Interview with Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi

Collaborated with Art Publication, @artmejo, to interview Sultan Al Qassemi, founder of Barjeel Art Foundation in his Washington home.

ALIA: What story or art piece sparked your passion for Arab art?

ٍSULTAN: So, I divide my interest in art since childhood into three phases: in high school, I learned about World War II and the Guernica taught how art could capture a historic, political moment in history.

The second phase, is my time in Paris as a student where I used to visit the Musée d’Orsay and the Pompidou which had a lot of works which were also political but social as well, more importantly perhaps.

And finally, in around the year 2000, I was visiting an exhibition with my mom and my late father. The exhibition was by this duo artists from Palestine Ismail Shammout and Tamam Al Akhal. That work reflected the Nakba, the Naksa, the displacement that the Palestinians faced. It was really different and special for me to hear someone explain to me these issues.

On Arab Art Movements:

SULTAN: The movement that is unique to the Arab World and to the Middle East is the movement known as the Hurufiyya movement, the Hurufism, or in English Letterism. It’s a movement in which some Arabs, Kurds, Persians and Pakistanis tried to emancipate the letter from the word. They understood and valued the beauty of a letter on its own as an absolute formation.

Other movements from the Middle East are the Saqqakhaneh movement born in Iran. From Kuwait there is Circlism, which was also an abstract movement. Another one I really like was born in the late 60’s to early 70’s in Iraq called the One Dimension. It has a very spiritual aspect to it.

ALIA: I really like this question: what is the female representation in Arab art, relative to men’s?

SULTAN: I would say that women throughout history, especially the 20th century have been undervalued, underappreciated and underrepresented. This is largely because it’s been a man’s world. Although you do have the anomalies.

In the Arab World, I can tell you what a pleasure it’s been for me the past year discovering women artists. Women in the Arab World have really excelled with abstraction. From Huguette CalandSaloua Raouda ChoucairSamia Halaby in Palestine. In Jordan, you have an entire school, from Hind Nasser to WijdanUfemia RizkSuha Shoman.

ALIA: So, with the new exhibition that’s on tour across many universities at the U.S., called Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World. What impact do you think that’s going to have? Is it one of the major exhibitions of Arab art in the U.S.?

SULTAN: This is probably the largest, if not one of the largest, exhibitions of art for the Arab World ever seen maybe anywhere in the West. Its title is Abstraction from the Arab World, because we realized there has never been an exhibition or a book that was dedicated to the Abstract Art history of the Arab World. There were abstract artworks shown as part of a larger exhibition, but there’s never been essays specifically about abstraction in the Arab World. 

Our artists are dying. In the past year, Alia, we have lost Kamal Boullata, we have lost Huguette Caland, we have lost Chant Avedissian. Every time one of these artists dies, their library -which is their mind- is lost with them. So, what can we do to document these histories?

What you’re doing with your project is an essential part. It has to be there for the future, for future generations to research. We really need this to be a concerted effort. 

Credits to @artmejo for video edits, interview transcription, and translations.

Interview with Widad Kawar

There was a time in the 19th and 20th centuries when stories of family relations, birth, death and marriage were woven into traditional costumes – each with a different style, color and pattern. Widad Kawar was key in keeping those stories alive as she has become a patron of the preservation of Arabic dresses in the Arab world and beyond.

Widad Kawar was born in the Nablus area of the West Bank. She received her education in Ramallah Qauaker school. In the 1940s, not only was Widad exposed to Palestinian embroidery in the villages, but also learnt about the intricate social relations among women. Later, Widad married Kamel Kawar and settled in Amman, Jordan, where she continued her collection. In 2015, Widad opened Tiraz Center in Amman, a non-profit organization that is home to the world’s largest collection of Arab traditional dress.

Describe the impact your childhood and education had on you growing up?

My childhood and education had a lot of impact on me because of the school I was in. I was in an American Ramallah Quaker school that cared a lot for anything to do with handwork. The Principal of the school, Mrs. Jones, even collected the patterns that were used in Ramallah at that time – I still have her pamphlet. Later on, when I was living in Bethlehem, I noticed that wherever I went, someone was always embroidering. So, embroidery was very popular in the two places I lived in—Bethlehem on one side, where they did couching stitch and Ramallah where they did cross-stitch.

How difficult was it to lead this large initiative without having institutional support?

It is very difficult to go on in any subject without being supported by a foundation or organization and sometimes it could be easy to lose interest. However, because the interest to do with anything related to Arab culture was growing at the time, my interest never stopped.

“The larger subject of Arab heritage should be taught in schools because it gives the students a nice feeling of belonging.”

Did you get help from people you have met throughout your journey of collecting costumes?

Anybody who came from outside Palestine that was interested in embroidery or heritage, whether that be students, journalists, or researchers, would contact me to see the pieces that I have collected. My interactions with these people affected me because I learnt a lot about conducting thorough research and creating a stronger collection.

How did you start your collection?

I became interested in embroidery in Bethlehem. There used to be a market every Saturday for all women around the city who would gather on the steps and sell their pieces. In the beginning, the women were not selling complete costumes, but after asking them to, they gave me a few old dresses that are now very precious to me since I consider them to be the background of embroidery. In Ramallah, I was also given two very old costumes by a relative – one dates back to the 1800s. Since I started gathering a few costumes, I wanted to include more. Even though it was challenging because few were for sale at the time.

When did you start your collection?

Many years ago, I started in 1948. In the beginning, I only collected until 1950, until the war, because many of the women became refugees which impacted the style of their embroidery. It was no longer a certain stitch that was associated with the village they were from, but now their patterns were mixed up because of the diversity of people in the refugee camps. But after critics of my exhibition in Germany were curious about what happened after 1950, I began collecting the next 50 years. I saw the change— the change of their embroidery.

How much power does your collection of dresses and jewelry have in preserving the culture Arab women?

I think it is very important because my collection includes a good variety in relation to village and time. I attempted to look for traditional costumes I found to be special even when it would require me to take a long journey to find. I was passionately involved in completing this collection. My collection also covers most of “Bilad il Sham” (Levant Area), because once I moved to Jordan, I continued collecting costumes, then included embroidered costumes from Syria and Lebanon. This went on, until I felt that I created a foundation of a very good Arab collection of “Bilad il Sham”. That is why it is important for preserving Arab heritage.

What advice do you have for the younger generations in how they can help preserve culture and heritage for years to come?

First, I would like it to be given as a course in schools. It used to be more valued in schools, but they have taken it out of the curriculum. It must be given, whether it is Palestinian heritage, Jordanian heritage or Arab heritage. The larger subject of Arab heritage should be taught because it gives the students a nice feeling of belonging. Second, women organizations should give a special attention to embroidery and handwork or else they will die out. I have also realized through experience, that workshops are very helpful and successful. There is a foreign NGO that asked a few of us, ladies, to conduct a workshop in Zaatari camp in Jordan for Syrian women. It made them so happy.

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Interview with Samia Halaby

Born in Jerusalem in 1936, Halaby spent most of her childhood in Palestine before being forced to move to Beirut in 1948 and settle in the United States in 1951. Eight years later, Halaby received a Bachelor of Science in Design from the University of Cincinnati. In 1963, she earned a Master of Fine Arts. In 1972, Halaby began teaching at Yale University before moving to New York in 1976. Although it has been quite the struggle being a Palestinian artist in New York City, Halaby’s paintings are housed in a number of significant institutions ranging from the Guggenheim to the Art Institute of Chicago. Halaby’s artistic career that spans six decades, transcends national and cultural barriers by voicing her powerful narratives and extensive experience as not only a Palestinian, but also an innovator.

First, could you describe how it was like living in Palestine? What were some hobbies that you had when you were young?

I used to enjoy painting. I cannot remember doing it a lot, but I did. I had a stock of images I liked to draw. I remember my sister and her friends a couple of times would ask me to draw animals for them that we would cut up and make into a collage. But I was not drawing all the time. I almost loved my crayon boxes more than using them.

Overall, I would say I had a nice childhood. We were a big family and every Sunday we would visit my grandmother’s home in Jerusalem, where I was born. I remember the British soldiers, but I was not old enough to understand why they were there and what was happening. I do remember them being intrusive and examining our baggage. We were living in Jaffa when we left Palestine. I was then almost 12 years old and just beginning to comprehend reality and my surroundings.

When you were younger were you as observant of nature and your surroundings in Palestine as you are now?

Yes, I did notice things on a more visual level. The texture of Palestine is engrained in my consciousness. Probably in every Palestinian’s as well – it feels like an old friend every time I visit. I love remembering the feeling of sitting under an olive tree seeing the sun through foliage casting shadows on freshly-plowed earth. I still remember the rock formations on the mountains surrounding Jerusalem. The structure of rock formation, the dappled earth, the culture of the stepped mountains, and the blue of the Mediterranean all come together to make a very beautiful image of Palestine. I miss the ocean most of all—the Mediterranean Sea. On a personal level, what I miss most is the people.

How do you describe how your artwork evolved?

My artwork can be divided into three parts: political posters and banners done mostly when I was an activist, documentary work on the Kafr Qasem massacre and the Israeli massacre of our olive trees, and third—my central artistic effort—explorative abstraction. I divided my efforts because I realized that you cannot really explore the future of painting while simultaneously showcasing political themes. You will no longer be researching pure abstraction if you add political themes to it; and, on the other hand, you would not impart a clear political view if you are trying to explore abstraction. However, I do not think everybody has to do it my way.

“I think abstract art imitates reality—they are not separate.”

Samia Halaby’s kitchen in her Tribeca studio.

What is the driving force that motivates you to create the work that you do?

I just enjoy making it. I love it. I like to see things. I am measuring things with my eye – comparing how I see the distance of things, we are always walking around seeing really beautiful things, and then I try to make beautiful things in my paintings. But when I leave it for a long time, I start to forget how nice it is to be in the studio. In the studio I feel a strange kind of oppression when things are not going well and the opposite happens when things are going well.

It is an emotional journey with my paintings but that is not to say that painting is my emotion—I am very scientific about that. My attitude is that these paintings are things we both see in reality. It is like how you looked at my paintings and saw what is in them. If you knew what is in them, then those ideas are in your head as well and are in your experiences. So, it is about experience.

But what is my reaction to it — why do I do it?

It is my work. It is the work I chose to do. Sometimes I wonder if I chose correctly, there were times when I would wonder why I did not choose to be a mathematician instead. I go through periods when I wished I were a mathematician and asked myself why I studied painting. But, in school I used to get a headache every time I took a math exam – so I thought I am not going to live my life with a headache.

How did you come about this space?

I have been here since 1976, so for 43 years. That is a long time. It was not so easy to find a place back then. I wanted to live in Soho. At the time I was a professor at Yale University, I did not have a big salary and it was going to decrease because they did not want me to move to New York. As a result, Yale reduced my courses and my salary and so Soho was too expensive for me. Instead, I found a place through a friend here in Tribeca.

What importance does innovation play in your art and kinetic painting?

For me, the question is that if I am a painter of my time I need to use the technology of my time. I started exploring digital technology which was great fun. I bought the Amiga in 1985. It came with a booklet on how to code. I enjoyed how a function worked and compared it to a factory into which raw material is fed and out of which ready made products emerge. Program logic seemed to me to be similar to the logic of a functioning city—programing was like life itself. But the computer is still primitive compared to oil and acrylic paint. It is hard for it to have the presence of a 60 x 80-inch painting with the kind of delicacy of color possible with paint.

What I discovered was that the computer had the potential for other exciting things. I can make something abstract that can also have motion. However, I was not interested in the kind of motion that came as a result of a lens-based video or camera because that takes you back to perspective, which to me is an earlier technology that painting has amply explored. I am more interested in the relatively of space, time and color. To have those elements but also to allow them to grow and change and shift, as well as combining them with sound, was interesting— so I did that for a while.

What are the projects you are working on at the moment?

I have too many projects on my plate and more in the planning stage. I have too many half-done projects. I have to learn to make a choice and put a limit. I was recently accepted into the 8th Beijing Biennial and I am very excited to be going to share in the opening and attending the symposium on the following day. There will be artists from approximately 121 or so countries from around the world and I look forward to meeting some. It will be a special experience to see what is happening in painting from throughout the world.

Do you have any advice for Arab artists beginning their career?

The important part is to not give up working if exposure does not come. Also, do not really wait for the dealer or museum to come around. I advise you to create as much artwork as possible because that is really enjoyable. And I advise you to unify with other Arab artists and exhibit together. Be proactive because things happen when you are proactive. Finally, document everything and keep a diary of what you are doing.