Inspired by the Middle East: Art show wows London crowd

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’Sunset over the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque’ by Pippa Thew.
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'The Sea (Horizon)' by Vaseem Mohammed.
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A piece by Bahraini artist Mariam Fakhro.
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'Dream of a Talismanic Shirt' by artist Elisabeth Bolza.
Updated 16 October 2017
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Inspired by the Middle East: Art show wows London crowd

LONDON: Middle Eastern influences were the binding element in the work of four artists displayed at the Janet Rady Fine Art exhibition held at the Arab British Chamber of Commerce in London last week.
Rady is a specialist in contemporary art from the Middle East and has 30 years of experience in the international market. She worked on the Art Bahrain Across Borders project (ArtBAB) and is the curator of the “I AM” touring exhibition of 31 women artists from the Middle East, currently on show at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center in Washington.
One of the artists showcased at the event on Oct. 12, whose work also features in “I AM,” was the well-established Bahraini artist Mariam Fakhro.
Rady gave Arab News insight into her work.
“Fakhro is very attached to the heritage of her Bahraini background. She is painting traditional houses, which Bahrain is fortunate enough to still have in existence. She talks about how the home is the heartland. For her, it represents her family, her homeland, her background and her security. Her work can be understood by everyone.”
Artist Vaseem Mohammed, who was present at the exhibition, showed off some wonderful examples of his work, including a piece entitled “The Sea (Horizon).” The piece features an inscription reading: “In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful.” At the center of the work lies a beautiful seam of gold, which seems to be suspended between the sea and the sky. When asked about the work, Mohammed explained that it was his tribute to the children who were killed in 2014 when an Israeli missile exploded on a beach in Gaza where they were playing. He said the gold represents their souls ascending to heaven.
Visual artist Abu Jafar said he appreciated the beautiful soft shades of blue, which he believes conveys the particular color of the sky near the sea in the Middle East — a color that he says is different to blue skies in French or British paintings.
“The artist has succeeded in creating a poem with this piece,” he said.
Another piece by Mohammed that attracted a lot of attention was entitled “The Pinnacle (Moon Splits),” painted in 2017.
Art enthusiast Marie-Aimee Fattouche of Egyptian-Lebanese heritage gave her opinion on the piece.
“For me, what I like about this piece is that the scene looks familiar. I have a sense of home while looking at it. It reminds me of a night stroll… in Morocco or Egypt. This gives a sense of the light that shines at night when you walk through the deserted streets — the time between the end of the busy nightlife period and just before the city awakens again.”
Speaking about his work, Mohammed said: “My paintings share an expression of isolation while representing a global community. This is an expression of my own feelings of isolation among the Western and Islamic communities.
“I have two distinct styles of which one uses calligraphy at the heart of the piece, juxtaposed on top of modernist, abstract style work. I would describe the calligraphy as a representation of Islam’s stability and presence in an ever-changing world.
“I also draw from my childhood experience of living in the East End of London in the 1970s. That’s what inspires me; I liked dilapidation, paint peeling off and things like that. In my parents’ house, which was more than 100 years old, I used to peel off the wallpaper and there were decades of wallpaper underneath. Subconsciously, I started using that in my work.”
Artist Pippa Thew, who was born in Kenya and now lives in Devon in the UK, has strong connections with the Middle East. She described her first introduction to the Gulf region in a conversation with Arab News.
“My connection with the Middle East started when I had a solo exhibition in Abu Dhabi. I was very fortunate as I was invited out to the royal stables by a granddaughter of the President of the UAE Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan.
“She invited me to see her racing horses and a stallion and I began to paint the horses. I was also very fortunate to become very good friends with a lot of Emirati people. I do a lot of portraits of my clients and their families, which is something I love to do.
“I love the Middle East, its culture and its people. I think it is a beautiful and fascinating place,” she said.
Thew’s paintings on show included “Sultan and Arabian Stallion Fayed” and “Sunset over the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.”
“We were coming back on a yacht and it was a beautiful September evening and very hot. The light was catching across the mosque and I just had to paint it,” she said.
Also featured in the exhibition was the artist Elisabeth Bolza, who has, for many years, studied Islamic arts and civilization. Since 2014, she has spent extended periods of time in Saudi Arabia studying its heritage and that of other countries in the region.
She was nominated for the Jameel Prize 2017 and is currently preparing a major exhibition at the Bahrain National Museum due to open on Jan. 20, 2018.
Her work “Dream of a Talismanic Shirt, 2010” was greatly admired by exhibition visitor and video producer Khalil Itani. His company, Visual Story, has covered many major Middle East art exhibitions and independent artist shows. He has a keen eye, developed over many years of training his lens on a wide range of art works.
Commenting on the piece, he said: “The balance of colors is wonderful and this represents mixed media creativity at its best. The combination of colors is subtle and I like the calligraphy — I like the layers and Islamic-Arabian influence in it.”
Rady was asked about the criteria she uses when selecting work for exhibitions, to which she replied: “First and foremost, I look at the art. Which country the artists come from is not relevant. When I am curating an exhibition, I am intent solely on showing superb artists.”


INTERVIEW: Lebanese director Nadine Labaki continues to ride wave of Capernaum Cannes success

Updated 23 May 2019
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INTERVIEW: Lebanese director Nadine Labaki continues to ride wave of Capernaum Cannes success

  • Labaki is currently serving as the president of the Un Certain Regard jury, the first Arab to do so
  • “Capernaum” has become an unexpected blockbuster in China, reportedly grossing $44 million in just over two weeks

DUBAI: The success that Lebanese director Nadine Labaki’s third film, “Capernaum,” continues to find across the world is astounding — even to her. Just one year ago, “Capernaum” won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival — a jury chaired by Cate Blanchett — after a 15-minute standing ovation. The film went on to be nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, with Labaki becoming the first woman from the Arab world to receive that honor. Now, perhaps most surprisingly, “Capernaum” has become an unexpected blockbuster in China, reportedly grossing $44 million in just over two weeks.
“It’s crazy! I can’t believe it! I really can’t. Why there? It’s all very new, so I still don’t know what it means exactly, but we’re soon going to find out,” Labaki tells Arab News in Cannes.
With its success in China, along with the US, Middle East and across Europe, “Capernaum” has reportedly become the highest grossing Arabic-language film in history.
“There’s been rumors going on for the past two to three days, and it’s like, ‘What?’ I still can’t believe it. It’s living proof that an Arab film with no actors can actually be a box office hit — can actually return money, make money for investors. You know how much we’re struggling in the Arab world to make films, find money, find funding, find investment. Especially for a Lebanese film,” Labaki says.
Labaki was in China just one month ago to show the film at the Beijing International Film Festival, and although the film got a rousing response in the room, she didn’t feel the reaction was any stronger than anywhere else the film has shown.
“Maybe it’s because there’s more than a billion people in China, but even the distributor is saying it’s working like any big blockbuster movie,” says Labaki.
The Chinese release of the film has one major difference from other cuts. The original version of the film tells the story of a young boy named Zain El Hajj (played by Zain Al-Rafeea) struggling to survive on the streets of Lebanon with the help of a young Ethiopian immigrant named Rahil and her undocumented infant son Yonas, dreaming of escaping as a refugee to Sweden. The story is not far from Al-Rafeea’s real-life situation at the time — he is a Syrian refugee. Since the film’s release, though, Al-Rafeea and his family have been relocated to Norway, something the Chinese release includes at the end of the film as a short visual report.
“The film ends on his smile, and in a way there’s (now) a continuation of real life in that story. This is really happening, it’s not made up,” says Labaki. “That’s why we’re making a documentary around the film. Maybe it’s a way of comforting people, knowing that he’s alright, he’s good, he’s in a better place. Deep down, people know this kid is going through this in his real life, they know he’s not just an actor in this film.
“I think it’s comforting to know Zain is in a different place now. He’s travelled. He was dreaming of going to Sweden the whole time, and now he’s really in Norway. He has a new life, a new beginning, a new house. He’s going to school, all his family is with him,” she continues. “It’s a complete shift of destiny. Maybe the fact the distributor added this report after the film made people understand that this is a real story and a real struggle, and not just another film.”
Though this is a huge moment for Arab film in general, Labaki doesn’t believe that the success of “Capernaum” necessarily signals a greater appetite for Arab cinema worldwide.
“I don’t think it’s about (where the film comes from). It’s about good films. It has nothing to do with the identity of the film or the country it’s coming from, really. It doesn’t mean if this film worked in China that another Arab film will work in China,” she says. “Maybe there’s going to be more hope for Lebanese cinema in the sense that investors will be less afraid to invest in Lebanese films, but it’s about the script, the filmmaker, the craft, the know-how. This is what gives confidence to somebody.”
Speaking to Arab News at the renowned Hotel Barrière Le Majestic Cannes on one of the busiest days of the film festival, Labaki is currently serving as the president of the Un Certain Regard jury, the first Arab to do so. Labaki began her relationship with Cannes in 2004, writing and developing her first feature, “Caramel,” at the Cinéfoundation Residency before showcasing the film at the Director’s Fortnight in 2007. Both of Labaki’s subsequent films — “Where do We Go Now?” in 2011 and “Capernaum” in 2018 — debuted at the festival, each in increasingly competitive categories.
“I feel like I’m their baby, in a way. With a baby you start watching their first steps, see them grow, protect them, push them… They’ve accompanied me in this journey, and recognized and encouraged me. It’s great — I really love this festival. I think it’s the best festival in the world. I like the integrity they have towards cinema. You feel that watching a film in Cannes, you know that you’re not going to watch just anything — there’s something in there for you to learn from, to be surprised by, to be in awe of. There’s always something about films that are shown in Cannes,” says Labaki.
In approaching her role as head of the jury, Labaki is focusing on connecting with the films, and taking on the perspective of myriad filmmakers from across the world.
“I don’t watch films as a filmmaker. Never,” she says. “I watch the film as a human being… I don’t like the word jury. I don’t like to judge because I’ve been there — I’m there all the time. I’ve been in those very difficult situations, very fragile situations, where you’re making a film, where you’re doubting, where you don’t know, where you don’t have enough distance with what you’re doing, and you don’t have the right answers and you’re not taking the right decisions.”
Just as her own films have become increasingly focused on the problems facing Lebanese society, Labaki believes that contemporary film cannot help but be political, and must accept its role as a commentary on the world we live in — something that she feels she’s seen in the films in her category.
“Cinema is not just about making another film; it’s about saying something about the state of the world right now. Until now, every film we’ve seen is (doing that). That doesn’t mean that cinema that is just art for art’s sake is not good — there are so many different schools — but I feel we’re becoming so much more responsible for this act,” she says. “You become an activist without even knowing you’re becoming an activist, and saying something about the state of the world. It’s important.”