Autumn 2019 in Beirut felt like summer. I had been in the city for one month already, staying as a resident at the cultural space Mansion where I was working on a curatorial research project. The formally abandoned villa sits on a hill in the city’s Zuqaq al-Blat district, the immense creativity within its walls unidentifiable from the street below. It was through the artistic community of Mansion that I first met the artist Mohamad Kanaan.
I’d begun to establish a routine; each morning began with an attempt to make a pot of Arabic coffee, this led to a clean-up session from the inevitable overflow, then I’d take my cup to Mansion’s garden to listen to the city waking. On October 17th, the sounds of the city changed. Calls of protest to end the years of governmental corruption and consistent mismanagement filled the streets - Thawra - Revolution.
From that day, my routine disappeared but I did manage to keep up my morning coffee session. One morning, as my coffee boiled, Mohamad entered Mansion through the kitchen door. At this point, we hadn’t yet met but I had seen him at work through his studio window. Behind me, the coffee began to bubble over the metal-rimmed pot down onto the stove. He told me that in Arabic that eruption, the overflowing energy - that was ‘Thawra’. I admitted that I hadn’t quite figured the proper way to make Arabic coffee and he proceeded to talk me through the steps. We sat for some time talking, mainly about Berlin, where Mohamad had just returned from and I had been living. When I told him I was planning to go down to the square alone, he suggested that we go together.
It was on this walk through the city, amid the protests, and towards the sea that I got the chance to learn more about Mohamad and his practice. Born and raised in Beirut, Mohamad was a child of Lebanon’s post-Civil War era. After completing his BA in Architecture at the American University of Beirut in 2012, he left for the US to begin an MFA at the School of Art Institute of Chicago. It was there that Mohamad’s practice deepened and began to be steered by research-led explorations into areas of religion, sexuality and spirituality. What does it look like to be a body that is so often located on the periphery of two realities? This question forms a base for Mohamad’s practice with each work acting as a piece of evidence in the ongoing investigation. These pieces of artistic evidence themselves often oscillate between altering spheres - the physical and digital, the personal and political, the micro and macro - with the complex magnetism of Lebanon never far away.
Love can be understood as an amalgam of effects, and as such, can contain tensions that determine the reading of this work, questioning how national context influences beliefs in broader authorities. What acts will individuals perform for love, for God, or for their country?
Mohamad, it has been some time since we took that first walk together and you are now back in Beirut. How is it for you over there?
Yes, I am now back based in Beirut and a lot has happened since I left in January 2020. It is weird to be back when many of my friends are trying to leave, but there’s a part of me that actively wants to be here, and maybe because I got away at the brink of the economic collapse and then the explosion on August 4th, which created a great impact on the essence of the city. There has been a rupture in all the constants of my Beirut life, so I am trying to adapt to these changes by immersing myself in a rigorous routine that involves running by the sea almost every morning and then going to the studio, at Ashkal Alwan, till days end.
On that first walk together, you pointed out two billboards where your work ‘Almost American: Love Letter’ was displayed in 2015. The word ‘almost’ has such a strong presence here. How did this work come about?
I did this work in 2015 while I was doing my Masters at the School of Art Institute of Chicago and I had just received my Green Card which meant I was one step away from applying for American citizenship. The poem was displayed on two billboards at the center of the green line in Beirut, a highway that divided the Muslim west and Christian east in the Lebanese civil war. The text echoes the conflict in categorizing my dual identity as a naturalized American and a Muslim Arab. The tension between the American Dream and America the Demon. ‘The Demon’- is a phrase used in anti-American demonstrations post 9/11 in many Arab cities, while Demon also refers to my personal demons and temptations that my mother warned me about before moving to the USA.
In 2019, you presented another installation on these same billboards titled ‘I Wish I Could Tell You’. Was this a sequel?
I Wish I Could Tell You was definitely a sequel. In 2015, I was thrilled to become American but after Trump was elected, this thrill turned into a struggle. This was amplified after the travel ban that took place for the 7 Arab countries including Lebanon. My struggle of simply identifying myself as an American grew into a greater fear of living in America. The billboard came after I became a naturalized American and I had moved out of New York. In a way, this billboard was also a love letter, to America, to my parents and to myself. I felt exposed while the poem was displayed on the billboard, just to have these secrets that I couldn’t share on the billboard. And now, I am excited about our new billboard project that will happen in Germany and it will also be a love letter, maybe to Berlin this time.
Yes, I think we both owe Berlin a love letter! Your work Red, White and Blue also touches on the complexities of love, what is this work about?
In February 2015, ISIS beheaded twenty-one Coptic Christian men on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea in Libya. The organization filmed it to create a slick, high-production-value propaganda video. I selected stills from this film, cropping them to isolate romantic Mediterranean seascapes in their backgrounds. In one of the stills, a swath and purplish-red seeps across the lower third of the image. By excising explicit geopolitical indicators, the work questions the boundaries of love, exploring moments when the degree of its passion might make it indistinguishable from hatred or violence. Love can be understood as an amalgam of effects, and as such, can contain tensions that determine the reading of this work, questioning how national context influences beliefs in broader authorities. What acts will individuals perform for love, for God, or for their country? How might these convictions intersect? It also somehow explores the perhaps controversial question - is Jihad the ultimate form of love?
The color returns in your installation ‘Let’s Talk About Red’ which was shown at the Beirut Art Residency in 2017, is there also an exploration of love in the symbolism of red here?
Let’s Talk About Red started from the first conversation I had with my mother about the death of my grandmother, who was shot in the head by a stray bullet during the Lebanese civil war. Recalling the tragedy of picking up her mother at the age of 21, she described the scene as a river of blood streaming from the balcony all over the 6 floors of their building. In Lebanon, once every year the Abraham River dyes itself red representing the blood of Adonis according to the Greek myths. Adonis’ blood together with Aphrodite's tears became poppies. These flowers have since become an iconographic element associated with blood and martyrdom, agony and love. The two streams of blood became part of the landscape of my childhood whilst growing up in Lebanon. On the one side, a mythology that is enshrined and accepted with traces that persist only as part of an oral tradition, and on the other, a narrative that has been erased in the modern historiography of Lebanon for the sake of nation-building.
Duality, whether in physical or metaphorical form, is often present throughout your body of work. What is the significance of duplicity for you?
The challenges of minority identity formation can be rooted in the notion "twoness" and is embedded in historical complexities. As a queer in the Arab world, I face the challenge of adopting different and often contradictory identities to handle various situations. These are experiences that my artwork seeks to summon and problematize. Though it operates across various media – sculpture, video, public installation, writing, and painting – it always strives to prompt viewers to reconsider singularities or dualities in favor of multiplicity, even in images that might seem unequivocal. I grew up with Islam and homosexuality, though I often existed within systems that taught me the two were incompatible.
Your recent research has been to interpret duality in Quranic texts and Islamic practices. Can you tell us about this research?
My research focuses on interpreting Quranic texts and Islamic practices as a way of creating an alternative system within which elements, that from other vantage points might seem contradictory or irreconcilable, can coexist and thrive. Duality could highlight the folly of “either/or” logic in a world that has become increasingly “both/and”. I explored this during a residency in Italy where I took Giotto’s 7 vices and 7 virtues fresco in Padova as my starting influence. I considered these 7 seven vices and virtues as measures of good and evil. I think it’s inevitable that there’s a gray area between each vice and virtue, the human struggle of navigating through the vice in virtue. The work during the residency was to reproduce charcoal drawings of the hybrid of vice and virtue. After my residency, I used an Artificial Intelligence program that used the 14 images of the Giotto to create hybrid combinations of vices and virtues, which can be described as Psychomachia: the conflict within the soul, or between the body and the soul. The images created simulate the allegory of the battle of the vices and virtues.
How do you see this particular research taking further visual form?
Figurative representation is prohibited in islam, I am trying to follow and repsect this in my research and focuse on elements that were used throught Islamic arts, such as decorative elements, functional objects, motifs, calligraphy and architecture. Can abstraction represent the essence of Islam?
In They Don’t See Us, I devised calligraphy of a Quranic verse about invisibility saving the Prophet’s life that also has underlying references to masculine sensuality. The passage (the left part of the work) is an excerpt from Surat Yassine in the Quran transliterated into Latin letters and numbers instead of diacritics for letters, following cues for text-messaging in Arabic that are pervasive throughout the MENA region. This format has regained criticism regarding the preservation of the quality of the language.The work gives phonetic access to those who don't know Arabic. One of the interpretations of verse 36.9 is a miracle that the prophet performed when a group of men gathered around his house to murder him. It is said that The Prophet turned the men blind by saying this verse. Growing up, I used to pray this verse at points when I wanted to feel invisible. In the second part of the work, I selected specific words from the passage that incite the connotation of a sexual encounter.
I get the impression that your work is often responding to your direct surroundings or situation. Would you agree with that?
I had the chance to partake in residencies in unfamiliar places, a village in northern Italy, a fishing town in Oaxaca, Mexico, and most recently the smallest island of South Korea, Gapado. I was the only foreigner on the island for three months, often feeling alienated. Midway through the residency, I was invited to attend a two-day ceremony where the shaman blessed the diver women and myself. This was a pivotal point for me, as I started to focus on the similarities between the different cultures; particularly by looking at the sun and moon in the Book of Odes and the Quran.
Each in their orbit flowing is a verse from the Quran that recounts that the sun can't catch up with the moon or meet it, so that it may remove its light. During my stay in Gapado, at sunset, I glimpsed a full moon at my far left and red sun at my far right. This moment, in contrast to the verse in the Quran, the sun and moon met for a few minutes. Similar to my encounter, The Irwoldo is a screen from the Joseon Dynasty that depicts the sun and moon in alignment, representing the Yin and Yang, the male and female in harmony. This balance of the cosmic bodies in the screen is believed to manifest political cosmology as evidence of Heaven's blessing. The horizontal paintings were displayed and were site-specific to the courtyard’s shadow at five times of the day. They became a space of ebb and flow where "the ominous" and "the beautiful" exist.
As you mention, your work can take many different forms. The use of Artificial Intelligence comes into play in a number of your projects. What is the message of using this medium for you?
I think of Artificial Intelligence as a controlling authority and a generator of possibilities, especially when the outcome is infinite. How can infinity be represented? And how can reason, aesthetic emotion, and arbitrariness affect the selection process from an infinite outcome?
Infinite Pathos is a grid of poetry verses that are the base of a generative system of an alphabet conducted through a binary code system consisting of forty-five verses. The outcome of this system is all the possible combinations of these verses. The project is composed of forty-five phases, phase one being the all the singular verses on their own (45^1), phase two is all the possible combinations of two verses (45^2) and so on. All the possible combinations of all the phases of this project sum up to approximately +248,063,640,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 different poems and it would take +15,732,093,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years to print these.
I want to return to this image of halves becoming whole as it brings a strong sentiment of collaboration. How important is collectivity in your practice?
People as a body is a definition of collectivity that I am interested in. I think collectivity is a collaboration between myself, the work, and the viewer; the relation between an experience, narrative, and meaning. In my current research, titled 4-2-1, I explore twinship as a model for non-physical intimacy. 4-2-1 stands for four limbs, two bodies, one soul. By understanding the aesthetic appeal of twins and learning how, through dance and movement, oneness can be achieved, I seek to understand and emulate systems of shared non-physical intimacy. Is cognitive intimacy the ultimate form of intimacy? Can the artist ultimately feel an intimacy, under the notion of oneness, with their audience using a set of parameters of space, movement, and sound? Can the artist compel the viewers towards a similar shared experience to reach a connection similar to that of twins? There’s no definite answer to whether the experience shared is similar, but as Yvonne Rainer phrased it, ‘feelings are facts.’
Collectivity brings me back to the beginnings of the Beirut protests back in October 2019. At the start, there was a real sense that people of all classes, ages, and religions were coming together for the cause. There were only Lebanese flags being flown, rather than those of different political parties. I know that the symbolism of a flag is of interest to you. Can you share more about this interest?
Flags are key emblems in the global political area, symbolizing communities, histories, and values via their specific colors and iconography. Their abstraction is legible and potent for those who have learned how to decode them. Flag burning stands as an act of outrage and defiance in many countries, exemplifying the affective charge these objects carry. We may ascribe value to them or not. Regardless of flags’ specific stories of origin, we inherit them without any say in their design. In some sense, these flags represent us against our will, on a macroscopic scale. Who is designing our national identity? What unifies people? What part of the history of a nation do we ascribe to? How do we write the world we inhabit?
The vision of a sea of Lebanese flags against the actual waves of the Mediterranean is a powerful memory of mine. The sea was a grounding agent in this time whilst also somewhat mimicking the waves of energy felt on the streets. I’m so glad to hear you are still spending time with the sea.
The sea in Beirut is an escape for me. Maybe it's the feeling of not being able to swim in it that creates a space that goes beyond the horizon, one that only exists in imagination? That particular shade of blue that appears every other day? Or maybe it's the threshold between the water and land that makes the sea in Beirut a moment for eluding a chaotic reality? That reminds me of that one time we saw the belly dancer at sunrise, swaying in pink against the stormy clouds. It is moments like this, better when shared, that stay endlessly.