Art Projects and Series: 1989-2006
In the overlapping series, Orientalism (1989-1995), People of the Book (1992-1997) and The Wandering Ishmael (1999-2000) I used images of exoticism and biblical narratives from Fragonard, Delacroix and Matisse along with contemporary Arabic poetry and patterns to reexamine the ties and chasms between East and West.
Lebanese Linen (1999)
Semites (1999 - 2004)
Stripes and Stars (2001- Present)
Kul Shay / All Things (2005-Present)
I cannot look at French wallpaper patterns from the mid-19th century and not see the legacy of colonialism. I cannot look at certain patterns and styles in my mother's home without remembering a certain time in the early to late 1960's when we immigrated to New York from Beirut - a time of promise, stripes and bright colors. My series, Lebanese Linen was a result of that personal reflection. For me, patterns and places are infused with meaning and point to a historical narrative that incorporates the political, social and psychic.
I was born in Baghdad, Iraq to Lebanese parents. The same year that Saddam Hussein was on the CIA payroll. After one year we returned to an idyllic pre-civil war Lebanon. When I was about six years old we left for the United States. I grew up surrounded by Jewish, African-American, Irish and Italian cultures. At home, it was an Arabic/American hybrid of various strains. In that environment, I received my undergraduate BFA degree from the State University of New York at Purchase. As an adult I came to California where my sleepy Arabic culture awakened to a world of Intifadahs, assertions of identity and new motivations for my art making. My sense of being an American and a feeling of security was rudely challenged when the first Gulf War came in early 1991.
In my series, People of the Book I began to formulate a conceptual framework in which I used the language of the colonial master. I wanted to find, even within European Orientalized depictions of the Arab world, an interpretation of the strength that lay within Arab people and culture. I looked at everything that Eugene Delacroix drew and painted. Within Delacroix's subjects there was a potential for them to ask questions or somehow gaze back at a potential viewer. I wanted to influence how a viewer approaches the subjects within the larger paintings. In particular, I wanted the viewers to visually "read” the story from right to left, rather than from left to right. Through formal strategies challenged the default and privileged position of seeing.
Semites Series: 1999 - 2004. I presented the stories of Palestinians and Jews and incorporated into a layering format so that the story is present with the story-teller. It was a journalistic kind of project in which I collected about 25 stories, rendered 30 smaller portraits that culminated into 11 large full size portraits with stories layered on sheer fabric over the portraits.
Plaid and Stripes/Stripes and Stars: 2001- Present
On the day of September 11, 2001 both the American Flag and the familiar patterns that I always collected merged and floated in my mind, in my dreams and in my waking dreams. Over the past 5 years I have looked at the arguably most profusely decorated culture in the world and the most profusely patterned flag in the world and found many similarities both in the decorative realm as well as culturally.
KUL SHAY / ALL THINGS entails the processing of 4000 digital photographs taken in Lebanon, Syria and Iran during a six month sojourn in Beirut from December 2005 - June 2006. Like a biologist gathering samples it was a daunting task just to sort them. Also, as in all projects especially ones to do with photographing life around me, there were shifts and unexpected political strife. The work thus far has manifested it self into three various forms of expression: 1) construction shadow boxes, 2) standard photographs and 3) several poetic text narratives on various observations excerpted from my "Beiruti Journal”. There is more coming in the form of "distilled narratives” that offer deeper concentration on one subject, perhaps in book forms and installations.
At its best, Middle Eastern culture ties, builds, innovates and synthesizes ideas and form. Yet I live in a culture that does not recognizes this. I live in this American culture that sees my land of origin in simple and unforgiving ways. I take a circuitous path toward examining and portraying my individual struggle and interests by offering specific patterns, decoration, text and constructed formal terrains. My paintings and photographs evoke narratives both specific and universal. My writings take their cue from Edward Said as I grapple with fair and new ways to define Middle Eastern art and how it relates and is so often sutured to what we call "Western” art. These definitions are not in the mainstream bank of knowledge at present. Middle Eastern art, Islamic art, calligraphy and even how we trace our histories have yet to be fully researched and written.
I cannot look at my culture - often times called Islamic and not see the ancient histories of Egypt, Assyria and Mesopotamia. I see the tribal arts of the Berbers, the Kurds and the gypsies who influenced all folk music, or the early Christians of Byzantium: Armenians, Greek Orthodox and Aramaic cultures of the Chaldeans and the Syriacs who still practice in their beloved Aramaic language. I cannot look at my culture and not see that the dialect that I speak from the South of Lebanon, circa 1965 has embedded in it traces of Phoenician, Hebrew, early Nabitean Arabic and bits of local oddities. The language of Arabic, when first developed and to the present, refused and refuses to erase the pictographs of Egypt or the cuneiforms of Ugaritic culture. I am convinced that Arabic as a phonetic language has an embedded pictographic mission, a spatial intent and within it there is one point perspective and spatial notations delivered through the harakat or diacritical and vowel marks that literally punctuate spaces - emphasizes the decorative here and a light or distance there.
"Inside Arabic From Alef to Zaha”, an ongoing research paper and PowerPoint, was presented at the Arab American National Museum in Michigan and at the American University of Beirut. After an introductory argument it lays out how Arabic calligraphy has influenced Zaha Hadid's architectural renderings. Hadid, the first female recipient of the prestigious architectural Pritzker Award was born in Baghdad and studied mathematics at the American University of Beirut. Hadid means "steel” in Arabic and that she has been referred to as a "woman of steel” is not an accident. "Diva of Steel” would be more apt. Hadid has often claimed that her influences include the "east” and calligraphy as well as the Supremitists and deconstructionist. She sits in an elite architectural world that does not understand this other influences beyond the universal "Western”. They ignore those references to Arab culture by evoking the barren desert or the overly decorative - a put down in architectural speak. All we have to do is look at the Arabic language and its various fancy and prosaic manifestations to see where the architectural sweep comes from. In "Inside Arabic From Alef to Zaha” I investigate examples of Arabic calligraphy from early times to contemporary calligraphers to create a sense that the spatial realm has always been an important part of this phonetic language's repertoire. Direct comparisons are drawn from typical examples of Arabic texts to the many projects of Hadid.
The Craggy World
February 16, 2003