The making of memories: Syrian artist Sara Naim uses material from her homeland to create striking abstract imagery

Sara Naim at the The Third Line gallery in Dubai. (Supplied photo)
Updated 16 February 2019
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The making of memories: Syrian artist Sara Naim uses material from her homeland to create striking abstract imagery

  • “Building Blocks”, Sara Naim's second solo show, runs until February 27
  • She exists in a world far beyond the realm of classical photography and is often considered a visual artist rather than a photographer

DUBAI: Nostalgia takes many forms. For the Syrian visual artist Sara Naim, those forms are jasmine, soil and Aleppo soap.

All three are central to her second solo exhibition at The Third Line in Dubai, “Building Blocks” — which runs until February 27 — but not in the way you’d expect. 

Using a scanning electron microscope, Naim has captured the cellular structure of all three substances, magnified them, and mounted the resultant imagery on wood and plexiglass. She has also deliberately included glitches — formal distortions and light leaks — producing imagery so abstracted it is no longer recognizable. These abstract examinations create the wall works of the show and hint at the imperfection of memory, while in the midst of it all are a series of structures made from 4,000 bars of Aleppo soap.

“I think the idea of warping something that’s familiar into something foreign allows you to shift the viewer’s perspective and to reshape how they think of nostalgia,” says Naim, who was born in London, raised in Dubai, and currently lives in Paris. “Because nostalgia operates in a way that’s no longer linked to the original information. The memory of something changes the more time has elapsed and the more you think about it. You can also become consumed in thought and therefore lost in it. 

“You assume that the closer you come to something the more familiar it becomes, but actually you become more distant because it’s so abstracted. For example, some of these are looked at 50,000 times magnified, and at that scale you’re further from its truth.”

In many ways “Building Blocks” is as much about identity as it is about nostalgia. All three of the elements used by Naim may be familiar to her — the jasmine and soil are from her grandmother’s garden in Damascus — but the memories they trigger (through smell primarily) are also perceived as foreign. This is due to her international upbringing as much as it is to the conflict in Syria, which has kept her away from the country for the past eight years. 

“I’ve always said I’m Syrian,” she says. “I don’t feel like I’m British, I don’t feel like I’m from Dubai. My blood is Syrian. I completely connect with the land and the people even though there’s an interesting acceptance issue in Syria. Because they don’t consider me to be Syrian really when I’m there and even if I meet a Syrian here or elsewhere they feel disconnected from me. And (vice-versa).

“I met a British woman recently who has a house in Damascus and she’s been going there for the past 20 years. She was telling me about the street that she lives on and where she goes and I didn’t even know those places. And it was such a shame for me to feel like I’m more removed from my country than an expat is. But it’s all the nature of circumstance.”

The exhibition is, in essence, a continuation of Naim’s wider body of work, which utilizes the transmission electronic microscope and the scanning electron microscope to create ‘abstract quasi-photographic imagery’. It’s a practice she says “dissects how proportion shapes our perception and notion of boundary.” 

She exists in a world far beyond the realm of classical photography and is often considered a visual artist rather than a photographer. It’s a point of classification that she herself has debated.

“I used to correct people when they introduced me as a photographer, hoping that ‘visual artist’ would give me more freedom,” she admits. “But actually embracing it as photographic allows me to enter into the very dialogue I want to be a part of. Why are cameras made with a rectangular frame? Why are prints framed the way they are? Why is photography considered two-dimensional when it fundamentally uses space and time? I have rid myself of those restrictions, but my work is still photographic.”

Naim is in the final stages of preparing for the exhibition when we meet. The soap has yet to arrive, the towers have yet to be built, but everything else appears to be in place. Although she looks tired, occasionally passing her hand through her hair, she is chatty and affable. 

“The names that I’ve given these are not the final names,” she says as we meander through the space. “So, this is ‘Form Six,’ but in my mind — before I named them — it was just ‘Color.’ This was ‘Flower,’ this was ‘Diptych,’ this is ‘Bed Sheet,’ this was ‘Horizontal,’ this was ‘Squiggly,’” she says with a laugh. “Unfortunately I couldn’t keep it like that. ‘Bed Sheet’ wasn’t really flying with the gallery either.”

Far from being universal in shape, each form imitates a topography that Naim has encountered during her scanning process. A process that, in one way or another, Naim has been deeply involved with for the past 10 years.

Initially, it wasn’t so much the scanning electron microscope, or even photography, that Naim was interested in, but the idea of ‘false lines.’ 

“The skin seems as though it separates the body from its internal anatomy and external world, but — in fact — it’s almost like a collision of two energy forces, and on a cellular scale there is no such division,” she explains. “And how you represent that lack of border or boundary is by going down to the cell and having them look like something foreign — like a foreign landscape, or something macro.” 

It is this notion of the non-boundary, the interconnectedness of matter, that drives Naim’s work.

“I like to play with the viewer’s perspective in terms of scale, subject matter and form, but everything must be precise and sterile in order to actually convince someone to shift the way they see or think. A good dancer makes the choreography feel effortless; I try to use that concept in my work,” she says. “If the viewer begins by asking me about the process of how they were built, then that’s my fault. I’ve lost them to rationality rather than abstraction.” 

 


Saudi Arabia’s East Coast Festival lines up top-class cultural activities

Updated 25 March 2019
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Saudi Arabia’s East Coast Festival lines up top-class cultural activities

  • Dammam Corniche event celebrates Saudi heritage; more ‘seasons’ to come
  • The festival is being held at the waterfront of King Abdullah Park, and access to the 10-day event is free

DAMMAM: People in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province have had no shortage of things to do during the Sharqiah Season. From pop concerts featuring international artists to massive sporting events, there is something for everyone among the 83 different events planned.

However, it would be remiss not to celebrate the heritage and culture of the country itself. The Enter East Coast Festival, an open-air marketplace with plenty of activities for locals and tourists to enjoy.

The festival is being held along the Dammam Corniche, at the waterfront of King Abdullah Park, and access to the 10-day event is free.

It features stalls with craftsmen beavering away. At one, a potter is bent over a wheel as he makes vases, lanterns and small toys. At another, carpenters fashion chairs and tables out of planks of wood. A weaver hums as he plaits together palm fronds to form baskets and fans.

The vendors are mostly from Saudi Arabia, but there are other countries showcasing their work too. 

Fishermen and sailors from Oman display pearls still in their shells, delicate replicas of traditional fishing boats, and stretches of fishing net. The stalls from Kuwait feature items from the past and vendors from Bahrain offer local sweets, handmade items and clothing.

There are Saudi dances and musical performances too. One stage, resembling a ship, features performers dressed as sailors singing traditional sea shanties. Another stage has drummers and a singer. A huge area in the middle of the space is allotted to dancers, flag-bearers, and even armed officers participating in a traditional Ardah, or Saudi dance.

Those looking to eat something can chow down on Saudi offerings including jareesh, margoog, or qursan. There are food trucks selling Western fare such as burgers and tacos. 

The festival runs until March 30, when the Sharqiah Season ends. 

The season is a collaborative effort between the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, the General Entertainment Authority, the General Culture Authority and the General Sports Authority. It is the first of 11 scheduled festivals planned across the country for 2019.

Future seasons will focus on different areas of Saudi Arabia, with different entertainment options for each city, and different parts of the year, such as Ramadan, Eid Al-Fitr and Eid Al-Adha.

Decoder

What is Sharqiah Season?

The festival features more than 80 events in Eastern Province cities, including Dammam, Dhahran, Alkhobar, Al-Ahsa and Jubail. Future seasons will focus on different areas of Saudi Arabia, with different entertainment options for each city. Upcoming seasons will focus on different areas, and also different parts of the year, such as Ramadan, Eid Al-Fitr and Eid Al-Adha. Read our reports on the Sharqiah Season festival here: http://www.arabnews.com/tags/sharqiah-season