Working across diverse traditional and new media – from painting to video, installation and sound – Akram Al-Halabi is fascinated by the idea of how two seemingly disparate elements can come together to create a new, third one. Whether combining photographic images with text and typography, or bringing together different works into one space, Al-Halabi explores how different material and thematic combinations spark new configurations and concepts. Al-Halabi was born in Majdal-Shams in the Golan Heights, but has been based in Austria for over a decade. It was here that he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, as well as The Film Academy Vienna (after receiving his BA in Fine Arts from the Faculty of Fine Arts in Damascus).
Of his works, Cheek (2011-2013) is arguably the best known; a series of photographic posters in which English and Arabic words focus the viewer’s attention to scenes of destruction that we might otherwise be numb to. In a world where we face serious media oversaturation, our attention is arrested by these letters and word. They mark limbs and bodies, or appear scattered across the image, at once reminiscent of dispersed shards of shrapnel or broken masonry, or as potential building blocks to rebuild new life.
In another iconic work, Snowflakes (2009-2012) Al-Halabi explored identity and geographies through a participatory project that saw him interview hundreds of strangers around the world. Another project – Love Comes First(2010) – saw him bring together 200 people in the Golan Heights to spell out the titular statement on a football field with their bodies. “We have so many issues today to worry about, but the younger generation has such a beautiful energy,” he says. “When you bring people together I really believe there is a stronger message there of what we can do when we are united, rather than just talking about problems. That’s a positive message for the future.” Most recently, he has new works included in the group showOu est la maison de mon ami/where is the house of my friend(22 January – 14 April 2019), at the Maison de Malakoff in Paris as part of an exploration of destruction, rebirth and resurrection.
In Cheek, why did you superimpose English and Arabic words over the images?
It was the start of the revolution in 2010, and I was in Austria, and all of these awful things were taking place in Syria, and I was so far away. I couldn’t do anything; I was a helpless bystander, like everybody else. I began thinking about the blood-soaked images on the news and I thought – what if I start writing down what I see in the pictures themselves? If I make the image monochrome, take out the redness of that blood, and replace it with words and text to make it crystal clear what you’re looking at – hands, feet, and faces – could I make something new? The word has its own content, and the image also has content – if I combine them, I create a third thing: a new concept, something even more powerful, and harder to ignore.
And what about the words – why did you choose to make them so literal?
You look at these images of the massacre and they are so gory and bloody, but in a way, if you’re not actually living through it – you don’t really see it. I mean, you see it, but how much do you really take on board – do you really engage? If I write onto the picture itself, it makes it visceral – your brain is forced to confront the truth of the image in a different way.
In some places, the Arabic letters appear on their own rather than cohesively joined into a word – which is slightly unnerving.
You read each letter alone, and in Arabic we’re not used to reading words like that – it’s completely abstract and quite jarring. It reflected the sensation created by seeing destroyed buildings and villages. Scattering Arabic words and characters across the images became an allusion to the destruction embodied by the pictures themselves. But, just as some of the words look like shrapnel or broken things, there are places in which I line words up around windows and doors, and in those places, they become building blocks – the chance to rebuild what has been broken.
How much is a broken script or language, to you, linked to bigger issues?
So many people today use English words instead of Arabic ones, and that’s fine, but it’s like our language isn’t developing any more. How many times have I tried to research something on Wikipedia and I haven’t been able to find an Arabic language entry? We don’t share Arabic enough – we revert to English. Even I fall back on English, because it’s an international language. In light of this, I use Arabic as a symbol of identity and of place: I’ve dismantled Arabic words in my work as a reflection of the disintegration of place and culture.
Tell me about the sub-series of Cheek, ‘Visual Text’ – here there is simply the textual element, with no image...
There came a point, after I’d shown Cheek, that I felt like: enough, I just cannot look at these awful images any more. I deleted the pictures themselves and it left me with… these words. On their own, they took on a life of their own and became visual poetry. They became a memory of what had been: the memory of bodies.
Snowflakes invited people to define themselves at the moment of their meeting. What was the aim of this project?
Where Cheek was about the massacre in Syria, Snowflakes was about me. When I arrived in Vienna the first time, I was faced with the question: how do I define myself? I’m from the Golan Heights, which is Syrian land under Israeli Occupation – so we are stateless, without nationality. Back home nobody cares about my identity, because we’re all from the same place – but when we travel, we’re faced over and over with having to explain all of this (and getting visas is no fun either). So when I came to study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, I thought – how do I explain all of this, the history of the Six Day War, and so on – why am I ‘undefined’? Why should I explain myself to every person I meet? How about they explain themselves to me instead?
Was it hard getting people involved in the project?
Not really – I must have met about 800 people, from Venice to Vienna, Munich, Stockholm, Palestine, Israel, the Golan Heights and more. I presented strangers with carbon paper and asked them to write on it: I kept a copy and they got to keep a copy. It became a performance work through the act of meeting and speaking to so many people.
What were some of the observations you made during Snowflakes?
Ultimately, people everywhere are the same. We have so much in common. But, there were some interesting nuances – in Venice, for example, I conducted the project during the Biennale. People were so open, I must have met 270 people in just three days, it was overwhelming. I had so many interesting conversations and nobody asked me who I was or where I was from, they were just really interested and supportive of the idea itself. In Jerusalem, however, people were much more guarded – I would be asked what my religion was, what my name was, where I was from. I guess people needed to feel safe, and to establish who this stranger was, before feeling they could commit to the interaction. Of the 70 or so people I approached in Jerusalem, only about a third agreed to take part. I totally respect that – people across different societies communicate with each other differently, especially in light of any localised political issues and fractions.
What did Snowflakes, and your experience of all these different people, reveal?
In spite of have different social signifiers, I feel that people have no real geographical definition – that is, whether we choose to define ourselves as Australian or Austrian, Israeli or Syrian, ultimately, once I brought all these messages together into one piece, it was as if we all had the same identity, the same voice. I’m interested about this idea of unity.
I wonder about what it is that unites us – how we transcend geographies when we look at what we have in common, in spite of our differences. I’d like to explore this further – especially with the role of the Internet today.
And the role of installation in your work?
I’ve done exhibitions where I bring together a lot of disparate elements to create something new. For example, paintings I’ve been working on lately have drawn on different sources – from clippings to photographs. Then, on a larger scale, I’ve found it rewarding to bring together different parts of my practice in an exhibition space. That conceptual element interests me – how can I combine figurative, realistic paintings I’ve done, with projects such as Snowflakes, and photography like Cheek, bring them all together into one composition, as it were. It’s like building a whole new work out of my other works.
How important is the viewer to you, in scenarios like this?
Quite – I think both about the body moving through the space, but also about how these bodies interact with the bodies of my works. Are you facing a large painting or portrait that is like meeting a ‘person’, in a way? Or are you looking at a moving image, an installation maybe, that has its own personality? Just as I felt bringing together the photography element with the written word in Cheek produced a third, new concept, so too I feel bringing together different elements into a conceptual composition creates a third idea. It’s almost like a new personality for viewers to meet, and through it, to explore the ideas that I’ve been parsing through my mind.