Being Abdul Rahman Katanani: The Great Art of Adventure by Serwan Barren

Let me begin by saying that I have been following the works of the artist Abdul Rahman Katanani from the beginning. And while first and foremost he is my friend, I was also one of the first admirers of his experimentation.
I got to know Abdul Rahman through the Saleh Barakat Gallery during my earliest visits to Beirut nine years ago. I always used to ask Saleh about him, and eventually, Saleh introduced us. I instantly liked him. Despite being a great artist, he was so easy to get on with and he always had a smile on his face. He gives off this amazing energy that makes people feel like they need and want to see him. He is also generous, and I found this to be one of his most beautiful qualities.
Both of us create artworks portraying characters in a contemporary manner, but our styles and techniques differ. Abdul Rahman is focused on sculpture, whereas I work in painting.


One unique characteristic that Abdul Rahman incorporates in his artworks is his use of recycling, especially since such an act is somewhat rare in this part of the world. He turns his attention to abandoned, lifeless objects and gives them a soul. He makes use of simple, popular, and inexpensive materials that he finds in his environment, but gives them a new meaning, such as zinc panels that are ubiquitous in refugee camps. This is a challenging material to use for artistic purposes.
With these simple materials, he creates rare sculptures and landscapes, presenting them in a contemporary manner. For example, the mirrors he used in the corridors of the camp-like construction for an exhibition created the illusion that we were walking inside the camp, becoming an integral part of the artwork. This is a very important characteristic of his work, as it makes the observer become both a participant and a part of it.
His work also stands out for the personal touch he gives it, such as an element of harshness reflecting what he experienced in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. That’s why he often shoots at his completed works, leaving traces of bullets and the wars this region went through, along with the suffering of the civil war and its lasting effects on the doors and rooftops of crumbling buildings. All of this provided rich material for him to present it in a contemporary way after it had been destroyed in the past. The visual discourse in his works touches anyone who has experienced disasters, as he tries to remind you of the past and reconstruct it for a new life.

“He turns his attention to abandoned, lifeless objects and gives them a soul. He makes use of simple, popular, and inexpensive materials that he finds in his environment, but gives them a new meaning, such as zinc panels that are ubiquitous in refugee camps.”

I must say that the whirlwind he created with wires had a profound impact on me and that his works generally have influenced my own work and artistic journey. We used to meet at least five or six times a week as a group of artists, along with Ayman and Said Baalbaki. Sometimes this would be the occasion for serious discussions that revolved around how to push our artistic works into new realms. The three of us who are painters were mostly interested in exploring how to venture into contemporary sculpture, whereas Abdul Rahman’s focus was on exploring how to move from sculpture into painting. In short, these discussions revolved around how to make sculptors draw and painters sculpt.


This group shared a common element: we all worked with the concept of ruin to present it in a beautiful artistic form. This ruin is our reality, as we have all been through extremely harsh experiences, significant defeats, and numerous setbacks, all of which we retain as memories. We recycle these painful memories and present them through artistic materials, whether it be stainless steel, bronze, or paint on a canvas. Most of our subjects and themes are harsh, but they are presented in a way that is universally acceptable because they contain life. The artistic and performative aspects of the work overshadow much of its darkness.
This group also has a tradition of collaborating on projects together. For example, in 2018 we travelled to Petra in Greece, where we rented a house and an atelier. Abdul Rahman’s presence made this a different experience for us, as on previous occasions it had been just us painters. This trip was also very significant for him as he entered the field of painting for the first time.
It requires a high level of courage for an artist like Abdul Rahman, who is experienced in contemporary artistic sculpture, to venture into the field of painting. This courage cannot be learned overnight; it takes someone who is extremely adventurous to do it. As a painter, I was immensely taken aback when I saw him adding bold touches to a painting in a way that would take any painter 20 years of experience to be able to do.
When the four of us got together, we often drew each other just for fun. When we returned from Greece, Abdul Rahman transformed a photograph of me immersed in drawing into a life-size zinc work. It was such a pleasant surprise and I cherish it greatly. When I saw it, I thought to myself that the person who created this artwork must be a sculptor who expresses themselves through painting.
After 2018, Abdul Rahman began seriously considering transforming his sculptural works into drawings and transferring his rich experience in sculpture to painting. Undoubtedly, the workshop that brought us together served as a catalyst for him to embark on this endeavour.
During a more recent trip by the four of us to Geneva, Abdul Rahman created a series of large-sized paintings ranging from one to two metres high, and he handled colours and brushes with great sensitivity.
It is surprising to think that he has not exhibited any of his drawings until now because he is a very shy person. He hesitates a thousand times before making any move. I always tell him, “Your work is ready to be exhibited, don’t hesitate!”. However, he always replies that he needs more time to think about it.
For the Geneva trip, the four of us spent 15 days participating in a workshop, just as we had done in Greece, but this time with a greater seriousness and sense of responsibility. As professional artists we had committed ourselves to a specific timeline to produce art for an exhibition related to war and peace. The four of us took up the theme of “tent”, which symbolises the roof of peace under which we live, and we each produced an artwork on this theme.
The idea of collaboration between sculptors and painters is not new but it is always a commendable idea that has sparked great movements. It is worth mentioning that our group has never been limited to the four of us, and that it has also included the artists Tagreed Darghouth and Nadia Safieddine in Beirut.
Abdul Rahman possesses an excellent cultural background due to his travels and time spent in France, which provided him with an opportunity to explore Western artistic experiences. This allowed him to infuse Eastern influences with Western experimentation, creating a unique blend that bears his personal touch. Additionally, he has a curiosity for learning, which enriches him as an artist. He is often more eager to listen than to speak, and this is one of his most beautiful qualities.
In my opinion, his work is among the distinguished works in the contemporary art scene today, and he has left a unique mark compared to thousands or millions of artists worldwide. The task of a visual artist to have a unique personality in this universe is one of the most challenging because the world has become smaller today. This small screen on our phones allows us to connect with the whole world through the Internet, instantly identifying any work from a specific source. Anyone can see all the works in the world’s museums at their fingertips.
I believe that as an artist he is at a very accomplished stage, and that in the near future he will astound us with his presentation of a great painting experiment influenced by his sculpting experience. I always say that the adventurous artist is the one who creates something new because art is a bold adventure. I have faith in Abdul Rahman and his openness to adventure matched by his constant quest for new experiences.

“In my opinion, his work is among the distinguished works in the contemporary art scene today, and he has left a unique mark compared to thousands or millions of artists worldwide.”

 

 

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