In The Studio: Ali Kaaf and Yasser Safi

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1 - ali kaaf

Materiality preoccupies the work of 42-year old Syrian artist Ali Kaaf, who draws on primal forms and architectural features. Studying under Marwan at Darat Al-Funun, he initially moved to Berlin in 2002 to study fine art at UdK Berlin, before returning in 2016 for a lectureship at the Kunsthochschule Berlin-Weissensee. With a background living between Syria, the US, Lebanon and Germany, the location provides the perfect reflection of his own multicultural background. His work, mostly on paper, fuses European and Arabic cultures and often explores ideas of separation and reunification, space and structure, juxtaposing materials and ideas to either interlace or tear apart.

2 - yasser safi

Forty-two year old painter, Yasser Safi has been in Berlin since 2015, having studied and taught at the Academy of Fine arts in Damascus and completed a workshop at the University of Leipzig. His delicate paintings combine bold lines with soft colours to create forms that bring to mind the broken puppets of marionette theatres. In the words of Youssef Abdelke, “The figures [in Safi’s painting] are not as innocent as they seem… they represent the thoughts, fears, concerns and violence that he has witnessed.”

 

Both artists are currently settled in studios in the Berlin suburb of Neukölna and share with us here some thoughts on artistic production in Berlin as well as their experiences within the city.

3 - Ali Kaaf

ALI KAAF

What are the challenges of producing work in Berlin?

The most important challenge is to reconcile creative work within the studio with all the daily demands on one’s attention required by life outside it. Creative work requires a great deal of freedom and time to develop. This can be particularly difficult in a big city.

Why did you leave Syria?

I left Damascus in 1994 to study in Beirut, when I was just 17, so my identity already began to form around the transition between two cities and two worlds. Now, the revolution in Syria has made it difficult to go back – but I replace the physical presence of Damascus with what I carry within me.

4- Ali Kaaf

What was the experience like for you, as a Syrian artist, settling in Germany and resuming your artistic practice there?

The theme of identity is always present: life between two worlds, the constant need to explain oneself in a new environment, the position of the intellectual, and the position of an artist from the East within the colonial legacy of Europe. There is no escape from dealing with the issue of identity.

A positive benefit to your studio practice you have gained in Berlin?

Life in Berlin is more organised and quieter than Damascus, but I miss my life there. For the first five years after graduation, I split my time between the two cities: I spent the winter months in Damascus. This transition between the two worlds was very important to me. In Berlin I was missing the warmth of human relations and the historical depth I always felt in Syria. I also miss the sun!

What would you say is the single most significant change you’ve seen in the Berlin cultural scene?

Berlin is a constantly changing city, which, while potentially exhausting, means it also has a young population that gives it an extraordinary vitality. It has become an amazing reservoir of new ideas and connections.

5- Ali Kaaf

 

How supported do you feel, as an artist, in Berlin?

The lives of most of the artists from my generation, and my colleagues who studied at the university here [in Berlin], are not easy and always full of challenges. No doubt they remain less harsh than the lives of artists in other big cities in Europe such as London and Paris. The rise is rent (due to influx of commercial development projects here) and the absence of a clear policy to protect the inhabitants of the city by its politicians raises a state of dissatisfaction within its residents and this affects does have an affect on artists as well.

A perfect day in the studio always ends with… an interesting artwork.

My biggest distraction is… my phone.

I am happiest when… I am relatively satisfied with an artwork I have completed.

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Yasser Safi, Untitled, 2016

YASSER SAFI

Was there any sort of turning point that made you feel like you had properly settled into your life in Germany?

To date I do not feel settled. I am still in a transitional period that has intensified my persistence to work. We all know how we have come here, and the conditions for our survival in neighbouring countries or the West. For me, stability ultimately means freedom of movement and the ability to return home. Otherwise, stability is just a piece of paper. What is freedom if I can’t return home?

What have been some of the challenging you’ve faced in producing your work in Berlin?

The challenges continue to multiply as we experiment with new art forms and formulas. Berlin is a vast laboratory and the battle with time is unequal. Learning the language and the seemingly endless bureaucracy can be disabling when trying to focus on your own work.

7- Yasser Safi

Yasser Safi, Untitled, 2016

How do you think your work might be different if you had never left Syria?

Had I never left Syria… it is difficult to imagine how a work of art may have evolved through the hypothesis of ‘what if’. Experience is the product of everything that happens, a tangible and lived reality that is specific to its owner. It is obvious that one’s sensitivity to things is different, so long as social and political relations are different here. Add to that also the difference in a Northern European climate and adjusting to that.

How do your immediate surroundings affect your work?

My work today is an extension of the questions I was preoccupied with in Syria, whether daily or marginal things. I am still interested in the issues that rage around us, and Neuköln in particular (where my studio is located) is inhabited mostly by immigrants and leftists, who are often angry. There is a lot of social resistance here against certain laws and initiatives in Berlin.”

8- Yasser Safi

Yasser Safi, Untitled, 2018

What was the experience like for you, as a Syrian artist, settling in Germany and resuming your artistic practice there?

When you come from ‘burning areas’, everybody expects you to use the narratives of war and asylum-seeking. My experience in Berlin has been brief so far, but what I fear is the loss of individuality within the collective context due to this labelling. On a personal level I have no radical questions about cultural identity, perhaps because I feel it was defined while in Damascus, after I moved from Qamishli to study art. However, I will say that identity is complex and has no definitive state. It can be seen from several different angles. It is animated and not static.”

What is your favourite thing about your studio?

The whole floor is a group of studios for artists from different backgrounds (visual arts, music, performing arts).

A positive benefit to your studio practice you have gained in Berlin?

There is an etching workshop which is separate from my studio. It is a shared work space for engraving and printing where I have gotten to know important experiments of resident or passing artists in Berlin.

A perfect day in the studio always ends with… a question.

My biggest distraction is… a sunny day in Berlin.

I am happiest when… the role of censorship is over.