Taking up this issue’s theme of ‘The Diary of an Artist in Confinement Interesting Times’, Selections invited artists to share their thoughts on work, art and life in general since the beginning of the year. We guided them with the following questions:
What image(s) illustrate(s) 2020 for you so far?
If you were to write a note, a reminder, a memory to yourself, or to the world, in a time capsule, and you were to open it 15 years from now, what would it say?
If you had to describe the year 2020 in brief, what would it sound like?
Some of you have dedicated this year so far to working continuously in your studio; some others have found themselves completely demotivated and have halted everything. What have you been doing? Please describe in detail and share with us the work you have been doing during this period.
The pandemic has changed our perception of time and our relationship to our homes. What is your experience?
How do you see the future of art?
Have you been reading?
Some chose to respond in a diary form or with visual storytelling; others provided their answers at varying length and in different ways. Each provides a unique insight into and reflection of the most extraordinary period of our lives to date.
All the works I have done have a hidden message. Each drawing I did during lockdown includes a hidden message somewhere, either written in the background or hidden within the picture. Any of these works will answer this question.
In the past, we had been taking things for granted, like how important it is to kiss, or how important a hug is. That’s why one of the sketchbooks I worked on is dedicated to Touch. Is it possible to see friends and not kiss them, to hug them? I like hugging my friends and loved ones. When I see a movie and people gathering at a bar or a restaurant, I think to myself, will this eventually disappear from our life? So, in 15 years I would like to remember this. I don’t know if we’re going to get any of this back. There are people who lost their money, or weren’t able to exhibit, or they think they lost an opportunity to see their work, but all of this is not important. Simple things are much more important: the touch, the kiss, the hug, animals, our surroundings. If I were to write a note to myself in 15 years, it would be to be prepared, but mostly it would emphasise the importance of the simple acts of expressing affection towards one another. If you can talk to people you don’t know, random strangers in the street or coffee shops, go ahead and talk to them. Those are the things that I thought about during lockdown. I was really sensitive about those things.
I had agreed to a show with Saleh Barakat Gallery two years ago, when I was still in Canada. I came to Lebanon and established my studio and Saleh Barakat accompanied me step by step. Usually, I do a couple of shows every three years. I work for three years on one, two or three concepts and then I have time to do my shows, as it takes time to put on an exhibition. The show I am preparing for Saleh Barakat Gallery is about first nation people and what happened to them in the States and in Canada. It is also about the Palestinians, Iraqis and Lebanese too. They are all mixed together. Anyhow, I was working on the show and Saleh Barakat was following up on the work. In November, the revolution happened in Beirut, so we decided to postpone the show for a month or two. Then, the situation got worse. I went to Amman, and the coronavirus spread. I was locked down here in a small rented apartment. Once the lockdown restrictions loosened a bit, I started renting this small studio outside of my home. It felt huge. My studio in Beirut is twenty times bigger than this one, but in this studio I have worked twenty times more. I don’t know the reason. It might be that there is more focus rather that it being related to the place, the size or material. In Lebanon, I have an assistant, but I have no one to help me here. I bought material for $5000 in Lebanon, and here I have used whatever is available. I was lucky I had one bottle of ink in the first three months, and I worked in an economical way as there were no stores open. I used date molasses, tea, coffee, and red food colouring. I used old magazines, curtains, and shoe bags, including Louis Vuitton bags. I worked on sculpture from cardboard and styrofoam. I could have stayed for a year using the materials here.
I remember the best working period of my life was when I was stuck in Baghdad, when there was no material, no colours, nothing – not because of lack of money but because of the embargo. This was the best period that taught me how to work. I used to work with broken brushes and used fabric. This was the motivation to let us work and produce the material by ourselves. Instead of using a canvas, you create one. Instead of using acrylic colours, you bring tar to make the black colour. I did works that were presented at Saddam lil Funoon, the main museum in Iraq. I was a student and 23 or 24 years old then. This show was present in Iraq and I took it elsewhere, outside as well, and this launched my career. The lockdown now made me remember that period of American sanctions on Iraq after the war in Kuwait.
When you lock a human being down somewhere, it’s like a prisoner who writes books and becomes creative. I think when you are forced into something, you will be creative, with the materials at least. I think when everything goes back to normal and you start searching for other materials, you will be lost. I benefited a lot from the lockdown. This meant three months of many things that were postponed in my life. There were some books that I had wanted to read for the past 20 years, but I don’t know what happened, I got busy. I wanted to read books about Sufism. I wanted to go back and read books that I thought were important, like books about Freud. I benefited from reading them again. I read Gibran again and I didn’t have the same feeling or thoughts about it as an 18- or 19-year-old me. It is nice to revise your lessons again, and to look things over again. There would have been no way to acquire this time without the three months of lockdown.
The hidden messages idea started from the show I worked on for Saleh. Five years ago, in Venice, during the biennale, I came across an antique store, which was selling a small toy, featuring a native American and a white guy fighting. I immediately remembered my childhood play fights, where the bad guy was always the native, and the good guy was the white guy. I immediately thought about how intensely we are brainwashed. The idea started from that point. The toy, which I bought, will be in the show. So, this toy led me to study and read up on what happened to first nation people. It is unbelievable. They killed millions and millions. It is similar to the Palestinian conflict. I had a very well-known curator from Canada working with me. After a week, she saw the books I had read and sent me a message saying: “It is an honour to work with you, but it might affect my career, so I apologise, I am out”. I later met another American curator who also declined my proposal. So, this led me to do it on my own, in the way I see it.
Hidden messages is a new way for me to communicate and to tell a story. These are hidden messages, yet not hidden. When I talk about an incident that happened in a place in the US, I will not mention the names of the native American and the American. Instead, I will say this happened between two people, but anyone who reads it will understand. It is just a message and you have to see the picture and read it.
The 4th of August Beirut explosion happened a week before we started working again on the show for Saleh Barakat and it disrupted everything. Our friend from the gallery, Firas, passed away, and this saddened us deeply. I have a feeling now that we have to support Beirut and stand by its side. I think it is the worst time to do a show if you want to sell, but it is the best time to let Beirut regain life. Beirut doesn’t need us when it is strong, when the sales are good, and the number of attendees is high. We should act now, and we should create shows. When Saleh asked me what I thought about having the show now, I decided to go ahead with it. We will have more news to share about it soon.
Born in Baghdad in 1966, Mahmoud Obaidi is an Iraqi-Canadian artist whose work has been exhibited in museums and galleries around the world. After leaving Iraq in 1991, he obtained his Master of Fine Arts at the University of Guelph in Canada and completed diplomas in new media and film from Toronto and Los Angeles, respectively. His work has been exhibited extensively, including at the British Museum, London-Qatar Museums, Doha; Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha; Saatchi Gallery, London; the National Museum of Bahrain; the Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris; the National Gallery of Fine Arts, Amman; Station Museum of Contemporary Art, Texas; the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Baie-Saint-Paul, Quebec; the Nabu Museum, Lebanon and others. His work is part of the permanent collection of a number of significant museums, foundations and private collections.
A VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN PRINT IN SELECTIONS #53.