DIALOGUE THROUGH ART DIALOGUE THROUGH ART GUEST EDITORS AND CURATORS NIKKI MEFTAH AND DIMA ABDUL KADER OF EMERGEAST interview three artists to talk about love & dialogues
Untitled, Exit of Shirin and Farhad series by Babak Kazemi, Digital photography, 70x100cm, 2012
JDEED - 52
Helen Zughaib How do you express the notion of love through your creative expression? As an artist, I feel a responsibility and desire to use my work as a vehicle for dialogue. In general, I have a message or story I want the viewer to hear. I also feel that one can” hear” my message after they “see” my work. When my paintings or installations provoke a dialogue, I feel I have been successful. The reason being, to answer your question about love, that when that dialogue happens, especially around difficult subjects (for me over the past several years it has been about migration, displacement and the massive refugee crisis), minds begin to shift and change to think about issues from another perspective or vantage point, thus creating that small step of empathy in the viewer. That shift in thinking or even learning about another perspective, especially the harder stories to tell, also creates a “heart” change if you will. The feelings of empathy and compassion are awakened and one can call this love. I do think that when this dialogue happens, creating empathy for another, possibly even leading to change or action towards healing or helping, this is love. So for me, absolutely, I hope my works achieve to bring awareness, love, and perspective shifts that hopefully lead to change, for the better.
Does your idea of love (through your process) get tested/challenged while producing? That is an interesting question because, most of what I am doing is centered around pain, war, displacement, poverty, and the basic human needs of wanting safety, shelter, food, clean water and hopefully education towards a better future. These are universal desires and basic human rights. In concentrating on these subjects, I find myself struggling with intense emotions and deep feelings of empathy while identifying with the issues I am painting about. So yes, the idea of love becomes even more powerful for me as I wrestle through these emotions, and have an even stronger desire to push these paintings out in the world and create that empathy I long for in others. But does love conquer all (if so, how)? Does love conquer all? I so wish it did. Maybe what love does is to help human beings achieve acts of kindness, of generosity, of selflessness, thinking about another’s pain or suffering. There are always people who have more, and always people who have less. Sadly, I do not think this will change drastically in our lifetime. But awareness, empathy and compassion are definitely steps in the right direction and to me, yes that is love.
Does love conquer all? I so wish it did .
Has 2020 changed your perspective on humanity? I am not sure it has changed my perspective on humanity but 2020 certainly has been a catalyst in exposing division, inequity and hardship in much of our world, whether here in America, in the Arab world or elsewhere. Whether it has been the global pandemic or the protests against police violence and systemic corruption of governments and politicians, they have created a global voice desiring change and equality. I do think that 2020 also showed us a good side, as we all waded through these global crises. The outpouring of compassion for our neighbors and their sufferings, humanity and selflessness was also pointed out in the midst of a painful time for the world. I think that this duality in humankind is always present. Do you believe the premise of every artist’s work is rooted in love?
I will speak for myself as an artist and what I hope to accomplish through my work. I do think ultimately it is about love. Because what I am asking for after my paintings are viewed by the public, is empathy. The ability of the viewer to walk in someone else’s shoes, to see through another’s eyes. This has surely been said before, but I feel strongly about this concept as I work. For me, empathy is love. And creating compassion and caring in the viewer. Yes, I feel that is love.
How do you express the notion of love through your creative expression? The first underwater project I did, and the last project I was a part of in London before moving to Muscat, was a short poetry film based on a poem about the complicated realities of love. Through it, I pitched an idea of an underwater theme using peoples’ bodies, fabric and water to visually represent the complex entanglements of emotions between lovers. At the time, I was in a deeply complex relationship - in love with someone I couldn’t be open about due to both our families and environments and the dangers our connection would incur, so for me it felt so relevant to represent this concept of ‘above’ and ‘below’ water visually - the performer and the realist, what the world sees and what we try to keep to ourselves. Unsurprisingly, I fell in love with the ideas behind this and the processes involved with working with people in water and how effortlessly this idea can connect individuals to their emotions. So I continued to explore this idea in Oman, this time trying to tie a connection between beauty, culture and the individual self, the collective other and our environments. Has 2020 changed your perspective on humanity? I actually got asked something similar recently by an organisation working at the intersection of science and art called “Invisible Dust” for their current project Forecast. I want to answer the same here because it’s a dominant feeling, one of which is relevant to love. My work is deeply connected to inclusive social and climate justice so this will always be interconnected to anything that I do. I’ve read somewhere that ‘aggression is biological but violence is social’. Since then, I realised that language is often the accomplice to that same violence. This makes me wonder what our humanity and our planet could look like if we all just learned how to better understand each other, and better understand our environments. In short, if 2020 taught us anything, it’s that we need to do better. For everyone. Do you believe the premise of every artist’s work is rooted in love? Out of all the questions you’ve asked, this is the hardest. I used to believe so, but today maybe is my answer. Most artists I know are broken-hearted. Including myself. From life, family, love, friendships, politics, humanity... And I often think that these struggles push us to explore the depths within, asking questions many of us are afraid to explore. Good art invites you to question things. Does your idea of love (through your process) get tested/challenged? The more people I meet, the more journeys I try to understand. The biggest challenge for me, growing older, is to understand that there really is no such thing as unconditional love. And people’s realities are an evidence of this. I want to say love is a savior, but love can destroy us as well as elevate us to our higher selves. And I know through all my own work I’ve ever explored, my love for freedom and justice is what pushes me to do better, to do more. But does love conquer all (how)? Without integrity, honesty, acceptance, and compassion; love can’t stand tall. What is love anyway? And how can you measure something which is deeply rooted in experience, feelings and assumptions? Love is often illogical. And that’s why it is so beautiful... No formula can ever define it.
Aisha, Omanis Under Water series, Archival giclee print, 67x82cm, 2015
Mufaddel, Omanis Under Water series, Archival giclee print, 34x46cm, 2015
Babak Kazemi Untitled, Exit of Shirin and Farhad series, Digital photography, 70x100cm, 2012
The story of Shirin and Farhad involves a tragic love triangle. Farhad (a stone mason) and King Khosrow are both in love with the beautiful Shirin. Shirin knows of Farhad’s love and uses the fact to make the King jealous. As a result, the King tries to get rid of Farhad by assigning him an impossible task: to win Shirin’s hand, he must remove a mountain. However, Farhad’s love is stronger than either Shirin or the King had imagined, and he takes on the task with zeal. Amazed at the reports of Farhad’s progress, Shirin travels to the mountain to see it for herself. After the long journey, though, she faints with fatigue, and Farhad puts both Shirin and her horse on his shoulders and carries them back to the palace. It’s this scene that traditional Shirin and Farhad miniature paintings focuses on.”
On“Exit of Shirin
“The name of this series is Exit of Shirin & Farhad which comes from a very old, famous, tragic and romantic legend of a love triangle. The photo which I’ve made in this series is inspired from a scene from the romantic story which has also been painted by many famous Iranian miniaturists.
Babak Kazemi revisits this 16th-century tragedy in order to comment on the contemporary struggle of lovers who must leave their homelands to find the freedom to love. For him, the story reveals the historical roots of what we know today as forced migration and immigration. The figure of King Khosrow also provides him with a potent symbol for the kind of emotional control and suppression that men and women still endure to-day. Ultimately, however, Kazemi’s message is that love can overcome even the most difficult situations.
Untitled, Exit of Shirin and Farhad series, Digital photography, 70x100cm, 2012
Dima ABDUL KADER Nikki Meftah
What is love to you?
Dima: Love is so much more than just an emotion. It’s a way of being, it’s the driving force for collective compassion. Love is care, love is selflessness, love is giving. I feel people tend to focus on the word love that is between two people and we neglect that the concept of love comes through everywhere all day everyday. You just have to notice it. And for you? Nikki: Definitely. I think love starts with yourself, until one is able to fill their own cup and find happiness from within they can’t fully show up for others. The most loving thing we do for ourselves, each other and Emergeast is starting the day right. By honouring our time in the mornings we create a harmonious flow for the rest of the day which has been the best discovery of 2020! Personally I allow 2 hours to wake up, meditate, listen to music and catch up with you as friends before we start working. That itself is an act of love! Art is love and love is art. Art is creative expression, allowing people to feel emotion through the beauty of art. So remind me, why did we start Emergeast again? Dima: When our idea was born in 2013, the online art market was in its infancy in the Middle East, it actually didn’t exist! It started with wanting to instill the use of digital tools to facilitate the representation of emerging artists from the Middle East - but that has definitely evolved and expanded and made our purpose easier to fulfill, but the seed of why we started has remained firmly rooted. Our mission is firmly placed in breaking down the barriers to the appreciation of art through all its forms. Propagating a sense of love through connecting with oneself by identifying the emotions sparked when looking at an artwork, be it joy, peace, nationalism even sorrow and melancholy I think this is what it means to be and feel alive! Dima: Do you think our purpose has evolved since then? Nikki: It’s funny to look back and realize everything happens for a reason, even when you don’t know it at the time! Back in 2014, for me Emergeast served as a way of staying connected to Iran, my native country - despite never having lived there. A strong value of ours is shining light on the Middle East’s narrative through art and dialogue and giving the international audience a different story you’d find on Western mainstream media. Six years later and Emergeast is so much more than that, our purpose as 2020 highlighted to us both equally, is to spread love and joy through dialogue and conversation and despite 2020 and all its misfortune, it served us well in the sense that we had time to turn inwards and reinstating our true purpose. One step further to championing emerging artists from the middle East but really to spread that love and joy and emote people through art. Dima: Going back to what you mentioned regarding connecting with your native land, there is love behind a dialogue on your own culture too! Representing artists from the region stems from a love of our own culture and the need to support, document and cultivate the expression emanating from the region. We endeavor to provide an avenue for the third culture kid to embrace the same and immortalize what this generation of artists are inspired by. What is shaping the stories from our region today and how are we prepared to recognize and honor them is very important. Art is a way for people to connect and reconnect to the love of their roots. Nikki: Exactly. It’s safe to say Emergeast was born out of the love for our respective countries and wanting to ignite dialogue around the region. We’re also seeing Western clients curious about the Middle East and others connecting to works on an emotional level, regardless of region. My favorite exchange in 2020 was when we sold the first work by Tarik Chebli, a French Algerian artist. His works are inspired by landscape and the infinite possibility nature has to offer, a universal topic everyone can appreciate. The work really touched a Western collector, they had no intention of buying an artwork but felt compelled after hearing about Tarik’s work. They were sold when they found out it was inspired by a Japanese swamp, a country dear to their hearts! They now have it hung as a centrepiece in their home in London. Not only does it look absolutely breathtaking but also serves as a conversation for their dinner party guests! That made my heart so full and made me realise that beyond the Middle East, our purpose is to really evoke emotion in collectors and general art enthusiasts. JDEED - 60
Dima: Do you think the story of the artwork was what had them sold? Nikki: Absolutely. We’ve always emphasized on the importance of storytelling, it’s so crucial, especially with emerging artists. We’ve always advocated going that one step further and believe half of the artwork’s value is in the story behind the aesthetic. Art talks and panel discussions in 2020 highlighted the importance of storytelling, the dialogue between artist and collector, gallerist and artist etc. We all slowed down, giving time to foster intimate connections with one another from a place of compassion. Collectors were spending more time online, meaning they wanted to delve into the artist’s story and engage in insightful dialogue , something they probably wouldn’t have the time to do as much before. 2020 was an interesting eye opener. What are your thoughts on this shift in dialogue? Dima: Oh for sure, 2020 really broke down the barriers between both new and old ways of communicating! The pandemic brought old friends and family closer together (finally room for inexcusable catch-ups) and facilitated complete strangers, both professionally and personally getting together online without the formalities. I mean, a Zoom meeting with the head of such and such from their bedroom embodies the term “breaking the ice”! This has really created room for more creative and flowing conversation that will no doubt prove more fruitful and well, you guessed it, initiatives wrapped in love! Which actually brings me back to your question Niks on what is love, love is comfort and familiarity too. Nikki: Familiarity, comfort and authenticity. Another value that’s deeply rooted in love and one we try to advocate every day. I find the more authentic one can be to themselves, the easier it is to remain in their flow and live effortlessly. The more joy we find in what we do, from an authentic place of love, the easier it is to transcend that into the work that we do. It’s common for start-ups to lose sight of their initial WHY motive and 2020 gave space to reconnect to that. Coming back to spreading love and dialogue, so it brings me so much joy to have this conversation right now!
“We tell all our collectors to only buy something they absolutely love, something they are prepared to look at everyday and feel inspired by.”
Dima: Which brings me to; do you think love is seeking or receiving? Nikki: I firmly believe love starts with you. All the love you seek is already within you. As Rumi puts it ‘Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.’ I think if you bring your best self and another person brings their best, there’s a constructive interference of energy and growth. If you are seeking love, it comes from a place of lack instead of abundance. How do you integrate love in your day to day life? Dima: This is a very reflective question. Every aspect of the job is made from love. Sounds cheesy but ever so true. You know it’s safe to say it’s a natural way of life - from the kind of dialogue we have with our artists which is always positive and supportive and then translating that message and conversation to our collectors and creating that stream of inspiration. Nikki: Exactly. Emergeast isn’t simply an online art gallery, it’s a lifestyle brand. Buying an artwork on our platform is merely a starting point of the experience. We tell all our collectors to only buy something they absolutely love, something they are prepared to look at everyday and feel inspired by. Whatever that means for them. It’s such a personal experience as the art you surround yourself with becomes part of your story and narrative and reflects part of your identity. The acquisition is fueled by love and kept alive through dialogue with every conversation it ignites. Which brings me to this question, what artwork stirred emotions for you? Dima: I’ll never forget the moments I saw a Basquiat and a de Kooning for the first time. I actually teared. Do you remember the de Kooning moment when we were at the MoMA back in 2012! It’s actually that precise feeling I felt in the moment that drives what we do, wanting to give people a chance and access to experiencing those breathtaking (literally) moments when their eyes land on something that stirs emotions you didn’t know existed! I think you felt that way too with Shirin Neshat? Nikki: I felt so moved with her ‘Woman of Allah’ series and still do it each time. Her works are centered around identity and her personal life experiences and reflect a life of paradox - life and death, celebration and chaos, native land and exile, joy and fear. Something that really struck me to my core when I was much younger and still figuring life out. Her body of work, from photography to film evoke deep emotions - she is the true essence of what it means to be an artist. Dima: Yes for sure, its a collective consciousness that’s important to the both of us here. We advocate fostering that connection through storytelling based on culture, identity and everything in between. Art is a form of expression of human emotions in the rawest form and there’s this authenticity that it is a fundamental building block as a collective to build and grow from. What’s the end game, what’s the bottom line for you? Nikki: Our mission and purpose is to spread beauty, love and joy through art and dialogue. Through conversations we have on a day to day, conversations that are ignited by pieces of art and spread knowledge. That’s why collaborations are so important to us and this is exactly what we’re planning to materialize more of in 2021. Our aim is to empower people by breaking down these barriers to collecting and false notions of what it means to be an ‘art collector’. Our mission is to democratise art and show people it is not an elitist hobby reserved for the 1% but if anything, is a powerful force that shapes our human experience through love and dialogue. Dima: Couldn’t have said it better
About Emergeast Emergeast is an online gallery championing the latest generation of emerging Middle Eastern & North African artists to a new generation of young collectors. Emergeast aim’s to break down the barriers to collecting art by facilitating access to promising artists from the region at accessible prices. Through a highly curated selection of MENA artists, their mission is to incubate an un-intimidating space for young collectors, first time buyers and general art enthusiasts to foster a deep connection between artist and collector for generations to come. At Emergeast, they believe everyone has a story to tell. Beyond the aesthetics, the story and inspirations behind an artwork can support one’s personal narrative and journey thereafter. Through building our Urbanite community of collectors, they aim to expand and develop a cultural appetite for the arts and beyond. Through subscribing to a lifestyle, they aim to go beyond an online gallery of all things Middle Eastern art. The Emergeast visitor is invited to enroll in a cultural movement that is a safe space for all to-be enthusiasts, art aficionados, young collectors and all round culture vultures to unite as one community.
Nikki Meftah With an avid passion for Middle Eastern culture and heritage, Nikki has explored her interest through a journey in the arts. First stop: Sotheby’s education on “Contemporary Art of the Middle East”. Next came her role at the Iranian Contemporary Art Organization in London - Magic of Persia, where she expanded on her Iranian contemporary art expertise. With a special interest in the emerging art scene, her multi disciplinary role led Nikki to pursue her passion in unearthing emerging artists from the Middle East with a focus in catering to young collectors. Result: EMERGEAST.
Dima Abdul Kader Dima, an arts and culture devotee, is wholly dedicated to a creative domain. As an art professional, Dima has been involved with curating large-scale international corporate collections as well as bespoke private art consultancy in London. Having studied the dynamics behind art as an investment - Dima mainly finds her energy in creative discourse and expression. Her aspirations: To facilitate recognition and knowledge of Middle Eastern art and culture. Result: EMERGEAST.