Friday, 7 December 2012


"I want people to know me first as an artist and then as a Palestinian"
Tayseer Barakat. 

This statement is one of sixteen projected onto the wall of the gallery at RICH MIX London, each representing one of the sixteen Palestinian artists included in this diverse and very well presented show.

I am actually a little surprised that this show curated by Aser Al Saqqa and Nicola Gray has not received more attention. Among the artists exhibited are several internationally renowned and prize-winning veterans of the Palestinian arts scene alongside younger artists. Collectively representing Gaza, the West Bank, Jerusalem and the Diaspora this show is perhaps the closest semblance of a unified Palestinian state that is currently available. Otherwise it is probably best represented by Mohammed Musallam's Torn Map.

Mohammed Musallam  

It is particularly interesting that there are so many artists from Gaza - eleven in total with nine of these still based in Gaza itself. It is something to be celebrated that artists continue to live and work in Gaza despite the pincer movement of both internal and external pressure. Any sense of this humanising normality is now largely absent from public consciousness particularly when the recurring psychotic episodes of this 'war' are accompanied by an often word for word regurgitation of infantile media simplicities and lots of pics of blood and emotion.

Walking around a room in which that same reality is presented from within and in such a completely different way, is like taking a day trip to a parallel universe that is more intelligent, more reflective and always constructive. Getting involved in the movement and colour of Dina Mattar's bright, strong abstractions of nature, for example, is a very uplifting experience.

Dina Mattar 

Mohamed Abusal's succulent Sabr is another reminder that there is nature, beauty, texture and colour that exists in perpetuity and it is this aspect of his cactus that asserts primacy with its underlying symbolism in relation to Palestine a gently understated given.

Mohamed Abusal

The strength of the work from these two artists introduces nature as one of the thematic strands running through this show. Another is text but this too is used in very different ways. Majed Shala uses Arabic text, cut up and arranged in vertical forms on canvases layered with texture and vibrant colour.

Majed Shala 

These distinctive compositions suggest classical Arabic calligraphy while  undermining the form at the same time. Nabil Anani has taken the beauty of illuminated Quranic manuscripts to produce a mixed media work that sublimely presents this ancient art in a contemporary way.

Nabil Anani (Detail)

Mohammed Al Hawajiri's three works on paper in ink and acrylic also use text in a very contemporary and free flowing style, arranged either within or as accompaniment to other Palestinian symbols and motifs. Rana Bishara's urgently brush-stroked watercolours hint at text although the movement and the medium are the message. Rima Mozayan interprets traditional motifs and pattern in two small works that communicate a subtle atmosphere of delight.

Rima Mozayan

Another theme that comes through in this show is space or rather the lack of it, a reality acute in the Palestinian experience. However, Tayseer Barakat's The Camp, although essentially depicting the architectural density and claustrophobia of a refugee camp has a quiet earthy beauty as do Shareef Sarhan's series of four small also earthy toned abstractions called Washing Line.

Raed Issa's chunky and colourful sunlit houses covered in satellite dishes reflect not just a local but an increasingly recognisable experience of condensed city life.

Raed Issa

There is a definite absence of people in this show and that is perhaps defined best by Jawad Al Malhi's 2000 work, The Presence of Absence. This barely-there figure is nicely accompanied by Hosni Radwan's barely-there face.

Jawad Al Malhi and Hosni Radwan 

The Fisherman's Daughter by Nidal Abu Oun does feature a figure but in the context of a surreal and remarkable image which received a lot of attention from the audience. There was something about it that actually brought the early work of Bahraini surrealist Abdullah Al Muharraqi to mind.

Nidal Abu Oun

The only two artists whose work does feature human figures are Hani Zurob whose two powerful paintings are another highlight of the show and Mohammed Joha. Hani Zurob was supposed to be attending the Private View of DESPITE on December 6th. However, the UK is not a signatory to the Schengen agreement so despite the fact that he now lives in France and very obviously had a reason to visit the UK he was not granted a visa. This is a shame because not only is this the first time his work has been shown in London but Between Exits, a book about his work with text by Kamal Boullata was published in London in November! 

"What I try to do when I paint is to rewrite my life; I try to place myself as a witness of the situations and the events I experience. That’s why there are no boundaries between political matters and private stories in my work". 
Hani Zurob

Last but definitely not least is Mohammed Joha. One of his pieces Four Faces has been used in the publicity for this show and it was a treat to discover that there were three more. The two I particularly liked use a mixture of paint and collage so carefully that the only way I could tell what was collage and what was paint was to have a sneaky touch when no one was looking. Who I am is a bold and dramatic Palestinian film noire contained within a a single frame. I loved it. 

Mohammed Joha

Equally impressive but for different reasons is What's behind the wall. In both of these works the medium and the story are perfectly interwoven and there are suggestions of all sorts of other cinematic and artistic preoccupations. I also loved the rusty blue car.... 

Mohammed Joha (Detail)

until December 28th

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

A Geometers Tale – The work of Zarah Hussain

This essay originally appeared in Araam published in Spring 2012. This beautiful publication documented the work of Zarah Hussain and Halima Cassell. The essay is reproduced here in its entirety with a postscript.

When immersed in the compelling form and distinctive colours of Zarah Hussain’s unique aesthetic, it is easy to forget that geometry is a pillar of mathematics and a cornerstone of Islamic art. In Hussain’s work geometry becomes a vibrant and very contemporary expression of the sublime and timeless beauty of abstract order. Looking more closely at the precision of angles, the exactitude of lines and repeated motifs, however, reveals underlying structures of phenomenal discipline.

First codified and named by the ancient Greeks, geometry formalised the properties and attributes of spatial relationships and, together with arithmetic, became the foundation of mathematical science. In the Islamic world eight centuries later an intense and long period of scholarship began in which Greek scientific and philosophical texts were translated into Arabic, and then absorbed, developed and disseminated. The unparalleled knowledge of astronomy in the Islamic world at that time made geometry of particular interest given its utility in the development of navigational tools such as the astrolabe. Culturally and spiritually underpinned by the Quran and its myriad references to the divine organisation of the universe and the principal realities of the order of the cosmos, it is no coincidence that the star became such an important motif in Islamic art and design.

The aesthetic that emerged emphasised the primacy of the word in the form of diverse calligraphic scripts and richly patterned Quranic manuscripts and books, while the use of tessellation and interlaced pattern on floor coverings, prayer mats, decorative carpets and ceramics was already well established. Incorporating a more rigid geometric approach to visual creativity, therefore, was intrinsically compatible with an existing sensibility that understood regularity of pattern and containment of decoration within space, be it a page, a rug or a tile. This organic rapport between Islamic worship and the art of Islam that developed over centuries is now instantly recognisable across the Islamic world. Geometry, with its simple genesis from a single circular point in space that leads to infinite planes of harmonious and perfect order, embodies both the unity and multiplicity of the universe and its creator. The repetition of Quranic verse and the supplication of prayer, the sublime order and beauty of the mosque’s tiled and carpeted interiors - all of these things are an antithesis to chaos and assist the spiritual quest to be at one with the unifying presence of the divine.

Early Work

Mosaic - Acrylic on canvas 60cm x 60cm

Zarah Hussain’s intuitive affinity with geometric form is evident from her very earliest work, created between 1997 and 2001 when she was studying History and English Literature in Manchester. This work is fascinating in terms of its negotiation between form, time and place with geometric order and pattern, combined with a brightly abstract op-art sensibility that also picks up on the emerging visual technology of the period. The net result is a series of images that suggest a digital origin but are in fact created and painted entirely by hand. This synthesis of form and disconnection of medium in relation to time is an interesting component of Zarah Hussain’s practice and approach to her subject at this time. This early body of work is important because it was the first step onto her creative path as a geometer and became the basis of her successful application to do an MA in Islamic Art in 2002.

Pink - Acrylic on canvas 111cm x 111cm

Dance -Acrylic on canvas 85cm x 85cm

The academic training received during her masters is very evident in Zarah’s first major body of work after graduation. In Handasah: Unity in Pattern, traditional geometric formality has been meticulously executed. In some cases it forms an almost palpable structural strength, while in others like Pomegranate, Twelve Fold Geometry and Radiance the viewer is drawn into the centre of the image and compelled to analyse the detailed complexity of the visual environment before being released to appreciate the whole.

 Radiance - Hand ground watercolour on khadi paper 50cm diameter 2004

Pomegranate - Hand ground watercolour on khadi paper 57cm x 57cm, 2004

Although Handasah uses a variety of mediums including egg tempera on gesso panels and the classical base for geometric design of ceramic tiles, most of the work ingeniously employs the unlikely medium of watercolour. This serves as a reminder of both the contemporary aspect of the work and the geographical locus of its creation. It also gives rise to the sublime delicacy of work like Inominate III and Purple Haze in which the subtlety of the medium is prioritised over the discipline of the form.

Inominate III Hand ground watercolour on khadi paper 15cm x 15cm, 2004

Beauty of Abstraction
Unlike Handasah, which contained a diversity of both medium and compositional shape, Zarah’s next major body of work, Beauty of Abstraction, was an exercise in uniformity. All of the paintings in this series were the same size (90cm x 90cm) and all were created using acrylic on canvas. There are only three or four underlying geometric structures but each one is repeated two or three times with unique variations of colour and subtle design modifications. This gives each image a consistency of shape, visual effect and colour intensity, making Beauty of Abstraction a very cohesive body of painted work.

Muscida -Acrylic on canvas, 90 x 90 cms, 2006

However, this method of taking one geometric design and revealing a number of possibilities inherent in the structure is innovatively consolidated with an animated light installation projected onto the darkened gallery wall. Linking to the past by using a design from Handasah, this slow moving image continuously builds, dissolves and rebuilds in layers and sequences of colour and light. It is as mesmerising as it is beautiful, animating not only the processes and infinite potential of geometric design, but also the sheer joy of its contemplation.

Stills from Light Projection

This freedom of movement within the form, so succinctly captured in this animation, was to have a major impact on Zarah’s next body of work, Araam.

Araam is a chronological drama in which the viewer is able to follow the artist’s unfolding debate with her geometric practice in three mediums. The first two paintings in Araam are small, multi-sided oil on gesso pieces very reminiscent of previous work in their conformity to classical geometric discipline and aesthetics. However, the next piece in the oil on gesso sequence, Green Composition, signals a change in which the self-contained elements of each geometric motif are drifting away from their central core. This gives a palpable sense of disintegration and expansion.

Green Composition - Oil on gesso panel, 110cm x 110cm, 2010

The subsequent Blue Composition seems to contain the essential debate in itself as if some reassembling were needed after the dilution of the previous panel. However, while many of the individual geometries are more robust, the very act of placing them in non-tessellated and sometimes overlapping positions is another innovation on traditional form.

Blue Composition - Oil on gesso panel, 110cm x 110cm, 2010

Circle Composition also contains overlapping motifs, but this time they are very mixed. Some are basic and almost transparent geometric sketches, while others are densely complex in both colour and form. There is a freedom here which suggests that the debate has been resolved, but the disparity is slightly disorientating and prompts much closer scrutiny to find an underlying structure holding it all together.

Circle Composition - Oil on gesso panel, 150cm diameter, 2010

However, it is the final piece in the oil on gesso sequence that makes the biggest visual impact. This square panel contains twenty five identical geometric rosettes with a colour code running through each line that seems both ordered and random at the same time. It demands attention and plays visual tricks but perfectly exemplifies the end of a process in which traditional has been meticulously transformed into contemporary.

Rosettes in 5x5 formation - Oil on gesso panel, 110cm x 110cm, 2010

This is consolidated by the next sequence of works in Araam in which the medium changes to gouache on paper and rosettes become the whole work instead of just a part of it. There is a joyous sense of movement and freedom in these rosette compositions. Despite their apparent simplicities, however, the works contain a challenge to the viewer who must concentrate harder to find the geometric codes that can potentially extrapolate the pattern to infinity.

Composition with 24-fold rosettes – Gouache on paper, 100cm x 70cm, 2011

The final component of Araam is another animated light projection. However, this one does not create a pre-existing pattern nor repeat its own sequence. The building blocks of the geometer’s craft are separated from any whole and projected entirely as multiple shapes in their own right. The way in which they interact is entirely random. The beauty of this work is that the viewer is able to understand and appreciate each individual shape as well as have a complete visual experience that is totally unique at the time of viewing. Mesmerising in a totally different way to what is visually static, the projection provides a subtle and beautiful closing scene in the drama of Araam.

Still from Light Projection - Araam

As noted above the book in which this essay appeared was published in Spring 2012. Since then Zarah's work has continued to develop.

As a response to being commissioned by Vital Arts to create an installation at the Royal London Hospital, she took the extraction of singular geometric motifs further by creating 3D handpainted models. Cloud was conceived in two layers: vibrantly coloured shapes on the back wall echoed in muted colours on the windows.

She is currently working on all three tracks of her practice producing a new series of paintings, a series of 3D sculptural geometries and also researching new possibilities for light projection.

Desert Night Sky - Oil on Gesso Panel, 150 x 150 cm, 2012

Reflecting the movement, wonder and infinity of the night sky, her new paintings reveal an abundance of geometric shapes dancing over an ordered background of hexagonal stars.

Isometric Wave, based on zillige tiles from the Alhambra in Spain, blurs the boundary between sculpture and painting. Each shape has 3 edges and each is painted in gradating colours creating depth and movement that transform this traditional two dimensional design into a three dimensional object.

Isometric Wave - Oil, Gesso, Wood, 120 x 180 x 3.6 cm, 2012

For more information about Zarah and her work please see her website. 


I have now met four of the five curators behind WITH(OUT). The only one I haven’t met is Simone Ruth Hui which is quite funny seeing as she is the one responsible for me being in the show. I met Annie Jael Kwan, Nobuhiro Kobayashi and Anna Viani when I delivered my work and met Mirabelle Spreckelsen along with Anna again when I visited the Brockspace yesterday.

We talked a little about how the show came about and they told me that the intention for WITH(OUT) had been to transform what is usually a visiting artist guest house into a temporary gallery space for the duration of the exhibition after which it would revert to being a guest house. This ultimately meant that the space could not be completely cleared. Certain items necessary for the space to function beyond the exhibition had to remain. The result is a symbiosis between space and content that gives perfect definition to the theme of the show. 

As you walk into the space at Tressilian Road in Brockley there is an initial sense of it being an ordinary room. Quickly however the arrangement of the art takes over. Photographs, postcards, open suitcases, framed pictures on the floor, the urgent flickering of a TV screen high in a corner and a long monochrome wall chart of artist’s names.

Open glass doors give you a glimpse into the bedroom and there is a palpable sense of something being in there that draws you straight to that room. 

What you find is an entire psychodrama staged brilliantly and disturbingly from a wardrobe and some shelving in the installation work by Italian duo Penzo+Fiore. Their arrangement of colours and objects juxtapose seamlessly both thematically and visually with Helen Omand’s stark white toy cradles.

Gloria Houng’s atmospheric photographs suggest the emptiness of one too many generic hotel experiences but also create a room within the room in which you are standing - a bed above a bed, curtains beside the curtains. On the floor by the radiator like a guest’s forgotten item is one of Howard Hardiman’s Jigsaw pieces. 

This is not a bedroom with some art in it but an entire environment that in some respects encapsulates the often jagged experience of being alone in a strange place. The external environment is different but the internal environment in all its complexity remains. Spending time in this room bombards you with both emotional challenges and interpretative possibilities. There is a deep sense of anxiety, fear and loss that characterises the impulse in many to start moving in the first place. However there is also a sense of resolution and clarity about the parameters of this reality and how it can be processed. 

When stepping back into the relative calm and normality of the social space of the other room, there is a definite sense of relief. There is also a sense of fun. You can mark your height on the haphazard wall chart of artists and others created by Daniel Wallis. You can marvel at Nina Feldman's unique postcards and a fridge door covered with satellite images of 'Victoria Roads' she has visited in all commonwealth countries. 

Tucked away in corners you spy more of Howard Hardiman’s jigsaw works and the colourful splash of one of the suitcases. There is the quiet counterpoint and sublime stillness of Bianca Brunner’photographs and you are left wondering how John Clang has managed to give his own shadow such a big personality. And as for that urgently flickering screen? There is a whole collection of videos featuring works by Yingmei Duan, The Light Surgeons, Lucia Lopez and Clemens von Wedenmayer. (CLICK LINK FOR INFO AND ONLINE SCREENINGS

Even all this is nowhere near the entirety of the show. The opening night featured a performance piece called Tides by Penzo+Fiore. The opening weekend featured Gourmandizing, a kind of site-specific food and storytelling extravaganza. On December 5th, Pablo Anton will arrive at Brockspace to perform and install his work in the bathroom and there will be a workshop with Daniel Wallis exploring responses to the exhibition at the weekend. 

To assemble all this work in a temporary domestic space plus a rich and varied itinerary of video screenings, performance, workshops and gourmet food on their first ever collectively curated project is really quite a phenomenal achievement. And I haven't even mentioned the amazing, newspaper-style catalogue with artist interviews, images, curatorial essays, the exhibition programme…… nor Kate Munro's delight that you find in the garden on the way out….

On the assumption that you can't keep a good pop-up down, I think the Brockspace and Something Human are definitely here to stay. 

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Baggage Claim rides again...

As noted in the post below Baggage Claim is back, although reduced  to 3 rather than the 10 suitcases originally installed in the Vestry House Museum Garden in 2009.

It is featured in a show called WITH(OUT) which addresses issues of migration and identity in terms of the tension and interplay between the 'within' of the human migrant and the 'without' of the changing physical location and environment.

The show has been put together by a group of 5 young curators each based in a different country and collectively known as Something Human. Reflecting this curatorial internationalism Baggage Claim was found online by a curator living in Singapore who was searching for artists and work that would reflect the thematic subject of the show.  What is also very interesting about this project is that it takes place in a residential house transformed temporarily into a new pop-up gallery space  in Brockley, South London.

It opens on December 30th and I will post up more pics and comment about the whole show later but in the meantime here's a preview of what's in the suitcases. Unfortunately, most of the original exhibition ended up in a skip so the only work that has been exactly replicated is this one:

What is nice about this version of Baggage Claim, however, is that I have been able to incorporate a subsequent exhibition into one of the recreated cases. In 2010 I did an installation called Random Library in which part of my collection of international, and often bi-lingual, poetry books were wrapped in Japanese chiyogami paper.  This obscured the titles of the books so that viewers had to  make selections based on the appeal of the paper the book was wrapped in, rather than a judgement about its content.  These books now fill the second case.

The third case is the Case for Art. All those materials that get carried around from place to place  when you're not sure what's coming next, not sure exactly what you will find there and not sure how much money you're going to have. You may not always use them but it's reassuring to know they are there....

Monday, 12 November 2012

Catching up with myself..

This blog hasn't had much happening for a while. This doesn't mean I'm not doing anything ... it just means that I haven't adjusted yet to doing everything on a phone rather than on a laptop. A lot of stuff is compatible with a small hand held device but I generally have more to say than I can fit in a tweet and a lot of images to edit and upload. Also I am more interested in the blog as archive rather than opinion. A degree of historical coherence is always useful.

Anyway... this 4 monthly update is basically going to consist of a bunch of pics from the epic 'Survival of the Fittest' which ran from early August and was so cool it was extended through to mid October. Some great feedback for this show and Mr. Team MSK was a huge hit with just about everybody except one kid a few days before the show ended who decided to pull him over.

I wasn't there but it was quite a drama apparently. The Waterworks management had to remove Mr. MSK to placate the parent of the completely freaked out kid who narrowly avoided being pinned down to the floor by the skeleton that he had insisted on provoking. What is amazing is that the skeleton has been pulled and poked and spun and stroked by hundreds and hundreds of adults and kids alike over the past 3 months and hasn't moved an inch. The force which this kid must have put into ensuring his downfall is really quite something. Eyewitnesses confirmed that parent half heartedly told child not to pull the skeleton after which child redoubled efforts and ended up scaring the shit out of himself as skeleton attacked. Good ... serves him right!!! Skeleton completely unfazed by whole experience.....

Big thanks to Tim Vine for the images and an extra big thanks for this one.......

More sooner than later as the next show opens at the end of this month. It's called WITH(OUT) and is a curated show in the Brockspace in South London. I will be revisiting 2009's Baggage Claim  for a show by international artists about international itinerancy.....