Samji – Nour Festival Steering Committee Member

Last book you read.

Disordered World by Amin Maalouf, an exceptionally well-written assessment of how we arrived at the current messy state.  I loved the tone: often posing questions, providing the context as objectively as possible, and inviting the reader to make up their own mind.  No magical answers, but plenty to think about.

Favourite place to grab a bite.

We’re spoilt for choice: if it’s a lovely day, Leonardo Caffe on Upper Richmond Road West has a hidden garden.  Otherwise, on the opposite side of the road, Valentina serves a first-rate Italian take on the Full English.  For special occasions, it has to be The Wolseley.

 What museum or gallery do you most often visit?

Knight Webb Gallery in Brixton showcases both established and contemporary artists.

If you could choose one piece of art to live with, what would it be?

Isabella Plantation in Richmond Park.  It never fails to refresh the body, help you think things through and nourish the soul.  The water trickling down the brook, the vivid azaleas in late spring, the remodelled duck pond and all the other wonders have been scattered on a natural canvas to produce a work of outstanding beauty.

Most touching moment from a previous festival?

Last year’s launch event was sponsored by the Embassy of Yemen.  In preparation, the Ambassador took us on a day trip, to visit members of the Yemeni diaspora in Sheffield, including performers and artists.  The warmth and hospitality were unforgettable.

This is the sixth edition of the Nour Festival of Arts. Have you been involved since the festival was established? How is the 2015 edition of the festival different than its predecessors?

I was invited to join the Nour steering group in 2011, the festival’s third year but the first time the Arts Service extended Nour beyond Leighton House Museum.  It has grown each year, attracting new partners and audiences.  This year, Nour returns to its roots as a pioneering arts education programme with a comprehensive learning programme.

Another important development is the festival’s volunteer programme.  Whilst we have always required the support of volunteers, this year we have a structured process, with an initial team supporting the set up and marketing, and a further group of Festival Ambassadors and Workshop Assistants helping at events.

As “Europe’s most significant annual showcases of contemporary artists and culture from across the Middle East and North Africa,” what is one of the ways that the festival continues to interest and engage local and international audiences each year?

Often, festivals such as Nour allow nascent themes to gain momentum and capture the public imagination.  I remember so well, the salon on Arab Science Fiction on the first evening of the 2013 festival.  The discussion continues today around the world, with regular contributions on social media.

Alnoor Samji is a former partner of market research organisation, MORI.  He now works independently, balancing research and cultural consultancy with extensive voluntary work.  This interview was conducted by Lisa Pollman, freelance writer who connects Asian and Middle Eastern artists to the world.