Regional Conversations is a new series of online articles by the Ruya Foundation. Through interviews, studio visits, essays and online galleries, the series addresses issues surrounding art and conflict in the region.
Majd Abdelhamid is an insomniac. In the evenings, he trawls through Youtube videos and the news on television, collecting images and videos of the conflict in Syria. In the early mornings, he watches documentaries, listens to podcasts and embroiders, often for hours, before going to bed at sunrise. For the past year, the Ramallah-based Palestinian artist has been rendering war photographs from the conflict in Syria into colourful, abstract embroideries. ‘Why? Because nothing is more present today than violence,’ he explains while stirring his coffee during our meeting in Beirut ‘our world today is more violent than Europe was during WWII, but the violence is more subtle.’
In a recent embroidery a grey featureless figure moves at the centre of an abstract landscape. It is impossible to tell whether she runs towards the viewer, or away from them. The horizon is divided into three rectangular blocks of fuschia and turquoise. Around the figure on the fluorescent red ground, are white, uneven patches of un-embroidered tapestry canvas. The piece is the rendering of a photograph taken in Aleppo in 2016, of a woman running amid a row of body bags. The violence in the image is present, but not visible. There is no blood, no debris and no explosions. This new series of works ‘Screenshots’ (2016) was recently shown at the Beirut Art Centre’s exhibition ‘Unravelled’ (2016-17), which explores the use of embroidery in contemporary art. It has been selected for the inaugural edition of the Kathmandu Triennale which opens in March. It is loaded with questions about the representation of violence and victimhood. How can the artist convey the horrors of war, in a world saturated with images? What are the ethical implications of representing the pain of others?
‘What I want to avoid is the ‘blackmail of the image,’Abdel Hamid explains, ‘by ‘blackmail’ I mean images that aim to provoke an immediate moral and emotional reaction to humanitarian emergencies’ he explains. ‘Mahmoud Darwish writes about this in his essay ‘al baheth ‘an al tabi’i fil la tabi’i’. On the subject of Palestine, he asks ‘how do you find normality in the abnormal?’ ’ Abdel Hamid thus highlights a difference between his role as an artist who deals with conflict as a subject, and that of journalists, activists and humanitarian workers. ‘I don’t want to simply to communicate events or be an agent of propaganda. There’s a lot of journalism happening that covers that ‘. He cites the lecture ‘The Process of Creation’ by the philosopher Giorgio Agamben. ‘Agamben says that art is not about communicating a message. Its about creating a work that resists its own self.’
Abdel Hamid is part of a wider circle of artists, from Palestine and beyond, who are turning to traditional crafts to find new modes of expression. Elsewhere, the British-Iranian artist Farhad Ahrarnia is known for adapting images from the news, popular culture and art history using embroidery and marquetry tecniques. ‘Embroidery is organic, it’s alive. In Palestine, it’s a part of who we are as a people,’ says Abdel Hamid, ‘We’re not in Europe where we have big white cube galleries. I don’t want my work to be in glass boxes, I want people to touch it and feel it.’ It is also a celebration of the mundane: ‘I’ve always been drawn to stuff from the kitchen like salt, coffee, sugar, ‘ he says, as a point of comparison. The curators of ‘Unravelled’, Rachel Dedman and Marie Muracciole offered their own definition of the craft in contemporary art: ‘Embroidery has always been a practice of the periphery, so when an artist includes it in his or her practice […] it engages with questions of labour and process, the gendered gesture, and dichotomies of construction and concealment.’
Abdel Hamid describes his own use of embroidery as ‘an intervention’ on time: ‘how can I transform time visually? I don’t know how time is passing, but how can I stop or take hold of it?’ Like photographs, the embroideries capture and freeze moments in time. Yet they also gesture towards a slow, laboured process that undercuts the immediacy of digital photography. ‘Our world is increasingly accelerated and this is a way of slowing it down,’ he says. He shows me an a sequence of embroidered images depicting the evolving black mushroom of a barrel bomb. ‘This video of a bomb blast lasts a few seconds, but the embroidered images took hours to produce’. At times, his method of working alone at night, compiling hours of violent footage then embroidering a selection, can seem claustrophobic. ‘Sometimes I feel like Riyad Al Turki, the a Syrian intellectual who spent 18 years in prison. As a pastime, he produced ornate patterns on his bed sheets with grains of lentils,’ he explains.
Yet Abdel Hamid’s appropriation of traditional embroidery techniques is often met with resistance from the local community. ‘My mother’s friend thinks that I’m devouring the practice’ he says. Palestinian embroideries are known for their ornamental patterns which vary from village to village, and humanitarian organisations have made considerable efforts to preserve these local traditions. He shows me a rectangle that has been embroidered with white string, which can be read as an homage to the Russian avant-garde artist Malevich’s The Black Square (1915). ‘I asked an elderly craftswoman to produce this white rectangle for me. She refused, despite my offer to pay her’ he recalls, ‘she said ‘Yama, hatha tedyi’ waqt’ (son, this is a waste of time). I’m very grateful to her – as she forced me to do the work myself – it took 400 hours’.
Abdel Hamid views his work on the conflict in Syria as an attempt to re-tell the stories that are happening in the wider region. ‘We need create a new narrative and a new collective visual identity about ourselves, ‘ he says, ‘I was born in Damascus in the Yarmouk refugee camp, but I have a Jordanian passport. I live in Ramallah but now I’m sitting here in Beirut, talking to you. Where am I from?’ In a new body of work that the artist is still developing, Abdel Hamid focuses on the national borders that were drawn in the Middle East by the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1914. ‘We’ve been talking about the Pan Arab dream for decades, and the irony is that the only people who have come close to it are ISIS. They bulldozed through Iraq into Syria and showed how absurd these borders are,’ he explains, ‘the concept of national identity led to a lot of oppression that was never spoken about, mostly because of the presence of Israel.’ In this series, Abdel Hamid recreates fragments of borders through stitching. He has developed his own technique of layering colourful thread, while stretching and distorting the canvas. ‘I’ve found this embroidery fabric which dissolves in water,’ he explains, ‘so all that’s left is the thread shaping the border.’
This interest in re-writing collective and national narratives emerges early on in Abdel Hamid’s work and thinking. ‘My parents met in Syria as undercover agents for the PLO. They were left-wing and revolutionary, so I grew up with this romantic notion of my family’s history,’ he explains, ‘but my parents are very critical of this narrative now, and as a Palestinian artist, I am expected to be doing heavily-charged, political works, which I find patronising.’ His work dealing with Palestine, often focuses on critiques of society from within. In ‘Painkillers’ (2010) he constructed the Dome of the Rock, an Islamic shrine in Jerusalem, with capsules of a morphine-based prescription drug called Tramadol. “The dome has been completely fetishised in Palestine, its a symbol of the state. It is printed on keychains and tissue boxes. When the President speaks on television, there will be an image of the dome behind him’ Abdel Hamid explains. ‘On the other hand, there was a huge scandal about the drug Tramadol, especially in Gaza, as men were combining it with viagra to prolong sexual activity,’ he says ‘so it was a way of bringing together the sacred and the profane’. The series was inspired by handicrafts produced by prisoners in Israeli prisons ‘Many of them built small maquettes of the dome which they sent to their parents,’ says Abdel Hamid.
His early work as a student in at the International Academy of Art, Palestine, and later as an artist-in-residence at the Cité des Arts in Paris (2009) and an undergraduate student at Malmö Art Academy, Sweden (2010) focused on producing politically charged works without being explicitly political. Similarly in the series on Syria, Abdel Hamid is clear about his own political positions, but insists that these are not reflected in the work. ‘I wrote in my statement about the series that the conflict in Syria is a revolution, not a civil war,’ he says, ‘but I’m not making protest art’.
In a world saturated with images, it is easy to become desensitised to portrayals of conflict and suffering. In particular, the conflict in Syria has been described as ‘a macabre Truman Show, an uninterrupted 6-year long live reality TV programme watched globally 24/7 on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Skype, WhatsApp and Viber.’ As such, those trying to communicate the conflict are increasingly appealing to senses other than sight. On 6 December 2016, the journalist Lyse Doucet posted a minute long audio and film recording on Twitter, titled ‘Sounds of shelling in East Aleppo, on a cold dark winter’s night, all through the night.’ The silence lapses until suddenly, 15 seconds into the video, a missile screeches in the darkness. It is followed by an explosion, which slowly fades into a rumble. In this city that once housed over 2 million people there are only few lights on the street, and nothing can be seen in the dead of the night. Yet the sound testifies to the violence.
Abdel Hamid also uses sound and silence to highlight the horrors of war. In an embroidery on the early peaceful protests in the city Daraa in 2011, a figure lies on the floor, holding its hands to its ears, as the military has opened fire on protesters. The white, featureless face and hands are reminiscent of Malevich’s mannequins. Three, rectangular blocks of bright solid colours surround the figure. The simple background puts an emphasis on the figure and the physical act of ducking. The hands cut out the noise, in self-defence, but also in refusal and protest: the gesture shuts out the world, just as the embroidery itself provides no details of the surrounding scene. In this still, silent, and colourful image, the viewer sees no destruction, but they can almost hear it.
Given that the subject matter in Abdel Hamid’s work is violence, suffering and war, the aesthetic lure to the brightly coloured, abstract embroideries can be seen as problematic. ‘I am cautious because I don’t want to trivialise the events in the images, ‘ he says. Yet he insists that one of his aims as an artist is to produce beautiful works. ‘By beauty, I don’t mean this one-dimensional definition of a pretty picture with nice colours,’ he says, ‘I mean taking a moment, freezing it, deconstructing it. I’m finding ways to reclaim images, to reclaim the colours that I love like pink, blue, yellow and repurposing them. They are my colours’. In this definition, beauty is a concept that can also take on political dimensions. ‘Finding beauty in a moment of horror takes a lot more work than highlighting the horror,’ he says ‘and conveying death without succumbing to black is a form of resistance.’