Monday, March 25, 2013

Impossible Homelands

First published on REORIENT 
Camille Zakharia - Eman Ali
Eman Ali (Detail)
It all started with a conversation. An Italian woman at the international airport in Doha, like me, was awaiting a flight to Bahrain. ‘Where are you at home, then?’ I asked her, after listening to her story. Currently living in Rome, she told me that she commuted to Bahrain – nearly 4,000 km away – every couple of weeks to spend the weekend with her husband, who himself made a journey every day from the island’s western coast to Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, via the Saudi-Bahrain causeway. ‘To be honest, I don’t know, really. I guess I’m at home when I’m with my family’, came the ambiguous reply.
Our conversation was pleasant and harmless – an event without a past or a future. I never saw her again, nor did I ask her name. We smiled at each other from afar, as if we were somehow nodding in agreement. While boarding the plane, I overheard her next conversation, this time with an American businessman who was in a similar situation as hers. Though the world often seems borderless, interconnected, and limitless, it is also instantaneous and fleeting. Nowhere can this be better observed than at an airport – a man-made world of aluminum and steel giving the illusion of overcoming time and space; a permanent state of transit.
Being in transit is a state – not just a moment – that begets the question: what does it mean to be at home? What does it mean to be a foreigner, too? The Italian woman, for instance, found her home in a time, not in any specificplace. The idea of the ‘place’ – of ancestry, of origin – has today been eroded by our being in-between conflicting spaces; we must occupy them and appropriate them, fill them with ourselves, flood them with vestiges from other places. Above all, we must share those spaces with others, too. The feeling of being at home in one’s solitude is different from the sense of extreme loneliness that often invades modern cities and contemporary cultures.
‘I would like there to exist places that are stable unmoving, intangible, untouched and almost untouchable, unchanging, deep-rooted; places that might be points of reference, of departure, of origin’, once wrote the French writer Georges Perec.
Camille Zakharia - Juffair Urban Landscape
Juffair Urban Landscape (Detail)
But is having a ‘home’ always good? Is it always the site of happiness? In response to Perec’s longing, the Hungarian philosopher Agnes Heller poses a question:
Home sweet home – but is it so sweet, or has it been so sweet? The familiar fragrance can be the smell of burning flesh. The familiar gesture can be the hand raised to beat. The colour can be dark and grey. Home is where we were weeping, but no one listened, where we were hungry and cold. Home was the small circle one could not break through, the childhood that seemed endless, the tunnel without exit.
Belonging to a place can be painful, sometimes, and having an identity, a burden.
And then there’s Bahrain. Perhaps it is the wrong place to confront such questions in. One’s visual impression of Manama is always infused with an acute understanding of its formlessness. The old city, once the heart of a multicultural port society lies dormant and neglected, facing land reclaimed from the sea and engulfed by a belt of vertical developments, continuously shifting and manipulating the configuration of space into an extension of lapses – sometimes of emptiness, of warmth, of depth, or of elevation. Constantly under construction, the country is an unfinished, open-ended project; everything is possible, anything can happen.

Despite such voids, however, it is only in Manama that one has the opportunity to see the Lebanese artist Camille Zakharia, the ‘broker’ of memory sites. Born in Tripoli, Lebanon, and one of the many exiles of the proverbial Civil War, he is both at home and in transit in Bahrain, after having immigrated and emigrated several times. His ‘memory sites’ are built with bricks of negatives, and prints and paper woven into complex historical tapestries, which exist in different times simultaneously. But this isn’t obvious at first sight; it is only with time that one discovers how this skilled archaeologist of the present tense captures the already-fading moments of an island that wants to disappear into its own absolute future.
This absolute future is as present-less and empty as the large plots of sand separating one development from the next, serving no particular purpose. They are not parks, public spaces, or even privately-owned. All they indicate is an uncanny spatial freedom, an absence of markers and boundaries. Zakharia, the photographer-cum-artisan is a reference for the historical Bahrain that flees too rapidly to be traced adequately. He photographs murals, asphalt, graffiti, cityscapes, fishermen huts, empty spaces, and filled spaces. There is no way of knowing if the otherwise ordinary objects he captures will be there tomorrow.
Amidst the constant transformations and the ‘re-landscaping’ of the island, Zakharia’s work becomes an ongoing documentary of mutation, rather than of change. Change is simply a transition from one state into another, while in his work, one sees a rearrangement of the order of space, which affects all aspects of life. But he rarely stops at just this; documenting is only a preliminary research phase of his projects. Next comes the photo-montage. Zakharia’s technique cannot be described as surrealist, for what he wants to abbreviate is not history, but reality as a whole. The artist’s hands want to interact with every shape of his images, rather than letting them present themselves as standalone opinions.
Camille Zakharia - Sofia
Although his work most often deals with memory (and indeed, as an exile of the Lebanese Civil War, his work as a surveyor of the textures of war and ‘anti-memory’ has been ongoing), or the experience of displacement in the Arab world, his recent series, Belonging, which was showcased during this year’s Art Dubai by Albareh Art Gallery, deals with a rather different subject. The project began in 2010, when a curator invited him to take part in a project about the concept of belonging, which captured his imagination. The artist then began photographing dozens of residents of Bahrain, asking each of them to define the concept in their own words. What, then, defines belonging, and why is it even necessary to belong?
According to one of the artist’s subjects, belonging is something intangible yet very real – a thought which also sums up a great deal of Zakharia’s work. The photographs of these men and women coming from almost a dozen countries – including Bahrain, which many of his subjects have already left, further emphasising the state of constant change witnessed in Manama – are set against backgrounds of murals photographed on the island throughout the years, as well as remarks on belonging by each of the participants.

How is it possible to call Bahrain ‘home’, or at least belong there? Zakharia is well aware that such questions cannot be answered; his images are rich with traces of impossibilities

When I saw these works in Manama – which were mostly finished, except for a few – I began to question what it means to be a foreigner in a country so young and so old at the same time, and subsequently, what it means to be a Bahraini. Where is the intersection? The boundary seems both thick and thin. Walking through the streets of Adliya reveals some of the difficulties: a dozen languages flirt with the heavy air, melting into a gigantic cloud of experiences and borderline situations that appear on a map simply as ‘Bahrain’.
Camille Zakharia - Mariam Haji
Mariam Haji
In his book, In the Name of Identity, the Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf noted how ‘It might well be that an accident, happy or unfortunate, or even a chance encounter, weigh more in our feeling of identity than a thousand-year heritage’. The necessity to define one’s entire being through the prism of identity alone – particularly for the purpose of self-defense in both an individual and group context – is for Maalouf a catalyst for violence that has led to much bloodshed in the Middle East. When he adds that ‘Identity is not given to us at once, but rather … is being constantly construed and transformed in the course of our existence’, one witnesses a confluence of Maalouf’s proposal with Zakharia’s visual environs.
Spaces and the feeling of belonging are never given to us freely. The points of departure, reference, and origin that Perec sought led him to his ultimate conclusion:
Such places don’t exist, and it’s because they don’t exist that space becomes a question, ceases to be self-evident, ceases to be incorporated, ceases to be appropriated. Space is a doubt: I have to constantly mark it, to designate it. It’s never mine, never given to me, I have to conquer it.

It is but the trend lines and traces of Perec’s ‘process’ one sees at work in Belonging, in terms of the production of identity in a place such as Bahrain – one of those laboratories of modernity, with fragile textures often endangered by the pursuit of identity, on the meeting grounds of the Islamic, South Asian, and Arab worlds.
And, if this is the case, how is it then possible to call Bahrain ‘home’, or at least belong there? Zakharia well knows these questions, and speaks about them without any sign of melancholy. He is well aware that such questions cannot be answered; his images are rich with traces of impossibilities: home, the sacred space, the destination in life, the miracle of friendship, and the secret of memory.
Belonging? Home? I don’t know. Hours after my arrival, a friend from Bahrain living in New York wrote to me, saying ‘welcome home’. I felt both puzzled and embarrassed. This isn’t my country, I whispered to myself. But what does it mean to have a country? Can the official documents attesting your name, place of birth, and residency sum up not only your actual belonging, but also the entirety of your belongings? The question remains. Perhaps the lesson of contemporary art – if there is one – would be that letting go of the stability of our notions of identity, shaped by something as unstable as geography, could relieve many of our anxieties and prevent so much violence.
Camille Zakharia - Juffair Urban Landscape
Juffair Urban Landscape
Speaking about art over lunch one day, a Bahraini gallerist turned to me and said, ‘You understand [things] in the exact same way [that] I do. I thought I was alone!’ And at that moment, I was home in Bahrain, even though the meeting was the accidental result of a combination of chance, curiosity, and luck. The moment passed, and the geography and art changed, but home remained. If you look beyond maps, there are still places to be conquered, and I think this is perhaps what Camille Zakharia’s art attempts to capture. In a world of exiles, the many homes we find are cleverly stored in our memory, always available.
A few days after meeting Camille, I left Bahrain en route to Doha, not knowing when or if I would ever see the island again. They say there’s no exile for those who were never home; but now I had been home, if only while chatting about art one long afternoon in Manama. I realised that for the first time in many years, I was now an exile. It was a clear day, and from the airplane I could make out places that had given me shelter, places I loved, places where I loved. I could distinguish those sites from all the others. I was full of questions and hesitations, and wondered what I would have said, had Camille asked me about belonging in Bahrain. It is a place impossible to describe while you’re actually there. A stanza by the Bahraini poet Qassim Haddad came to mind:We’re not an island. Except to whoever sees us from the sea.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Pure Grammars

First published on THE MANTLE
“It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”-Pablo Picasso
Works of art are not only ensnaring objects of contemplation. Artworks are also ensouled things, to use a metaphor of Agnes Heller. Being “ensouled” as a thing is quite distant from the painting object that Manet discovered in the 19th century. Specific works of art acquire a “personality” so to say, or can be made “human” as Heller explains through a reading of Kant“If a work of art is also a person, if it is ensouled, then the dignity of works of art can be described in the following way: The work of art is a thing that cannot be used as a mere means, for it is always also used as an end in itself”.
One could argue about the ontological status of things vs. objects without ever coming to a safe conclusion, but it suffices for now to speculate that objects (in painting) refer to self-standing entities that hang somewhat suspended, whereas things form within an ideography that could be very well conceptual, figurative, thematic or aesthetic. Contemporary art loves “things” without having a concrete hierarchy – not even an aesthetic one – to approach them. Yet to become ensouled, artworks demand more than to be contemplated; they must be experienced: The illusion of memory, loss of speech, re-enactment of pain, the contours of joy, the miracles of love.
I know some artworks like this; for example, the exhibition Black and White of Picasso at the Guggenheim and his “Guernica”, or Magritte’s “L’Empire des lumières”. These artworks speak to me with the weight of memory, and the illusion of being suspended in time.  I have not only contemplated them but have also participated in the experience of beauty – symbolic or not – that they emanate from, and this participation – just like participation in reality – demands the experience to be shared with others. These paintings are associated with concrete memories: The desire to travel to New York at a certain time in the fall, a journey to Bahrain, the birthday of a friend, the tragedy of loss.
When works of art become ineffable and inscrutable, we have entered a realm in which the narratives associated with them – for an individual – evaporate and leave only traces to be followed. Art is then experienced not as a configuration of things but as a morphological transformation. In the words of Julia Kristeva“What is so terrifying about it is that it is so terribly clear and such gladness. If it went on for more than five seconds, the soul could not endure it and must perish.” Is it possible to stare at them directly once again without being protected by the comfort of interpretation? Perhaps not. But the interpretation of art is like the interpretation of dreams: It doesn’t cure; it only prevents madness.
The procedure of the artist is different. He must not be afraid. He must continue staring until the intoxication is ready to flow out into the universe of its own accord. In contemporary art, there is a certain vanity to state that creation departs from dots, lines and planes alone, opening the vaults of consciousness into primal forms and abstractions that are optically irreverent. Yet Picasso is quick to remark: “There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterward you can remove all traces of reality”.  And this is how Bahraini painterMohammed Al Mahdi has conceived his entire artistic production: Journeying unprotected through hostile and often fading memories.
On July 10th 2007, Bader Jawad Hussain Mubarak, a three-years old toddler vanished from his home in Samaheej, Bahrain, while playing outside. He was last seen by his family at around 1.30 PM and an hour later, disappeared without a trace. The local police began an investigation round-the-clock that lasted for several months, and as late as 2011, although the family had not given up hopes or the constant search and the police continued following leads, no signs or traces of Bader have been found. Simply vanished. The Bahraini painter was so touched by the story that he took on the task to capture the memory of the toddler onto a canvas.
The artist comments“I was very saddened by the issue and needed to express my feelings so I did a painting with Bader’s photograph taken from a newspaper clipping and I drew symbols representing his mother and family members who are still looking for him”. Is this not a rather crude procedure? One would be tempted to ask. But upon questioning his paintings – And I did that only once, sitting alone for an entire afternoon in the storage room of a gallery in Bahrain – one is compelled to let go. To abandon. To surrender. It becomes necessary to enter the fragmentary universes that are presented to the eye as the drawings of a child, yet intensely charged with melancholy.
The relationship of the painter to children in general and to the child Bader is not born out of coincidence: As a child, he was hit by a speeding car and rested in a hospital bed for a long time, taking on the pleasure of drawing as a pathway to work out his traumatic experience. One can think of Frida Kahlo, struck by a car accident at the age of 18, sitting on her bed and painting through the night; however, as Kahlo’s characters turn crystalline but altogether icy, she circumvents her sense of loss through a process of disassociated selves. Al Mahdi, on the other hand, is an unrestrained topographer of his own life. “Painting is just another way of keeping a diary”, remarks Picasso.
“Childish” painting, mistakenly associated with fantasy and fairy tales, is a recurrent theme in great masters such as Picasso and Chagall, and to a lesser extent, Kandinsky. Picasso painted children from direct observation, leading the way towards symbolic forms that would unabatedly capture the consciousness of the eye without crutches to lead one through. The world of Al Mahdi, on the other hand, though sharing with Picasso the desire to shatter the equilibrium of stable living spaces, is created out of a syntactic imperfection; his own. From Chagall he might have learned the dream-like appearance of rooms and household items, but he allows them to retain their morphological independence from each other, as things.
There’s but little of infantile in painting through childhood memories: They attempt to re-locate the abstract boundaries of the self in a world of fundamental joy and innocence that yet is filled with the content of horror and pain, fear and lust, contingency and luck, without ever forgetting the initial vision. For the contemplating adult, his paintings liken those of the psychotic and the mad: They are unable to recognize the filters of reality and experience it without any of the mediations offered by comfortable interpretations and social norms. It is not possible to enter his paintings as a stranger and walk away from them in the same way. Against flat pastel-white and black backgrounds, lurks the uncertainty.
His acrylics unfold without specific time and location, suspended in a continuum of memory, from which it is impossible to flee into the safety of the historical and the chronological. In an informed essay about Al Mahdi’s painting, Farouk Yusuf explains that in the apparently innocuous images, “The creatures of Mohammed Al Mahdi are [set] as traps, set to capture specific preys”. Life is seen as a continuous re-birth in which the pastel-colored energy bifurcates into both creation and destruction, imploding from all directions. The procedure is at once gloomy, ethereal, ecstatic and mysterious: “His creatures are cut loose and standing apart with the secrets they hold.”
But the painter has placed himself at severe risk. The invasive journey into his memories has gone too far; he cannot return to mere representation and has become a prey of his own trap. Out of this alienation, the canvases speak in sign language and ask for a ransom: They want to bridge a gap between his own discursive orders and those of the contemporary eye in general.
His work is a long series of inscribed quotations from the raw materials of life, in a singular montage in which it is no longer possible to distinguish the source and the destination. “Who knows which waters one will swim through in the future? No one will. And that’s the beauty of it, the beauty of myriads of possibilities”. But the artist doesn’t let go, he clings on forcefully. He wants to keep everything, everything that has already passed, everything that has already happened, the most casual and mysterious things: toys, scraps of paper, voices, fresh air. The pain of forgetting is what fuels his brush with fire, and Picasso comes to his aid:“Everything you can imagine is real.”
 Al Mahdi's most recent work was showcased in 2012 in the group exhibition TAQASIM IV, at Albareh Art Gallery, Bahrain.

Saturday, March 16, 2013


For T.

The traces disappeared
In the very end
Without smoke
Without footsteps
Also without pain
And you disappeared with them
On a warm evening
In that hotel room
From where you could see
Pinks and palms
Blocking the waters
From unfurling
Into our eyes

Not a single gesture was left
That wasn't consumed by the fire
None of your smiles
Not any of your fires
Nothing survived
Not even the pain
Memories there were not
Only futures devoured
By mercilessness
By cowardice
Washed away by presences
Infinitely invisible
Nothing was bodily
Nothing ever happened

How could I forget?
How to forget what never became?
The rattling of impossibility
The pristine whiteness of the cold
Emanating from human bodies
That were once stars
Traveling across endless miles
Of hopeless illusions
Under a skin of skepticism
And a well drying up
Looking at that tower
Awaking always to the nightmare
That everything had already passed
That everything had already happened

An unexpected gift
You were
The gift of flight
Of going far away
But when I see you
I hope I will not recognize you
I hope that your eyes will never find me
Will never remind me
Of who I was then
Yet how marvelous the gift was
How impure, how difficult, how impossible
In distance you are not, in the nearness you're neither
Suspended, frozen in my breath
Nothing has to happen after all.

Farewell Is Not Good-Bye

First published on THE MANTLE
“Die Krise ist Permanent geworden” –Jacob Taubes
What is a collection of photographs? Susan Sontag partially answers the question:“Any collection of photographs is an exercise in Surrealist montage and the Surrealist abbreviation of history”. It is perhaps not that the world is seen through photographs but that photographs are seen as the world. The reality of wars and conflicts that happen far away are no longer only part of the photography stock of any decent publication but also household items; they come in the form of toys, videogames, souvenirs, Hollywood films, TV series, post stamps and cigarettes. Waris a familiar sound of the living room. An unavoidable background sound.
But wars are more than sights and sounds. The experience of war leaves traces in the air that are both incorruptible and imperceptible: Wars come with their own textures, smells and sense of time. Documenting a war through photographs and film footage is unable to capture these traces that are distinguishable only by the participants of this age-old game. And in a war, everyone is a participant: The victim and the perpetrator. Buildings come and go – history knows this to be so – but the color of the waters, the moisture of the soil, the humming of birds; all of this is landscaped anew by armed conflict, as if by decree of a master plan.
Photography is immune to these changes. Representational images in general exist in smooth surfaces that lack the kind of traces necessary to be properly stored in memory; advertising and documentaries of war have in common that they attempt to deploy archetypes resembling traces of memory. But how to manipulate an image, a photograph in such a way that it leaves traces? Literalness is the opposite of trace, and this is how in the Impressionist period, artists set out to subvert compositional images to enable them to capture the passing and imperceptible: Cold air, morning fog, air, and in particular the effects of light on emotions.
The exhibition Legend of Death, by Aleppo-born photographer and mixed media artist Khaled Akil is one such topographies of war in which otherwise straightforward images are manipulated to convey real effects of texture; the texture of violence and war, cycles of decay and re-birth, the merciless and ever so recurring passing of time. Two years after the Syrian civil war raged on – and while it is an academic question whether it is a revolution or not, the cold facts of war are unavoidable – Akil focused on his native Aleppo, choosing a plethora of cultural and geographical objects with enlarged sentimental value, treating them with more historical bird’s eye than sentimentality.
The skyline of Aleppo, rarely seen Mesopotamian effigies, birds and soldiers are among Akil’s chosen symbols through which he presents the Syrian conflict, charged with cultural metaphors associated with the land – rather than the republic – of Syria through the ages. His images exist simultaneously in different planes and times, acquiring a certain cinematic quality, as if identical still frames could be juxtaposed on paper in such a way as to provoke fright and hope, despair and joy, melancholy and glee. Rather than a medium of representation or even opinion, Akil’s photography is an imbalance between observation and ambiguity.  
Through a complex process of manual intervention, including not only photography but painting, Arabic calligraphy, drawing and endless layers of scratches, light and anti-light: Sometimes a thick halo of presence, sometimes a grayed fading. The concept behind the exhibition does more than merely collecting and defiesSurrealism in being more than a montage: His visual landscape is never an artificial hell or heaven, but rather, the capture of a moment of ecstatic intensity before its final disappearance – in the same way that stars go to their death in the sky, part of complex biological cycles that appear marvelous when observed from the outside.
Khaled Akil is mourning over the destruction of Aleppo during the war, but his mourning is not melancholy and gloom; it is charged with the epic of the Greek tragic hero. As the political abuses of religion continue to ransack and vandalize the entire Middle East, Akil reflects on the five-thousand years history of this region and without blinking he visualizes how everything will pass, come of its own age, rise and fall, but yet Mesopotamia and Sumer will live on. The Arabic calligraphy with passages from the Koran and Mesopotamian mythology does not function as quotations but act in the name of the scandalous revolutionary force of the past, to quote Pasolini.
 An apparently somber journey through Aleppo turns into an untimely meditation on hope and an allegory against war, war in general. Stranded somewhere between painting and photography, passing and remaining, metaphor and documentary, poetics and lamentations, Khaled Akil’s “Legend of Death” unfurls before the viewer as an unrestrained visual essay on human possibilities. Produced in Syria while intense gun battles raged outside, and presented for the first time in Istanbul, his exhibition is a tribute to the Syria that is no more but that with or without him, will rise once again. In a conversation he remarked: “I would love to take you to Aleppo, to my Aleppo… One day, one day…” 

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Albareh Art Gallery @ Art Dubai - Annie Kurkdjian

 Albareh Art Gallery brings to Art Dubai 2013 a show of Lebanese artist Annie Kurkdjian, with a selection of paintings, showcasing the Beirut-born artist as one of the most puzzling emerging talents in the Middle East. Her work, informed by the Lebanese Civil War and by what she calls, “the orgy of Beirut”, is not intended to offer solace or comfort. Kurkdjian is not seeking shelter in the lost paradise of an old Beirut, while at the same time she is also not obsessed with the representation of war. Working across acrylic and mixed media on canvas and board, the painter has developed a unique visual lexicon that defies classification.

The horrors of war and the trauma of loss find their way into her work with warm intimate metaphors: Transformations of the body, psychological horror, paralysis and deformity. Kurkdjian’s painting presents a vast range of apparently figurative possibilities that demand not just contemplation but a great degree of attention and empathy. Some of her paintings can be conceived as academic studies on fear and psychosis: How do I represent myself through different stages of torture, mutilation, psychosis, and ultimately redemption. The soul is painted bodily through the mirrors of modern life: War, annihilation, despair.

Her complex iconography is a visual narrative, construed not only as the expressions of somber material realities and how they would be represented if we could speak about them, but also as a cultural journey through contemporary philosophy, poetry and film. Re-writing life not only without limits, but precisely at the very limit where the human condition becomes tragedy and comedy, caricature and cinema, allegory and hallucination. Unlike most artworks examining the conditions of trauma and womanhood, Kurkdjian focuses not only on the victims of war and violence, but also on the victimizers and their environments.

While there is a Surrealist element in her work, with its tendency to reconfigure reality at the mercy of violence, the painter keeps looking for the place of love and dignity in life through humorous, often laconic references. The constant search for skeptical spirituality brings her closer to the Belgian painter René Magritte, who was not interested in painting the world as a dream but rather, in how we would experience it if we were truly awake, and not half in slumber through the endless anesthetics of modern life. Annie Kurkdjian, as an artist, wants to live with the illusion of living without illusions and yet at the threshold of hope.    

Unlike Magritte, however, Kurkdjian’s faces are not abstract but distinctively human and always at risk: Scenarios of pain, expressions of fear, abandonment, sarcasm. Sometimes childish and sometimes voluptuous; suspended in smooth animated backgrounds, her characters are captured with the unsentimental empathy of Diane Arbus’ photography: Alien, hopelessly isolated, immobilized in mechanical, crippled identities and relationships (Susan Sontag). The grotesque and the shameful, the private and the intimate, become in her paintings, metaphors for being subject to violence, to mistreatment, to mercilessness.

But there is more thirst and anguish than hopelessness and anger in her work. The endless transformations that the human person undergoes in her canvas is also a mapping of the journey of art between the restrictions of traditional painting and the constant fluidity of life in her native Middle East, between peace and war, hate and love, indifference and warmth. The precision of Kurkdjian’s eye is such that she doesn’t look the other way when confronted with horror; instead she attempts to transform pain into a theater of life. Or, in the words of Helene Cixous: “Everything that is (looked at justly) is good. Is exciting. Is “terrible.” Life is terrible. Terribly beautiful, terribly cruel. Everything is marvelously terrible, to whoever looks at things as they are.”

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Albareh Art Gallery @ Art Dubai - Camille Zakharia

First published on ArtClvb

Albareh Art Gallery brings to Art Dubai 2013 a show of Bahrain-based Lebanese artist Camille Zakharia, with a selection of artworks from two separate but curiously interrelated projects, “Markings” (2008) and “Belonging” (2010-2012). Showcased internationally since 1985, Zakharia’s work explores unconventional notions of identity and place; the unfurling of his images is textured as a map of spaces both fluid and open, breaking through the markers of topography, reaching truer places. Camille Zakharia’s own life journey between the Middle East, Europe and North America has equipped him with different pairs of eyes, through which he traces epicenters of instability. 

The artist is always seeking traces of personal stories and places as if geographies were constantly in movement, documenting the accelerating cycles of ruin, decay and renewal that shape modern life in urban environments. Yet Zakharia is not simply documenting with photographic precision; his artistic interventions on apparently innocuous images, become complex procedures of turning fleeting moments into monuments of all what is imperceptible to those immersed in the intoxicating business of sheer living. Through photography, photomontage and collage, his work blurs the distinction between memory and imagination with realistic irony; sometimes evoking Baroque allegory, sometimes Surrealistic montage, but always distinctively Middle Eastern. 

In “Markings” (2008), the artist produces a series of mandalas, quilts and Middle Eastern tapestries with Islamic motifs; endless combinations of patterns emerge, made out of simple photographs of white, yellow and blue paint on black asphalt. Zakharia inverts crass objects from the growing formlessness of cityscapes, into delicate and homogeneous surfaces, defying his own medium’s obsession with capturing or reproducing reality. While Susan Sontag notes that “Photographs help people to take possession of space in which they are insecure”, Camille Zakharia challenges this security of possession through the eye, by transforming original images into whole new orders of spatial arrangements. 

Along parallel lines, running through the earth’s grid, “Belonging” (2012), explores the uncertainty of concepts such as place, identity and belonging in a world made strange by endless myriads of possibilities. The project documents the life journeys of expatriates living in Bahrain and their definition of the word “belonging” in this unusual country, welcoming but contradictory, traditional but progressive, small but cosmopolitan. Zakharia confesses that since his original documentation, almost half of the interviewees are not living in the island any more, reflecting the transitory nature of human relationships in a globalized world. The shifting nature of space in Bahrain, a country still under construction, provides the background for the artist’s research.

Territory is not always a geographical place; there are territories of time, territories in the body, territories for the mind: Bahrain is one of those territories of paradox where geography is not a boundary, as much as an invitation to dwell in the interstices. Himself an immigrant, Zakharia is acutely aware of these paradoxes, associated with unknown lands and the process of appropriation. Accordingly, he set against the background of the participants and their statements, photographs of murals – perhaps no longer existing – painted by ordinary Bahrainis without formal training in art that he photographed all over Bahrain through the years, conveying a sense of time, shared but in dislocation. 

His collages are not accidental configurations: The distance between photographer and reality created by the lens is bridged through a series of interventions in which more than arrangements of photographs, the collages become tapestries – as in “Markings”, but riddled here with impure contrasts – carefully handcrafted by an artisan and woven with the yarn of disjointed threads: personal memories, colorful naïve iconography and shifting landscapes. Zakharia’s project becomes the untold visual history of coming and going, passing and changing; identifying home as a series of moments, something undefined and always in movement. Perhaps belonging is precisely just that: To be in longing.

What if being at home becomes impossible? What if after having lived abroad one is always abroad? What if Bahrain is not a center but a margin, ripe with impossible possibilities? When the place of origin can no longer be had or felt, it might be possible that it can still be seen in the faces and glimpses of others that we encounter in our places of transit and destination. Camille Zakharia’s works open before the viewer as a journey that has not been completed and at the end of which there are only questions. Or, in the words of Sontag, “If photographs are messages, the message is both transparent and mysterious.”

Arie Amaya-Akkermans
Source: Albareh Art Gallery

Friday, March 08, 2013

Legend of Death

First published on ArtClvb

Chalabi Art Gallery presents “Legend of Death”, the most recent exhibition of Syrian photography artist Khaled Akil and his first solo exhibition in Istanbul. Akil’s visual journey through Syria and his native Aleppo – one of the world’s earliest settlements – unfolds as a dream-like paradox in which the passing and the permanent overlap, meeting on the edges of beauty and tragedy. The mysterious-looking images are deployed as fragments that beget questions and invite the onlooker to enter a battlefield. 

What one sees upon entering is not clear: A dual universe emerges in which creatures and symbols from the ancient world merge with the fragile textures of war and abandonment. As the 5000-years-old land of Syria enters one of its darkest periods and its cultural heritage is being bulldozed and turned into debris, Akil’s work is a soothing and melancholy reminder that empires have risen and fallen, conquerors come and gone, but Mesopotamia has always remained itself; a land fertile with symbols and forms. 

Produced in the middle of the battle for Aleppo during the Syrian war and shown for the first time in Istanbul, the exhibition is composed of nineteen works that would be difficult to classify as photography: Akil’s treatment of original photographs, passed through countless layers of manual interventions that result in digital prints, gives the viewer the illusion that he is confronted with engravings on ancient stone that have been saved in the very last minute, before being consumed by the thirst of war.

A mixture of photography, painting and Arabic calligraphy, his works exist simultaneously in different times and places, inverting the order of the real and leaving behind only traces of pure symbols. While these symbols never completely disappear from view, they can be seen vanishing and fading, sometimes as fog, sometimes as smoke, something as dust. The element of mourning in his work surfaces charged with spiritual metaphors and night visions; objects appear suspended in timelessness. 

The Istanbul-based photographer creates in the exhibition a tribute to an ageless Syria, allowing the viewer to travel throughout millennia of history with only one stare. The textures and surfaces in the works are tempting, but suddenly vanish as soon as the hand touches the printed paper; the experience is an illusion but the illusion travels faster than the eye. About one of the works, depicting a Syrian soldier, Akil remarks: “The reflection of the soldier carries a message. In war there are only victims.” 

In honor of the closure of “Legend of Death” on March 15, during the last week of the exhibition, gallerist Elizabet Chalabi, REORIENT’s art writer Arie Amaya-Akkermans and the artist, will be hosting a series of private meetings with art specialists, curators and gallerists, to present Khaled Akil’s work in Istanbul’s dynamic art scene.

Arie Amaya-Akkermans

Source: Chalabi Art Gallery
Mim Kemal Öke Caddesi No.17
Nişantaşı İstanbul