The making of memories: Syrian artist Sara Naim uses material from her homeland to create striking abstract imagery

Sara Naim at the The Third Line gallery in Dubai. (Supplied photo)
Updated 16 February 2019
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The making of memories: Syrian artist Sara Naim uses material from her homeland to create striking abstract imagery

  • “Building Blocks”, Sara Naim's second solo show, runs until February 27
  • She exists in a world far beyond the realm of classical photography and is often considered a visual artist rather than a photographer

DUBAI: Nostalgia takes many forms. For the Syrian visual artist Sara Naim, those forms are jasmine, soil and Aleppo soap.

All three are central to her second solo exhibition at The Third Line in Dubai, “Building Blocks” — which runs until February 27 — but not in the way you’d expect. 

Using a scanning electron microscope, Naim has captured the cellular structure of all three substances, magnified them, and mounted the resultant imagery on wood and plexiglass. She has also deliberately included glitches — formal distortions and light leaks — producing imagery so abstracted it is no longer recognizable. These abstract examinations create the wall works of the show and hint at the imperfection of memory, while in the midst of it all are a series of structures made from 4,000 bars of Aleppo soap.

“I think the idea of warping something that’s familiar into something foreign allows you to shift the viewer’s perspective and to reshape how they think of nostalgia,” says Naim, who was born in London, raised in Dubai, and currently lives in Paris. “Because nostalgia operates in a way that’s no longer linked to the original information. The memory of something changes the more time has elapsed and the more you think about it. You can also become consumed in thought and therefore lost in it. 

“You assume that the closer you come to something the more familiar it becomes, but actually you become more distant because it’s so abstracted. For example, some of these are looked at 50,000 times magnified, and at that scale you’re further from its truth.”

In many ways “Building Blocks” is as much about identity as it is about nostalgia. All three of the elements used by Naim may be familiar to her — the jasmine and soil are from her grandmother’s garden in Damascus — but the memories they trigger (through smell primarily) are also perceived as foreign. This is due to her international upbringing as much as it is to the conflict in Syria, which has kept her away from the country for the past eight years. 

“I’ve always said I’m Syrian,” she says. “I don’t feel like I’m British, I don’t feel like I’m from Dubai. My blood is Syrian. I completely connect with the land and the people even though there’s an interesting acceptance issue in Syria. Because they don’t consider me to be Syrian really when I’m there and even if I meet a Syrian here or elsewhere they feel disconnected from me. And (vice-versa).

“I met a British woman recently who has a house in Damascus and she’s been going there for the past 20 years. She was telling me about the street that she lives on and where she goes and I didn’t even know those places. And it was such a shame for me to feel like I’m more removed from my country than an expat is. But it’s all the nature of circumstance.”

The exhibition is, in essence, a continuation of Naim’s wider body of work, which utilizes the transmission electronic microscope and the scanning electron microscope to create ‘abstract quasi-photographic imagery’. It’s a practice she says “dissects how proportion shapes our perception and notion of boundary.” 

She exists in a world far beyond the realm of classical photography and is often considered a visual artist rather than a photographer. It’s a point of classification that she herself has debated.

“I used to correct people when they introduced me as a photographer, hoping that ‘visual artist’ would give me more freedom,” she admits. “But actually embracing it as photographic allows me to enter into the very dialogue I want to be a part of. Why are cameras made with a rectangular frame? Why are prints framed the way they are? Why is photography considered two-dimensional when it fundamentally uses space and time? I have rid myself of those restrictions, but my work is still photographic.”

Naim is in the final stages of preparing for the exhibition when we meet. The soap has yet to arrive, the towers have yet to be built, but everything else appears to be in place. Although she looks tired, occasionally passing her hand through her hair, she is chatty and affable. 

“The names that I’ve given these are not the final names,” she says as we meander through the space. “So, this is ‘Form Six,’ but in my mind — before I named them — it was just ‘Color.’ This was ‘Flower,’ this was ‘Diptych,’ this is ‘Bed Sheet,’ this was ‘Horizontal,’ this was ‘Squiggly,’” she says with a laugh. “Unfortunately I couldn’t keep it like that. ‘Bed Sheet’ wasn’t really flying with the gallery either.”

Far from being universal in shape, each form imitates a topography that Naim has encountered during her scanning process. A process that, in one way or another, Naim has been deeply involved with for the past 10 years.

Initially, it wasn’t so much the scanning electron microscope, or even photography, that Naim was interested in, but the idea of ‘false lines.’ 

“The skin seems as though it separates the body from its internal anatomy and external world, but — in fact — it’s almost like a collision of two energy forces, and on a cellular scale there is no such division,” she explains. “And how you represent that lack of border or boundary is by going down to the cell and having them look like something foreign — like a foreign landscape, or something macro.” 

It is this notion of the non-boundary, the interconnectedness of matter, that drives Naim’s work.

“I like to play with the viewer’s perspective in terms of scale, subject matter and form, but everything must be precise and sterile in order to actually convince someone to shift the way they see or think. A good dancer makes the choreography feel effortless; I try to use that concept in my work,” she says. “If the viewer begins by asking me about the process of how they were built, then that’s my fault. I’ve lost them to rationality rather than abstraction.” 

 


Tourism chiefs salute fashion designer for holding son’s wedding in Lebanon

Elie Jr. and Christina Mourad. (Social media)
Updated 23 July 2019
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Tourism chiefs salute fashion designer for holding son’s wedding in Lebanon

  • The tourism leader said the situation was to do with Lebanese ego, but he emphasized that wedding parties held in Lebanon could be better than those staged abroad on all levels

BEIRUT: Lebanese fashion designer Elie Saab has been hailed by tourism chiefs for staging his son’s lavish wedding reception on home turf.
The influential Syndicate of Owners of Restaurants, Cafés, Night-Clubs and Pastries in Lebanon saluted Saab “for holding the wedding party of his son, Elie Jr., and the Lebanese bride, Christina Mourad, in Lebanon instead of abroad, as do tens of Lebanese leaders and lords.
“Holding wedding parties abroad has deprived the tourism sector as well as other sectors in Lebanon of important revenues that can revive the national economy,” the syndicate said.
The nonprofit body that represents restaurateurs, added that the glittering event had “turned the country into a huge wedding attended by more than 3,000 guests from inside and outside Lebanon.
“People shared their joy on social media, communicating Lebanon’s image of civilization and tourism to the world. This wedding filled Lebanese hotels, restaurants and nightclubs and stirred the economic cycle for more than 10 days before and after the wedding. We salute the man who loves peace and Lebanon a thousand times.”
Jean Abboud, president of the Association of Travel and Tourist Agents in Lebanon (ATTAL), told Arab News: “The syndicate’s stance comes in response to a phenomenon that emerged a few years ago. Distinguished people have been holding lavish weddings for their children abroad, where they spend millions of dollars. This has not only been done by politicians, but also businessmen and senior employees, as if it has become a trend or an added value.”
The tourism leader said the situation was to do with Lebanese ego, but he emphasized that wedding parties held in Lebanon could be better than those staged abroad on all levels. “We have outstanding wedding planners who get employed to plan weddings abroad,” he added.
Abboud pointed out that the tourist season in Lebanon this year had so far been promising with the number of visitors from GCC countries, and especially Saudi Arabia, up on 2018 figures. He added that the 2019 draft budget approved by Parliament last week had not put “any burdens on the tourism sector.”
Chairman of the Hotel Owners Association in Lebanon, Pierre Al-Ashkar, estimated the cost of wedding parties held by Lebanese people abroad to be around $400 million, including hotel accommodation, purchases and transportation, in addition to the expenses of the wedding itself.
He said: “There is no longer a difference between politicians and businessmen who choose to hold their children’s wedding parties abroad. It is true that these weddings are no more than a few hundred, but their expenses are huge and, therefore, deprive Lebanon of this money.”
Al-Ashkar pointed out that the number of tourists choosing Lebanon this summer had risen, highlighting a significant 30 percent increase in the proportion of visitors from Europe.
“However, the number of tourists from GCC countries, especially Saudi Arabia, has not been as we had wished,” he added.
“Maybe this is because these tourists, who have not been visiting Lebanon for five to seven years, now have business in other countries or investments in tourist places outside of Lebanon, especially as some countries now offer incentives to attract tourists carrying certain passports and residence permits.”