An email conversation between the Artists Camila Salame and Zahra Zeinali
Can you tell us a bit about you?
I am a Colombian-Lebanese artist based in Paris. I work in Paris, Bogota and Beirut.
While doing my fine arts and art history undergraduate studies in Bogota, I enriched my core art program with sociology and philosophy courses. These two areas of study were quickly integrated in my creative process up until today. Notions such as ‘Place of Origin’, ‘Reconstruction of Memory’, ‘Identity’, ‘Home’, ‘Loss of the Mother Tongue’, ‘Exile’, ‘Diaspora’ and ‘Migration’ amongst others, echoed in my own life experience and became part of my areas of artistic thought. As part of the third generation of Lebanese diaspora in Colombia and currently living in France for more than 10 years, I am constantly confronted with these subjects. I “weave” my own reflections about them through my sculptures and installations in an attempt to grasp responses. By creating semantic relationships at the heart of my artwork, I aim to invite the viewer to engage in sensorial or poetic narratives.
Before speaking about your artwork in the Sumac Space – Past Continuous exhibition, I would like to have your point of view regarding Contemporary Art. What is art for you today?
Art is today what art has always been, a means of communication, an expression of our cultural context, our rituals and beliefs, our vision(s) of the world and moreover an aesthetic experience that aims to connect the work and the viewer. Art triggers emotions, sensations, arises questions or provokes indifference in the “eye” of the beholder. Art has wished to convey different messages and meanings through its history.
I think that messages and meanings that Contemporary Art wishes to convey are much broader today than ever before and it reaches out to many other fields of thought and discourse such as politics, gender, history and then of course intimate and very personal stories. It has also the capacity of revealing voices from artists of diverse cultures and backgrounds.
Yet, sometimes I feel that the message that some very interesting artworks wish to transmit is lost because of a lack of context. The message is then totally encrypted and the viewers feel excluded from part of the experience that the artwork would potentially bring them. I believe that this might be the reason why some spectators find Contemporary Art hermetic. I have always considered it fundamental to accompany my artwork with text which helps to open a dialogue with the viewer. I have a personal writing practice and it is in the writing process that many of my reflections and thoughts come together.
You alluded to the importance of establishing a link between the viewer and the work of art.
In my opinion, today’s art has elevated the position of the viewer to the questioner. Accepting this, can we say that today art is no longer what it has always been?
I believe that art has not changed in the sense that as I said before, to me, art aims to communicate. What has changed and what characterises Contemporary Art is the “shape” it takes, hence changing the experience. For instance, the plural and diverse means that artists use to convey their message to the viewers, make them no longer only viewers but actors of the artworks themselves. In that sense, our way of understanding and seeing art, of experiencing art has changed. I believe that the idea of the ‘viewer as a questioner’ is not new and it is an attitude on behalf of the spectator and his/her desire to engage with the work of art. I would say that, because “images” are omnipresent in our everyday life, the process of relating, interpreting or understanding visual material is more demanding.
For centuries, only painting and sculpture were considered art. Art historian studies allow us to tell important facts about a particular painting or a sculpture, that can speak to us about their potential use and meaning at the specific time and place they were made. We can tell things about their technique and their materiality. That information may influence our experience in front of an artwork. Art Historians question and sometimes create relations between artworks of very different periods of time -past present- and produce new meaning through these relations. Spectators do this too, in their own way, through their own subjectivity, through their own questioning glance. There is always a possibility of relating our personal experience or not to what we see. In this manner, Art has an inexhaustible meaning and power to communicate regardless of the period of time in which it has been produced. Let it be Renaissance our present time, the art experience renovates itself in the “eye” of the beholder. And I believe that it is in this, sometimes unutterable experience in the presence of an artwork, what makes the experience of art a unique place of meaning for each person.
You are presenting several sculptures, how are these artworks conceived? What are you exploring through this series of work?
The project I am presenting here is called Speak Mnemosyne: An Ocean of Words and some Middle-Grounds (2020) Ongoing. It is an exploration of language(s) as territory(s) of plural identity, and the function of memory and forgetting is the very process of language construction.
It was born during the lockdown that I spent in Paris. During these months, I did a lot of writing and reading and I began to explore a subject that had interested me before, but from a more personal point of view; my relationship with my mother tongue, Spanish. With English, which is the language in which I did all my scholar years, and which is my language of study. With French, which I learned at the beginning of my pre-adolescence and in which I also developed the notions of my practice and that nourished me greatly, especially in the field of philosophy and literature. It constitutes my language of thought. Finally, my relationship with Arabic, the lost language, which I try to decipher in my own way and at my own pace.
Our memory encapsulates sensations, images, but memory passes more often through language, through the narration of our memories, through oral and immaterial memory. In this new project, I am also interested in exploring the relationship of language with biological processes related to learning such as sleep and dreams, themselves also related to the processes of memory and forgetting in a scientific way as well as poetic, and even mythological as in Greek mythology, which is a source of inspiration for me.
This series of sculptures is made up of poetic images that speak of this relationship to language and for that I wanted to use words, texts and books -objects of memory. I wish to invite the spectator to reflect on the way in which “immaterial” language “embodies” in order to be able to speak of our relationship with it.
You have mentioned materials. I consider you choose the materials you use in your sculptures meticulously; can you tell me why? Where does this particular attention to materials come from?
I have always been aware of the evocative power of materials even from my earliest artwork and have chosen to use mainly natural ones for my sculptures and my installations. Let it be raw wool, flower petals, fabric, soap, sugar, beeswax, honey, paper, gold leaf, ashes, metal or rock, each has a symbolic value thanks to the different uses it encounters, its origin or the mythology that has been built round it. The precise choice of materials helps me establish a poetic dialectic that materializes in each piece. Each material has a story and a particular use, and according to this I create relations between them and notions I am exploring in the artwork. In An Ocean of Words and some Middle-Grounds (2020) I use mainly paper, ceramic, paraffin, thread, translucent cloth or translucent materials stones such as Quartz. Most of the pieces are white or transparent and evoke the intangible aspects of language.
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Zahra Zeinali (b. 1975) holds a bachelor’s degree in painting from the Islamic Azad University of Tehran. After her graduation, she worked as a teacher in different institutes in Tehran for around fifteen years. During this time, she realised her interest in photography and decided to spend a year studying analog photography at the House of Iranian Photographers.
In 2012 she moved to France and, while working as a painter, she continued to study photography at the EFET Photographie Institute to improve her skills. As a result she recently started combining the two techniques, painting and photography in order to portrait reality through this new method.
Zeinali has participated in several group and solo exhibitions in Iran and France.