Being Abdul Rahman Katanani: ‘The Ideal Peacemaker’ by Barbara Polla

“I experienced an incredibly strong sensation of imprisonment and entanglement. Like an oxymoron though, the barbed wire then flourished in freely growing, joyful branches. I immediately felt in love – art love.”

Olive Tree, 2016 290 x 180 x 50 cm, Barbed wire

I initially encountered Abdul Rahman Katanani through his work. In 2015, I was visiting Beirut, looking at art. In the rather small – at the time – gallery of Saleh Barakat, in the basement office, I saw a tree: an olive tree with no roots. The small trunk was tightly surrounded with barbed wire, and I experienced an incredibly strong sensation of imprisonment and entanglement. Like an oxymoron though, the barbed wire then flourished in freely growing, joyful branches. I immediately felt in love – art love.


Hard Core, 2017 Installation view

At that time, I was preparing a group exhibition in Nanterre, a suburb of Paris, on the theme of art and prison with the title “Le sens de la peine”. I immediately knew that this work would become the keynote of this exhibition, and it did. I was able to have Abdul Rahman invited by the City of Nanterre for a one-month residency during which he produced eight olive trees, like a forest, for a huge window that opened onto the Place Nelson Mandela, a location that was a sign of the importance of the work. I saw people in tears, looking at his “forest”. After the exhibition, some of the trees went to the Anglet Biennial in South-West France, one went to the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, and there was a huge interest in his work. I felt there had to be an exhibition in Paris, where I mostly work with the excellent art dealer Magda Danysz, so we presented together a completely original exhibition in her gallery, “Hard Core”. Abdul Rahman worked on this for months and it remains a milestone in his career. Paris is Paris is Paris…

Barbara Polla, Abdul Rahman Katanani, “Paroles d’artiste”, Slatkine Ed., 2023)

I believe he already has a wide audience, but I carry the responsibility to develop it even further, to interact with institutions and museums in and beyond the Middle East and central Europe and open new territories for his work to be seen and known. Besides organising exhibitions, I am also responsible for having the latest book we recently published together, (Barbara Polla, Abdul Rahman Katanani, “Paroles d’artiste”, Slatkine Ed., 2023), translated into different languages – and in another year or two to publish another one, as the work and the projects evolve, as well as an exhaustive monograph including all his work from the beginning.

His art is embedded in history and in his constantly evolving vision of the world. The artist is also a thinker, a contemporary philosopher, who adapts both his art and everyday behaviour to his philosophical concepts and social ideals. In my writing and publications about him, I try to be as faithful as possible to his thinking. To approach analysis and interpretation of his work, I spend many long hours listening to him and watching him work – then also, listening to art historians and what they have to say about his art.

Most importantly, his art not only pertains to an acute analysis, a clever critique and a beautiful transformation of today’s reality, but it also paves novel paths towards future realities. These novel paths are needed everywhere, in all current socio-political situations. There is no obvious future, and we definitively have to construct it. Abdul Rahman is an efficient contributor to this construction. He has become a key actor in both the West and the Middle East. His work is a model for the bridges that art may generate between cultures. His open perspectives, his multilingualism, his unheard ability to mediate, and the universal subjects of his art – imprisonment and movement, despair and joy, entanglement and simplicity, the beauty of nature and the respect it needs – make him a universal interlocutor in all and every artistic and intellectual milieu. His authenticity and ability to communicate with everyone, the beauty and accessibility of his art will make him grow even further in the coming decades. One specific aspect of his potential is that he is both a leader and a mediator. With his unmatched kindness and aura, and his ability to convey, he is the kind of person that could change the world.

“His open perspectives, his multilingualism, his unheard ability to mediate, and the universal subjects of his art – imprisonment and movement, despair and joy, entanglement and simplicity, the beauty of nature and the respect it needs – make him a universal interlocutor in all and every artistic and intellectual milieu.”

We are just opening this incredible exhibition, “Fous moi la paix” (Leave me in peace), featuring Ayman Baalbaki, Said Baalbaki and Serwan Baran, together with Abdul Rahman. I invited these four artists because they have lived through war for decades, and in camps, and their experiences have grounded most of their artworks as essential memorial elements related to armed conflicts and their aftermath – such as the ruins of Ayman Baalbaki, the Missing Arm sculpture by Said Baalbaki, the prisoners by Serwan Baran. This experience of war was fundamental in engaging these four artists in a different perspective, i.e., peace. It seemed to us that there are no contemporary artists exploring the possibilities of representing peace – probably because there is currently no recognised point of view from which to do so.

The curatorial concept took its roots in our shared thinking, as nourished by reality and by philosophical and psychoanalytic concepts of peace. In the recently published book, “Abdul Rahman Katanani, Paroles d’artiste”, there is already a chapter about peace, entitled “Peace, a micropolitics”. Abdul Rahman has abundantly developed the concept that any meaningful peace process has to start with inner peace – as any state of freedom has to begin with inner freedom. My curatorial concept thus started by listening to the artist.

Despite the fact that our lives and experiences are so fundamentally different, I feel that we somehow share a similar point of view. When you live through a war, you know what death means. You see it every day. As a medical doctor, I also know about death; it has always been close. I think that the day-to-day vision of death generates a different perspective towards the value of life, hence of peace. Life and peace are tightly linked. If in doubt, rewatch the 1971 film “Johnny Got His Gun”. Hence, I feel that rather than challenging the previous perspective of the four artists, our common project about peace benefits from our common perspective on life – and peace – allowing the project to unfold.

Our project’s concept of peace was based on an unwritten but clear “contract of trust”, which is the necessary basis for all peace treaties. Our contract was as follows:

1) The artists trust me and will come to live and work together at Analix Forever, leaving behind their lives and other commitments for a given time;

2)I trust them and therefore renounce any demand or command. Full freedom is a prerequisite for peace – hence the title of the exhibition: “Fous moi la paix”;

3) They trust each other, and as they explained to me: “We will leave our ego at the door of Analix Forever, and this is already a gesture of peace.”

During this experiment, we lived in anarchy – “an-archos”, literally, an absence of power. There were no rules, except to create and take care of each other. It seems to me that anarchy is probably the only political system (or political non-system) that allows for peace. The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas also suggested tight links between peace and anarchy. In fact, peace goes against many of the major “systems” in which we live: against the nations and their will for greater power; against the economic system and the flow of money generated by the arms’ trade; against the trade of war-specific drugs such as captagon. Somehow peace is similar to love: true love often goes against established social rules. And so does peace. At a time when the West tends to support war (under the guise of upholding values), supporting and practising peace seems quite subversive. We resist global thinking and engage in counteracting war and the death instinct by the creative instinct – the Eros in Sigmund Freud’s theory.

In fact, when Albert Einstein asked Freud if there was a way of freeing humankind from the threat of war, Freud’s reply includes the statement that “whatever makes for cultural development is working also against war.” This was in 1932. I am not sure that this is always the case, because sometimes culture is used to enforce nationalism. But when seeing over and over again that totalitarians and dictators burn books, then I say yes, we have to work relentlessly for the development of culture. But what we did at Analix Forever, or what the artists did, is rather based on my paraphrasing of Freud’s statement: “Every effort towards encouraging free creation is also an effort towards peace.”

“With his unmatched kindness and aura, and his ability to convey, he is the kind of person that could change the world.”

From the perspective of this exhibition, these statements are true. The incredible amount of free creation that has taken place in a dedicated timeframe has placed our project in a kind of “magic bubble” from which any kind of conflict was naturally excluded. The artists were not specifically representing peace. Rather, they worked in peace. In a broader sense, the exhibition provides a rather exceptional opening towards the artistic culture of the Middle East in Switzerland – the so-called land of peace, where however the culture of that region often remains unknown, or little known, and hence not appreciated well enough.

Another statement – “To try to think peace is to refuse the game of terror” – leads us to Hannah Arendt, who suggested that the opposite of violence is not kindness but thinking. The war/terror systems/ strategies work at annihilating thinking through fear; the fear, for example, that if we do not fight, we will all get invaded and killed. So, we abandon thinking and just tend to protect ourselves. Thinking peace is not an easy task, but any effort in that direction estranges us from war.

Furthermore, unlike war, peace cannot be decreed; it has to be built, as Immanuel Kant said. Peace cannot be built on terror. There is no trust in terror. Peace has to be built on thought and trust. Thinking together may generate trust, a prerequisite for peace. Thinking is our major instrument on the paths towards peace. The best use of this human instrument, i.e., thinking, requires major effort.

So, we lived our own “peace experiment” based on trust, watching and adapting to each other, so that each of us felt his space and needs were respected. Creativity was synergised by the conviction that what the four artists could achieve by working together would be better than what each could create alone – even if the artworks still belong to each individual artist. There was something magical going on that I am still working on formulating precisely.

Tente, 2023 180 x 136 x 25 cm Barrel and mixed media Photo by Jean-Michel Pancin

One specific representation emerged in all of their works: they created and painted tents – khayma. Abdul Rahman created two tents in metal from oil barrels. Then, he went to Decathlon with Ayman Baalbaki and they bought the biggest tent they could find. For a long time, Ayman had been thinking of painting on a tent. He cut it up, hung it on the wall and painted over it. This piece is a major artwork in the upcoming exhibition, and both a masterpiece and a “rupture” piece, extraordinarily balanced between fabric and painting, including and radiating light. By “rupture” piece I mean that his masterpiece will lead, I believe, to new ways of creation. For Said Baalbaki, painting is an ancient and long-lasting love, but this was the first time that he painted with acrylic. He has created more than 30 paintings, and many of them are tents: floating tents, floating towards abstraction, symbols of the past and the future. Tents are where we get together, smoke the pipe of peace, make love, give birth, talk and listen, share food… like an antique definition of peace. I then asked Serwan Baran: and what about your tent? He did an abstract painting. Abstraction may be one way to represent peace.

The installation of the exhibition reflects the group’s idea: all their creations are unique, while the entire process is shared. Hence, there is no one single space for each one artist, but the works echo each other in the different spaces. And while I admire the exhibition, it seems to me that someone is whispering in my ear: “Leave me in peace…”

I am looking forward to Abdul Rahman’s next exhibition in Paris, but most of all his art deserves to be shown in museums in the Arab world and beyond – all around the world. We are working on this.




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