Interview by Charlotte Cousins
Published August 2015
Sulaiman Majali a British Jordanian artist, whose practice negotiates between constructs of belonging and divergence. Balancing simultaneously complex and subtle dialogues through the poetic and often theatrical allusion to the future and past; a simultaneous Utopian/Dystopian reflection of societies and their constructs. His works strive to question the relationships between the sculptural object, photographic image and film. Whilst working towards a critical space of integrated references, where he plays in the mythologies of our imagined communities.
It seems that there are multiple dualities to your work; For example, perception of culture and religion, from both the West and East, is that important for you to combine and how do you find your way through this powerful combination of narratives?
For me, it’s more finding my way out of these narrative conflicts, It’s probably better to frame it that way I think. Often my work has occurred naturally in line with world events, so whilst at times departing from personal narrative, they also sit uncomfortably between the local and the global at specific times when my identity has unwillingly been politicised to the extreme. It’s perhaps less so about dualisms, but a simultaneity that just is for me.
There is definitely an interplay between a personal narrative and more overarching narratives and the means through which these are distributed. It’s important for me to combine these contradictory notions in order to negotiate and transform these dualisms into pluralisms. Aren’t “West” and “East” ideological fictions anyway?
So, it seems that you have a keen eye for things which are miscommunicated, which is suggestive of a diplomatic yet active nature, how do you see this affecting your approach to performance?
In terms of the performative elements in my work, it’s key that they are always passed through the lens and are never live, always delivered online or on monitors in space; mirroring those layers of disconnect. It’s this perspective looking in from the periphery which means there’s a sense of unease in much of the work that might come from an interrogation of authorship and questioning notions of the authentic and the tangible to find territories where the construction of contradictory narratives can occur. For me, it’s always a process of negotiation. I suppose a lot of the work tends to stem from political philosophy but eventually finds itself abstracted somehow, sitting uncomfortably between these physical and metaphoric spaces.
That relationship between the spectator and the work is what really interests me about performance and (in this sense) I use it more in relation to film or the image as opposed to being directly about performance.
￼While this powerful flow of narrative is clearly loaded, it seems that history plays a clear role within the works, often with a nod to the mythological and a collapsing altogether. Does this feed into your conceptual ideas about where cultures come from in the first place?
Towards an Archive of an Impossible History (Architectural Fragments), Pillar I, 2015
I think cultures come from where they are going...That maybe cultural narratives almost invent themselves, based on the direction of intention, power and growth. Cultural narratives essentially originate from the present and project into the past with a view to carving out a future. There is definitely an increasing nod to the mythological both in the sense of examining historical fictions, to assess their functions in the way we think and go about ourselves in a post globalised world, but also towards the potential of the future. It’s important for us to expose and deconstruct the narratives that we are fed of the “Other” that continue to be narrated by and for the powerful.
In terms of history, the legacy of colonialism and imperialism and the contemporary realities of structural racism and privilege in Europe have already provided us and much of the world with a very sure of itself idea of where cultures come from. It’s culture framed in terms of a kind of Darwinian hierarchy; a survival of the most civilised. It’s important to breach these barriers to break free from these structures of privilege and racism that prop up an unsustainable, exploitative and neocolonialist hyper-capitalism. Histories play a massive role throughout my work, but only in a subversive sense and not to preserve a dominance of cultural nostalgias. So, yes, collapse and destruction is somehow always present in and around the work, and is a reflection of the looming collapse and destruction that is so present in our contemporary societies.
Standing at the ruins of my beloved, remembering a city we've never been to, Timber, black cotton, monitor, removal blankets, cardamom, black granite, plywood, nay flute, 2015
Yeah, like there’s an attempt that we make as human beings to connect with the unknown nature of the future by building up projections; perhaps to create the potential for learning/growing . But of course there’s the creation of fear and the power of control, which I think your work plays upon a little more?
Yeah, if we’re to speak about these known unknowns, where human cultures or cultural narratives might come from and where they might be going, it’s important to question who narrates these. Who is speaking? Who are they representing? And who gets to take part in that future? Growing up in a Eurocentric society whilst not always fully being validated as someone who ‘belongs’ was an interesting struggle that has ultimately become a massive positive, in getting to see the systematic imbalances at play. The work is consistently and insistently addressing this disparity in the context that nurtures this ideology, which is why negotiation is the keyword, people don’t always want to hear this.
Cultural narratives are virtually infinite, they essentially come down to individuals so these very concrete ideas of the homogenous monolithic 'Other' is absurd. The big scary impending threat of the Muslim Arab, as one example, is a very well established and historical fear that has rooted itself in the European psyche and is a dangerous fiction to hold true, the same can be said for the Black African “migrant” (economic refugee), the Chinese or any other perceived monolithic threat to European hegemony (usually the Postcolonial nations)[enemies from the east etc.etc]. The work tends to respond a lot to what we might encounter on the personal level which always bears some relation to a wider more global interplay of power and narration, always attempting to emphasise the poetic in the work. I’m in a show in September titled Language and Silence: Poetics of the Political,I think the title communicates a lot of what I’m trying to articulate. I’m showing a film of two archivists documenting artefacts, the film is without sound but is subtitled with fragments of conversations cut up with ‘(inaudible)’ breaks.
Screen Shot from Film (untitled) 2015
I’m interested to know a little more about the suggestion of media (relationship between media and theatre?) playing a big role in the portrayal of these narrative conflicts (particularly in pieces such as “After the end of History”(Gallows of Ideology)) and “Degrade and destroy/elevate and construct (testimony in silk, wood and soap)”?
I think we can all agree that the media (and it’s theatricality) possibly plays the biggest role in these narrative conflicts?
This would be a good opportunity to mention the work of Edward Said, he was a Palestinian American literary/critical theorist and first introduced to me this notion of the Orientalist stage and imagined geographies. He was using ideas of the stage and the theatrical to articulate his theories on Orientalist constructs that generated a patronising image/representation of an Islamic Confucian Other. My interest in Said, Orientalism and this notion of the stage is really rooted in an observation that fundamentally, this device hasn’t changed much, if anything it’s become more extreme and profound in the age of new media. As a pioneer of postcolonial thought, the point in time that Said’s research is focused on is 17th - 19th century Scholars, authors and painters. It’s interesting to me that we can draw parallels between media tropes today and publications, books and paintings of that period (the media of the time).
The theatricality of some work is directly addressing both of these legacies, whether that comes through as literal reference to the stage or the prop, or whether it’s articulated through video, monitors or media motifs and the theatricality of their means of distribution.
The repeated use of the builders sand in my work, for example, whilst borrowing from the language of construction, is also a direct and theatrical reference to the desert as a space of projection; an imagined geography.
Detail from Ishall give you a fabulous carpet (or, scene with destroyed arch), building sand, collapsable reflector discs, reflective PVC, timber, monitor, 2015
This really builds upon this historic and continuing perception of the desert as an abandoned, lifeless and uninhabited space, therefore ownerless and up for grabs (and of course the entire “Arab world” is desert, right?). It’s funny, I get a lot of people who make jokes about my use of building sand in a kind of sarcastic way, like, of course I’d use sand if I’m part Arab, they go hand in hand? Actually I’m using building sand in an absurd way to reference that tired assumption, besides, it’s sand used for construction, it’s alluding to desert sand as much as construction. In After the end of History (Gallows of Ideology) and in more recent work, the introduction of the use of the green screen was interesting for me because of its parallel in my mind with this virtual non-space that the repeated motif of the desert has been/become/is.
The green screen was also important here as direct reference to a kind of media fiction or exaggeration that we see so much of today. This consistent media output of a “Middle East” of death, destruction and lamentation is not in any way a new representation but a kind of recycled device that was meant to advertise the backwardness and emptiness of the region and it’s people. Interestingly now, with Da’esh (ISIS/ISIL) who I’d say are the ultimate Orientalists, it’s become a self fulfilling prophecy and we have to question where this ideology stems from in the first place. I think we’d be quite surprised! That a lot of these people who grew up in Europe and travel there as self proclaimed fighters and then go on to recycle this same imagery and colonial sentiment makes me really consider them the New Orientalists, maybe we could go as far as saying the Ultimate Orientalists; enacting Orientalism?
ISIS hostages (reuters) 2015
The absurd and theatrical nature of these events and the way we receive them is reflected in these pieces that somehow attempt to hone in on our fundamental assumptions but hopefully with a little humor. It’s a difficult line to balance, the line between provocation and subtlety whilst holding a kind of dark humor the film that’s installed as part of After the End of History managed to do this for me.
The works certainly have a very strong connection with technology, it seems to me that film and photography are a powerful means of your exploration of this critique, how important is its role within your work?
We are a generation of digital natives. The importance of documentation and technology, breaches context and reaches an international audience. I always think of documentation of the ￼work as a reiteration of an original and it can be a really useful tool for the artist to curate their work.
Detail from The power and the glory and other things that have nothing to do with war, silk sandbags, sandstone, black flag, black paint, concrete, artificial palm, building sand, lemons, 2015
Virtuality helps to gain a little more insight into how pieces work in relation to each other. I’m really interested in what happens when that dislocation takes place especially with sculpture and performance through the Image and Film. It’s kind of secondary with documentation in terms of an exhibition but there’s a massive interplay there (when the artist makes work in the studio and documentation becomes a way of exhibiting a work online). It’s also an interesting thought that the film of a hostage on an exercise bike with a green screen desertscape behind him is online in a growing virtual archive of news stories, vlogs, cat videos etc. Online is a territory that the Artist has to occupy one way or another as much as the realspace/offline gallery. We live in that world now I think, if there is no documentation of the thing then I’m not entirely sure the thing existed.
In blurring these boundaries, It seems to me that the works also have the potential for a building sense of futurism and of a positive outlook in breaking through perception, to create and rewrite as an artist and performer, would I be right to think this?
Absolutely, the work often looks back on itself in a solemn and melancholic way and the reality of that seriousness is something people sometimes find hard to deal with. But, I would never want my work to be looking at the past just for the sake of it, it’s always attempting to find a spring board to project forward to ideas of alternative futures. Isolating the past and treating it as definite doesn’t provide this, especially when the spectator gets caught up in “identity politics”. Like I said I wouldn’t want to continue the dominance of cultural nostalgias. Actually, comfortably seeing history as fiction and freely questioning the authenticity of History, I find more truth in the future, somehow this seems more concrete to me. Maybe it’s the realisation in the scale of the structures that keep cultures in their place that makes me see the subversive value in formulating a hybrid cultural aesthetic within that, to collapse the structures that might imprison cultural identities in the first place. Perhaps.
I shall give you a fabulous carpet (or, scene with destroyed arch), building sand, collapsable reflector discs, reflective PVC, timber, monitor, 2015
For a while now, I’ve been developing on ideas of Arabfuturism, continually questioning what could effect and progress a new European Arab identity; where this hybridity has been historically concealed and denied. One thinks of the Arab identity as it is usually distributed to us; a steeped in the past, mournful of it’s long gone “golden age”, ancient, timeless and dying old religious man. Throughout the Arab diaspora, amongst 1st & 2nd generation immigrants and within the region, there are a multitude of artists who are developing quite instinctively, a cultural ￼aesthetic that integrates historical fiction, sci-fi and non-western cosmologies. This simultaneously acts as a critique of contemporary dilemmas and re-examines and interrogates narratives that surround the historical by nurturing questions that overthrow the dualisms and binary representations that often narrate and represent a fixed idea of the Arab identity (usually in opposition to European civilisation).
By cultural aesthetic, I mean this is in no way limited to visual art, but encompasses musicians, writers, poets etc. I’m working virtually with artists and musician from various countries in North Africa and the Levant, writing interviews and discussing these ideas to try and get them out there and accelerate its potential for a transformation of representation and I see myself as contributing to this new role within a contrived bubble of European identity. So, a kind of allusion to the futuristic or a suggestion of science fiction has started to function both as a critique of the ways in which we encounter and think of our respective Others and a way to encourage a
reimagining of alternative futures for the marginalised hybrid identities in Europe and beyond . In a way, considering this focus on aesthetics and futurity within my practice is an important way for me to escape the pigeonholing that comes with articulating the political within works and can help progress and emphasise the more poetic nature of my practice.
So, what’s next for you Sami?
Short term is that I’m coming to the end of my Masters at The Glasgow School of Art and
I’m facing the unknown again which I’ve missed.
Alongside this, I’m working on a publication with an artist and conceptual collaborator, Sharif Elsabagh which will revolve around imagery with very little text and hopefully be an interesting and ongoing collaboration. In keeping with an Arabfuturist aesthetic, whatever that may be. It is something that encompasses a wider emerging cultural movement, and could potentially allow for a critique to take place in between the work and give room for the poetic to engage the spectator instead of the potentially dogmatic air that the work can give across at times. A thinktank or collective would be great.
Ideally what’s next for me would be some International residencies, I’m hoping to go to Beirut within the next year to attend Ashkal Alwan’s public lecture program of artists, collectives, writers, thinkers, curators, and filmmakers. I have my eye on residencies in Jerusalem, Amman, Istanbul, Korea, China and a few in Eastern Europe. Ultimately though I have no idea and I’m happier seeing where events might take me, perhaps it’s the Bedouin blood in me?
From diasporics publication, untitled digital collage, 2014
From diasporics publication, untitled digital collage, 2014
From diasporics publication, untitled digital collage, 2014
Sulaiman Madjali lives and works in Glasgow. Recent exhibitions include (...), iota, Glasgow, Now Age,
Garage, Rotterdam, Spaces, AiA (Artists in Arches), Laurieston, Glasgow, IEAA Exhibition, Dubai and POLYPHONY, The Electrician's Shop Gallery, Trinity Buoy Wharf, London
If you like this why not read our interview with Michael Pybus
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