Irini Gonou's "A Tale of Two Cultures" | Friday 22nd June, 2012 | Published under Caspian Arts Foundation

The Sheltering Word (v)
Irini Gonou's latest exhibition 'A Tale of Two Cultures' combines Greek and Arabic cultures, highlighting in particular the ancient civilisations with the use of the 'protective written word', amulets, tunics and symbols. Irini wanted to keep the pieces and the exhibition in line with that of a museum, not bringing it out of its context and focusing on that period of time. Although the two are distinctive, they are joined by history and the sharing of the Mediterranean sea, and as Irini has pointed out "..the wider Mediterranean area is charged culturally with supernatural powers" as we can see through her work. 'A Tale Of Two Cultures' is currently neing exhibited at Lahd Gallery in London.

 NM: There is an endearing quality when 2 cultures are used together in some art form, the experience is so enriching. Your work combines both Greek and Arab cultures; what did you want to highlight through using the two together, especially in a period where both are faced with their own crises and going through major changes?
IG: I don't know how some things affect us more than others but old civilizations and especially those that have left their traces around Mediterranean Sea have always a big attraction for me. "Our Sea" joined its people together. The threads of its history are mixed, its memory confused, and that's what I want to highlight in this exhibition. Two cultures, the Greek - the one I was born in, and the Arabic - the one I adopted, with their distinctive indigenous scripts, are here in dialog with their continuous and life-affirming exchanges and their cross-fertilisation influences. Actually, both in social and economic crises, I think they benefit from having a look to their collective cultural memory, as the mirror-shield Perseus used to extinguish Medusa.

NM: What is the story behind your latest exhibition "A Tale of Two Cultures" and what do you want to evoke in your audience?
IG: This exhibition is a "magic" wandering into the healing and protective power of the written word as a specific cultural idiom and as a dialogue between the Greek and Arabic culture. Some objects are inspired from real "magical" objects I have seen in the museums and then transformed in my own way. There are others that I invented totally trying to make them as they would be real. The whole collection is a kind of quasi-museum. When I exhibited some of them at the Museum of Islamic Arts in Athens between the museum's displayed objects, some people were confused thinking them real. Using entirely natural materials such as textiles, fired clay, reeds, leaves, seed pods, eucalyptus bark and linen or cannabis twine, I make my own interpretations of amulets and protective clothing, magic bowls and talismanic objects.

Eucalytpus Leaves

NM: When did you start this project?
IG: This project began in 2007. Some of the objects have been shown at my exhibition "Al Khatt, the magic script" which took place at the Museum of Islamic Arts of Athens in 2008. Others were made in 2011-12.  At The Museum, the written protection was only about Arabic script. For my recent exhibition at the Lahd Gallery, I created a dialogue between Greek and Arabic scripts. In between I was working on the Greek magic objects.

NM: I am interested in your "exploration of the protection of written words". This is very mystical and actually, in mysticism, we are taught that the power of words; both written and spoken orally are in fact very real and once something is written or spoken, it is forever there. What did you discover in the power and protection of written words?

IG: I think for me everything began the day I discovered in the British Museum, two extraordinary tunics - the batakari tunic adorned with amulets, and the rigan yaki talismanic tunic both "made" for the Ashanti people of Ghana, inscribed with Quran verses and magical diagrams. I was completely amazed and consider these two pieces to be my initiation into the "magic world". The Arabic words, letters and numbers are considered in the Islamic world to be of a divine essence and the written word to provide protection. The protective properties of small pieces of paper composed by the marabou in West Africa in order to protect his patient are generally well-known. Likewise Ethiopian magic scrolls and Greek magic papyri, to report only some examples of an unending list. So the written word, in the larger Mediterranean area, is charged culturally with supernatural powers and linked mystically to the elements composing the universe. Actually in our contemporary societies we are also attracted to the word and its magic power in many different ways. Words are everywhere. We are definitely the composers of our own magic universe. Writing down our intimate thoughts, spelling the lyrics of our favourite song - the enchantment is there!

Big Protective Tunic

NM: Do you personally believe in the protection amulets and symbols contain?
IG: I believe in the healing qualities of nature and I also believe in the power symbols are charged with through collective memory and cultural and traditional process, as well as the "animation" of shaped object through hand made work. Nature's respect, patience, and the amount of time spent on each one of these objects are operating positive emanations.

NM: The more we can embrace each culture, showing them side by side, as we see in your work, it is very clear that the essence of it can never be threatened or erased. Cultures, especially when combined together, can play a large role in the healing process in a world where so much turmoil is present. What are your thoughts on this?
IG: I think that we artists, like medicine men, marabous or Bamana priests of our contemporary societies, have to revisit the symbols again in order to reactivate ancient bonds to stimulate the healing process in our societies in turmoil.

NM: Now, on to more technical questions. I saw a lot of natural materials being used in the various pieces. I hear a lot of different artists who work with natural materials and stone say how much they feel a connectedness to the earth and our planet in general. What are the reasons for you?
IG: Truth is that working with natural materials you are feeling the pulse of nature and this process provides you with a long lasting feeling of well being. The more you delve into exploring nature's secrets the tougher are the challenges, because you are in an immensity of new experiments with "magical" properties. Working on my magic bowls, amulets, protective talismans and charms, I used fired clay, reeds, eucalyptus leaves and barks and calabash seeds. I also made my own natural inks and decoctions. None of these materials could be bought and everything had to be found and made from scratch. Same for my inscribed magic scrolls and protective tunics. Working on these raw materials, I was at the same time meditating on their medical-magical-protective properties and symbolic meanings.

NM: I saw a very interesting piece using cannabis strings, which you told mentioned that they came from China. You also used calabash seeds and Aloe Vera dried flowers. What made you decide to use these? What made you get the cannabis strings from China?
IG: I found cannabis string at a Chinese cooperative society in Paris and I was attracted by the mythology of this drug and medicine plant. I made my amulet-tunic at my studio in Naxos Island, tying knots of this cannabis string every day for a month during the sunset. I needed at this time to experience a ritualistic way of working. In the end I attached to it some calabash seeds for their fertility properties and dried Aloe Vera flowers, the well known plant for its healing and soothing properties.

Amulet Tunic

NM: Can you explain a bit about the scripts and how they were shown in the form of tunics? Why were they shown in the form of tunics?
IG: As I mentioned previously this concept comes from the Ashanti tunics and "inscribed" talismanic cloths. These clothes were a "written" shield protecting the owner - especially soldiers or chiefs - from dangers of all kinds. On my protective tunics verses are Adonis poetry verses in Arabic script and Elytis poetry verses in Greek script, in order to emphasize the healing properties of art in modern societies.

Sheltering Word (viii)
NM: What is the significance of the numbers you showed in the sheltering word ii and viii?
IG: These are the magic squares, arranged in a three by three grid pattern whose sum of the numbers in each row, column and diagonal is 15. Magic squares were inscribed, painted, embroidered or engraved on textile, clay or metal bowls and worn as talismans to ensure long life and prevention of diseases. It was always considered a very strong talismanic arrangement.

NM: What are the words inscribed in the sheltering word viii?
IG: This is an ancient Greek incantation asking for "a good life, a congenial mood, to be 'right in the head', to have an iron constitution, peace and god". The two letters at the end Ψ and Χ form the phonetic spelling of the word «soul».  

NM: Do you have a favourite piece?

IG: I always change the ones I like but I feel now I am closer to the ‘protective tunics’ and would like to work on them more and make them bigger.

NM: What are you working on now?

IG: One part of my project is the ‘protective tunics’ I just mentioned and I am also working on a big exhibition about Demeter, the goddess of harvest, in an old tower on Naxos Island. In fact the tower is near the sanctuary of Demeter and I am producing work on her. I would like to underline the importance of agriculture today through this exhibition and Naxos is a very agricultural island so this is going to be very interesting. 

Irini Gonou was born on 1955 in Athens. She studied sculpture at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts and after at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Arts Decoratifs where she has also worked as a workshop assistant for two years at the section of ceramic sculpture. She lived in Paris for eleven years studying at the same time the multicultural dimension of art. From 1980 she has shown her work in thirty two solo exhibitions in Greece and abroad. Her solo exhibition Al-Khatt, the magic script on 2009 was a visual dialog with the Benaki Museum of Islamic Arts exhibits in Athens. She has participated in a numerous group exhibitions in Greece in collaboration with prominent curators of the Greek art scene, but also in France, UK and Belgium. Her artwork is included to the collections of the French Ministry of Culture, to the Musee Ernest Renan in France, to the Museum of Islamic Arts in Athens, to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Florina to the Anthropological Museum of Ptolemais and to The National Bank of Greece Historical Archive, also in Greece, to the Municipal Galleries, private Museums and Foundations, and to a variety of important private collections in Greece and abroad. She lives and works in Athens and in Naxos Island in Greece and teaches Arabic and Byzantine calligraphy at the Museum of Islamic Arts of Athens.

Interview with Ziad Antar| Published under Caspian Arts Foundation| 6th June, 2012

Dubai 4

Ziad Antar, the Lebanese photographer who is currently in residency at The Delfina Foundation speaks with me about his latest project 'A Portrait of a Territory' , and how the experimentation of cameras and film have always been the focal centre of transforming his ideas into still or moving images. Elements that have been taken from today's world, Ziad shows them in their natural state, without any human interference. Through the film and camera lens, we are shown a story. However, he explains that nothing has been suggested or imposed through the works, and that the images simply speak for themselves.
Antar has been working with photography and video since 2002 when he directed his first documentary on the French photographer Jean-Luc Moulène. He has made several documentaries for the Arabic news channel al-Arabiya. Antar's work has been shown in numerous exhibitions including The Mediterranean Approach and The Future of a Promise, Venice, Italy (2011), Sharjah Biennial 10 (2011), the New Museum, New York (2009), the Cittadellarte, Pistoletto Foundation, Biella, Italy (2009), Sharjah Biennial (2009), Tate Modern, London (2008), the Centre Pompidou, Paris (2006) La Cabane, Palais de Tokyo, Paris (2005) and the Taipei Biennial, Taiwan (2008). He was nominated for the Ukrainian Pinchuk Foundation's Future Generation Prize in 2010. Ziad Antar was born in 1978 in Saida, Lebanon and now lives and works between Paris and Beirut.

NM: What inspired you to become a photographer and live the life of a photographer?
ZA: I was always interested in image. Even before I became interested in still image and photography, I always had a video camera in my hands. So, it started from this need to record basically, without any intention to make work out of what I was recording. But as a first choice of camera, especially video camera, I was interested in this recording (device) and then this increased with time. Especially when I started to work as an assistant at the Arab Image Foundation, working on the series of Hashem El Madani, the work of Akram Zaatari. I had a closer view on the work of photography: black and whites, studio, street photography in Lebanon. I was searching on all the images of people and portraits. I somehow had an idea other than a video because a video is a basic camera that everyone has, you know? I didn’t build anything on it. I was young and I had this small handy cam. So my first experience this, when I was faced with the quantity of images and photographs and a big archive. I started to ask myself more about the image. That’s how I was inspired, and then I decided to study film. So film and photography are still moving images. Like this I built up my will.

 NM: How do you choose your subject matter? Is it something that you are drawn to or repelled by and there is a need to share it or tell a story through your work?
ZA: No, definitely not a story. I don’t know how I choose my subjects actually.
I am very practical. I used to make videos based on the subject that was always related to the experimentation of the medium. So, if you want a precise answer on subject, I don’t have this. For example, my videos are always related to music or another type of art. It’s dealing with how to create a video and transform an idea into video. Photography is a bit different but it’s the same way as to how I experiment with still image. I don’t know how… subjects or projects. I prefer to call them projects. I start with something simple related to photography and the history of photography and I build up on it. For example, the book on Sharjah or on the UAE…
NM: Which leads me to my next question… what drew you to work on Portraits of A Territory? Was this something you were thinking about over time?
Sharjah - Docks
ZA:  I was interested in all the products scattered on the docks in the Emirates. The way they were wrapped like sculptures scattered one by one by one. All the products you can imagine were on the docks.  From weaves to batteries to telephones to milk to coffee to clothes to small cars, to anything!  They were wrapped and they were handling these onto small boats to go to other parts of the world between India and Pakistan, China, Iran and the Arab world. So, first I am always interested in photographing as a form of documentation and the photography of products.

NM: So you would photograph them in their element without any interference?
ZA: Yes, exactly. This subject interested me, if you want to discuss about subjects, but I arrived to a project by the end of it. The subject of products interested me, because photographically speaking there is this process in photographing products, which is found in my culture of photography in the French school of Patrick Tosani, Jean-Luc Molene, and Jean-Marc Bustamente. And then at the same time it has a very social and economical aspect to it, and also political, that tells you about the trade and the history of the country. So, I wanted to do something around it, so I started to photograph the docks, and when I finished the docks I continued and then this linear thing was the whole coastline, little by little.

NM: In the talk with the Tate (Jessica Morgan) I saw a lot of buildings in your photography – why buildings? Is it for architectural reasons or did you also see them as sculptures just standing out?
ZA: In the project of Portraits of A Territory, I photographed them as elements on the seaside that represent the coast or are found on the coast. They are the urban structures on the coast. It was for this reason that I shot a lot of buildings, especially that in this project there is the aspect of the boom and the fall and this had a direct impact. You cannot feel this let’s say if you go to Dubai or Abu Dhabi and spend 2 days there. But you can feel this here through several elements – one was through the buildings that were stopped halfway or through others being destroyed. So these elements were important parts of the project.

NM: So going on to my next question about that, you showed buildings that were vacated or unfinished due to the fall or lack of resources; were you trying to make a point or poke fun at what’s going on in the world today? So much importance being placed on these buildings and then all of a sudden there’s no value and they are left empty? Were you trying to make fun of or show the humour in this?
ZA: No. I never criticise at or work this way. I’m not making fun. It could be humorous but I prefer we look at these images as a whole. The buildings accomplished or unaccomplished, or the products or the docks, sand dunes, empty coasts, pipe lines, factories, ports… all these are the elements of the whole project that can make a point of view. When you see the whole package together of the images, you would understand that it’s not criticising but it is. It’s not making fun but there might be some ‘funny’ images. I’m not suggesting anything. I am just making a point of view on the whole coastline stating it in its actual status today. I am presenting it as a document. There are too many elements that you can take from one image but the whole should be taken from all of the images. To criticise was not my intention at all. Even when I took shots with expired films, for example the Burj Khalifa. I don’t intend the image to send a message. I don’t believe in this. I don’t do this.

NM: Actually on the point of using expired film rolls and old cameras – do you want to project an image of something that comes from today’s world but because of the quality of the film it looks like it could have come from another time?
Burj Khalifa - Expired Series
ZA: To tell you the truth, this point of view was there somewhere. I took all these unexposed films and with them I took shots of modern structures. Somehow I was re-imagining the time and putting these modern structures into 40 years ago. But I did not fixate on that only. The project, at first, was purely experimental: to make an image a success with film rolls that expired in 1976 and that were badly conserved. They endured water floods, humidity, there was even a fire in the storage of Madani. So in the beginning it was trying to make an image, and then when I succeeded, I was starting to translate this as you said it – imagining it from another time.  I also had my own personal point of view, for example, like a tourist in New York shooting buildings or bridges. The form changes, like the living cells that die. There is a living material somewhere and my point of view was living, changing,   developing over time – but what you said was part of the project.

NM: There was an interesting point on you never re-shooting the same site twice (on Portraits of A Territory). Didn’t you ever feel dissatisfied with any shots you may have taken and you just had to go back and revisit that site? Or was there that element of detachment, if it turns out great then great, if not then let’s move on to the next site?
ZA: It depends on the project. For example in my project on Portraits of A Territory, it didn’t make sense to. Because I was losing light and the deterioration of light on the image was my direct line. In French we call it “il n’y a pas des photos ratés…” nothing is considered a bad image. I can go back for the whole project but not for a particular image or a site even though this element is important, there was nothing called a failure, I took it as I shot it. But in other cases would I repeat a shot? Yes I would.  For example, the images I showed you from the Motorcycles Series, these are my portraits, pure portraits. If one image is not good then should I repeat it?  Of course I would. So it depends on the project.

NM: So for you it’s more about the journey and the process and not really the outcome? The experience?
ZA: No, not even this. It depends on the project, the concept. On the coastline, the elements are found there and you can capture them with digital cameras, non- digital, with your i-phone. My project was to work with the light. How these elements produce the light and how that is reflected on my negative using these simple plastic cameras. The images were taken like a sequence. So one blurry image or one badly taken image was not considered bad. I shot it and I continued. The idea of the project… you decrease the ratio of failure, especially in this project, it was clear. I am going to shoot in this way and that way and I discarded a lot of failures, I decreased them. I have 1500 images and from that the book is there, and the story is there.

NM: Moving on to your Products of a War series and Veil series, the subject matter is very clear. As a photographer do you remove your ‘self ‘ and your feelings in the relation to the subject? Are you the silent observer?
ZA: You are saying this because they are photographed on a white background and are taken out of their context.

Veil 09
NM: but they speak so much for themselves as well…
ZA: There are 2 things to consider: taking them out of their context is the first thing and secondly, I step out from putting myself in the story. Why? I take a step backward because whenever you take a camera and take an image, any image you are creating a point of view and you are saying ‘I’ – so you don’t need to repeat this so much. When I made the images of the veils in the refugee camp in Ein El-Helweh, even though the ‘I’ disappeared from the project, I was still present in the whole process. If I agree or not, I am there. My point of view is there.  Now, you make another focus on the product whenever you take it out of wherever he or she or it was. Especially in the Products of War series, shooting them under wreckage or in the supermarket or in the hand of an Israeli soldier is totally different than bringing it into my studio.
This small practice of bringing the subjects into my studio, which was the balcony of my house with a white table; here was the subject and then I could decide how to shoot the products, or the products of war.  The same thing was also there for the veils, the blue background was a ping-pong table. The Palestinian NGO where I was working received the table as a gift. So, we made the veils on that and that subject is also there in its’ simplicity. But I prefer this vague point of view.  I don’t want to create a clear point of view on what I want to say, for example, on the veil. I prefer to present the veils as a form… I don’t find the words but a form that is a representation of the young girls there.

NM: The external state whether it’s war or a football match, is always reflective of the internal state of the human mind. It reflects that. So, when you see all these empty buildings or the veils or products of war, did you ever feel sorry for that object because it comes with its own history in any case and it’s own story. Do you feel a connection to these objects that have gone through trauma and that kind of experience, even though they are inanimate?
ZA: My answer is very short.  There is something in photography related to sadness. I don’t feel sorry or pity and all those feelings but there is something sad. I think because with our practice, we immortalise one second when we capture it. If I take your image or the image of this (fridge) we feel that we can keep the image forever. The truth, subconsciously, is that on the contrary you are killing it because you are stopping one second of it. So there is something sad in any subject, so I do not need to add more sadness to the trauma or drama, you would not be able to handle it. It would be too much. I don’t like this. There might be something sad but there is also hope. You cannot imagine the sadness of the images of the veil and how happy we were while working on the images and the energy in the refugee camp. The girls have so much hope. The people there, you can’t even imagine. No trauma or drama. More inspirational and hope with their difficulties, people would like to create and would like to live. There’s sadness, yes but I do not add to it.

NM: What artists do you personally admire and find you have drawn inspiration from?
ZA: It’s difficult for me. I have a lot. In photography I’ve been inspired by Nobuyoshi Araki, the Japanese artist and before Araki, I was inspired by reading a lot of Japanese literature like Tanizaki. I have a lot of inspiration so I cannot take any one in particular. I am also inspired a lot by non-art. I produce olive oil, so this is another inspiration for me.

NM: Do you ever doubt what you are doing while in the process of doing it?
ZA: Sure, of course. However, when I start a project I never stop but doubts do come in sometimes at the beginning of the project sometimes in the middle or end. For example, when I shot the policemen, I didn’t have any doubt. I was sure that I was making something very good and look, the project stopped, it ended up being a failure. When I started to shoot the coast in the beginning, I had some doubt and strangely it ended up as a book and an exhibition and the project that I was very sure of that I knew what I was doing stopped halfway.

NM: What are you working on now and why in London?
ZA: I don’t have a key project yet. I came because I wanted some energy and I find this city very energetic. And I felt that at this moment I want to live this. For this reason I came and The Delfina Foundation can provide you with what you need.

NM: I heard you are working with a camera without a lens, how is this working out for you?
ZA: I think this has failed actually. I can show you some images but it was experimental. Maybe it’s premature to talk about it and I took shots of London with it but I don’t know.

NM: You never know…
ZA: Yes maybe one day I will do a book with all my projects that did not work.

NM: That’s my next question, what do you do with all your film?
ZA: Unexposed or exposed?
NM: The negatives...
ZA: That’s a problem. Some friends told me to put them somewhere safe in an archive. Actually I have them in 3 parts: one in Saida, badly preserved in an aluminium case.  Privacy is an issue in Lebanon – for example I can arrive and my mother or sister or brother or father has changed its location and I end up finding this small compartment on the balcony! Another part is at a friend’s house in Paris and a 3rd part is where I do the printing. So I have 3 bad locations, so I need to think about this. But this is how I live actually.

(images courtesy of the artist)