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.
What image(s) illustrate(s) 2020 for you so far?
I’ll I answer this question personally as well as community-wise because I am connected to the East, but I live in the West. So, I have always seen things that resemble being on a knife’s edge. We’re standing on the edge of this sharp knife, in between war and peace, which connects people to feeling constantly in danger. In 2020, this vision became a reality during the last explosion that happened in Beirut, which led to shock and trauma. So, for me, the illustration of 2020 resembles a mushroom, in the form of an explosion.
Mushroom 1 and 2
Ever since the beginning of 2020, I started writing down my dreams on a daily basis. Some nights, I have nightmares where I’m in a weird situation. For example, I’m on the border of a country and have lost my passport, or I’m alone in a place, or unable to catch my flight. These stories give me feelings of stress, distress, and discomfort. This is related to the news that reaches us from the Middle East, which always contains incendiary events, bombardments, and evil.
If I were to open a time capsule – like a small personal museum – 15 years on from today, I would find drawings of my dreams, drawn in either a simple abstract or very expressive way. These dreams make me realise my human rights and tackle the current problems which we are experiencing today. At the same time, the drawings contain hope and peace inside, which allows you to reassure yourself and tells you that tomorrow will be better. The habit of drawing dreams turned into a visual language. For example, if the dream can be told in 50 words, the drawing will tell the same story in only two images.
Drawing is a form of narrating history. Common history is written via the news, but I consider this fake and I distrust it. I’d rather draw history using dreams, as in my experience it is more legitimate and contains more optimism, which enables one to move away from a state of depression. The interpretations of dreams in pictures sticks to the memory in a refined way, in contrast to the shallow way common history is written. Personally, dreams mean that my brain worked in the night just like a lab. We all have an unconsciousness that keeps on thinking even when we are asleep. This allows me to produce images which are valuable to me.
I feel the chemistry of visual language creates seeds for planting new thoughts. I don’t expect these drawings to help me, but they could serve as a message for other people and the generations that will come after them, so they will feel the value of dreams. Because it’s part of our tradition to explain dreams, a lot of historical explanations exist. This standard routinisation of dream explanations is nonsensical in my opinion, and I don’t believe in it. Some people who read or see my drawings sometimes react amazed, saying “why didn’t I think about this?” This indicates that everyone has the potential to create images. My task is to inspire people to create images out of their thoughts.
I have a book back in Iraq which is about the Swiss Bauhaus artist Paul Klee. I read that he was in Tunisia, and when he saw the Tunisian sun for the first time, he realised that he was an artist. This picture stayed in my mind for a long time, and ever since I always related Tunis to Paul Klee. When I got to Europe, I finally understood what he meant, because the light of the sun is very important for painting. I started studying his art in this book, which contains 338 paintings. We’re very similar in terms of drawing and painting our dreams, and he made a big impact on my work. When he came to Tunisia, he described the East with a western vision, as well as his musical vision. Paul Klee said that he saw Arabic music in a decorated way, but when he started making music, he did it in a rational, methodological way. He merged the musical note with the visual one.
Cover and page from the book read about Paul Klee
If I had to describe 2020, I would go back to the image of a mushroom, which is the only picture I have in my head ever since the explosion in Beirut on the 4th of August. Until now, this image is broadening, in the same way it destroyed Beirut. In reality, the explosion ended, but in the mind it’s continuing. I empathise with all the people in Beirut because they experienced this shock: they are injured, went to hospitals, some died, and some are still there. This is a metaphorical image for 2020. And, as if we had not experienced enough, we had to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic.
What makes this explosion different from other wars in the Middle East is that it was a nuclear one. The positive side is that the explosion gives the Lebanese community more freedom. I mean this in the sense that a revolution started some months ago but was then silenced by the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the explosion that happened reawakened the revolution. Such a shock gives people courage and a new vision to rise up again.
The feeling 2020 gives me can be described as negative and lonely. People are feeling isolated, distant, fearful, distrustful. We try to cover it up so we can go on. But in the Middle East, for example in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, or Syria, this is almost impossible. In order for them to cover up the negative feelings, they require a large amount of self-defence against these hard circumstances. In the same way that the port exploded, the people are about to explode in the face of the daily hardships they’re dealing with, in order to leave these hardships behind. Therefore, the explosion is a metaphor for the baggage the people of the Middle East are carrying. This could be the beginning of a new era to gain more freedom or a better life. For this reason, the image of the mushroom is a crown: the crown of the year 2020.
The scenario that happened this year, as ever, is beyond our control. We can’t control politics, nor can we control nature. However, it is possible that this scenario will take us to a better place; I don’t know where exactly, but painting may know which place is better. This is why I really trust and value painting. It gives me visions to understand the stories better. But the situation is hard and requires some struggle and maybe a new destiny. Today, we live in a type of mythology but outside history: I don’t feel like the Middle East is living in overall history, neither from the perspective of culture nor society. We have a lot of problems going on, which confuses people. So maybe art is the only lens that can reveal these hidden and negative phenomena towards mimicking a certain understanding.
“I really trust and value painting. It gives me visions to understand the stories better.”
What I have been working on takes me back to the subject of the West and the East, as I live in the West but grew up in the East. This enables me to see two visions: that of the Europeans – what they care about, what their problems are – and which makes me laugh when I compare it to the East, where we are dealing with a harsh situation on many levels. However, this gives me positive feelings, because it makes me feel the value of what I’m doing even more. I know that the message is not fun, and that this will not produce beautiful things that make people happier. What it does is that it leaves me a bigger feeling of responsibility to express what is happening. So, my time became fully dedicated to narrating what’s happening. This is related to the visualising of dreams, and giving a historic narration through art.
So, for me, the motives are positive and productive. I created four paintings in a short timeframe, which enabled me to record my vision. Currently, I’m busy with a personal sketchbook in which I collect all the visual experiences that I have experienced. Additionally, I am working on translating my personal, real-life experiences in a visual way. This depicts, among other things, the way I migrated and my life ever since I started living in the West. Through this, I aim to create lessons for students in designing and painting.
My personal dictionary is the biggest project I’m currently working on, which I also worked on during my residency in Qatar. This project includes all my ideas. I have been carrying this idea for a long time now: the thought of meaning and words, the chemistry of letters, and also the visual image of letters. The Arabic language is so deep that we can analyse and discover every word, how it disintegrates, and how it is recreated again to give us new meanings. For this reason, because the Arabic language is more elegant and spiritual, I try to produce it through the medium of vision. So, there was a mixture of several elements that came randomly, thus making it subject to luck and serendipity. So, it will form a bigger composition, with a collection of elements, and in the end it will tell a story. Contradictions that will result between the visuals and the words will tell us about frictions between the meanings, because the idea is built on chaos and randomness.
“The Middle East possesses more than a thousand lives because every day it dies more than two times.” This is a metaphor I can turn to; because the bigger ideas accept to be more epic, I turned this form of destiny into painting. This indicates that we live in a playground. I always ask myself, are you wondering why art can tell history in a fairer way? We have old beliefs in the Middle East. We always say that there is transparency, but this transparency has become an old and outdated idea. The new awareness, and the participation in social media, the ideas, dialogue, criticism, and even all the treachery, all of this is creating new thoughts. And these thoughts are erasing the thoughts of the plot, and make us, instead of blaming others, look at ourselves and confront these problems in a personal and reflective way.
Lately, the tools I’ve been using are pencil and stencil. When I started studying in the Netherlands, I chose graphic design. This made me skilled in two tools: painting and design. This mix of fine art and graphics opened the world of pencil versus stencil for me. The stencil opens horizons of transcription for me, as well as those of dynamics and the changes of shapes on paper (the stencil) in an easy way. To be more specific, I can make a comparison with a jeweller, even though as an artist I mostly use the stencil and pencil and the jeweller uses more specific tools. The comparison with the jeweller is relevant because the artist and the jeweller both work precisely, and both have to be flexible with scales. The jeweller also has to think about language, which is also an important tool for me. Words affect the way I begin and end a thought. For both the beginning and the ending, the word is the guide for the formation of the project.
Since the beginning of the pandemic until now I don’t feel any of its fear, as not many things changed for me. I committed to staying home and have worked in a routine way ever since. I’m not a very social person anyway. I’m often far from people, and also from friends. So, for me it was not much of a difference.
In general, I’m optimistic about the future of art. I have big faith that contemporary art will become more advanced. I think with the new world movements, and more innovative artists, that the image will be more beautiful. I always pray that there may be a new art-related revolution. I always care that art is public, that it gives more advice, that it brings changes in life. I think that youth that study art for the first time interpret it in an academic way. I give them the courage to dive into adventures, to quit fear and shyness. Because the operation needs more courage, and I think that art is connected to science. And I always care to turn the artistic idea into industry, or broader production. What is the benefit of art if it doesn’t change life? This is essential to me. And I always try to give students the opportunity to think about this, not only about beauty but also about deeper thoughts and the function of art. And I try to make this be more in control than emotions when producing art.
My name is Nedim Kufi, and I’m an multidisciplinary Iraqi artist living in the Netherlands.
After my years of experience in both the East as the West, I gained the privilege of viewing the different cultures through a double window. Living in the Netherlands enabled me to understand my Eastern culture and roots from a distance and in a different and interesting way. Language is an important element in my work, especially the Arabic – as this is my mother language. My experience with language leads me to the wisdom of imagination, and how I can manipulate the voice of the word into iconic images.
My way of making art starts simply in words coming suddenly to my mind, even through sleeping. I immediately translate my thoughts and paint it on canvas without having a concrete plan beforehand, bringing nature’s elements together.
A VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN PRINT IN SELECTIONS #53