I recently caught up with a friend of mine, Omar Khouri, with whom I spent a few summers as a kid in Lebanon (along with other luminaries like Omar Naim and Fadi Baki). Khouri’s star is rising in the art world; his paintings have been exhibited in New York and Beirut, and some of his recent stuff is available for sale at Saatchi online. I suggest that well-heeled readers go out and buy his work now before it becomes outrageously expensive.
We sat down for a virtual chat about fine art, comics, film, and politics.
QN: What have you been up to these days? You’re busy.
Khouri: I’m preparing for my upcoming solo exhibition, starting on the 10th of March, 2015, at Agial Art Gallery in Beirut. The opening will coincide with the release of a book of my work, published by Plan Bey, that dances the line between comics and painting. I have also recently begun to exhibit and sell my work through the online gallery Saatchi Art, where i am mainly displaying my gouache portraits.
Plus, there is a brand new Samandal issue in the works. Its the magazine’s debut as a yearly anthology instead of a quarterly magazine, that is scheduled for release in December, and even though I don’t have a story in it, there are a still a number of administrative and editorial duties for me to fulfill.
QN: I’ve found that much of your recent work is expressly political in a way that many visual artists tend to eschew. Is this a programmatic decision for you? Or are you simply drawn to political material?
Khouri: For quite a long time, I was one of those artists who avoided politics in both their work and their everyday life. Growing up in Lebanon, politics in my mind was always equated with war. Engaging in any political act was only a way to reinforce one’s prejudices against their fellow countrymen and tribal fidelity to their narrow-minded warlord leaders. In many ways, the situation remains unchanged to this day. I believed that avoiding “politics” and anything to do with it was the only way to step out of that vicious circle of hatred afflicting not only my country, but the rest of the world as well.
However, after spending five years in the States, then returning to Beirut, I came to realize that politics was an implied aspect of everything I did. I was beginning to understand that even my refusal to engage in any political act or discussion was in itself a political statement.
At the same time, the country was at a democratic crossroads after the assassination of Rafiq Hariri and the 2006 war with Israel, and I was frustrated with the direction the country was taking since it seemed to be heading inevitably towards a reigniting of civil war. The first of my art that was consciously political was also my first comics story entitled Salon Tareq el Khurafi (or “Tareq’s Mythical Barbershop”) dealing with censorship and the separation of religion from the state, which began publication in 2007 in Samandal Comics Magazine issue Zero. Since then, even though politics is not the main focus of my work, I have stopped shying away from it and I deal with it in my work whenever the need arises.
QN: Tell me about your latest portrait series, and why you choose to mix political leaders with personal acquaintances, celebrities and artists.
Khouri: This recent series of portraits is an exploration of what it means to “know” a person in this digital age of smart phones and social media. Today we express our identities and connect and interact with our friends, families and colleagues in the same ways and same places where we get news of politicians, celebrities and fictional characters. It all comes to us through our digital screens, on our computers and tablets and smartphones, as concepts of people rather than separate physical entities.
Since physical proximity and direct contact are no longer necessities of our interactions, the lines blur between friend and stranger, reality and fantasy, private and public, truth and lie… My portraits of political figures in this context, juxtaposed with the other subjects in this series, is an attempt to depoliticize their image and highlight the human aspect of their nature in search of aspects in their personalities that one can connect with on a more basic level regardless of their political views. Once this connection is established, it is my opinion that it is then easier to revisit and more honestly analyze their actions and political ideals.
QN: You grew up in Lebanon during the Civil War. What was your experience of it?
I was born in London in 1978, but grew up in Beirut between ’79 and ’86, then spent the rest of my childhood and adolescence in the Koura area of north Lebanon. My earliest memory is from 1982: a stormy night spent with my mother, brother and sister in an over-crowded, violently-rocking ferry to Cyprus to escape the Israeli invasion of Beirut. Though the memory is in no way clear, the orange yellow background and vine flower pattern of the cushion my siblings and I had to share as a pillow that night is still vividly burned into my mind.
The rest of my time living in the capital city was colored with countless nights spent in our building’s bomb shelter, or days huddled in our apartment’s hallway after lining its walls with our beds’ mattresses for added protection. As a kid, I had not yet developed a realistic sense of mortal danger, even though those times were inexplicably scary due to the loud noises and shaking buildings. But they were also, strangely, a lot of fun since we got to hang out all night with our friends, excused from our homework, and sometimes had no school the next day (or for several days). During my early teen years, after the Civil War had already “ended”, I began to understand what had happened, and this manifested itself as exceptionally vivid nightmares of the conflict that my younger self had experienced.
During the second half of my childhood, I lived in the villages of the Koura plateau and I was very fortunate to experience an unspoiled rural Lebanon complete with recreational tree climbing, wood fire stoves, filling water gallons at the mouth of the village spring, and the wonderful ad hoc aesthetic of traditional hand-built stone houses with unskilled concrete extensions.
QN: What were some of your formative influences as an artist?
My earliest artistic influence was my father, who is an architect. Because of his profession, I became familiar with drawing tools from an early age and my visual vocabulary was always stimulated by the architecture and art history books in his library. My second formative inspiration was the sophisticated color palette and fine detail of my maternal grandmother’s needle work. These two, combined with my classic attention-seeking middle child syndrome, unconsciously drove me towards the artistic nerd category of social grouping, even though I was quite good at sports and part of my high school basketball varsity team.
My first conscious realization that I wanted to dedicate my life to art came during 1993, the year I discovered the work of my three greatest influences today: the French comics master Moebius, whom I had the pleasure of meeting that year at my first eye-opening exhibition of his work in Beirut; the English comics author Alan Moore, whose masterpiece Watchmen blew my mind wide open to the idea that comics could be as powerful and insightful as any other art form when dealing with the depths of the human soul; and the Japanese painter and concept artist Yoshitaka Amano, whose work continues to shatter the boundaries of my imagination to this day.
QN: At some point, you received some formal training, right?
After graduating from high school and spending a couple of years as an economics major at the American University of Beirut, I moved to Boston and became an illustration student at the Massachusetts College of Art with the intention of becoming either a comics artist or concept designer for video games and movies. During my four years there, I learned a lot about art history and the fine arts and became more and more interested in the freedoms of painting. This created a division within my work that I’ve oscillated between ever since: let’s call it a division between Media Arts and the Higher Arts.
At first, after graduating, I worked on painting and comics separately and in parallel. But with time, the language of comics began to seep into my paintings, and I decided to merge the two into one focused stream of work which culminated in my first exhibition in New York in 2006.
After that I returned once again to a separation of the two, in order to strengthen each in its pure form before I attempt a proper and more powerful recombining. This led me to my first realized traditional picture story, the aforementioned “Salon Tareq el Khurafi”, and the creation of Samandal as a space for people like me to practice the art of comics. My upcoming exhibition and accompanying book release in March will mark a return to the marriage of the two art forms. If you are in Beirut at the time and curious about what that might mean, please stop by and have a look.
My degree project during my final year at art school was concept art and storyboards for a science fiction movie that one of my best friends, Omar Naim, wrote and was hoping to direct. He had recently moved to LA and gotten great response to this script and needed supporting visual material to show that he had a vision and was able to direct it as well, so asked me for my help. As a result, my first proper job out of college was on this movie, called The Final Cut, where I got to work with a number of amazing people whose films I grew up on, such as the Director of Photography Tak Fujimoto, the editor Didi Allen, and Robin Williams. Robin specifically was a great surprise because, besides being humble, hilarious and extremely talented, I discovered that he had quite a similar taste in comics and video games as I do and we spent some time together “nerding out” about our favorites. I was very sad and shocked when he passed away; he was truly and amazing person.
QN: Tell me a little bit about the project of co-founding Samandal, a groundbreaking publication and the first tri-lingual comic book published in the Arab World. What have been some of the biggest challenges and surprises you’ve encountered while working on this project?
When we first started publishing Samandal in 2007, the greatest challenge was to convince local audiences that comics were not only children’s entertainment, but could also be aimed at adults and deal with interesting and mature topics of a personal, social, political or artistic nature. After several years of organizing workshops, conferences, artists talks and comics jams, and putting out over thirty publication, I can safely say that we have converted a large number of people to our cause. Actually, one of the greatest positive surprises was the emergence of a number of other comics publications in Lebanon and the Arab world, some of which were even founded by former Samandal contributors and supporters.
Another very difficult obstacle is censorship. People have the impression that Lebanon is very liberal, but that is only true in comparison to the very extreme conservatism of the surrounding countries. In truth, Lebanese censorship is quite strict, while keeping the guidelines very ambiguous and up to the discretion of General Security and those with direct influence over their decisions. Politics, religion and sex are generally topics that one is advised to steer clear from if you want to avoid trouble with the law, yet they are three of the very few topics that are worth exploring if you are an artist. As a result of these conflicting conditions, there is an ongoing illegal lawsuit against the editors of Samandal, myself included, for a piece that was published in issue 7, back in 2010.
QN: Tell me about the work you’ve done on memorializing the Civil War.
The project you are referring to here is called “China” by Raed Yassin and was selected for the 2012 Abraaj Capital Art Prize. It consists of seven vases that each commemorates one of the major battles of the Lebanese civil war. I was commissioned by Raed, who is a friend and long-time collaborator, to design and illustrate these vases, in the flat and decorative style of Islamic Miniatures, on canvas and paper after choosing the appropriate shapes and measurements of the vessels that would wear them. Once these were ready, we took them to a small town in China called Jingdezhen that specializes in hand painting and firing porcelain in the traditional fashion, were we oversaw the reproduction of my designs by the hand of very skilled artisans.
This experience was very enriching in a number of ways. First, I learned a great deal about the history of visual representation in our region in order to teach myself the necessary skills needed to emulate the master miniature painters. Second, due to the detail oriented nature of this painting style, I finally had a practical motive to learn everything there is to know about the Lebanese civil war in its minutia. Not only did I visually study every single weapon, costume, tactic and terrain utilized by each faction, but I also came to understand the complex and ever shifting political alliances, the reasons behind them, and every horrid atrocity committed in their name. I have to admit that the more I learned, the more I was filled with disgust at the world around me and self-loathing for being a product of this nightmare, yet at same time it was very helpful in my attempt to come to terms with the chaos of my childhood and the origins of the present situation of the country.
Lastly, living in China for a month, interacting with people and eating authentic food in the residential and artisanal town where we were basically the only foreigners, was quite an amazing adventure. Raed’s girlfriend Monira, who was my painting assistant on this project, as well as my wife Nidale were also with us and we spent the greatest New Year’s Eve of our lives there. As a result, Jingdezhen is now one of my favorite places of all time, up there with Tokyo, Vancouver and the village of Qalhat in northern Lebanon.
QN: Who are some Arab artists you think are doing interesting work? And what do you think of the situation of contemporary visual art in the Arab world? It’s sort of exploding in popularity these days: big Arab art auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, big museum exhibits in New York, an Islamic art museum in Doha, etc. Do you have a particular read on these developments?
There are a number of contemporary artists whose work I admire. Ayman Baalbaki, Ali Cherri, Raed Yassin, Monira Al Qadiri, Barraq Reema, Mazen Kerbaj, Ghadi Ghosn, the artist collective Atfal Ahdath… The list can go on for a while.
As for the recent boom of interest in Arab art, I think it is a very positive side effect of a horrible situation, since it comes as a result of constant political turmoil and endless wars. The foreign powers that choose to fight their battles on our soil, both directly and indirectly, bring in their wake a mixed wave of guilt-driven and genuine interest to understand the local culture and somehow “give back” to the affected communities.
At the same time, the situation itself provides artists with a plethora of very pressing, loaded, and interesting subject matter that a number of them are using to create really inspiring work, which in turn rewards the interest of the outside world. On the other hand, we have the young Gulf nations who are investing their overly abundant wealth in the realms of leisure and culture, which thankfully include the fine arts, in an attempt to advertise the region as something more than politically and religiously extremist place people make it out to be. But, in the end, artists are making a lot of great art here, and people are paying attention (and money) to it. Let’s just hope the art boom stays, but the wars end soon.
- Diptych (Saad & Bashar), 2014: Gouache on paper, 60 cm x 42 cm
- Diptych (Rafic & Hafez), 2014: Gouache on paper, 60 cm x 42 cm
- Hassan, 2013: Gouache on paper, 36 cm x 51 cm
- Yoshitaka, 2014: Gouache on paper, 56 cm x 76 cm
- Utopia, episode 16, 2009:Ink and watercolor on paper, 30 cm x 21 cm (winner of Best Arabic Comic in 2010 at the Festival International de la Bande Dessinee d’Alger)
- Salon Tareq el Khurafi, 2007, Chapter 1, pages 4 & 5: Ink on paper, 76 cm x 56 cm
- Samandal #6 cover illustration, 2008
- War of the Hotels (China), 2011: Gouache on canvas, 180 cm x 120 cm
- Balfour’s Promise #2 (Gaza by Night), 2014: Gouache on paper, 36 cm x 26 cm