A conversation between Noor Abuarafeh and Didem Yazıcı
The opening sentence of your video piece “Observational Desire on a Memory that Remains” (2015) is a question: “When the dreamer dies, what happens to the dream?” In fact, the work is entirely driven by your passionate search for an artist. By saying dreamer, you are referring to the artist Sage Al-Quateel, who made numerous figurative paintings in the 1980s in Palestine and the Netherlands, and passed away quietly in 2004. Everything begins with your search in the archive of Palestinian art and the history of exhibitions and finding a photograph of artists in the exhibition, “The First Spring Exhibition” (1985) in Jerusalem. What was it that triggered your attention in this specific photograph and life story of Sager Al-Quateel?
The first time I encountered this photograph was when I visited Al-Hoash Art Center in Jerusalem for a research that involves the history of Palestinian art and the symbols that were used by Palestinian artists during the eighties. I was seeking the archive that they have, which they inherited from Al-Waseti Art Center after its closure in 1993. It is considered to be the only institutional art archive in Palestine that covers that period. This painting was not part of that archive, but a copy of it was hung on the wall of the office at the gallery. I was curious to know more about it. I started to meet the four artists that I could recognize from the photo. The artist that I knew the least about was Sager Al-Quateel, and very few of the artists that appear in the photograph know anything about him. When I searched at the archive of Al-Waseti, I couldn’t find anything about him. From this point the research was directed to searching for this artist and how someone could disappear from the archive as well as the memories of the people who knew him. Finding his paintings was not an aim for this project, although by the end of the video we did find them, but it was important for me not to show the paintings in the video, otherwise it would have been similar to a collector’s attempt to discover a forgotten artist for the sake of entering his paintings on the market. What was also interesting for me was the process of making the interviews with the artists who are featured in the photograph. The practice of many of them intersects with each other, in the sense that they started their career at the same time and had exhibited at the same exhibitions, but the memories they have are very different from each other, so you never know what is real and what is not. It is very interesting to observe how the memory functions and its selectivity of what to remember and what to forget, as well as its ability to create different realities.
While working together for this exhibition, we discovered that we are both driven by the same question. How do we work with politically charged topics in a poetical way so that an artwork/exhibition is less didactic and more fluid, open, and poetic? I was telling you about my curatorial approach for this project in Sumac, and you mentioned that this has been a central question in your practice. It was an exciting moment for both of us. What are your artistic methodologies in this way of working, and what are the challenges?
When working with archives and subjects that by their core refer to history, forgotten events and missing objects, they lead to different kinds of historical representations, such as the concepts of revealing, collecting, archiving, and categorizing. All these elements are in a way acts of “violence” and connected with a masculine and a colonial route. It is challenging to avoid the duality of facts and fiction and the suspense that is created by finding something that is missing, hiding, disappearing, or stolen.
I recall here the “The Storyteller” (1936), a text by Walter Benjamin, that had an impact on the way my practice is growing, in which he differentiates between forms of telling, starting with information and ending with storytelling. The information is short, direct, and to the point, and gives the receiver all that she/he “needs” to know. In my opinion the form of information kills the imagination. When the storytelling is more about how the story is told, it includes all the poetic details that the information doesn’t have, and it is not concerned with the concept of “truth” but rather the concept of “imagination.” In this way each person can receive her/his own narrative of truth. While making the research, I consider all types of knowledge as a resource for building a narrative, such as oral history, rumors, “lies,” and dreams.
One of the crucial questions of the piece is how we remember and how the memory works. In “The Magic of the photo that remembers how to forget” (2018) there is a beautiful line: “At that point we did not know whether to believe the memory of the photograph or memory of the people!” What do forgotten events say about historical writing and where missing objects can lead us?
In many ways, historians depend on materialistic aspects in order to prove that something happened or not, and how it happened. This work is based on the image of “Observational Desire on Memory that Remains.” For four years I thought that this exhibition was for the 14 male artists who appears in the photograph, until I met Vera Tamari, who participated in the exhibition but was not in the photograph, or in any other photograph that was captured at this event. The question of the materiality of the archive and what it can hide has always been central for me, because of its physical limitation, which disables other possible realities to emerge on the surface. It shows its limitations in many cases and in some events that by their core are immaterial, such as trauma, for example. Therefore, “At that point we did not know whether to believe the memory of the photograph or memory of the people” is perhaps a question of believing materiality or immateriality. Archive and material evidence can be very easily manipulated. Coming from a context like Palestine where archives, artifacts and other material elements can be a resource of historical representations and are controlled by those who are in power, they are a tool for the colonial powers that are manipulated to work against our narratives, whereas immateriality is part of our narrative. Thinking about all the archives that are part of Turkish, Israeli, British and French institutions, and about how there isn’t any archival institution in Palestine, and of all the artifacts that exist in different museums around the world, we had our first museum open in 2016 as an empty museum.
It has been immensely important for both of us to understand the digital platform of Sumac as an exhibition space: beyond uploading the material, thinking carefully about the experience of the visitor and the nature of the display. In a previous exhibition titled “The Moon is a Sun Returning as a Ghost” that took place in Palestine and was curated by Lara Khaldi, the two video pieces “Observational Desire on a Memory that Remains” (2014) and “The Magic of the photo that remembers how to forget” (2018) were exhibited together with some archival material, photographs, and documents. This kind of choreography and the specific relationship between the moving images and the documents seem quite significant for the logic of the work. Can you tell us about the relationship between the video and the archival material, and about your decision-making processes?
The first time I knew about Sumac was in a Zoom meeting with Katharina, as she explained the idea of it and that it was not an alternative way of continuing to make exhibitions during the pandemic. The idea was to have an online space for making exhibitions and rethinking exhibitions, and I became very interested, especially because almost all my works are installations that take the space and the location as essential and important elements of the work itself, and that installations are approachable from different perspectives as by their core they are very subjective depending on the spectators’ experience in the space. Moving the exhibition to Sumac Space definitely brings different questions regarding the space and the changing gaze of the spectator. In previous exhibitions, I would think of the work as a new work, rethinking the research materials, the display, the space, and the work itself, what to include and what to remove, which works can be in conversation with each other, and how all the works together can build on each other. In the exhibition “The Moon is a Sun Returning as a Ghost” it was the first time showing both works as one installation. It was important for me and Lara Khaldi to separate the moving image and the other documents, as this separation creates a sort of familiarity for the spectator when looking at each element of the work. In the video you enter an intimate world, and by looking at the documents/research materials, it changes them from being archival materials to being part of this imagined world. The move from archival status to something else is important, especially because they are imagined documents. Their history is parallel to the history of the work itself, they are never an illustration of the video, and they don’t work as evidence to prove the narrative of the video. They are basically part of the imagined world that is not trying to prove anything but wondering all the time.
Throughout the “Observational Desire on a Memory that Remains” (2015) there is a strong dialogical dynamic. In a sense, it is a conversation piece. While you are positioning yourself as an artist as a researcher and revealing your process, at the same time you are engaging in a fictional conversation with Sager Al-Quateel. He is being voiced by the imaginary lines written by you. I imagine that this needed a strong dedication to researching his life and high level of empathy. How was the process of scriptwriting for you and voicing him from your perspective?
I would say that it is two voices instead of a conversion, because in the video, it is as if Sager Al-Qateel is aware of my existence, he is aware of my research, he is observing and following it, and my voice is not aware of the existence of Sager’s voice. I’m not hearing him; he is in a different place than me, an unknown place that I’m searching for. Giving Sager a voice in the video has been an ethical issue that I thought a lot about when writing the script. The script is based on many conversations with different family members of Sager Al-Qateel and his best friend, Tayseer Barakat, who appears as one of the 14 artists in the photograph, so it is constructed by people whom Sager trusted. Therefore, I had to ask about the smallest details and whether they could be mentioned in the work or not. On the other hand, I had to ask myself whether I could mention some details even after the approval of those close to him, because Sager had a controversial way of living that went against the community values. Therefore, some information I decided not to include because I believe that it should be him to approve publishing them and not anyone else on his behalf.
I find it very playful that the video is reenacting paintings in real life, including Sager Al-Qateel’s paintings. While the models are posing to recreate the depicted composition, a motorbike is crossing the street, the kids are interacting with each other – all these natural and accidental happenings take place. There is no forced perfection. It flows. What was the idea behind not showing any of his paintings in the video?
The parts that you mention that look as if they are replicas of the paintings but as a moving image are in fact a station before producing the paintings. It is imagining what the eyes of the painter captured before/during the process of painting. It is the gaze of the artist that captures it and the memory that keeps generating it, thus the mental image/moving image becomes the origin of the painting and the painting is the replica. The origin includes more details than the painting because it is less selective and has different layers and ways to access it. This resembles the limitation of the archive in my opinion, and the ability of the memory to generate different aspects of the same situation.
I am curious to know more about the artist Vera Tamari, to whom you dedicated your video piece “The Magic of the photo that remembers how to forget” (2018).
Finding out that Vera Tamari, among other female artists, was part of this exhibition gave another perspective to this event, as well as another perspective of how history is represented. As the photo that features 14 male artists hides other important aspects of the event, I felt that it was essential to dig into this photograph again with a different approach. The decision to dedicate this video to her is not only because of her disappearance from the photograph but also because she was different among her generation. Many artists from her generation were celebrated over the years because of their discursive and loud works, which was I believe an easy way of gaining recognition as an artist at that time. What was different about Vera is that she was poetic, and her work was subtle and personal and did represent only herself. Also, I can’t think of anyone from her generation who was thinking about and questioning the medium itself that she was using, taking the medium as a subject, such as the relationship between photography and sculpture.
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Didem Yazıcı is an independent curator and writer, based in Karlsruhe Germany. Her curatorial work is inspired by thinking across disciplines in and outside of art, the potentiality of exhibitions as socio-poetic spaces, the legacy of intersectional feminism and global exhibition histories. Recently, she worked at the Badischer Kunstverein in Karlsruhe (2017-18) where she co-curated exhibitions, and worked on conceptualizing and realizing the 200th anniversary programme. In 2016, she worked as Curator for the Infra-curatorial Platform of the 11th Shanghai Biennale invited by the curators Raqs Media Collective and Curator-in-residence at the Goethe Institute in Cairo. As a member of the curatorial team of Museum für Neue Kunst, Freiburg (2015-16), she curated group and solo exhibitions as well as video programs of ‘Schau_Raum’, and co-edited exhibition catalogues. Prior to that, she worked as a freelance curator, and curated the first solo exhibition of Mehtap Baydu in Berlin, titled ‘Tales of Shahmaran’ and a group exhibition ‘Left Unsaid’ in Kreuzberg Pavillon, Berlin in 2014. Previously, she was a curatorial researcher-in-residence at Künstlerhaus Stuttgart, and worked at dOCUMENTA (13) as a project coordinator of Maybe Education and Public Programs (2012-13) in Kassel. In 2009, she was the coordinator of Hafriyat non-profit art space in Istanbul. She studied B.A. in Art History at Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University in Istanbul (2008) and M.A in Curatorial and Critical Studies at the Städelschule and Goethe University in Frankfurt. (2012).