Mijn hersenspinsels en gedachtekronkels

Nedim Kufi en Ahmed Mater; twee bijzondere kunstenaars uit de Arabische wereld nu in Amsterdam – نديم الكوفي وأحمد ماطر

            

links: Nedim Kufi, News, bedrukt papier op houten latten (detail), 2010 (foto Floris Schreve)
rechts: Ahmed Mater, Waqf Illumination III , Gold Leaf, Tea, Pomegranate, Crystals, Dupont Chinese ink & offset X-Ray film print on paper (detail), 2009

Een weerzien met een oude bekende en een nieuwe ontmoeting

Nedim Kufi en Ahmed Mater; twee toonaangevende en vernieuwende kunstenaars uit de Arabische wereld, nu te zien in Amsterdam

نديم الكوفي وأحمد ماطر

Vanaf 21 mei is er in Amsterdam een bijzondere tentoonstelling te bewonderen, van een aantal vooraanstaande kunstenaars uit het Midden Oosten. Samensteller is Robert Kluijver, die sinds de afgelopen jaren zeer actief is geweest op het gebied van kunst uit het Midden Oosten. Ik geef hier de details:

http://www.baarsprojects.com/index.html

Tot zover de omschrijving van de tentoonstelling. Ik kan trouwens de gehele expositie van harte aanbevelen, er is veel interessant werk te zien. In dit verband wil ik mij richten op twee van de deelnemende kunstenaars, Nedim Kufi en Ahmed Mater. Ik zal ook ingaan op eerder en ander werk, dat niet op deze tentoonstelling is te zien. De anderen, de kunstenaars Rana Begum, Abdulnasser Gharem, Susan Hefuna en Shahzia Sikander bewaar ik wellicht voor een andere gelegenheid.

Nedim Kufi – نديم الكوفي

Nedim Kufi, afkomstig uit Irak, is een van de kunstenaars die ik nog ken van mijn scriptie-onderzoek. Ook in latere artikelen (zoals hier en hier ) heb ik aandacht aan hem besteed. Ook is hij een keer uitgebreid door de NRC geïnterviewd, voor een artikel dat grotendeels over mijn onderzoek naar kunstenaars uit Irak in Nederland ging, zie hier op dit blog. Een tijdje was hij wat uit mijn netwerk verdwenen, al volgde ik hem wel op afstand, vooral via internet. Hoewel hij betrekkelijk weinig in Nederland heeft geëxposeerd is vooral in het buitenland zijn ster steeds meer gaan rijzen. Ook zijn werk heeft in de afgelopen tijd een indrukwekkende ontwikkeling doorgemaakt.

Nedim Kufi, die in het verleden ook bekend stond onder de namen Nedim Muhsen of Nedim El Chelaby, werd in 1962 geboren in Bagdad. Hij studeerde begin jaren tachtig aan de kunstacademie in Bagdad bij de beroemde kunstenaars Ismail Fattah al-Turk (beeldhouwkunst/keramiek) en grafische technieken bij Rafa al-Nasiri. Over zijn tijd aan de academie verklaarde hij het volgende:

‘I applied to the Institute of Fine Arts Baghdad, I was excited, and anxious at the same time about the racist oppression of the Baath Party. While learning and practicing my art, that was also an unpleasant period of my life. You cannot imagine, great depression, no freedom, no oxygen at all’

 Na zijn academietijd werd Kufi direct naar het front gestuurd om als soldaat te dienen in de oorlog tegen Iran. Kufi:

‘Although I felt very fortunate to have had art as an alternative companion, sketching up the way I lived in one notebook, it’s also important to include here my emotions. I cannot describe at this moment how much sorrow I carried. I graduated after five years and it was then compulsory for me to become a soldier. Imagine that, during the war with Iran: a black comedy. Counting time until the sun rises and gains in intensity, suddenly one day on 08.08.1988 it was proclaimed that the war was over. Oh my God. I felt I could fly. I needed to make a big difference in my life after this war. But how? How do I escape? I felt fenced into the country. The dream of moving abroad infiltrated my mind every single moment. All of that was a dark layer’.

Uiteindelijk lukte het Kufi om Irak te ontvluchten en na een bizarre omzwerving (over zelfs meerdere continenten) kon hij zich in Nederland vestigen. Sinds die tijd woont en werkt hij in Amersfoort. Ook volgde hij hier nog een opleiding grafische vormgeving aan de Hoge School voor de Kunsten in Utrecht.

Nedim Kufi, Brainwash; Object topical Iraqi, installatie/ready-made, Aleppo-zeep en aluinsteen, 1999

Waarin Kufi zich al vanaf eind jaren negentig van de meeste van zijn in Nederland wonende Iraakse collega’s onderscheidde was het sterke conceptuele karakter van zijn werk. Een van de meest sprekende werken uit die tijd is zijn readymade Brainwah; object toppical Iraqi uit 2001. Te zien is een blokje Aleppo-zeep en een stukje aluinsteen (een soort puimsteen), attributen die in het Midden Oosten tot de vaste bad- assecoires  behoren. Alleen doet de vorm van de steen ook denken aan een hersenkwab. Het is de combinatie van de objecten en de titel die het werk een mogelijke betekenis geven. Dit soort dubbelzinnigheden zijn typerend voor het werk van Kufi.

Kufi eerder over dit werk in NRC Handelsblad in 2003 (zie ook op dit blog ): ‘Gewassen hersenen worden van steen – ze slibben dicht, er kan niets meer in’

Nedim Kufi, Eyes everywhere, krijt en potlood op papier, 1999

Een vergelijkbare associatie roept de tekening Eyes everywhere op. Te zien is weer een vorm die sterk doet denken aan een menselijk brein. Alleen is er met potlood op verschillende plaatsen telkens weer hetzelfde tekentje  aangebracht. Het gaat hier om de Arabische letter  ع  (‘ayn), wat ‘oog’ betekent (عين). Het gegeven van ‘overal ogen’, al dan niet ingebeeld, is ook weer een teken waarmee je verschillende kanten op kunt.

Een andere readymade uit dezelfde periode is een enveloppe. Kufi heeft dit werk de titel Brainwash II gegeven. Wellicht gaat het hier om een uit Irak verzonden brief, gericht aan Kufi en gestuurd naar een adres in Borculo (wellicht nog de vluchtelingenopvang). De inhoud van de enveloppe laat zich raden, maar Kufi geeft hier wel een aanwijzing in welke richting wij het moeten zoeken.

Nedim Kufi, Brainwash II, readymade, 1999

Een zelfde soort ironie blijkt ook uit verschillende korte tekstjes, die Kufi een aantal jaren terug op zijn website publiceerde. Hier een passage uit ‘The defenition of Cool’:

 ‘How do I describe the word C O O L? How come? It’s hard to answer this

question in a couple of pages. But one thing could be very helpful, and that

is everybody nowadays almost says (cool), obviously as an immediate

expression. No need to make the idea of cool explicit any more. It’s an

attitude of this age, a new common language used with the meaning of

superiority and high quality. Yes it has a magic power when it touches

people, I don’t know really! Is it so cool? Is it so attractive? Is it a bit sharp?

Is it too glossy? Or could it be too perfect? It’s logical if life had totally

changed, from age to age (groovy) transformed into (cool) deep into

Internet TITLES mostly extended to (cool) to be saleable items.’

 

Vervolgens komt hij met een heleboel voorbeelden, zoals:

 

‘Getting the best model of mobile telephone with special extra function is so cool, Dancing

the whole Saturday night is cool too, Vacation in IBIZA is extremely cool,

Getting your own domain name in www is so cool, Bombing here and there

is very cool, American action movies are so cool, If you win a million is real

cool, If you get a USA passport is cool,’

 

enz.

 

Hoewel de tragiek nooit ver weg is, heeft Kufi altijd oog voor het absurde en is zijn werk zeker niet gespeend van enige humor.

  

Nedim Kufi, ‘Habibi-project’ ( حبيبي = ‘Habibi’) , Amersfoort, 2009

Kufi zet alle mogelijke materialen zoals kauwgum, rozenblaadjes of zeep. In mijn gesprek met Kufi uit 2001 sprak hij dan ook van ‘junk art’. Tegelijkertijd is hij ook bijzonder bedreven in alle mogelijke grafische technieken, tot en met allerlei computeranimaties. Zie bijvoorbeeld zijn Habibi-project dat hij in 2009 in Amersfoort realiseerde, samen met de dichter Gerard Beentjes. ‘Habibi’ betekent overigens ‘mijn liefje’ in het Arabisch. (zie http://www.deweekkrant.nl/files/pdfarchief/AB/20090708/NUC_ANU-1-07_090708_1.pdf )

In zijn recentere werk ontpopt Kufi zich tot een soort alchemist. Aan de Libanese Dayly Star vertelde Kufi dat hij zich opeens een vriend van zijn vader uit zijn kindertijd herinnerde, die werkte als traditionele ‘attar’ (alchemist).  Kufi hierover:

 “If we say art is a profession only, then it is not enough for me. I mean, I know art is a profession but it has to be more than that. I have to find in art a temple, a ritual, spiritual behavior. So in general, I behave in art as an attar to feel comfortable and complete. From that moment, I feel very much settled.”

 

Nedim Kufi, Milk, honey, ink and soil, mixed media/installatie (New York, The Phatory Garden of Eden), 2003

Het gegeven van de alchemist lijkt bijna letterlijk te worden in een kleine installatie uit 2003, die Kufi in New York exposeerde (zie bovenstaande afbeelding) Maar ook andere in werken (zie de voorbeelden hiervoor) blijkt in Kufi zich een alchemist, die met ogenschijnlijk waardeloze materialen, of alledaagse beelden, onverwachte schoonheid kan creëren. Kufi is dat in de afgelopen jaren tot en met nu blijven doen, zie de hieronder getoonde voorbeelden waarin hij onder meer werkt met wegwerpmateriaal als zeep en kauwgum. Zie overigens ook dit boeiende interview met Kufi door zijn collega-kunstenaar Ali Mandalawi in al-Sharq al-Awsat in het Arabisch. Daar gaat Kufi uitgebreid in op ‘zijn rol als alchemist’. Kufi zegt ondermeer, dat hij, toen hij in New York exposeerde (zie bovenstaande afbeelding), meermalen de vraag kreeg toegeworpen: ‘Ben u kunstenaar of chemicus?’ Kufi antwoordt dat hij zich als kunstenaar sterk kan identificeren met de traditionele ‘attar’ (of chemicus). Zijn atelier is zijn laboratorium en hij ziet voor de kunst een belangrijke taak weggelegd. Net als de traditionele attar moet de kunstenaar ook het geweten van de samenleving zijn, die het ‘besturingssysteem’ van de maatschappij de juiste richting wijst (hij maakt de vergelijking met het besturingssysteem van een computer). Verder zegt hij in het interview dat het hem opviel dat, itt in Nederland, hem in Amerika vaker werd gevraagd ‘Waar gaat u naartoe?’, dan ‘Waar komt u vandaan?’ Voor hem is de eerste vraag veel wezenlijker dan de tweede. 

Een tijd lang heeft Kufi ook op internet een soort dagboek bijgehouden, zijn ‘Daftar Project’ (‘Daftar’ betekent ‘schrift’, of ‘notitieboek’  in het Arabisch). Helaas staat dat niet meer online, maar ik geef hieronder het een en ander aan documentatie en afbeeldingen. De twee beelden waarmee hij zijn ‘dagboek’ introduceert en de toeschouwer binnenleidt zijn haast iconisch; een waarschuwing dat het breekbaar is, maar wel met een uitgestoken hand.

 

http://universes-in-universe.org/eng/nafas/node_60/2006/node_577/photos/kufi_1/

http://web.me.com/southproject/south/Daftar.html

Drie bovenstaande afbeeldingen: Nedim Kufi, Daftar, online schetsboek/dagboek, 2004-2005

Nedim Kufi, bijdrage aan Dafatir (‘Iraqi Notebook project’), zeventien Iraakse kunstenaars wereldwijd, coördinatie Nada Shabout (University of North Texas), 2006. Zie hier de verschillende bijdragen en hier wat achtergrondinformatie

In 2006 participeerde Kufi in het zg Dafatir-project, een initiatief van de Amerikaanse Iraakse Nada Shabout, hoogleraar hedendaagse kunst van het Midden Oosten aan de Universiteit van North Texas. Zeventien Iraakse kunstenaars, verspreid van over de hele wereld, namen hieraan deel, waaronder grote namen van de iets oudere generatie als Dhia Azzawi, Rafa al-Nasiri en Hanna Mal Allah, maar ook Kufi’s generatie-genoten als Mohamed al-Shammerey. De meeste kunstenaars excelleerden in hun persoonlijke handschrift op miniatuurformaat. De vaak beeldschone resultaten van dit project zijn hier te bekijken. Kufi’s bijdrage was, geheel in zijn stijl, conceptueel en minimalistisch en behoeft eigenlijk geen toelichting, zie bovenstaande afbeelding.

 

Nedim Kufi, The Moon follows us, gemengde technieken op doek, 2008  (Sultan Gallery, Kuwayt, zie hier voor meer achtergronden)

“On a summers day traveling from Baghdad to Kufa on a visit to relatives the view shifted along our course seducing us. I remember sleeping deeply during this two hour trip, a long time for a child of six. In between sleep I caught sight of the view through the car window; the moon centered in an ecstatic sky. The speeding car followed it through the dark and desolate desert. I was amazed that whenever the car stopped or slowed down so did the moon. It entered my mind freely stirring my astonishment and curiosity, this phenomena, and I asked my father “Oh father…the moon follows us, why is this?” I wished to impress my father with the depth of this phenomenological thought! He smiled but didn’t offer any words in reply. It was as if he had known the answer at a time past, but no longer. The question remained silently with me through out the long night spent with my relatives till we went onto the roof of the house to sleep. There was the moon again reclining above and seeming to own the sky here as it did in Baghdad. With a new sense of clarity I said to my father “this proves my theory, look just as I told you…the moon follows us! Content I fell asleep with a smile… unfortunately the heads of the households seemed only to speak about life’s problems…not paying attention to the moon.

And here I am, unexpectedly passing through the fortieth year of my life, still in a state of surprise. When I try and unravel the darkness and find order in the Dutch sky Baghdad’s moon does not provide sense though it follows me yet softening my estranged and desolate path.” Van  http://www.infocusdialogue.com/interviews/nedim-kufi/

Nedim Kufi, Soap and Silence, zeep en tekstiel op paneel, 2008

Nedim Kufi, Rooh/Soul  (روح  = ziel), rode zeep op doek, 2010

Nedim Kufi, Bore, print op doek, 2009

Nedim Kufi, Nass (ناس = mensen), fotoprint op doek, 2010 (detail)

Nedim Kufi, 20 years later, installatie, 2010

 

Nedim Kufi, Home/Empty, digitale print, 2008

In Kufi’s meest recente werk keert het thema van zijn ballingschap weer sterk terug. Zie bijvoorbeeld zijn werk 20 years later, waarin hij een vliegticket van Amsterdam naar Baghrein sterk vergroot op doek heeft afgedrukt.

In een interview uit 2006 met Predrag Pajdic zette Kufi zijn verhouding met zijn geboorteland als volgt uiteen:

Pajdic: ‘I expect this ‘identity recycling’ to be the nucleus of your work. Is it?’

Kufi: ‘Yes, I totally agree with you. Identity and what’s beyond is the point. In terms of meanings modeling. I’m not sure yet whether I’m a pure Iraqi or not, but here I will try to figure out to my self at least how much of an Iraqi I am. Feeling like an alien is not an issue any more. Why? Because it started already, in the early dark time of being home in Baghdad in the ’80s and ’90s, and that badly consumed my soul. I was actually under the Baath Party occupation. Where ever I moved I found a checkpoint asking me for my papers. Me and the government. Me and the authority. Me and the dictatorship. We never trusted each other. Like a daily game between Tom and Jerry.
I still shake, if you can believe me, every time I find myself at any airport, or any police office. Even now I have a Dutch passport: the most acceptable one in the world. Look! and pay attention to the contrast: what I had and what I have today. I’m wondering, is identity an official paper? Is it a continuity in the family tree? Is it an army service duty? Is it the place of birth and death? Is it saying yes to what they decide for you? No! I reject all of those common thoughts and focus only on one. And then I may say: being satisfied on a piece of land where ever it is and sleeping deeply, peacefully there without any of nightmares. That is the real identity. According to my experience, there still is an ID conflict which automatically allows my identity to be recycled. From time to time the mirror of the past follows me but in front of me. It reflects clearly my memories. The sweet and bitter ones. And also it’s able to
observe, compare and manipulate the meaning of it. Trying to find a balance somehow. I used to find myself in betweens: imperfect existence. It has to be, one day, full identity. Art could be an ID. Even a good mother language as well. The identity recycling idea came to me while I was in New York City once.
In order to analyse this conflict, I put all my trust in the tongue and eyes of Iraqi kids. Through a visual essay about traveling between here in the Netherlands and the Middle East. My project aims are to update visual feedback of Iraqi kids (6-14 years). Since 1990 they hold at least double identity. My job is like a postman. Collecting and activating a kind of exchange between their stories. Thoughts and dreams in one historical document by video art’ (
http://www.infocusdialogue.com/interviews/nedim-kufi/ ).

Nedim Kufi, Home/Absense (foto Floris Schreve)

Nedim Kufi, News, installatie 2011 (foto Floris Schreve)

Zie ook een statement van dit jaar:

An Art that deletes the memory; 21 years later in exile

Sometimes I see myself as an author more than a visual artist, especially when I intensively think on theoretical level which is very different from visual practices I normally do. This happens when I’m outside my studio. This matter makes me always say that “intellect” is a substantial half of the creation of an image. As for the rest, it is some kind of a vision which goes beyond this world, a path to our soul and one important tool to translate our visual dreams. Day by day, it becomes certain and obvious that producing Art is extremely hard task. Seriously I could say here, after my long experience in the field, that a work of Art will get rid of its impurities then change into light. These kinds of things happen in special times of inspiration. They make my many remarks on papers, sketches and failed documents go to the recycle bin, new pure papier-mâché after cooking, as if we are cooking our thoughts. Yes I assume and think that we are in a virtual kitchen. Let me give you my conclusion: We are recycling our lives, words, forms and art, although we always deny this fact, all the way.

Nedim KUFI
Amsterdam | june 2011

In zijn ‘Home/Absence’ serie (2008-2010) is het gegeven van ballingschap duidelijk aanwezig. In ieder werk uit deze reeks keert steeds hetzelfde motief terug. Aan de linkerkant is steeds een (bewerkte) foto weergegeven uit Kufi’s jeugd, waar hij zelf op staat. Aan de rechterkant is dezelfde foto weergeven maar dan gemanipuleerd en heeft Kufi zichzelf weggetoucheerd. Saeb Eigner, in zijn grote overzichtswerk Art of the Middle East (2010) over deze serie:

‘Iraqi artists have reacted to the suffering of their compatriots with varying degrees of directness. Nedim Kufi has used actual photographs as his startingpoint, manipulating them in order to convey the related themes of bloodshed and loss. Based on a photograph taken more than forty years ago, the pair of canvasses here is suggestive  rather than explicit, subtly addressing the theme of innocence betrayed’

Saeb Eigner, Art of the Middle East; Modern and Contemporary Art of the Arab World and Iran,  Merell, Londen/New York, 2010, p. 173

Op de tentoonstelling in het Willem Baars Project is een van zijnHome/Empty werken te zien, samen met een kleine installatie News, bestaande uit houten latten, waarin fragmenten van artikelen uit Arabische kranten zijn weergeven (zie afb.)

Nedim Kufi woont en werkt in Amersfoort, maar exposeert voornamelijk in de Arabische wereld.

 

 Kufi’s werk in het Willem Baarsproject (foto Floris Schreve), links: Home/Absense (digitale print, 2010) en rechts: News (papier op houten latten, 2010)

werk van Ahmed Mater op de tentoonstelling in het Willem Baarsproject

Ahmed Mater – أحمد ماطر

Ahmed Mater al-Ziad Aseeri werd in  1979 geboren in Rijal Alma, in het Aseeri-gebied van Saoedi-Arabië. Op zijn negentiende ging hij geneeskunde studeren aan het Abha-College. Tegelijkertijd zette hij zijn eerste stappen op het pad van professioneel kunstenaar in het nabijgelegen al-Meftaha Arts Village, dat was gesticht door de Gouverneur van Aseer, ZKH Prins Khalid al-Faisal, zelf dichter en schilder, om de locale kunstscene te stimuleren.

Zijn werk kreeg voor het eerst internationale aandacht, toen Prins Charles van Engeland, in 2000 op bezoek bij Prins Khalid al-Faisal, kennismaakte met het werk van Mater. Doorslaggevend voor zijn loopbaan was echter een bezoek van de Britse kunstenaar Stephen Stapleton in 2003. Stapleton over zijn ontmoeting:

‘I First met Ahmed at the al-Mefthaha Arts Village in March 2003. He was sitting in the corner of his studio in a white. Ankle-length, painted thawb (long shirt), and was surrounded by a sprawling collection of medical paraphernalia. X-rays, anatomical illustrations and prescription receipts jostled for space ammangst bottles of calligraphy ink, spray paint cans and books on Islamic art.

He told me how his ‘double’ life as a doctor and artist had awakened in him a creative energy and motivation to explore humanity, in an era of religious, political and cultural turmoil. With great excitement he showed me his latest paintings; expressive layers of rich colour painted onto human X-rays, marked with religious symbols and hand written medical notes. “An anatomy of faith in the 21st century”, is how he described them’ (In Stephen Stapleton (ed.), with contributions of Venetia Porter, Ashraf Fayadh, Aarnout Helb, ao, Ahmed Mater, Booth-Clibborn Productions, Abha/London 2010, p. 27)

Stapleton bracht Ahmed Mater ook in contact met Venetia Porter, conservator van Word into Art, de permanente tentoonstelling van hedendaagse kunst uit de islamitische wereld in het British Museum. Zij verwierf meteen X Ray (2003, zie onderstaande afbeelding) voor de collectie. Sinds die tijd kan het werk van  Ahmed Mater op een groeiende internationale belangstelling rekenen, met als voorlopig hoogtepunt zijn deelname aan de Biënnale van Venetië dit jaar, aan de tentoonstelling The Future of a Promise , waarin een aantal van de meest prominente kunstenaars van de Arabische wereld van dit moment participeren. 

Ahmed Mater, X Ray, Mixed media and x-ray film, 2003 (collectie Word into Art, British Museum), zie http://blog.ahmedmater.com/?p=76

Gedurende de afgelopen tien jaar heeft Mater een indrukwekkend oeuvre ontwikkeld, waarin hij zich voornamelijk heeft geconcentreerd op vier verschillende thema’s (al zijn er sinds kort een paar bijgekomen, waar ik hierna nog wat aandacht aan zal besteden). Deze zijn Illumination, Magnetism, Evolution of Man en Yellow Cow . In dit verband wil ik deze vier  thema’s een voor een behandelen, waarbij ik een aantal duidelijke voorbeelden zal laten zien.

Allereerst zijn Illuminations, zijn ‘X-rays’. Ahmed Mater is tot op de dag van vandaag ook werkzaam als arts in een ziekenhuis in Abha.  De directe inspiratie haalt hij dan ook uit deze omgeving. Maar het gaat er natuurlijk om wat hij met deze röntgenfoto’s doet. Deze zijn verwerkt in complexe composities, rijk gelardeerd met islamitische ornamenten en symbolen, en soms overladen met gekalligrafeerde teksten.

Aan Venetia Porter lichtte Mater het volgende toe: ‘(this painting) explores the confusion in the identity of mankind in the contemporary world. The X-ray, sitting on top of a deep, layered background of medical text and expressive paint, represents an objective view of the individual, chosen to provoke a familiar response…My approach as a doctor has been evidence based and influenced by a direct experience of the world’ (zie http://ahmedmater.com/artwork/illuminations/resume/venetia-porter-/ ). Juist dat ‘evidence based art’ is voor Mater een belangrijk punt, we zullen het nog tegenkomen bij zijn andere werken.

Ahmed Mater, Illumination I & II, Gold Leaf, Tea, Pomegranate, Dupont Chinese ink & offset X-Ray film print on paper. Let op het handschrift boven en onder beide werken. Hier staat in het Arabisch وقف  (‘waqf’= ‘charity’)

Over de hier getoonde Illuminations I & II: ‘They are laid out in exactly the same way as the beginning of a religious text. I have also added the word waqf beneath each. This means charity. Traditionally in religious texts you have two pages, symmetrical in design, containing abstract design. The craftsmen would always spend a great deal of time on these opening pages: they’re the first thing you see. Instead of a traditional geometry I have printed two facing X-ray images of human torsos. I prepared the paper using tea, pomegranate, coffee and other materials traditionally used on these kinds of pages. By using them you ensure that when you come to paint onto the paper it will have an extraordinary luminous quality – the paint will truly shine. And that’ what I want to do with this piece, to illuminate. I am giving light. It’s about two humans in conversation. Us and them, and how this encounter gives light. Dar a luz. So many religions around the world share this concept of giving light, not darkness. It is one religious idea that has reached mankind through many different windows.’ ( http://ahmedmater.com/artwork/illuminations/resume/venetia-porter-/ )

Zijn latere Illuminations zijn complexer en weelderiger van compositie. Mater doet hier het begrip ‘illuminatie’ in de zin van ‘boekverluchtingen’ ruimschoots eer aan. Tegelijkertijd zou je zijn deze verluchtingen kunnen opvatten als een artistieke synthese tussen traditie en moderniteit, of als je wilt, tussen religie en wetenschap.

 

   

Ahmed Mater, Waqf Illumination III , Gold Leaf, Tea, Pomegranate, Crystals, Dupont Chinese ink & offset X-Ray film print on paper, 2009. Voor vergrote afbeelding en meer details, klik hier

 Ahmed Mater, X-Ray Calligpaphy, offsetprint, 2005

Bij Magnetism, zijn tweede thema is eveneens sprake van een soort synthese tussen wetenschap en religie, wellicht nog uitgesprokener dan in zijn Illuminations. Munten zijn X Rays uit in een weelderige vormentaal, zijn magnetisme-reeks is van een verpletterende eenvoud. Eigenlijk is het een simpele trouvaille, waarin met een eenvoudige handeling een heleboel gezegd wordt.

Het enige wat Mater doet is het plaatsen van een magneetblokje in een hoopje ijzervijlsel, met de negatieve pool naar beneden. Het gevolg is dat het ijzervijlsel wordt afgestoten en in een cirkelvormige ring in een regelmatig patroon (vanwege de aantrekkingskracht van de positieve pool aan de bovenkant) blijft liggen. Deze simpele handeling levert de volgende bijna archetypische beelden op (zie onderstaande afbeeldingen): 

    

     

Het beeld van de vierkanten of rechthoekige magneet, omringd met een cirkel van metaalgruis, roept natuurlijk ook de associatie op met de Kaäba in Mekka, het hart van de islam. Tim Mackintosh-Smith over deze trouvaille (want dat is het eigenlijk):

‘Al-Bayt al-‘Atiq, the Ancient House, to give the Ka’bah another of its names, is ancient – indeed archetypal – in more than one way. The cube is the primary building-block, and the most basic form of a built structure. And the Cube, the Ka’bah, is also Bayt Allah, the House of the One God: it was built by Abraham, the first monotheist, or in some accounts by the first man, Adam. Its site may be more ancient still: ‘According to some traditions,’ the thirteenth-century geographer Yaqut al-Hamawi wrote, ‘the first thing God created on earth was the site of the Ka’bah. He then spread out the earth from beneath this place. Thus it is the navel of the earth and the mid-point of this lower world and the mother of villages.’ The circumambulation of the pilgrims, Yaqut goes on to explain on the authority of earlier scholars, is the earthly equivalent of the angels’ circling the heavenly throne of God, seeking His pleasure after they had incurred His wrath. To this day, and beyond, the Ka’bah is a focal point of atonement and expiation; in the Qur’anic phrase, ‘a place of resort for mankind and a place of safety’.

Ahmed Mater’s Magnetism, however, gives us more than simple simulacra of that Ancient House of God. His counterpoint of square and circle, whorl and cube, of black and white, light and dark, places the primal elements of form and tone in dynamic equipoise. And there is another dynamic and harmonious opposition implicit in both magnetism and pilgrimage – that of attraction and repulsion. The Ka’bah is magnet and centrifuge: going away, going back home, is the last rite of pilgrimage. There is, too, a lexical parallel: the Arabic word for ‘to attract’, jadhaba, can also on occasion signify its opposite, ‘to repel’. (‘In Arabic, everything means itself, its opposite, and a camel,’ somebody once said; not to be taken literally, of course, although the number of self-contradictory entries in the dictionary is surprising.) And yet all this inbuilt contrariness is not so strange: ‘Without contraries,’ as William Blake explained, ‘there is no progression. Attraction and repulsion . . . are necessary to human existence.’ (http://ahmedmater.com/artwork/magnetism/fre/tim-mackintosh-smith/ )

In zijn derde thema, ‘Evolution of Man’, waarin hij weer gebruik maakt van Röntgenfoto’s,  lijkt Mater zich wat politieker uit te spreken. We zien hier een aantal lichtbakken, waarin een reeks van figuren is weergegeven, die een geleidelijke ‘evolutie’ doormaken. Lezend van rechts naar links (gebruikelijk in het Arabisch) is er te zien hoe een benzinepomp zich langzaam ontwikkelt tot een man die zichzelf door het hoofd schiet (zie onderstaande afbeelding). In de tentoonstelling van het Willem Baarsproject is overigens een kleinere versie te zien, maar daar staat deze ‘evolutie’ van links naar rechts weergegeven- meer toegerust op een Europees publiek . Hoewel de cyclus ook beide kanten opgaat; olie kan uiteindelijk de mens doden, maar als de mens zichzelf vernietigd heeft, wordt hij uiteindelijk olie (fossiele brandstof).

Ahmed Mater, Evolution of Man, installatie, Biënnale van Cairo, 2008

Ahmed al Omran, journalist en een van de bekendste Saudische bloggers (zie hier zijn site) heeft een buitengewoon interessant commentaar geschreven op deze reeks van Mater. Ik geeft het hier integraal weer (http://ahmedmater.com/artwork/evolution-of-man/responses/ahmed-al-omran/ ):

EVOLUTION OF MAN

Saudis, by and large, do not believe in the theory of evolution. Like other conservative, religious societies, Saudis have firmly rejected Darwin’s theory on the basis that human beings are perfect, state-of-the-art creations of God, not the result of some natural process. Ahmed Mater is a doctor by training. He believes in evolution. But for him, evolution does not necessarily mean survival of the fittest. Sometimes, evolution can lead to one’s demise.

Saudi Arabia, founded in 1932, was a poor country with scarce natural resources. Then in 1938 oil was discovered in its deserts, and ten years later production was up to full capacity.

Petrodollars flooded the Kingdom, transforming the face of its land and giving Saudi a great deal of leverage with the international community. Interestingly, the origin of oil is connected to the theory of evolution. Oil is derived from ancient organic matter; the remains of creatures that have not survived the planet’s biological and geological changes.

Saudi Arabia did not only use petrodollars to fuel its rapid development. Vast amounts of the same money were also used to promote and spread the Saudi ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam, also known as Wahhabism. But most Saudis reject this term because they believe they are simply practicing Islam in its purest form, and also because they think the term has been used unfairly to slander their religion and their country.

Whether they agree with the term or not probably matters little now, because some of the extremist ideas that originated in Saudi have in recent years come to shake the world with terror.

Mater’s Evolution of Man brings to my mind the boom and bust economic cycle – but with a Saudi twist. The oil money used to build the Kingdom’s cities and modernise the infrastructure was seldom used to develop minds or modernise their way of thinking. Allowing the clergy to control education and media paved the way for the rise of extremism, which eventually resulted in terrorist attacks outside and inside the country, including attempts to bomb vital Saudi oil production facilities.

What I like about Mater’s use of X-rays is how they turn everything into bare-bone structures; you can go under the skin, explore the essence behind the facade. I also like how the piece is so full of energy; the sequence, the movement, the seamlessness, the lack of a starting or end point. All of this produces a lively interaction between the viewer and the artwork.

This richness, however, does not always manage to displace some of the dark thoughts that crossed my mind when I first saw the piece. True, I am cynical and pessimistic, but I think it goes beyond that; it comes from something within the work itself.

In our hungry world, greed is a sure way to an easy self-destruction. The constant desire for more is depleting whatever is left of our limited resources, not only the material ones but our emotional reserves as well. We spend a great deal of time acquiring everything we can get our hands on. To what end? During your lifetime on earth you can only consume so much. When death comes knocking at your door, such ‘consumer’ choices become meaningless. Do you get to choose how and when you die? Would it make any difference if you did?

You can choose how and when you die if you decide to kill yourself. Suicide is strongly prohibited by Islam but this, of course, does not stop some Muslims from killing themselves, which, although religiously frowned upon, is still a personal matter.

Except that sometimes it’s not. That is, when a suicide results in the death of many others. It is tragic, but that’s the world we live in today. The communication revolution which many hoped would foster understanding between different peoples, religions and ideologies has also allowed extremists to spread their messages of hatred and violence far and wide. We can’t blame technology – it’s merely a tool that can be used for good in the same way it can be used for evil.

In the end, it’s up to us, the people. It’s up to every single one of us. We have the right to live peacefully, and that’s why it’s our duty to be responsible, not reckless. It should be our mission to build, not destroy. It’s time to take matters into our own hands and reclaim this right. We can no longer afford to live in constant, nagging fear.

So let us start changing. Let us make the right choices. Let us choose life over death, peace over conflict and hope over fear. Let us do it now.

Ahmed Al-Omran

Riyadh

February 2010

Ahmed Mater, Evolution of Man, 2008. Een versie hiervan  is te zien op de tentoonstelling in het Willem Baarsproject.

Zie hier een animatie van Maters Evolution of Man:

Evolution of Man from Prognosis Art on Vimeo

Het vierde thema van Ahmed Mater is zijn Yellow Cow reeks. Deze serie is minstens zo pregnant als de voorgaande. Mater presenteert hier een virtuele productielijn in levensmiddelen, met de slogan ‘Ideologically Free Products’. Voor dit project voerde hij ook een performance uit waarin hij een koe beschilderde met gele safraanverf, zie onderstaand clipje:

Ahmed Mater, Yellow Cow, clipje nav de performance uit 2007, zie hier de registratie van de performance

Yellow Cow bestaat verder uit een verzameling ‘reclamecampagnes’ voor ‘zuivelproducten’, zie de onderstaande afbeeldingen. Yoghurt, melk, allerlei kaasjes en roomboter, alles wordt aangeprezen in de stijl van de smeerkaasjes van ‘La Vache qui Rit’,  Zie het bijbehorende logo, waar alleen de traditionele koebel is vervangen door een oorringetje met een klein klokje (wellicht als een alternatief voor het beruchte gele oormerk?). In de monografie van Mater (Stephen Stapleton (ed.), Ahmed Mater, Booth-Clibborn Productions, Abha/London 2010 ) zijn overigens ook een paar stickervellen toegevoegd, met echte reclamestickers.

     

http://universes-in-universe.org/eng/nafas/articles/2008/ahmed_mater/photos/09

Aarnout Helb van het Greenbox Museum voor hedendaagse Saudische kunst in Amsterdam legt mijns inziens terecht een verband met het Gouden Kalf, een Bijbels gegeven dat ook op meer plaatsen in de Koran voorkomt, zoals bijvoorbeeld in Koran 7:148 (zie op http://www.bijbelenkoran.nl/verhaal.php?lIntEntityId=10 ). Helb:

‘Ahmed Mater has made a rich work of art; a non-commercial dairy shop full of real ideas that may help sustain humanity for a century as much as yoghurt, milk, butter and cheese do for a day. Yellow Cow products (2007) came to my attention in the Netherlands while I was reading the Qur’an in search of something that might relate to the visual arts. The story that first caught my attention was about this odd-coloured cow which God instructed Moses’ people to sacrifice. The story acknowledges this simple fact: humans, whether they live in the vicinity of Mecca or in Amsterdam, have eyes as well as ears and may take pleasure in what they see—even attach themselves to a pleasantly-coloured cow or a handsome car—but in the end, they will have an overriding wish to dwell in the company of truth.

Ahmed believes the people in this story were a bit slow finding the truth. It took them a while to decide on sacrifice, and they asked too many questions about the cow, increasing their demands on God as we increase our demands on the material world in consumer societies. But I wonder, were the people demanding to know more so different from a doctor in search of evidence for a true diagnosis?

Not all art is about truth. Yellow Cow products is. Ahmed Mater is. His relationship with truth will be attributed by some to his profession as a medical doctor practicing ‘evidence-based medicine’ and to his heritage as a Muslim. But he might have just been one of those boys who flip stories around to see if their mirror image reflects the truth as well. And smiles

So, I understand Ahmed took a childhood story from his mosque and renewed it, gave it attention anew by wondering what would have happened if the cow had not been sacrificed. From the artwork we can assume the cow would have lived on to become a range of consumer products. By choosing to be a change-manager in a dairy shop, Ahmed
turns the ‘arrogant’ consumer products industry to his advantage by reminding us of the original story. For this he returned to the farm with a bucket of paint, bringing a real yellow cow to life and to the imagination. This is a magnificent act of love allowed only to artists: painting your own evidence in support of the truth’. (http://ahmedmater.com/artwork/yellow-cow/responses/aarnout-helb-greenbox-museum/ )

Tot zover de vier thema’s waarmee Ahmed Mater de laatste jaren heeft gewerkt. Sinds vrij recent zijn er een aantal bijgekomen. Ik wil er hier twee aanstippen. Het gaat hier om oa werk dat hij presenteerde op de Biënnale van Venetië van dit jaar, in de tentoonstelling A Future of a Promise.

Allereerst presenteerde hij daar de Cowboycode. Ik geef hier de tekst weer:

1.A cowboy never takes unfair advantage – even of an enemy.
2.A cowboy never betrays a trust. He never goes back on his word.
3.A cowboy always tells the truth.
4.A cowboy is kind and gentle to small children, old folks, and animals.
5.A cowboy is free from racial and religious intolerances.
6.A cowboy is always helpful when someone is in trouble.
7.A cowboy is always a good worker.
8.A cowboy respects womanhood, his parents and his nation’s laws.
9.A cowboy is clean about his person in thought, word, and deed.
10.A cowboy is a Patriot

Natuurlijk verwijst dit werk naar de ‘Amerikaanse waarden’ die de Verenigde Staten wereldwijd beweren uit te dragen (of op te leggen), zeker in het Midden Oosten. Alleen, als je het zo bij elkaar ziet is het bijna zo lachewekkend, dat de hypocrisie van deze ‘Amerikaanse waarden’ wordt doorgeprikt.

Ahmed Mater, The Cowboy Code, op ‘The Future of a Promise’, Biënnale van Venetië, 2011 (foto Floris Schreve)

Op zowel The Future of a Promise, als op de tentoonstelling in het Willem Baars Project toont Mater een van zijn ‘antenna’s’ (zie onderstaande afbeelding). Mater in een statement over zijn ‘antennes’:

Antenna is a symbol and a metaphor for growing

up in Saudi Arabia. As children, we used to climb

up to the roofs of our houses and hold these

television antennas up to the sky.

We were trying to catch a signal from beyond the

nearby border with Yemen or Sudan; searching –

like so many of my generation in Saudi –

for music, for poetry, for a glimpse of a different

kind of life. I think this work can symbolise the

whole Arab world right now… searching for a

different kind of life through other stories and

other voices. This story says a lot about my life

and my art; I catch art from the story of my life,

I don’t know any other way.

Ahmed Mater

Ahmed Mater, Antenna, op ‘The Future of a Promise’, Biënnale van Venetië, 2011 (foto Floris Schreve)

Tot zover deze bespreking van het werk van Ahmed Mater. De tentoonstelling in Amsterdam, samengesteld door Robert Kluijver, met werk van Rana Begum, Abdulnasser Gharem, Susan Hefuna,  Nedim Kufi , Ahmed Mater en Shahzia Sikander wil ik van harte aanbevelen. Te zien tot 30 juli, Willem Baarsproject, Hoogte Kadijk 15 hs (zie voor info de website http://www.baarsprojects.com/index.html )

 

Floris Schreve

 فلوريس سحرافا

 

.

De antenne van Ahmed Mater op de tentoonstelling. Daarachter het werk van Nedim Kufi. Links werk van Rana Begum en rechts van Abdulnasser Gharem (foto Floris Schreve)

Ahmed Mater, Evolution of Man en Yellow Cow (foto Floris Schreve)

Beknopt literatuuroverzicht en andere bronnen:

literatuur over (oa.) Nedim Kufi:

  • Saeb Eigner, Art of the Middle East; modern and contemporary art of the Arab World and Iran, Merrell, Londen/New York, 2010
  • Maysaloun Faraj (ed.), Strokes of genius; contemporary Iraqi art, Saqi Books, Londen, 2002 (zie hier een presentatie van de Strokes of Genius exhibition)
  • Robert Kluijver, Borders; contemporary Middle Eastern art and discourse, Gemak, The Hague, October 2007/ January 2009

Internet:

Op dit Blog:

literatuur over (oa.) Ahmed Mater:

  • Antony Downey & Lina Lazaar (ed.), The Future of a Promise, published on the occasion of the 54th International Art Exhibition-La Biennale di Venezia, Ibraaz Publishing, Tunis, 2011.
  • Stephen Stapleton (ed.), with contributions of Venetia Porter, Ashraf Fayadh, Aarnout Helb, ao, Ahmed Mater, Booth-Clibborn Productions, Abha/London 2010
  • Stephen Stapleton (ed.), with contributions of Lulwah al-Homoud, Ahmed Mater al-Ziad Aseeri, Abdulnasser Gharem & Venitia Porter, Edge of Arabia; contemporary art of Saudi Arabia, Offscreen Education Programme, London, 2008

Internet:

Op dit Blog:

Interview met de Iraakse kunstenaar Qassim Alsaedy – قاسم الساعدي

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Voor mijn scriptie-onderzoek naar kunstenaars uit Arabische landen in Nederland heb ik zo’n twintig kunstenaars geïnterviewd. Meestal waren dat functionele gesprekken, vooral bedoeld om data te verzamelen. Zelden waren het mooie afgeronde verhalen. Dat lag niet aan de kunstenaars maar aan mij. Het ging mij in de interviews er vooral om zoveel mogelijk feitenmateriaal te verzamelen. Ook verliepen sommige gesprekken weleens wat chaotisch, sterk van de hak op de tak springend. Maar deze gesprekken waren veelal een middel en eigenlijk nooit het einddoel. Een enkele keer is er een mooi en gestructureerd interview uitgekomen, ook nog met een bijzondere kunstenaar. Mijn gesprek met Qassim Alsaedy (Bagdad, 1949) werd een onverwacht mooi geheel. Dat lag niet zozeer aan mij, maar vooral aan hem.

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Zijn werk was me opgevallen in een catalogus uit Rijswijk, waar hij met vier andere gevluchte Iraakse kunstenaars exposeerde, georganiseerd door vluchtelingenwerk. Ik vond zijn werk er toen al uitspringen en besloot om een keer op atelier-bezoek te gaan om hem uitvoerig over zijn werk te bevragen.
Naast het bijzondere verhaal dat hij over zijn werk te vertellen had, bleek ook zijn levensverhaal buitengewoon indrukwekkend (voor zover je die twee zaken kunt scheiden, langzamerhand ben ik ervan overtuigd dat dit vrij moeilijk is). Nadat we eerst op een paar algemene zaken van zijn werk ingingen en zijn achtergrond en opleiding als kunstenaar in Irak, nam het gesprek een bijzondere wending. Wat mij betreft is dit een van de meest bijzondere verhalen over hoe kunst kan overleven die ik ooit gehoord heb, zelfs in een extreem totalitaire samenleving. Het gaat in een belangrijke mate over het nastreven van vrijheid en schoonheid, tegen de verschrikking van dictatuur en oorlog in. Het verhaal van een sterk individu tegen een tiranniek systeem. Van een goed kunstenaar en iemand die weigerde compromissen te sluiten met een verdorven regime of een totalitaire ideologie en daarvoor een hoge prijs moest betalen. Naast over zijn werk vertelt de kunstenaar over zijn verblijf in ‘al-Qasr an-Nihayyah’ (‘Het paleis van het Einde’, de voorloper van de tegenwoordig overbekende en beruchte Abu Ghraib gevangenis) en over zijn tijd bij het Koerdische verzet in de bergen van Noord Irak. Vervolgens zijn uitwijken naar Libie, waar hij Khadaffi’s krankzinnigheid van nabij meemaakte, om uiteindelijk in Europa terecht te komen.

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Inmiddels is het de kunstenaar goed vergaan. Hij is verbonden aan een gerenommeerde galerie en exposeert in binnen een buitenland. In 2006 had hij zelfs een grote solo expositie in het Flehite museum te Amersfoort, die werd geopend door de nieuwe (dus ‘post-Saddam’) ambassadeur van Irak in Nederland. Ook is hij inmiddels meermalen op televisie verschenen en hebben diverse media geruime aandacht aan hem besteed (zie ook de linkjes in mijn blog over kunstenaars uit de Arabische wereld). Toe ik hem interviewde was dit echter nog niet het geval en behoorde hij tot de groep onbekende en ontheemde gevluchte kunstenaars uit Irak, waar het regime van Saddam Hoessein nog oppermachtig was.
Hoewel ik veel uit dit materiaal heb geciteerd (in mijn scriptie, lezingen en diverse artikelen) heb ik het interview nooit integraal gepubliceerd, terwijl het alleszins de moeite waard is, zelfs ongeredigeerd. Bij deze dan op mijn blog. Het gaat hier om de onbewerkte tekst van de band, maar die is al mooi genoeg. De werken die in het interview worden getoond zijn uit de tijd dat ik de kunstenaar voor het eerst sprak (periode 1999-2000). Het hier getoonde beeldmateriaal is overigens van recenter datum.

 

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Mijn artikel uit ‘Leidschrift'(van de vakgroep geschiedenis van de Universiteit Leiden), waarin ik het werk van Qassim in de bredere context van de Iraakse moderne en hedendaagse kunst bespreek: http://www.leidschrift.nl/nl/archief/173-de-maatschappij-verbeeld-in-de-kunst/out-of-mesopotamia-de-versplinterde-identiteit-van-de-irakese-kunstenaar-in-diaspora

De hier getoonde werken komen uit de serie/installatie ‘Last Summer in Baghdad’, 2003/04. De kunstenaar maakte deze serie werken nav zijn eerste bezoek aan zijn vaderland, in de zomer van 2003, na de Amerikaanse inval en de val van het Baathregime.

Voor zijn meest recente werk, zie de website van Frank Welkenhuysen (zijn galeriehouder):

http://www.kunstexpert.com/kunstenaar.aspx?id=4481

televisie uitzendingen gewijd aan (oa) Qassim Alsaedy:

Beeldenstorm (Factor, IKON)

http://www.ikonrtv.nl/factor/index.asp?oId=924#

RAM (VPRO, 19-10-2003)

http://www.vpro.nl/programma/ram/afleveringen/14421835/items/14495412/

Twee andere interviews:

http://www.actum.org/05/Welkenhuysen/default.htm

Zie op dit blog ook Drie kunstenaars uit de Arabische wereld , Iraakse kunstenaars in ballingschap en de begeleidende tekst van de Tentoonstelling van Qassim Alsaedy uit 2011

 

INTERVIEW QASSIM ALSAEDY –  قاسم الساعدي (Baghdad 1949)

Could you tell me something about the art education in Bagdad?

I studied in Bagdad from 1969 till 1974. I lost one year in the political Underground Prison, to which I was kidnapped, for political reasons. Because I was sent to this awful place I studied five years on the academy for painting. Beside studying we were educated in the European culture. There was a great knowledge of the history of European painting.

Baldin Ahmad told me the art education in Bagdad is very European focussed.

We studied art according the Italian, French or other European methods. You have to see this training as a kind of key,  which can open doors when you want to see more, especially when you have dreams to be an artist. So you have to research when you want to be someone.

What I really want to know, why there was a lack of interest in the Arab and Islamic arts, for example the calligraphic tradition?

When we studied art history, we studied it in general. When you study the arts of the prehistory till the present, seven thousand years of culture in four years, it stays on a very general level.

I was told you were mainly educated about Rembrandt and Michelangelo.

We had maybe too little information about contemporary art. We learnt about Rembrandt, about van Gogh, maybe some later. Picasso, he was ok, but then it stopped.

So no Pop Art or Joseph Beuys?

We learnt about the arts before the First World War. After the First World War and the Second World War in Europe there became a huge complex of new ideas in art, in culture and in economy. For us it is very important what had happened later. I mean, what is the influence of war and peace? What had really happened? What is the realistic and what is the abstract? So you have to research it yourself, because the lessons in art history were so limited.

You work in an abstract way. The Arabic and Islamic art have a long abstract tradition. Are you influenced by this tradition?

First I have to tell you we studied according to the European style. The brushes, the canvas, all those supplies were European. Although we were trained like European artists I personally think Europe doesn’t need more artists, from other continents, working in the same way and thinking. I am convinced that the contemporary world culture needs some other air or some other elements, to enrich the blood of the international art. Anyhow, I believe that I, who grew up in Iraq, or Mesopotamia, or the Middle East, have to use a lot of elements to make art. In this way I can feed another and I can share these elements with the world. I can say, look, I have some things, and I like to say something different. It is a way to enrich yourself, some others and to enrich the world.In my background I can find a lot of elements. For example in Asia we use the lines. We use them more than the fields of colour. In our tradition lines are more active, making more life in the painting. It is for the simple reason we have sharp lights. It is because of the sun, there is a sharp contrast in light and shadow. For example in Holland the shadows are quiet misty, so that is the reason in Northern Europe the lines are less important than in Asia. So I use the lines because it is a part of my heritage.Beside we have also the sense for the letters. For me I have not the same aim of the calligrapher. I respect the form of the letters, but all the letters, from all the alphabets in the world. I studied different alphabets, how they can be used to make magic.

 

Using the letters in an alchemistic way?

Exactly. Well, we have the alphabet of Adam, our grandfather, there is the alphabet of David, of Jesus, of Mohammed, whatever, of all these prophets. You see, all these letters are factually abstract drawings. You can use them phonetic but they are abstract symbols. I am interested in reusing these materials, but not to make a text.For example here you see some lines, like traces on a wall, which became my theme later. Some of them seem like letters. But I mean I never want to make a text. It is interesting to see the traces of letters on a wall, the old writings. For me it is very humanistic because they are always traces of human life. So I like this form to make an image, not to make a sentence.

I read that the ancient ruins of Babylon and Ur play an important role in your work.

Yes, when I lived in Bagdad I travelled very often to Babylon, which is very close to Bagdad. It is interesting to see how people reuse the elements of the ancient civilisations. For example, my mother had an amulet of cylinder formed limestones. She wore this amulet her whole lifetime, especially using it when she had, for example a headache. Later I asked her: “Let me see, what kind of stones they are?” Then I discovered something amazing. These cylinderstones, putting them in the clay, left some traces like the ancient writings on the clay tablets. There was some text and there were some drawings. It suddenly looked very familiar. I asked her: “what is this, how did you get these stones?” She told me that she got it from her mother, who got it from her mother, etc. So you see, there is a strong connection with the human past, not only in the museum, but even in your own house. When you visit Babylon and look to the Ishtar Gate, you find the same traces of these stones. So history didn’t end.In my home country it is sometimes very windy. When the wind blows the air is filled with dust. Sometimes it can be very dusty you can see nothing. Factually this is the dust of Babylon, Ninive, Assur, the first civilisations. This is the dust you breath, you have it on your body, your clothes, it is in your memory, blood, it is everywhere, because the Iraqi civilisations had been made of clay. We are a country of rivers, not of stones. The dust you breath it belongs to something. It belongs to houses, to people or to some texts. I feel it in this way; the ancient civilisations didn’t end. The clay is an important condition of making life. It is used by people and then it becomes dust, which falls in the water, to change again in thick clay. There is a permanent circle of water, clay, dust, etc. It is how life is going on and on.I have these elements in me. I use them not because I am homesick, or to cry for my beloved country. No it is more than this. I feel the place and I feel the meaning of the place. I feel the voices and the spirits in those dust, clay, walls and air. In this atmosphere I can find a lot of elements which I can reuse or recycle. You can find these things in my work; some letters, some shadows, some voices or some traces of people. On every wall you can find traces. The wall is always a sign of human life.

 

Do these ancient civilisations have a message for our time?

First I have to say we have the European Art. Further we have some uneuropean elements you can find them in many places. Sometimes I think about the caves of the prehistoric Sahara civilisations. You can find them on the border of Libya and Algeria. There you can find a lot of written messages. They couldn’t really write like our way of writing, but you find a lot of drawings. When I lived in Libya I studied them. Some of those Primitives were my teachers. They draw layers over layers, to tell their messages. For me these drawings are very important. Later I used somehow of the drawings, but then in a modern way. In more recent European Art we learned children drawings are very important. As such are also the drawings of the childhood of mankind important, just as important as our own first drawings. We have to use those elements to create something new. I believe that this happened in a certain way in Europe. We have to reuse our heritage to make something new. You can think a lot of things are very old, but you can reuse those elements again and again. All these elements are still alive. It is difficult to say that things in a museum are old and have no life. If you say that, why don’t you close it. It is shown because it still has a meaning. We still like to see them, because we like to think of our childhood as human beings. Maybe we would like to communicate with those cultures, with those people. Maybe we would like to catch the spirit of history when we put our shadows on those things, the old statues or the old paintings. I enjoy history as I enjoy present time. I can find many things and it is also available for anyone to find some other elements or sources to create something new. I think the history and the art is still available in somehow, still alive for anyone who wants to communicate with the past or the present. They still give you spots of life and some sense of meaning. It gives you always the possibility to make a dialogue.

In the time you studied on the academy in the nineteen-seventies, in Bagdad an avant-garde group was founded called the “One Dimension Group”. They worked, just as you do, with abstract symbols and signs. Were you related to them?

The artist who created this group, Shakir Hassan al-Sai’id, was my teacher .

Really? It is amazing to see how things fall in their place. Some artists discussed in  historical books, such as the books of Wijdan Ali and Brahim Alaoui, are related to the artists living in the Netherlands which I am researching. For example Baldin Ahmad told me he was a student of Faik Hassan and Jawad Salim.

Faik Hassan was my teacher also, and Jawad Salim, who died very early,  was in a certain way also a teacher for me, but in a more symbolic way; for me he was a symbol of a good artist. But Faik Hassan was my teacher for painting in the primary school, while Shakir Hassan al-Sai’id was my teacher in the secondary school. But I never joined the one dimension group. Some of the work this group produced I like very much but in general it was not so clear what is really one dimension art. Shakir Hassan al-Sai’id had a certain concept, but it was difficult to say this is one dimension art. There were a lot of artists who joined that group, but they had no any idea what they were doing. Just using some letters or abstract lines and they saw it as one dimension art. When it looked a little bit to calligraphy, it was enough.

Another aspect of your work, I read in some articles, is that your paintings are a kind of messages to your mother, who isn’t able to read or write. Could you explain it for me?

Well, for me in my position, because I had to leave my country, it is very important how to communicate with my mother. You have to know she developed a kind of a writing system. Of course she couldn’t write but she used a kind of abstract drawings. For her it had the same meaning of a text. Some abstract lines, she liked to use the pencil. It was a really important lesson to me. At first, to learn to communicate and sending her something how I feel about some things and I believe she can feel those drawings, even there is no exactly meaning.  Those drawings she felt about it. I am sure because they were so basic humanistic. Later this meaning became something bigger. It became for me a symbol, a symbol for the land, a symbol for my country, a symbol of place, a symbol of the people. For this mother, the Great Mother, but also my mother, the woman who made me, my own mother and the Big Mother I make my messages. In this way I communicate with her, I still talk with her, because she is a great symbol. For the painting her soul, her existence, is really essential. For her I make my symbols, my elements, my language. I am drawing my things to her. So therefore are my lines still lines, because I write for her. The line is anyhow important so I still work with the line, so they are still active in my paintings.

Sometimes there are some realistic signs in your work, like flags, or the roofs of houses. For example your painting “Rhythms in Blue” (oil on canvas, 1997), shown at the exhibition “Versluierde Taal”(museum Rijswijk, 1999) looks a little bit on a city by night. Also the pyramid form is an essential motif in your paintings. Can you explain why?

Well, this work I like to talk about it ( http://florisschreve.hyves.nl/fotos/355737279/0/uiES/?pageid=C5R662MESRSO4K8S). The original painting, which is now in the gallery Kunstliefde in Utrecht, I made it in my flat in Bilthoven, which is on the eight’s flour. I like Utrecht and I can see the tower of the church. About the painting someone asked me: “Where is this place?” Well, for me it was Bagdad. While I was looking to Utrecht, I was thinking on Bagdad. So it is mixed, those two places.And the triangle, it is an old form. For me it has a spiritual meaning. It is the symbol of the people who are striving to the divine, like the Dom of Utrecht. You can also find the triangle as an important symbol in North Africa, like in Libya, where the triangle is a symbol of the goodness.

I read sometimes the suffering in your country plays an indirect role in your work, like the black fields of Kurdistan. Can you tell me more about this? Did you see them yourselves?

Yes I saw them because I lived there.

You are not Kurdish I read?

No, I am Arab, but I joined the movement which was against the regime. I worked there also as an artist. I exhibited there and made an exhibition in a tent for all these people in the villages, but anyhow, the most amazing was the Iraqi regime uses a very special policy against Kurdistan, against this area and also against other places in Iraq. They burned and sacrificed the fields by using enormous bombings. So you see, and I saw it by myself, huge fields became totally black. The houses, trees, grass, everything was black. But look, when you see the burned grass, late in the season, you could see some little green points, because the life and the beauty is stronger than the bastards. The life was coming through. So you saw black, but there was some green coming up. For example I show you this painting which is extremely black, but it is to deep in my heart. Maybe you can see it hardly but when you look very sensitive you see some little traces of life. You see the life is still there. It shines trough the blackness. The life is coming back.

Why did you move to Libya?

I moved to Libya because I had no any choice to go to some other place in the world. I couldn’t go for any other place, because I couldn’t have a visa. It was the only country in the world I could go. Maybe it was a sort of destiny. I lived there for seven years. After two years the Kuwait war broke out in Iraq followed by the embargo and all the punishments. In this time it was impossible for a citizen of Iraq to have a visa for any country in the world.

 

Also it was impossible for a refugee?

Of course it was possible for a refugee, but for me didn’t ask for a refugee status, because I said: “Well, when I am still capable to feed myself, I didn’t want to go to Europe and ask for support. I am an artist, who still can work.” If I can feed myself, if I can work, if I have one square meter to stand on, I am aware I am alive and will be still there, even when it is very difficult. When you lose this last square meter you have to look for an other place to stand.

So you worked in Libya as a lecturer on the art academy?

Yes, I worked as a teacher on the academy of Tripoli, but the most interesting thing I did there was making many huge wallpaintings. The impossible happened when the citycounsel of Tripoli supported me to do something like that. I had always the dream how to make the city as beautiful as possible. I was thinking about Bagdad when I made it.My old dream was to do something like that in Bagdad, but it was always impossible to do that, because of the regime. I believe all the people in the world have the right on freedom, on water, on sun, on air, but also the right on beauty. They have the right on beauty in the world, or in their lives. So one of my aims was to make wallpaintings and I worked hard on it. They were abstract paintings, but I tried to give them something of the atmosphere of the city. It is an Arabic, Islamic city with Italian elements. I tried to make something new when I studied the Islamic architecture. I worked on them with my students and so something very unusual happened, especially for the girls, because in our society it is not very usual to see the girls painting on the street. It was a kind of a shock, but in a nice way. It brought something positive.

The people in the street liked what you were doing?

Yes, they liked it very much, so they asked me to do same thing five years later.

After Libya you moved to different European countries?

First I exhibited at a very nice festival at Tunisia (International Festival of Plastic Arts, Almahris, 1990, 1991, 1992). For three years I was invited to join the festival. It was a good opportunity for me to meet many artists from many continents, from Europe and the others. There were a lot of artists from France, Belgium, Germany and other countries. Since this event I thought, look, let us do something, let us talking, let us be working together. Let us look for this crazy war which it is still going on. I am against the war anyway. What happened in Kuwait and what happened in my country is a very sad story. Let us stop talking with guns, and all the craziness. Let us talk in a civilised way. Let us talk in art and let us talk about what is good for all the people. Of course you can talk a lot about all these crazy people, from Hitler to Saddam Hussein, Mussolini, Stalin, etc. Let us talk in a good way. Let us do something. In this way we tried, me and some colleagues, to make a dialogue, to work together in art. To work together with the art from all the continents in an equal and nice way. So we did something in Tunisia, something in France (International Art Festival, Tonnay-Boutonne, 1993). I think the artists can make a good dialogue between all those people, better than the politics and the governments.

Do you have an explanation for the fact that contemporary art from the Arab World is such an isolated and unknown phenomenon?

I believe that the policy of all those education and information ministries is very bad. I mean, the ministries from the Arabic administrations. In the Arabic countries the culture and the art stand in the back. In general, the governments are not interested to show what their countries really have. The artists have to manage everything themselves. It is really hard that artists have to manage themselves to communicate, to find a place, or to enter the European cultural life. Since the last twenty years you see the artists try to find a place, to escape. Our teachers, most of them, have studied in Europe before they turned back to Iraq. But how to show what you have is really difficult. In Europe making art is much more easier because you don’t have those crazy leaders we have in Arab countries, those regimes, those horrible things.

 

Well I noticed that not only in Iraq, but even in Jordan there is no freedom of press.

In none of these countries there is any freedom. Maybe in Lebanon you could feel yourself a little bit free, but the other countries are absolutely very bad. It is very difficult to make good art in Iraq, in Libya, in Yemen, or in Sudan, they are all really horrible. You see for those terrible governments and ministries it is not important to send an exhibition every year, or maybe in three or five years, to send out what the country have in the field of art. Also it is difficult to show all you have in a good way, because some have the opportunity more than the others. It depends on your relationship with the government and the ministry.

Is there also a lot of misuse of good art by these regimes? For example, according Wijdan Ali and Brahim Alaoui, Ismail Fattah is one of the most important sculptors of the Arab world. According another publication, however, “The Monument; art, vulgarity and responsibility in Iraq”, by Samir al-Khalil (pseudoniem van Kanan Makiya), which was published in London, Ismail Fattah makes large monuments, everywhere in Bagdad, to honour the martyrs of the “Great War of the Fatherland” against Iran. In Wijdan Ali’s book, “Contemporary Art from the Islamic World” (Amman, 1989), which I believe it is very important because it is so unique in its kind, it is shocking to read how the author of the chapter about Iraq, May Mudaffar, writes about Ismail Fattah. She describes these monuments, but she never discusses the political background. Maybe it is impossible to do, because there is censorship in Jordan, but I think this example shows there is an enormous problem in integrity how to deal with art and how to have a decent art criticism.

In Iraq we have many good artists. But these artists didn’t sell themselves in a cheap way. Some artists respected themselves. But some others they sold themselves, in a cheap or an expensive way. The market was open and you could have the choice. You could be send to the jail, or worse to the political underground jail, or putted in the shadow. The other option was to be made very famous and to be a millionaire, but then you have to work with them. It already begun when we were at the academy. The Baath party was in power for one year (1968) and they had a problem; no artist was a member of this party, no artist wanted to join such a thing. So they came to the academy and said: ”Well we are the party which is in power, and we need some artists to make an exhibition”. They asked for the most talented students. So we were invited for a meeting to drink some tea and to talk. Well, ok we went to that meeting. They told us they liked to exhibit our works, in a good museum, with a good catalogue and they promised all these works would be sold, for the prize we asked.  It seemed that the heaven was open for us and we said, ok, that’s nice. Then they came with their conditions. We had to work according the official ideology  and they should give us specific titles. We refused their offer, because we were artists. When we agreed we would sold ourselves and it would be the first step to hell.Later they found some very cheap artists who joined them. All their paintings had been sold. It was really shit, but the prizes were high. One of them, I know him very well, he bought a new villa and a new car. And in this way they took all this rubbish from these bad artists, and showed them and said: “Well, this is from the party and these are  the artists from Iraq”. The others were put in the dark side of the cultural life. Really, you can find a lot of good artists, a lot of honest artists. When you see the list of good artists and writers who left Iraq, than you really can see what  kind of a country this is! For example one of the pioneers of modern art in Iraq, Mahmoud Sabri, who is making really very fine art, lives now in Prague. He was a good educated man, better than Faik Hassan and Jawad Salim, but he left Iraq for a long time. So it happened with a lot of other good artists. There are a lot of good artists, outside Iraq and some inside Iraq. However, the sculptor and ceramist you mentioned, Ismail Fattah, works for the regime for a long time. I admire him for his work in the sixties and I feel sorry for him now.

 

What is your opinion about the quality of institutions for contemporary art in the Arab world, for example the Darat al Funun in Amman, the Nicolas Sursock museum in Beirut, or the Sharjah Biennale in the United Arab Emirates?

I believe, the Darat al Funun and some others, they are very good.

Is there not also the problem of censorship?

Well, in Jordan you can exhibit what you want. For the Iraqi artists it was the only hope to reach Amman, because it was the only opportunity to exhibit your work. The border to Jordan is the only one which is open, because we are totally isolated from other countries. For us Amman is the only gate to the world, because most of the Iraqi artists became very poor, so they couldn’t go further. Most of the Iraqi artists exhibited there, but the pity thing is, they had to sell themselves in a little bit cheap way, because the art market in Jordan is so small, so limited, when you have such a number of Iraqi artists.  But in general, when you find in Jordan, which is such a poor country, four or five art centres, it is very nice.In Lebanon there are also good institutions for contemporary art. In the gulf countries they have no tradition to deal with art.

Money enough, I should say.

Yes, but no money enough to send them to the artists. But you see, in contrary to the ministries, some small particular initiatives are sometimes very good. I saw it in Tunisia and there is also a wonderful gallery in Tripoli, the Dar al Funon.

One of the most important questions I would like to ask for my research is, have you ever noticed some misconceptions about Arab culture in the west? Have you ever dealt with some prejudices about the “Orient”? I ask you this, because I would like to research in what way the notion of “Orientalism”, from the Palestinian philologist Edward Said, plays a role in receiving the art from Arab countries.

This is an important point. Look, in Iraq we studied the art history of Europe so we know a lot about it. But in Europe there is a very little information about our culture, on our art. Many of our teachers went to study in Europe. We have also a lot of institutions. We have three academies and a few museums. This is nothing compared by in Egypt, or in Lebanon, or even in Syria. But when you are in Europe and you tell you are an Iraqi artist, they put you in a very small and tiny corner. It means they ask you: “Do you work in a traditional way? Do you make traditional arts and crafts? Do you make decoratives, or calligraphs?”  I say then: “No, I am making modern art”. Some of them ask: “So you are an artist. Did you know something about art when you were in your country, or did you learn it here?” I say: “I worked in my country as an artist”. “Did you make paintings in your country?”. I say: “Yes!”. “Did you exhibit in your country and did you sell work in your country?” .”Yes”.Sometimes it is really painful. Why are we so isolated? Well, of course we have been isolated, from Europe, because we have a crazy regime. And it is not only our regime, also the Libyan regime, or whatever regime. But on the other hand, there is no regime like that in Europe. So they have the possibility to go there, to look, to communicate, to write and to show. I think here you have a lot of papers, magazines, TV channels, etc. So why are we so isolated?So therefore I say, let us talk. Let us work together and let us showing something. Let the artists themselves to do that. Not the ministries, not the regimes. I have nothing to do with politics and the policy of my government, or to any other government. Let us talk as artists, as educated people and as human beings. I am not very optimistic but it is not an impossible dream, isn’t it?

Floris Schreve

De Bilt, 8-8-2000

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