Interview by Charlie Mills
Published in May 2021
Hello Alia :)
To begin the interview, it would be great to know some more about your background as I know it is very important to your practice. Could you let the readers know a bit about where you grew up and studied — and where you are currently based?
I grew up in Beirut, Lebanon and then moved to Somerset to finish off my school years. I studied my BA at Camberwell College of Arts in London and have been based in South London ever since.
One of the first things that stands out about your work is the richness of materials that are employed — wax, sand, tiling, embroidery, printed fabric, moving image — it really keeps the viewer of their toes. You once described your works as “constructions” and they certainly do well to twist and slip through normal categories of art (such as painting, sculpture, video). Do you ever feel more aligned to one medium or have you always thrived in the gaps between them?
Tidal Crest, foam, MDF, cotton, tapestry mesh, fringing, 170 x 150 cm, 2018
I studied painting at Camberwell and have always found that despite moving away from painting in a traditional sense, I still believe that I use elements of a ‘painterly approach’. By that I mean that things like surface and image-making are always crucial. When my work is more sculptural, it still retains a quality of the image that’s been flattened or condensed in some form, so that the image falls apart when you look at it from another angle.
The other painterly trope I use quite often is the concept of the frame. I like to subvert or manipulate the use of the frame as a barrier between two worlds and think about how the context of a frame can define or change the image it contains . I want the work to allow slippages, for forms of one work to begin to inform the next in a loose and often not very linear way. I think there’s something quite painterly about that.
To be honest, I have never been concerned whether the work is read as painting, sculpture, image, moving-image or whatever. If that body of work feels like it needs to become sculptural, I will allow it and not confine it to a set of pre-ordained set of parameters. A lot of my work references existing media, whether that be a historical artefact, a painting or a film, so that will also inform which direction the work takes.
Insignia, foam, MDF, embroidery thread, tapestry mesh, cotton, soap, fringing, 125 x 85cm, 2018
Materiality is also a crucial entry point into some of your work’s key motifs. In particular, your shared cultural heritage between Lebanon and Britain. How does your choice of materials reflect this experience and what do you want to achieve through the emphasis on tactility and texture? I personally find the fringing and embroidery in works such as Snake n' Flames (2019) or Insignia (2018) very hard to resist running my fingers across…
The region is renowned for its textiles and a constant in my life has always been the persian rug or the patterned throw that surrounds our home. So there is definitely a familiarity in the connection to domestic textiles. Also, the rugs are filled with little narratives and pictorial queues of the region and its history, so I think I’ve always seen a marriage between textiles, image-making and storytelling. Even as I moved away from Beirut, that was a way to remind me to connect to the storytelling of the region.
A material that is becoming more important in the work is dyed sand. Sand has obvious connotations to the passing or collapsing of time and I think from a Western perspective, we see sand as a signal of tourism, holidays and the commodification of a location. For example, when you go on holiday and you get those little bottles of dyed sand in patterns of a tropical landscape. For me, it holds an interesting quality when sand is dyed, in that it signals a warped representation of a landscape — one that is to be consumed. I find it interesting trying to make images out of dyed sand as it holds this affinity to a distorted image and reminds the viewer of this sickly sweet indulgence of a place.
The Boy, The Snake and The Charmer (detail), MDF, dyed sand and polycarbonate, 176 x 150 x 18cm at Scaled Reiterations, 6 April-15 June 2021, DKUK, London UK
But also, I really want viewers to be haptically engaged by the work and for them to be, as you say, enticed to touch. What does this tension of wanting to but not being sure whether you can touch something make you feel? Maybe a sort of dissatisfaction or a kind of allure to be sucked into this other world but never fully being able to enter it.
The Lost City IV, clay, mesh, embroidery thread, steel, acrylic, varnish, MDF, 78x67x33 cm, 2019
This solicitation of touch and familiarity is key as it is often held in tension to the symbolic referents in your work. In your 2019 solo show at Camberwell College of Arts, Springboard, imagery appropriated from Peter Brosnan’s 2016 documentary The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille was layered into works composed of soap, clay and sand. The film is a bizarre tale of the director of The Ten Commandments (1956), who, having first commissioned the most audacious set ever made in Hollywood, buried the entire project in the Californian desert — to be later “discovered” during an archeological dig in the 1980s. This film is fascinating on so many levels, but why in particular did you become so curious with the movie?
Firstly, I just love how bizarre it is and how it’s a really good example of the simulacrum that we live in — I am particularly drawn to pop culture or art historical moments when you see versions of versions. As you say, the set is an Ancient Egyptian mock up that was buried in the Californian desert due to De Mille not wanting anyone to use the set for their subsequent films. Many years later, a team of archeologists treated the dig of the set in the same way as an actual ancient Egyptian excavation and yet essentially they are looking for props. I think it makes you think about what value we place on objects and how narrative and context is often so much more important as the object becomes a vessel for the story.
I was recently listening to a podcast talking about how our cells regenerate, even the ones in our hippocampus (where memories are stored) and it went on to talk about how different cultures hold different values in what they consider important in a historical sense. When we think of ancient Greek architecture, we think of the materiality of the ruins. If someone was to remove the actual stone that they are made from, it would be deemed meaningless. Whereas in Japanese culture, the form is often held to a higher degree of importance and if the form remains, then so does the connection to its history. I find it interesting to think about where we place value and how we have a complex relationship to memory, truth and what we deem historically valuable.
To Perish Like the Petals of Floured Dishcloths I and II, steel, dyed sand, plaster, orange sacks, spray paint and digital print on fabric, variable dimensions, 2020
I lost my dad who suffered with alzheimers for the last years of his life at the same time as the 2020 explosion in Beirut’s port. The parallel of these two events got me thinking again about this idea of where the weight of value is placed. When you see a city where whole swathes of its more historical frameworks have been ravaged by war and terror and replaced by half-built skyscrapers and derelict concrete shells, people have no choice but to hold value in the oral histories they share and the few symbolic physical reminders they have of their history. In contrast with my dad, his physical body remained but as all the memories and personalities that defined him as the person began to fade it really started to be quite jarring in terms of understanding actually how much of something can be removed, added or changed until it no longer resembles the ‘original version’.
Seeing Double Arslan Tash, Dyed sand, plywood, acrylic paint, 350 x 110 x 5 cm, 2020
The exhibition also featured a number of works inspired by entablatures and jewellery found in the ancient civilisation of Phoenicia (modern day Lebanon). These designs are a frequent reference point in your practice — coupled with your interrogation of the pervasiveness of Orientalism in film and art history, it is as if you are negotiating the limits of what is real or manufactured with regards to your own sense of cultural heritage — and that of one’s exploration of identity and culture in general. Is this fair to say?
A lot of my work is interested in the intersection between the Western and the SWANA region, including the problematic history within that, but also my position as someone who is bi-cultural. I am interested in unpacking the myriad of ways the two have related, whether through problematic movements such as Orientalism, how the region is portrayed in pop culture or in a more personal everyday sense, often drawing parallels between my life here in London and something that reminds me of Lebanon.
Stacked to Calypso Deep and A Tyrian Totem, plaster, dyed sand, PVA, spray paint, glass wax, burger boxes and steel, 32 x 32 x 110 cm, 2020
My interest in Phoenician civilization resurfaced when I was working at Borough market and thinking about trade and exchange. It reminded me about my roots, as my Lebansese side of the family used to work in trade, and how the ancient Phoenicians were a famously huge trading civilization, the connectors between East and West.
I was also reading Levi Strauss’ book We Are All Cannibals and he was discussing ideas surrounding imperishables and perishables, and how jewellery and amulets are often made from imperishable substances such as bone, teeth, precious metals, that endure past the decay of the flesh and the individual. It reminded me of the glass beads and ivory amulets Phoenicians used to make and trade, and how that contrasted with the mounds of perishable packaging that was around me at the time, as people consumed food and chucked away the cardboard packaging.
There was something formally similar in the two, when the boxes piled up they became bead-like, symbols of individual bodies who passed through the space and as the perishable substances of food and flesh moved away, what was left was packaging.
Scaled Reiterations, 6 April-15 June 2021, DKUK, London UK
Your latest solo show at DKUK is called Scaled Reiterations. At its core it is interested in the relationship between the act of looking, desire and violence. Can you run us through some of the key inspirations and ideas behind the show — as well as the type of works you are showing? Why the figure of the serpent?
Sure, the works in the show are: on one wall, a vinyl-print digital collage with cast relief snake eyes and framed drawings sat on top; on the opposite wall are some more of the snake eyes, all with different multi-coloured images/landscapes painted on with dyed sand. Towards the back of the space is a split-channel video work across two screens embedded in two textile frames. Cutting into the middle of the space is The Boy, The Snake and The Charmer, an almost-2 dimensional object, painted with the same dyed sand.
The show’s starting point draws from the lineage of Orientalist painters to modern day cinema in order to explore how false representation of the Middle East — a homogenised construct for western convenience — continues to filter into mass media. Looking at particular tropes found in cinema and Orientalist paintings such as “the Serpent” or the “exotic light” (such as that of Jean Leon Gerome’s The Serpent Charmer), I am trying dissect the violence in the false perceptions whilst creating hypnotic, haptic works — questioning humans’ desire to be entertained and transported to other worlds.
Not only does the Snake appear to embody the ideological link between the past and the present, distant and near, the wild and the tame, it is historically seen as a signifier of the dangerous but alluring world of the ‘Middle East’. Even further, as this body of work had me thinking about the gaze, I thought the snake became a really good reference within that — you know, think about the snake in The Jungle Book and its attempt to lure and hypnotise Mowgli. There is also the deception of snake charming: it is the visual queue or the movement of the lute that captures the snake’s attention, not the sound.
I received feedback from someone who saw the show and they commented how at first impression it all looks really colourful and seductive but as she got her hair cut and spent more time looking at it, an undercurrent of violence came through. It really excites me that the work was able to capture this duality as this is precisely what Orientalist paintings or films do. They are meant to allure and seduce you but once you understand the context of them, they begin to look twisted and the violence starts to emerge.
The Boy, The Snake and The Charmer, MDF, dyed sand and polycarbonate, 176 x 150 x 18cm at Scaled Reiterations, 6 April-15 June 2021, DKUK, London UK
Immediately in the works you notice an ouroboros between object and image — The Boy, The Snake and The Charmer, is itself a 3D appropriation of Jean Leon Gerome’s The Serpent Charmer (1879), and visuals from each video are seen repeating themselves on sculptures and back again. Why is this crossover between image and reality so important to you?
The works aim to create a lack of separation between image and object, with repeated motifs and imagery moving through the different works. The distinction between what work became the influence for another becomes confused, with the work re-appropriating itself and with the action of repetition utilised as a means of recognition.
By re-appropriating problematic works that disfigure or distort the region, my aim is to make their proposition more haptic, more colourful and less pictorially obvious. In this way, viewers will become aware of the hyper-reality and technicolor exaggeration that now predominates Orientalist tendencies: a reminder that everything we look at is always-already a construct or distortion. It is for the same reason I like to heavily layer and fragment images and forms in the work.
The context of DKUK as a hairdresser is interesting for the show, as for viewers it comes ready-charged with the uncomfortable reality of a prolonged and non-reciprocal gaze. More so, this is not simply the gaze of the other or an exterior threat — it is also a confrontation with the sitter’s own gaze, both as a voyeur and as a form of subject-testing, in which they must confront their own image as a kind of instant Rorschach test. There is this complex set up at work: between the seductiveness of your lurid videos and patchwork, the gaze of the hairdresser behind you and the reflection of the mirror ahead. It creates an environment where one is acutely aware of who is looking where, and what this looking implies. Quite quickly a tension emerges. This is not an anxious tension but not an innocent one either — it is almost suspenseful, in an appropriately filmic sense. What does this emphasis on the gaze hope to reveal in the work themselves?
In The Eye of The Serpent (Apocalypse Now), Jesmonite, dyed sand and polycarbonate, 36 x 36 x 3 cm at Scaled Reiterations, 6 April-15 June 2021, DKUK, London UK
This was the thing that interested me the most about making work for DKUK. I normally hate getting my hair cut for this reason of the unsettling gaze; when I first went to DKUK there were no mirrors to look at, I felt instantly eased. The normal hair-dressing set up reminded me of this painting by Jean Leon Gerome and this recipocrical five way gaze. About how the viewers are looking at the back of this boy who is holding a snake. The boy is being watched by an audience and the snake is watching the snake charmer who in turn is watching the boy and the snake. I thought that this painting was a really good link to thinking about my work in the context of the hairdressers and understanding the discomfort within a gaze.
I wanted the works to be subtly or inadvertently reminding the viewer that they are actually looking at something, and what does this act of looking mean? Throughout the space are these sculptured reliefs influenced by caricature versions of snake eyes. If you are aware that you are looking at something that is looking at you, does this shift the power dynamics?
Blurry Sets, 3-minute split channel looped video in digital print textile frames, 90 x 62 x 15 cm at Scaled Reiterations, 6 April-15 June 2021, DKUK, London UK
With the video piece, it is composed of loads of found footage from Hollywood films where a violent act has occurred under the haze of the setting sun. It has been edited in a way that this orange azure is meant to hypnotise the viewer, thinking less of the contents of the image and more what it feels like to be seduced by light and moving-image. However, throughout the video, a crassly animated serpent-like crest interrupts the azure. Big references for that were Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s work such as Solarium and Guy Debord’s video work, Hurlements en faveur de Sade.
I really like that point you made about it feeling suspenseful in a cinematic sense. It would be cool to think that objects, and simply the placement of them, can create a sensation of suspense- something I would normally associate with sound or the editing action of the cut.
A Land of Incomparable Beauty, organised by Alia Hamaoui, Byzantia Harlow and Charlie Mills,11 July- 22 August 2020, Collective Ending, London UK
On a final note, both you and I are founding members of Collective Ending HQ — a collaboratively run studio and gallery complex in Deptford, South East London. As I am one of three curators that share an office space there, I have a different connection to the space than you, as an artist. What is it about the project you find so interesting from this perspective? I know you are working on several projects there at the moment, both of which draw on the subject of rituals, something not insignificant to your own practice too…
Collective Ending has been many things for me: a place to make important relationships with one another; a place for critical or technical exchange — or even a casual conversation that can really influence your practice — and a place to allow me to think beyond my own practice. I work in quite a solitary fashion on my own work, with little collaboration. I do really enjoy this, however, sometimes this can be problematic in not giving yourself perspective and falling into your own echo chamber. Therefore working with a team and for a wider community provides balance and really interesting stimulation. By being in Collective Ending, it gives us opportunities to organise shows, talks and events that offer artists or creatives opportunities and encourages a form of conversation exchange between a wider network of people.
Aside from the work at CEHQ, what else have you got planned for the rest of the year — are there any special projects in the pipeline?
I will be showing some work in a group show called Take Care coming up in Lisbon, curated by the wonderful team at PADA, which will take place at 3+1 Gallery in August. I am also going to be making some derivation of a structure to create a communal space as part of a really exciting mini-festival/happening entitled Spiral hosted by Goby Fish Collective that will take place in the Dingle Forest in Northern Wales.
If you like this why not read our interview with Christian Newby.
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