An intimate talk with Nada Sehnaoui

Lebanese artist Nada Sehnaoui recently showcased her newest artworks at Galerie Tanit in Beirut. The solo show, How Many, How Many More, signalled a return to abstract painting and conceptual sculpture for the artist, after a series of installations produced on a grand scale. Sehnaoui chatted with Selections about her latest exhibit.

Nada Sehnaoui, How Many How Many More, installation shots. Photos by Mahmoud Merjan, Courtesy Galerie Tanit and the artist.
Nada Sehnaoui, How Many How Many More, installation shots. Photos by Mahmoud Merjan, Courtesy Galerie Tanit and the artist.

Q: What three words would best summarize yourself as an artist?
A: Concept, emotion, aesthetic. The order is irrelevant as it varies.

Q: What has been a seminal moment for you in your artistic trajectory?
A: [It was] turning one canvas into a series, with Painting the Orient-Le Jour in 1999. Then turning a public space into a large canvas, first with the installation Promenade in Your Dreams in 2001, which took place in the open-air amphitheatre of a private school, then in 2003, with the public installation Fractions of Memory in Downtown Beirut.

Q: After an impactful series of large-scale, site-specific installations, your latest exhibition, How Many, How Many More, marked your return to painting and sculpture. What prompted this shift, and could you tell us more about your process?
A: The shift stemmed from my need to paint, as I am a painter who expanded her practice to the public space. It is also, perhaps, the need to contract to a more intimate expression. The How Many, How Many More series are large, multi-layered paintings, whose construction and layering needed physical, emotional and meditative time.

Q: In your work, time stops, the past is fragmented and the future uncertain. Why question history’s linear deployment?
A: We live our lives in bodies subjected to gravity and time, to history and geography. What we witness makes a linear reading of history a bit difficult. If we compare it to dance, it’s not a waltz, nor a classical ballet, but rather a freestyle or a Pina Bausch spectacle, where at any moment several directions are possible.

Q: You’re an artist and an activist, working towards social justice. What do you think the social function of art is today, in particular in the Middle East?
A: The violence that we are witnessing is greatly due to fears and also created by questions related to identity. Art is not a political program. Its function is to ask difficult questions, to show what is usually hidden, to imagine the unimaginable.

Q: Do you have an artist that you particularly look up to?
A: Matisse for his powerful and creative use of colours, Picasso for the freedom to look differently, Christo for the vision and the courage to inhabit the immensity, Cy Twombly for the poetry of his whites inhabited by traces.

Q: What motivates you to keep creating art?
A: The existential need to materialise by giving form to thoughts and emotions.

Q: As an artist, what do you fear the most?
A: I fear fear itself. What would be the value of working without courage?