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.

Conflict and Hope

Richard Wilding, Kurdistan: Father Nageeb's Hotel

Richard Wilding, Father Nageeb’s ‘Hotel’, Iraqi Kurdistan

Kurdistan is located along the Zagros mountain range and spans four countries: southeast Turkey (northern Kurdistan), northern Syria (western Kurdistan), northern Iraq (southern Kurdistan) and western Iran (eastern Kurdistan).  The Kurdish people are comprised largely of Sunni Muslims and have their own language and culture, dating back hundreds of years.

Although they are scattered across several different countries and straddle international borders, the Kurds have long wished to have an independent Kurdistan.  In 1920, the Kurds were to be granted an independent state through the Treaty of Sèvres but this agreement was later overturned.  Iraqi-Kurdistan reached autonomous status in 1970 which was “reconfirmed” again with the Federal Iraqi Republic in 2005. In Iran, there is a province called Kurdistan – although it is not self-ruled.  Most recently, Kurdish forces have been able to assume control over significant portions of northeastern Syria after Bashar al-Assad’s troops withdrew during the country’s civil war ideas in Dublin.

Ali Raza, Story of Sand in Conflict and Hope Exhibition

Ali Raza, Story of Sand. Image courtesy from the artist.

Despite these gains, the Kurdish people have often been at the mercy of those who control the countries and territories where they reside.  In recent years, they have been targeted by Saddam Hussein in Iraq and are currently struggling with the Turkish government, while activity by the Islamic State (IS) near the places where they live makes for dangerous conditions.

Conflict and Hope: Art in Troubled Times is a show bringing together a group of visual artists, wishing to discuss the “ongoing conflict in Syria and Iraq.”  In the face of the chaos and the danger, a flicker of hope and courage can be found – as artist Tareq Razzouk states in this Introduction to the exhibition

Out of hopelessness, suffering and destruction there is a moment of hope which allows us to walk through tragedy, and dream of a beautifying change.  We are, as human beings, entitled to be sad, lonely, or anxious, yet we are also entitled to happiness, achievement, and contentment.

Jamal Penjweny for Conflict and Hope part of Nour Festival

Jamal Penjweny, Installation Shot

Six artists are participating in Conflict and Hope:

Mariwan Jalal (Iraqi-Kurdistan) is a mixed media artist whose work reflects on social, political and cultural issues through his heavily patterned prints and ceramics.  The artist currently lives in London.

Jamal Penjweny (b. 1981,Iraqi-Kurdistan) is a visual artist who was previously a sculptor and painter, before choosing to become a photographer and filmmaker to document the Iraqi conflict.

Penjweny’s series “I am Saddam,” where ordinary Iraqis hold up a portrait of Saddam Hussein obscuring their faces, received international recognition and was shown in the Iraqi Pavilion at the 55th edition of the Venice Biennale.

Tareq Razzouk in Conflict and Hope for the Nour Festival

Tareq Razzouk, Installation Shot. Image courtesy from the artist

Tareq Razzouk (Syria) is an artist and architect based in London. His paintings acutely illustrate the sorrows, chaos and hope found in present-day Syria.

Ali Raza (b. 1980, Iraqi-Kurdistan) is a visual artist who has worn many different hats. In 2005, Raza founded the Palace Gallery in Erbil City (the capital of Iraqi-Kurdistan).  He has also written for a variety of publications and was previously editor of Hunari New, a contemporary art magazine.

His mediums of choice are painting and installations. but Raza also works with printmaking and video on occasion.  According to Raza’s biography, he is currently exploring “genocide, war, violence and man’s inhumanity” in his artwork.  Raza currently resides in Dublin.

Rebwar Saed (b. 1962, Sulamaniyah, Iraq-Kurdistan) is a visual artist whose figurative work, according to his website, is “inspired by pre-Islamic figurative works of ancient artefacts.”  The narrative of his work has been further influenced by his culture’s political struggles and life outside the country as a diasporic artist.  As Saed remarked in the programme to the exhibition, he seeks to bring light to these “dark” times:

My art aims to make sense of people’s feelings during troubled times. To fight the darkness I use bright colours, as that is what is needed in times of darkness.

Rebwar Saed, Colouring The Dream in Conflict and Hope Exhibition for Nour Festival

Rebwar Saed, Colouring The Dream

Saed’s “Colouring the Dream,” is a project that allows children in the Barike Refugee Camp to better understand their traumatic experiences through art.

Photographer Richard Wilding is Creative Director of Gulan, a charity organisation based in the UK that promotes the culture of Kurdistan.  Wilding’s photographs “document” the people and culture of Iraqi Kurdistan, including those who reside in refugee camps. According to the artist’s website, Wilding created a badge for the “remembrance of the victims of the Kurdish Genocide” for the Kurdish National Government, in collaboration with Gulan’s Artistic Director Della Murad.

Conflict and Hope: Art in Troubled Times runs from 31 October 2015 at the Ismaili Centre.  The exhibition, curated by Gulan and Amin Pardhan-Abdulla, closes on 7 November 2015.  Curator talks are offered daily at 2pm, from  2 November onwards. Wilding will give a special talk on his work with the Kurdish people in Iraq, on 4 November (8:15-9:45pm).

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

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.

Arwa Abouon: An Artist Who Explores Bicultural Identity

Arwa Abouon's Untitled from Generation Series for Nour Festival

Arwa Abouon, Untitled: Generation Series (Mother and Daughter), 2004, digital print, 44 x 80”

Arwa Abouon (b. 1982, Tripoli, Libya) emigrated to Quebec, Canada with her family at a young age and graduated with distinction from Concordia University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) degree in 2007.  As a visual artist straddling two vastly different cultures, her work addresses important issues such as identity, duality and spirituality, yet is approached with a particular openness and sense of humour.

Abouon’s narrative is largely autobiographical in nature, with the subjects of her portraits often being her immediate family and herself, spanning across generations and genders.

Her work is informed by the increasing “visibility of Islam” in the West and the socio-political ramifications of living and growing-up in a post-9/11 world.

In a conversation with Valerie Behiery, historian of Islamic art, Abouon discussed the challenges she had identifying with the land that is her home but not her birthplace:

First of all I am Muslim. When I describe myself, I put it in order: Muslim, Libyan, Canadian. Here I’m Libyan, but when I go to Libya, I’m Canadian.

Arwa Abouon for Nour Festival

Arwa Abouon, ‘I’m Sorry/ I Forgive You’ (diptych), 2012, digital print, 30 x 40”. Image courtesy the artist.

Abouon’s experience in a bicultural setting offers her a unique perspective on contemporary global society.  According to the Artist’s Statement found on Abouon’s website, this complex mixture of factors makes for very fertile ground:

The themes addressed in my work stem directly from my life experience as a female artist living and working between cultures, and yet the aim is to show how a single person’s ‘double vision’ can produce images that possess much wider social effects by collapsing racial, cultural and religious borders.

Abouon’s photography, video, design and installations regularly incorporate the three pillars of traditional Islamic design: symmetry, repetition and rhythm while largely avoiding themes that frequently dog diaspora artists: marginalisation and discrimination. As a “self-identifying practising Muslim,” the artist seeks to introduce and examine her religious roots, while elevating Islam to a level beyond the hijab and politics.

My ultimate aim is to sculpt a finer appreciation of the Islamic culture by shifting the focus from political issues to a poetic celebration of the faith’s foundations.

Abouon’s first solo show in the UK, Birthmark Theory, is in conjunction with the Nour Festival of Arts and in partnership with Noon Arts. The exhibition held at londonprintstudio is considered a retrospective of the last ten years of her work and includes ‘Mirror Mirror/Allah Allah,’ ‘I’m Sorry/I Forgive You’ and the ‘Abouon Family,’ among others.

Arwa Abouon's Mirror Mirror/Allah Allah for Nour Festival

Arwa Abouon, ‘Mirror Mirror/ Allah Allah’ (diptych), 2012, digital print, 40 x 40”

The exhibition opened on 20 October 2015. According to curator Najlaa Elageli, the retrospective to date has been very well received:

We are delighted to have artist Arwa Abouon with us for a few days, coming all the way from Montreal, Canada. It has been an incredible feat that could not have happened without the support of the Nour Festival and the londonprintstudio. More wonderful is the fact that the local North African and Muslim communities have been engaging with the artwork and asking lots of questions.

Birthmark Theory runs at the londonprintstudio through 7 November 2015.  This profile was written by Lisa Pollman, a freelance writer who connects Asian and Middle Eastern artists to the world.