Being Abdel Rahman Katanani: Fruits of Labour

In an exclusive interview, Abdul Rahman Katanani looks back on his inspiring journey from a childhood growing up in Lebanon’s Sabra refugee camp to becoming the acclaimed artist he is today.

TELL US ABOUT YOURSELF.

I was born on September 25, 1983, in the Sabra Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon. This was one year after the Sabra and Shatila massacre. I am the eldest of six children: two girls and four boys.

My paternal grandparents left Jaffa, Palestine in 1948 and moved to the Sabra camp. They lived there until 1952 when they moved to Tel al-Zaatar, where my father was born. He was one of 10 children. One of my uncles used to work as a carpenter in the nearby Dekwaneh area, where there were many skilled and experienced carpenters. When the civil war broke out in 1975, it started in Tel al-Zaatar with the camp siege and bombing. My uncle was among the people who were able to escape and make their way towards the mountains, but that was the last time we heard from him. That year, my grandparents moved back to Sabra, but due to events – their home was destroyed several times – they moved on and off.

HOW WAS YOUR CHILDHOOD?

When we were young, due to the events happening in the camps, we would constantly move and each time my parents would have to start their lives all over again. One time when my parents returned to Shatila, they found their house had been ransacked and destroyed after the camp was invaded. Later, we stayed in the old Gaza hospital in Sabra, which we transformed into our home. The streets in those times were a warzone. We were always warned not to go out. I clearly remember seeing “Amal” written on the walls. This was in the late 1980s when I was around five or six years old. As children, we would find guns and grenades on the ground while playing or digging. We would also play in abandoned or destroyed buildings and my father would get mad.

We would work from a very young age, play, or go to the mosque. After school, I would help my father, who was a carpenter, with work and I would also do some metal work and mechanics, as well as butchery and many other things. Life has always been like this: we work multiple jobs. My grandfather had an iron barrel manufacturing business and I have also worked with barrels, so my father would always tell me that I took after my grandfather. I also used to volunteer to prepare meals in the mosque in Ramadan and we would get free food as a result. It was a very dark time back then.

WHICH SCHOOLS DID YOU ATTEND?

As a Palestinian, other than the UNRWA public schools in the camps, which were not great, we only had the right to attend private schools. Since I’m the eldest, my father decided to enrol me in the highest-ranked school in Lebanon at that time, which was Al Makassed, a private school in Ard Jalloul. It wasn’t far from our house, and I completed my elementary education in English there.

In all honesty, it wasn’t the best experience. I experienced so much racism because of my darker skin and the fact I am Palestinian. Then, when we could no longer afford a private school, my father sent me to UNRWA schools. This was a drastic change for me. At the age of 10, I went from a very disciplined environment to a very chaotic one. I still know some people from those days, but most didn’t do anything with their lives. The ones who emigrated were geniuses and got scholarships as soon as they finished high school. I was a rebellious child. I would skip middle school almost every day because I used to hate my school. My parents still have no idea about this. I attended a UNRWA high school in Bir Hassan, where I studied sociology and economics. I love the subjects of economics, physics and biology. In fact, I never intended to go into the arts because I love physics so much.

WHERE WAS YOUR FIRST EXHIBITION?

I held my first solo exhibition in the camp when I was young. I made three mirrors that had black iron bars for Naji al-Ali, the Palestinian cartoonist. I used to draw when I was at Al Makassed, but I discovered caricature in middle school. In grade 9, I started focusing on caricature a lot more and since then so many things have changed in my life as a result. I also found my signature through my caricature drawings, as within my name there’s a key. In those days, I used to draw for 12 hours every night, as I didn’t have time in the day. In grade 10, I exhibited my drawings in many schools and universities, but they were not for sale. NGOs would approach me to exhibit my work abroad in places like Japan, for example, and they would send the drawings abroad. That’s how I managed to exhibit in many countries without actually being there myself.

HOW IMPORTANT HAS POLITICS BEEN TO YOUR WORK?

In 2000, when I was 17 years old, the revolution started. After that, I started discovering Arab caricature artists and caricature art from around the world. I was also really into politics. I knew I wanted to do something for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I thought that change should start from within the camps. I used to be active with many NGOs and work with them on a voluntary basis. Together, we formed a dabke dance group and I also put together a magazine, featuring articles and my own caricatures. It was titled “Wall Magazine”, as I would display the issues on the camp walls. From the late 1990s until 2005, it was dangerous to show anything on the walls, but this was official.

Unofficially, we would form secret movements in the camps and write statements about boycotting American merchandise at a time when no one would even talk about this. Four of us formed a secret movement called “AMANASHA”, which was an acronym of our initials. It was short-lived since it created many problems. Shops either closed or stopped selling certain things because they knew there was a secret youth movement in action. We would stick posters and drawings up in the camp at night and we would come back the next day to watch people’s reactions. What we saw was shocking. They wanted to stop the movement and get revenge. Nobody knew that I was the one who did the drawings or that one of us was the son of the camp’s chief. Actually, it was a cross-eyed man who made us stop. He plastered the drawings over posters of camp leader Abo Ali Mostafa’s face, the day after Abo Ali Mostafa had died. It was very disrespectful and stirred up problems. During that time, I would also exhibit in Borj El Barajneh, Sabra, Shatila and Mar Elias, but my father received threats about this. I continued in Shatila camp, and made a lot of great statements about the corrupt leadership in the camps that were published to the world.

In 2004, when there was a project in the camp to draw on walls, my caricatures were featured, including some for Naji al-Ali. At that time, I wasn’t on good terms with all the NGOs because I felt they acted duplicitously. They would refuse grassroots initiatives and were against any type of development that might encourage anyone’s independence. I received many offers to draw, but I would turn them down unless it was related to the Palestinian cause. I would address taboo subjects, such as Tel al-Zaatar, which had been bombed by the Syrians. The caricatures I made angered people to the extent that they would send people to attack me. My father’s friend was with the Fatah movement, and I received an offer to join them and draw for their magazine, and in return they would provide me with my university education. I turned it down, even though money was tight at that time. In my first year of university studying fine art, I was a courier, and I couldn’t even afford the university fees. So, my Palestinian friend, who was a painter and decorator, gave me $300 so that I could enrol. Looking back, I didn’t even know what fine art was supposed to be at that time.

HOW DID YOUR CONNECTION WITH FRANCE ARISE?

Visitors from France came in 2005 and after seeing my works, they invited me to go to France to make art on walls. I went there expecting to work with brushes but instead, it was with spray cans for graffiti. It was the first time I had ever worked like that, but it turned out well. I wrote the word Palestine in Arabic, which could also be read in English from both left and right. They invited me back in 2006 and I went to a workshop in La Rochelle and stayed for one month. My relationship with French people goes back a long way and my visits became more frequent over time, for tourism as well as work.
Once, while participating in an exhibition at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, I had a meeting with the director, Jack Lang. During our conversation, he asked me about an exhibition I had done in Qatar and the fact that I had not been able to attend it in person. I explained to him that I didn’t have a passport, only Palestinian refugee travel documents, which can’t be used in the same way as a passport – they are simply papers that state that I exist in Lebanon. I already had residential status in France as an artist at this time, but he proposed that it would be nice for me to have French nationality. He arranged for this to happen, and I received my French nationality and passport.

YOUR WEBSITE GIVES THE IMPRESSION THAT YOU BASE YOUR WORKS ON THEMES RATHER THAN DATES OR YEARS. CAN YOU EXPLAIN HOW YOU WORK?

At first, I looked for materials I could work with as I was trying to make an identity for myself given the circumstances of where I lived. It was hard for me to find acrylic or oil paint to work within the camp. Between 2007 and 2008, I was still finishing my diploma but I was also experimenting with art across many genres. These were merely technical experiments. In my sketchbook from that time, I wrote down the principles of creation as well as brainstorming ideas about the camp that would become my theme. I also wrote down techniques and materials, such as socks, fabric, electric poles, wood, barbed wire. I would then sketch my work on wood. I exhibited some of these works at the Sursock Museum in 2008. In the first work, I was trying to embody what life at the camp was like using materials that were all from the camp. I started intensively collecting and using these materials. However, I started asking myself what my goal was, and I figured out that I wanted us to be free. The camp is like a prison, yet we couldn’t take a stand against it back then. As refugees, we shouldn’t be living in a camp in the first place because the conditions we were living in could spark a conspiracy. So, I wanted people to get out of this environment and kids were the way out of this. When I was young, we would play hide and seek in the maze of alleyways, and it felt like an adventure. In a child’s mind, life’s struggles can be forgotten. We would make up our own games just so we could play and have fun. In reality, my art started like this: picking up trash and doing something with it. I also started having a wider perspective on borders and what would happen if we crossed them. It’s terrifying as an adult, but kids can play near borders without any worry. That’s how the concept of barbed wire came up, which represents the abstract borders that are present in all of us. Everything was related to borders, like the sea and olive trees because they reminded me of the occupation and mandate. However, the story of olive trees is something else. In Palestine, there would be a lot of fights between some villages and tribes, but there were certain lines no one could cross: burning an olive tree, for example, was forbidden. If a tribe burned an olive tree, it would mean that they would kill the other tribe, or it would be a sign for them to evacuate and the Israelis understood that very well. An olive tree is a generation’s heritage since one tree could be 2,000 years old. I integrated this into my themes.

HOW DOES THE TECHNICAL ASPECT INFORM YOUR WORK?

I don’t think that there’s much difference between techniques and themes. I always wonder if I’m a technical or thematic artist or if it’s just conceptual or technical. However, technical things are not so distant from our culture because we, as Palestinians, have a heritage of weaving, for example.

CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THE WEAVING MACHINE THAT YOU MADE AND HOW YOU WORKED ON IT?

When I thought about making a woven carpet, I thought about making a machine because I love them. This was the first experiment I did with my siblings. Together, we decided how to make the loom. In the end, we used architectural wires and table wheels with brakes to lace and tighten. It took a lot of work. I used this method to make my first carpet and it felt more of a performance than actual work. The machine could have been exhibited with the carpet hanging from it as well.

HOW DO YOU TACKLE THE TECHNICAL ELEMENTS OF YOUR WORK?

It was very difficult making the first carpet. At first, I made a small olive tree, but it was problematic to tie the wires. That’s when I decided to use barbed wire to weave with. I went to a car upholsterer to help with that, and he took me to get specific industrial pliers that are used in his work relating to springs. Then, I got another tool from France after I discovered that when they stake barbed wire around farms, they use the same technique as they do here for car upholstery. I also found that the tool I needed existed in China and then things started to get easier. There, they use it for building wire chicken coops. When they knew that we were using it for barbed wire, they liked the idea and asked us to send photos that they could use to promote it. We refused as it could have been copied and used without giving us any credit. It’s true that such tools can make work easier but manual work itself can never be replaced because of the work required for the details. Even when I worked in zinc, at the beginning I used regular metal scissors, but then I discovered that there’s a zinc-cutting machine called a nibbler. In the end, regular scissors cannot be replaced because it is hard to capture the details when using a machine. I’m still discovering new things from a technical perspective as I progress. I’m working on something now and it will be a very interesting exhibition.

IN 2017, YOU HAD THE “HARDCORE” EXHIBITION, WHICH WAS RELATED TO THE THEME OF THE CAMP. CAN YOU TELL US MORE?

This was for Magda Danysz Gallery in Paris. This was the first one where I made the camp alleyways with mirrors. The works were sold to Accor Hotels in Paris. The “Brainstorm” exhibition at Saleh Barakat Gallery in 2019 also featured mirrors in the camp’s alleyways and is a continuation of “Hard Core”.
There was always talk about getting out of the camp in order to be free, but these were idealistic expressions and hopes. I faced this issue with my father as well. When I first told him that I wanted to build a house outside of the camp, he said that nowhere else could protect us. I built a house in a beautiful rural area where there are plantations and farms, but my father would always go back to the camp. People of his generation are still stuck in the civil war mentality from a time when they would always run to the camp for refuge and there would always be people there to protect us. For me, the camp is a mental maze that is hard to get out of. That is why I wanted to let others experience a small maze in which they would get stuck at some point. Ever since the Nakba, for more than 70 years, people have been stuck in a camp. That’s why I did the “Brainstorm” exhibition. It’s about a maze, but the only escape route is through the sea and so people drowned. I included that in my exhibition: a giant wave made out of barbed wire. Our whole heritage carries this pressure. On that note, I started working more on the psychological aspect, which reflects the people stuck in the camp. My father is still stuck there to this day. I moved to Debbiyeh in 2018 and my family came in 2019, but they go back to the camp every two days. I visit them there as well, but only for a few hours. However, I worked on myself to get out of this lifestyle because I used to be like this too in 2007.

CAN YOU TELL US MORE ABOUT WHAT LIFE IS LIKE IN THE CAMP?

There’s a lot of delinquency since the unemployment rate is very high. People can work in the camp, but it is still difficult to live, learn, survive and work. When the population was purely Palestinian, people wouldn’t steal from their neighbours or do anything to hurt them, as everyone knew one another and there was a tight-knit atmosphere. They like this feeling of closeness, as when there’s a problem, they like to be near one another. In the Gaza hospital building, doors were essentially curtains, so in effect all the rooms were open. In those days, we were the only ones who could protect ourselves because there was no government. Even when I first started my work with fabric, my neighbours were the ones who would bring me their own clothes and belongings. This place holds a lot of memories and still inspires me to this day. I always try to analyse these memories engraved in my mind from a different perspective because it’s a long time since I’ve been there. I have this personal dilemma: I think that I love the camp but if this is true then why didn’t I just stay there? However, it would be better if the camps didn’t exist in the first place because it’s not helping anyone and creates a lot of stress in this society.

IN 2022 YOUR SOLO EXHIBITION “LA VIE” TOOK PLACE AT ANALIX FOREVER GALLERY IN GENEVA. CAN YOU TELL US MORE ABOUT IT?

I originally suggested that the exhibition be titled “Untitled” because I feel my works don’t need any explanation and can be understood simply by looking at them. I also love personal perspectives and knowing that work can represent so many other things to other people. For example, I recently exhibited “Chrysalide” in Malbuisson, near the French-Swiss border. The cocoon was made from barbed wire and exhibited on a tree. We had children come to view the exhibition and discuss it. When I think of barbed wire, I think of its use in farms. But, when I asked the children what they thought it was, they told me that it is used to construct borders. In fact, it is used to form borders, but for animals rather than humans, so this caught my attention.

For “La Vie” I was searching for a title with a meaning that humans are not sacred. This exhibition touched on the philosophical, cultural and economic dynamics of petroleum as a resource, as well as the occupation of religion and capitalism in our daily lives. It covered subjects that are taboo to talk about in countries in the Middle East: religion and sexuality. I used oil barrels to create flowers. The barrels are a symbol of capitalism and consumerism at the same time; the product of an economic system created in the 1940s, in my opinion. The flowers, however, symbolise our connection to our origins: the Earth. For me, virgin land is not land that hasn’t been cultivated, it is land that hasn’t been occupied. When you plant or sow on land, there is love and attention. Meanwhile, a land struggling with mass production becomes occupied by capitalism or by a physical Israeli occupation.

YOU, AYMAN AND SAID BAALBAKI AND SERWAN BARAN HAVE A STRONG RELATIONSHIP. DO YOU OFTEN WORK TOGETHER?

Yes, we do. We’re very close and involved in each other’s artistic and private lives. We just participated in our latest workshop together

in May, for Analix Forever Gallery, in Geneva. The gallery was founded by Barbara Polla, who gave us the entire gallery with its residence for this workshop. The works produced in this workshop were included in an exhibition that we titled “Fous moi la paix”. Usually, every time we get bored of Beirut, we travel somewhere together and rent a studio. We don’t have a theme or anything and we start from scratch. Our work is more based on research as we’re trying to move beyond the things we usually do and see where this takes us. One time we went to Greece, which was great fun as we would work all day but also go to the beach. We also regularly collaborate together in some way or another in Beirut.

YOU RECENTLY PUBLISHED A BOOK WITH BARBARA POLLA. HOW DID THAT COME ABOUT?

Whenever Barbara and I would go to an exhibition together by train, it would take us hours to get there, so along the way she would ask me questions and take notes. The topics are mostly my perspective on women, men, children, love, the future and the Israeli occupation. Starting from there, we would get into deep philosophical discussions with no limits. This book is more about an artist’s thoughts than their art, although there are also black and white sketches included.

WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO YOUR YOUNGER SELF NOW?

I wouldn’t change a thing. I would relive this whole experience all over again because it was fruitful.

 

 

 

 

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