with Lebanese artist Aya Haidar ahead of her upcoming exhibition, Year of Issue at Bischoff/Weiss and
stitch together the style, substance and success of her London-based
unbelievably almost ten years since we first met at the Slade School of Fine
Art. I’d like to start with talking about an opportunity we both shared during
our time at the Slade. I can remember being very excited for you when you were
awarded a place at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) on
exchange in 2006. Having experienced SAIC for myself the year before, I knew
what an effect it was going to have on your practice, as it did mine at the
time. How important was your exchange to SAIC?
Haidar:Chicago was definitely a pivotal
moment in my early career. At the Slade I didn’t want to limit myself to
painting, media or sculpture. Most of my art has been about concept more than
medium, so when I went to SAIC the variety of media on offer was overwhelming.
I remember applying to do animation or something digital. These classes were
oversubscribed so it was actually a happy coincidence I found myself in the
Fiber and Material Studies department. I thought weaving and knitting were
simply practical pastimes - how could this be related to my art practice?
Within the department there were many different subjects that were so engaging:
one of them was ‘Propaganda and Decoration’. Just the sound of that title, in
that department, was amazing. They had huge weaving, sewing and screen printing
studios as well as the expertise behind it from so many tutors.
practice it was working with those very media - who were actively exhibiting
and working on projects and commissions.
AH:Completely. Because the tutors were practising
artists they were a resource as much as the facilities were. I wasn’t afraid to
explored your craft, quite literally, during your time in Chicago. Were you as
fearless with your concept?
AH: A lot of the subject matter I was exploring out
there was politically engaged. I was from the Middle East, making art about the
Middle East and the discourse from critique shaped my work critically,
conceptually and aesthetically. On my return to London from Chicago I was much
more confident as an artist as well as a thinker. The way I looked at art completely
changed for me.
JV:The art versus
craft debate remains contentious despite the feats achieved to date by the
likes of Turner prize-winning artist Grayson Perry. You’re a practising
contemporary artist based in London who continues to use the very media you
discovered at SAIC. What’s your opinion on the art versus craft debate?
AH: Craft is very much about the medium. Something
that falls under craft can be beautiful and utilitarian and it can stop at
that. Where craft ends and art begins is the manipulation of the material.
Fibre in itself is historically, socially and politically loaded. Where art
comes into it is when concept is introduced – the voice of the artist behind
JV:Things that are
perceived as craft speak louder to non-art audiences by way of familiarity.
Subsequently the handmade emits a greater accessibility than a
conceptually-bound artwork. I believe these are the core ingredients that make
your work so potent.
AH:The materials I use are especially loaded –
loaded from a feminist perspective but also from a very personal perspective.
My history was passed down to me through the medium of craft. Culturally, this
is such an important part of where I’m from. As you say, it is something that
is so familiar – everybody has a history with material: something personal to
them that their grandmother made or knitted. The industrialised world we live
in now was not like this several generations ago. The handmade is very
important in my practice. No matter where you are from, the material is where
we can go back to and it is something that is both familiar as well as having
the ability to hit people emotionally. When you see something that is sewn,
woven or knitted there lies an inherent narrative - even if there is a disturbing
or heavy message on it - you know someone’s hands made it and this human
element brings a contact between the artist, the artwork and the viewer.
JV:Both cultural and
personal narratives play important roles in your practice. How do you balance
being objective and subjective?
AH:I may be dealing with socio-political issues in
my region, but it’s not my intention to be political with my art - these are
universal issues that can be interpreted as social issues. My work is not about
statements but interpersonal revelations - stories that I have seen and
experienced; things I have been told. I’m creating an arena for discussion and
reflection by breaking down the stereotypes of the region that I am from and
revealing untold stories that are never reported on the news. For instance, I
look at regional conflicts across the Middle East – I never talk about Lebanon
versus Israel versus Syria versus Iran versus America. It’s more about the
stories of separation between mothers and children and the human cost of these
conflicts, which is so far removed from the cycle of global politics. These
subject matters are things that people can relate to: issues of displacement,
forced migration, human rights. These are things someone in Mexico or Zimbabwe
can understand just as much as someone in London. The way in which I
communicate all of this is through stitching, embroidery and weaving- that’s the language that was
translated to me where I’m from. Just as you are a writer and communicate
through words, I communicate with thread.
JV: Who passes on
these narratives to you and where do you source the ‘untold’ today?
AH:I’ve always been told where I’m from by my
grandmother and my parents. I’ve never lived in Lebanon but I’ve always
visited. I grew up in a Lebanese household here in London where these stories
were told to me. I completely consider myself Lebanese in the way that I was
raised and I am passionate about where I am from. Any artwork that I make about
the current situation across the Middle East is through my own personal
experiences and is not sourced virtually from my computer screen or my phone. I
am very active within a humanitarian context, whether it be helping refugees to
cross the border from Syria to Lebanon or working with Palestinian communities
in their camps.
JV: How are you able
to experience these scenarios first-hand?
AH:I don’t want people to think my experiences
fall under bourgeois tourism. My role as both Director of the charity, Al Madad Foundation as well as a contemporary artist feed into each other. The work I do
for the charity gives me exclusive access to the frontline of these areas and
enables me to be proactive with a mandate to make serious change.
JV: What is Al Madad
AH:Al Madad Foundation concentrates on long-term
development aid through education projects and sustainable emergency aid relief
that focuses on sanitation. Not many charities work on these aspects, mostly
dealing with provisions of food and shelter, which are very kamikaze in their
approach. The charity is trying to break this dependency within the refugee
community. In the last year we have worked directly in Syria - many
international organisations are not allowed to do this. Through our contacts on
the ground in Aleppo we set up a series of successful education projects and
schools for children that has returned order and discipline into the very
fabric of these communities that were once so broken. People forget Syria was a
middle-income country and that these refugees were educated teachers, lawyers
and doctors before the crisis. We look at their skills and hire them to teach
or rebuild their community for a wage in order to break this cycle of
dependency and to make sure their dignity and self-respect is preserved.
congratulations with what you’re achieving with the charity.
AH:Thank you very much. We’re a small charity but
we do our part one person at a time, working towards long-term sustainable
JV:We've witnessed the
marriage of aid and popular culture that was borne in the late
twentieth-century. Similar motions of awareness continue today and are almost
de rigueur amongst our contemporaries. How do you feel about ‘artists’ visiting
areas of conflict whose purpose can be seen as finite in their exposure of the
situation in these areas?
AH: This irritates me the most. For people to go
into these areas for their own selfish purpose is wrong - it’s not only artists
but politicians and self-styled activists too. I don’t see being an artist and
a humanitarian as separate things. I’m passionate about human affairs, politics
and injustices and I’m incredibly fortunate that I’m in the position where I
can bring concrete change on the ground. I’ve seen the human cost to conflict
with my own eyes. I’m told stories that have hit me emotionally and these are
echoed in my art.
JV:You’ve had huge art
success in the UK and across the Middle East. You were recently in Beirut with
the charity as well as for the launch of your first public art commission.
AH: That’s right. Refugee settlements are very much
a part of society in Lebanon. Dwelling
is made of corrugated iron from these settlements to create 18 birdhouses.
Ironically the piece is installed in Saifi Village, one of the most elite parts
of city. Each birdhouse plots the movement of refugees across the Middle East
and North Africa (MENA) region. The height of each birdhouse differs and
represents the number of refugees in that country from the tallest to the
lowest respectively. There’s no outline of a map, but it’s visually interesting
to see the waves of different heights.
JV:It sounds like a
real departure from the your other artworks.
AH:It’s the first time I’ve worked large scale in
metal – the opposite to the delicate works I’m known for. It’s been a great
opportunity to push boundaries on all levels.
JV: Dwelling couldn’t be more topical – when
massive displacement is taking place as a result of the Syrian conflict.
AH:The news talks about the hundreds of thousands
who are dead in Syria. What I’ve heard echoed by the refugees is that when
you’re dead, you’re at peace. It is the people alive who are suffering. There
are 4.25 million refugees displaced in Syria alone – this isn’t counting the
millions who have fled to neighbouring countries. The survivors continue to
suffer in these harrowing environments - they are cold, hungry and have lost
JV:Would you like to
do more public art commissions?
AH:I’ve really enjoyed working on this commission.
My practice is about engagement and taking it beyond the white walls of a
gallery space. I like the idea of art in everyday environments and being able
to communicate with a variety of audiences in their personal space.
Dwelling (detail), 2013
JV: Since your last exhibition at Bischoff/Weiss in 2011 we’ve had demonstrations span from the Arab Spring to the streets of Wall Street; The Protestor was crowned Time Magazine’s Person of the Year and the revolution of classified media driven by WikiLeaks continues to challenge the status quo. Propaganda, globalization and communication are all themes reflected in your practice. How important is it for you to revisit the past, in particular during times of present day crisis?
AH: A lot of the troubles happening now stem from
political relations in history. What I’ve noticed in the Middle East is that it
boils, it explodes and then it calms and repeats itself. Everything that is
happening now with Syrians in Lebanon is reminiscent to what happened with
Palestinians in Lebanon. It’s interesting you mention this notion of revisiting
the past because my upcoming exhibition Year
of Issue marries the past with the present. It’s about dating – everything
is chronologically archived. It looks at mandates and declarations of
independence, revealing how actually all of it is so pointless. My artworks
look at the significance of independence – are these countries any more
independent now than they were? No they’re not. Lebanon was made independent in
1943. Is it any more independent now than it was under the French? To answer
your question, this upcoming exhibition precisely looks at the past and brings
it to the present day and it will show how questionable history can be. In
relation to story telling, history is very important. I’m talking about the
human stories – these cannot be forgotten amongst trivial dates and policies.
JV:You’ve looked at QR
codes in your new body of work. I particularly like how you’re re-recording
these futile dates and policies by way of a process of permanence: the stitch.
The digital world has entered into fiercely political territory, as a powerful
tool for both the rebel and the institution alike. How have you introduced the
digital into your analogue practice?
AH:This is really interesting. For Year of Issue, I started with a very
specific concept and what grew out of it were the artworks. Even though the
exhibition is about chronology and history, the breakdown of language and
communication are equally important. One element of my practice is to breakdown
forms of communication and rework them. In this case, I have looked at QR codes
to reflect today’s generation of communicating. Instead of writing something
down we just scan for information. This has huge value because the Arab Spring
would have never sprung if it weren’t for social media. It provided a level
playing field – all the information was instantaneous and it didn’t matter if
you were up high or down low:everyone had a voice. Technology however, also has it limits. Each QR
code represents the declaration of independence from each country. When I
embroidered the QR code what was interesting was that it became redundant and
didn’t work. The fibres create a hazy outline making it impossible for the
technology to scan it and therefore translate it. The stitch created a barrier
in communication preventing me to access the information. For me, it’s about the
strength of the old versus the new age of technology.
JV:When I saw these
works for the first time, I instantly saw a strong topographic quality to them.
Notions of espionage came to mind and I wondered how you felt about that.
AH: They do. For the integrity of the work, I know
that they’re created from the declarations of independence but no one will ever
know what is written because they won’t be able to scan them. I like that
there’s this power dynamic between you and me through the artworks. People feel
uncomfortable when they are kept out of the loop, or when they don’t understand
something. I felt this in my last exhibition in 2011 at Bischoff/Weiss, Behind Closed Doors, where I created an
environment out of closed doors that made people feel uncomfortable.
JV:I remember the
doors didn’t have any handles. You created not only a physical but also a
AH:Exactly! It was interesting to see how people
reacted to the doors and how they interacted with them. Part of my practice
directly involves putting myself in uncomfortable or unfamiliar environments. I
remember for my first solo show, 1982
in 2009, the most important thing about that installation was the environment.
People entered the dark gallery with a high-pitched sound that inevitably
causes fear and anxiety. Following on with the doors, I significantly limited
access in the gallery space. Although the area was lit, people were forced to
walk through tight corners and around this wall of used doors that were closed
shut. I create a similar barrier with the QR codes – the works are about the
selectivity of communication in the same way media or propaganda is selective
in its content.
JV:But there is
communication within that even though it doesn’t follow through. Are you trying
to make the viewer work harder?
AH:My intention isn’t to hide any information.
With this latest work it’s about the document itself and how it’s communicated.
Whether you can read it or not, they are insignificant contracts. The
declarations of independence don’t make these countries any more independent.
You should ‘take’ your independence – no one should ‘give’ it you! With my
previous work, the way I communicate stories can be very direct through the
embroidery of text or imagery on shoes, blankets or story quilts. Other times
it’s not so direct and about the break down of language. There’s another piece
in Year of Issue where I’ve doctored
letters on envelopes that were circulated around the United Nations in the
Middle East. Language is fascinating. By just putting letters in different
sequences you can create so many different meanings and possibilities. By
taking away one letter or adding another and it can give a whole different
meaning to something. That’s scary and worrying. This is what I’m highlighting
in the artwork Return to Sender - it
talks about media and propaganda and how the manipulation of words can shape
peoples’ perceptions. Year of Issue
is really about language and communication whether it is visual, textual or
Covered Issues (detail), 2013
JV: How do you interpret the role
of an artist?
AH:I don't speak for all artists but in my opinion
the duty of an artist is to engage with people about their environments on
social and political levels. You may not be interested in what’s happening in
Syria or Lebanon but these are mothers, grandmothers and children that are like
you and me. What’s happening to them may very well happen to us. I believe it
is our social responsibility to work towards becoming a global community.
JV:For anyone who
hasn’t seen your art, I think it’s important to say that these political or
humanitarian issues do not burden the works. Aesthetically, they are seductive
in their execution and will speak to anyone through whatever degree of
contextualisation or superficiality they wish.
AH:Thank you. I hope these new works will
emotionally connect to many by way of their aesthetic and reveal the issues I’m
JV:Who influences you?
AH:I admire Mona Hatoum and Emily Jacir. Their
works are so topical, poetic and aesthetically beautiful.
JV: What’s the art
scene like in Lebanon?
AH:Lebanon’s art scene is predominantly
concentrated in Beirut. There are a lot of established Lebanese galleries who
represent some of the biggest names from the region on an international scale.
What’s more interesting is how the underground art scene is so alive. When you
walk around Beirut you see a lot of witty and political Banksy-style graffiti.
There’s also a lot of music, theatre and artist collectives made up of students
studying to be architects, doctors or scientists who are also engaging in the
arts. It’s an incredibly bottom-up movement, which is very important in a
country where there is so much pressure and tension. It gives everyone a voice
and it’s really amazing how creative and innovative people are. It also brings
communities together in a way like no other. I can’t help but be inspired when
JV:What area of Beirut
would you recommend for culture vultures?
AH:I like Hamra district for all the cafés, bars
and street art that is everywhere. I’d also recommend Agial Gallery run by
Saleh Barakat who has been in the business for decades and deals with modern
art. For contemporary art, The Running Horse and Sfeir-Semler Gallery in Khodr
district feature emerging talent from Lebanon and across the Middle East.
The Play is inspired by Lebanese literary great Khalil Gibran and his
seminal work The Prophet. The
production is currently touring the UK and the Middle East.
AH:Broadway Market in East London on a Saturday is
the place to go if you are a foodie.
JV:Thank you very much
Aya. It’s a wrap. Or it’s a stitch?
In my latest contribution to the Ohh Deer blog, I attend the opening of Tim Noble and Sue Webster's exhibition at Other Criteria's New Bond Street outpost. Portraits from the Bottom Up presents a new body of work - in every sense of the word - by the Brit duo after a residency in the Caribbean. Both artists and technology are stripped bare in a series of prints and bronzes that remain rooted in the narcissistic mania that Noble and Webster are so renowned for.
To find out what's inside the box visit Ohh Deer's blog to read my review in full.
Portraits from the Bottom Up by Tim Noble and Sue Webster is on show until 20th November 2013 at Other Criteria, 36 New Bond Street, London W1U 3BG.
I managed to check myself in to The Old Selfridges Hotel yesterday and explore the ICA’s Off-Site project A Journey Through London Subcultures: 1980s to Now. Featuring artists, architects, designers, musicians and a host of creatives from the vibrant worlds of the capital’s alternative scene, the exhibition is a high-energy display of counterculture past and present, set amongst the raw industrial backdrop that is the former hotel in Selfridges department store.
Tom Dixon, St John, Alexander McQueen, Giles Deacon, Chisenhale Gallery and Lucky PDF are a few of the influential names involved in the project, which documents both a time of incredible social importance happening in London throughout the 80s as well as the strong creative dialogue that continues to resonate to this day within the artistic community practising in the capital.
A Journey Through London Subcultures: 1980s to Now closes this Sunday 3rd November at The Old Selfridges Hotel, above Selfridges Food Hall. For further information visit ICA. Here are a few details from the exhibition…
ICA Off-Site - A Journey Through London Subcultures: 1980s to Now
Writer and contemporary visual artist working between Los Angeles and London.
Available for articles and reviews on contemporary art, design, fashion, lifestyle, travel, profile and events – no subject is out of bounds and challenging briefs are very welcome - view a selection of my published work at jonathanvelardi.com
jonathanvelardi.blogspot will report on art, culture and lifestyle from the #highlife to the #lowlife across the www and beyond...