Ayman Baalbaki reflects on friends, family and influences in an exclusive interview with selections
Marwan Kassab Bachi
When we were at university, the gallerist Amal Traboulsi put on a show for Marwan Kassab Bachi in Beirut. I saw the exhibition and was blown away. This was the first time I had seen an Arab work and felt that it was more of a museum quality work. I was amazed by the impasto technique, the thick, muddy paste. Marwan started a residency programme in Dar al Founoun in Jordan that our friend Ali el Kak or Ali K, attended. He came back amazed and you could tell that he had been greatly influenced. One of my first trips abroad was to France where I got accepted at university for post-graduate studies. Tagreed and Said were heading to Darat al Funun’s summer academy in Jordan, and it was my first time away from them. Said and I had been inseparable throughout our life. It was difficult for me to leave them, so I decided to go with them to spend a few days and continue my journey onward to France. In Jordan, I met Marwan and he liked me and started asking me about what I drew, the brushes I use, my themes and the artists I liked. He asked me to start working on something. I spent around seven years in France overall, visiting Darat al Funun every summer. We were so influenced by Marwan that we started to like German art more than French. Marwan suggested I go to Berlin like Said and Ali, but I had been accepted in France and to be honest I am too lazy to learn a new language, although it would have been a huge opportunity for me to be beside Marwan.
Said started exhibiting in his last days of university, but I didn’t work a lot and wasn’t in a hurry. While studying at the Cite Universitaire, I became friends with the director and he asked me to do something for Independence Day. I exhibited some huge works (around 2 to 3 metres) in the hall of Maison du Liban and this was my first exhibition. Then, my second exhibition was when Ammar Khammash and Sari Al Hiyar exhibited the works of myself, Tagreed, Said and Raed Ibrahim at Zara Gallery in Jordan. My first profitable exhibition, however, was with Saleh Barakat before the 2006 July war. It included pieces that were all about war. At the time, it wasn’t common to have an exhibition dedicated entirely to the memory of war, so I heard a lot of negative comments, but this was then followed by the July war, so it made my work stick in people’s minds.
I had been introduced to Saleh by Salwa Zeidan in 2005. He bought some of my works in France, and although he was a bit alarmed by the theme, when he saw that people were super interested, he said that I could exhibit. I was introduced to Rose Issa after an exhibition in 2008. She bought some of my work and said she wanted to work with me. Adriano Berengo and Maria Kazoun saw my work with Rose at Arabicity in Liverpool and Adriana asked me to work on something in 2010. I worked twice with Glasstress and then a third time I was selected by a curator. For this year’s Venice Biennale, Saleh is representing me, and I am working with Nada Ghandour, who Saleh introduced me to. Initially, I suggested an idea that I later changed, as it had included laser, which could have created some problems or started a fire. I then chose the facade of the building and the kiosk. I did the mock-up and the 3D, then there were discussions with different people including Luma Salame, who I have known since university, to give their opinions.
Most of the time, being around someone affects your choice of material. Said, for example, encouraged me to try lithography. He later worked on a project with Michel Fani and I found myself taking part in it unknowingly. The first bronze sculpture I made was in France and I never continued. Serwan, who had learned sculpting in Iraq, kept on telling me that a good painter is a good sculptor, not the other way around: if you are familiar with anatomy, you are able to sculpt. After encouraging me to join him in the studio I went along. He even suggested making the mould for me. Had he not encouraged me, I wouldn’t have sculpted.
You always discover new things around different people. When you try a new material, it opens up another world. The resin cloth rack, for example, that I made for the installation at the Venice Biennale, was originally a sculpture I made in clay. After moulding it in clay, the artisan poured it in resin to get a mould for it. After seeing the result, I thought it was the perfect effect I was looking for, with the clothes resembling plastic toys. It was random. I was worried when I started working on it, thinking how I was going to make a large sculpture out of bronze that was the original idea for this, until I saw what the resin looked like. Everything is born from play, so I made a pact that from now on, I only play.
During the pandemic, when there was a lockdown, I did escape to the studio sometimes on my bicycle. I can easily feel suffocated. If going out is forbidden, then I will be the first one on the streets. When I was at home though I began looking into the things I had around the house. I found images and started sticking them on a wall. I destroyed a lot of things, even the bathroom mirror. It is as if everything I did during lockdown was linked to this current work, “Janus Gate”. The work was born from objects I would find and fully inspired by street scenes, from tags to spray paint on broken glass. You couldn’t create these scenes yourself even if you tried. I saw things on the street that I couldn’t resist using. I take photos of things like a coat hanger that they used as a military roadblock or as a temporary barrier to reserve a parking spot. It looks like an artwork by Joseph Beuys. I call them the brilliant collection of Yousef Boueiz, a Lebanese copy of the original work.
My family works in a cyclical manner and our work is seasonal. I once asked my father why this is. He told me that my grandfather was a farmer: there is a season for ploughing the ground and a season for waiting. So, we all had that spirit. I don’t care about the future much, and I don’t want to be ruled by time, but sometimes you have to respect your deadlines. Still, I don’t want to live under the pressure to produce. We are separated from nature by our lifestyles. But I want to live to a rhythm: to sleep and wake up without being committed to time: this is what relaxes me.
A VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN PRINT IN SELECTIONS #58 BEING AYMAN BAALBAKI.