Born in Beirut, Lebanon. Emigrated to the U.S. in 1978 at the height of the Civil War. MS in Art Education from Wayne State University in Michigan. A Founding member of OTHER-Arab Artists Collective in Detroit. Exhibited in Padzieski Art Gallery in 2004, 555 Gallery in 2005, WSU Community Arts Gallery in 2006, Alley Culture Gallery in 2007, and many others. Received the annual Artist/Performer Award from the Dearborn Community Arts Council in 2006 , and the Wayne State University Art Education Department’s first annual “Community Service Award. His work explores the lost memory of a misplaced homeland.
LR: Hi Mohamad
MB: Peace, Maroun.
LR: I would like first to say that this is the first interview of the second year on the net, and Lebrecord has done so much and underwent some great transformations. We would like to welcome you to the new year Mohamad and to all our readers.
MB: Thank you, Maroun, it’s a privilege. I appreciate and hold in high regard your efforts at inscribing into the record the multiplicity of Lebanese artists, and their varying approaches to artistic expression and expression in general. I especially enjoy those artists that complicate their labors by fusing difficult social, political, and personal narratives into their work, and I am humbled to be the first featured artist of 2008. Congratulations to Lebrecord, wishing everyone many more years of splendid art.
LR: So Mohamad how do you describe your work?
MB: My primary motivation for my art-making has been an attempt at finding the images which help me understand my personal and communal history. Our turbulent times have led to the uncertainty and constant transformation of personal identity and national narrative, and this complexity has been compounded even more for those of us who emigrated away from the homeland and live in a mixed or cosmopolitan or immigrant environment. So my art explores beyond the outer skin to find a hidden inner nature in the portraiture of the people I render. I am also interested in the identity of land and home, especially that certain land and home that I am not able to be directly and physically connected to. I attempt to paint the land through an acquaintance that is physically distant, yet emotionally immediate. I use a visual language that is a fusion of surrealist narrative and emotionally expressive abstraction.
LR: You are a founding member and a part of a vibrant network of Middle Eastern Artists in Michigan, called “OTHER”, in addition to many other art panels. Tell us a little about the organization.
MB: Many artists, writers, filmmakers and the like of my generation, who came of age in what is a culturally ghetto-ized amalgamation of Arab communities in the Dearborn/Detroit area, have experienced a very common phenomenon growing up, and that is the complete absence of support for art and culture in this working class society that extracts from old world, agrarian roots. Young men and women who want to study art or music or poetry invariably come up against a wall of opposition from their parents, and a lack of interest from their community. “OTHER-Arab Artists Collective” was a coming together of similar-minded artists of various stripes, who wanted to lend support to each other and create a community of artists, one that breeds culture, activism and creativity. We wanted to create a safe and productive space for each other and for other Arab artists, to have a group that not only brings art to who we are, but takes who we are out into the art world. In the beginning it was merely a shared studio of a loosely organized collective of painters, metal-smiths, musicians, filmmakers, graphic artists and writers; but it transformed into a working-space urban salon where artists, young people, political activists, and just people in general congregated to exchange political and social discourse, share their activist experiences, and collaborate on creative and progressive ventures. We’ve also had the good fortune, because of our collectivization, of exhibiting together on many occasion, and collaborating on various projects such as films and concerts.
LR: You primarily work in art education in Dearborn. How do you describe your work and how does it influence your students.
MB: As a painter, I’ve learned as much about my own art while teaching as my students have learned from me. Teaching drawing, painting and design to young men and women of high school age has allowed me to understand art much better from a technical point of view, and that has undoubtedly helped me as an artist. I’ve tried to take this understanding and translate it back into my teaching. I believe that the old adage which says “those who can’t do, teach” is false. I believe that the best teachers are those who are very good at practicing their craft privately and personally, irrespective of the fact that they are also teachers, and I know many good teachers of this kind, who are practicing artists, or writers, or mathematicians. In addition to stressing the practice of technique and the importance of understanding composition and drawing foundation, I also try to provide for my students the same learning environment that I would wish for my self: One where they have vast flexibility, latitude and freedom to explore their own expression and experimentation.
LR: I want to discuss some of what you have written in your artist statement. I can say that what you wrote affected me personally, because I too was driven away from “home” at an early age, and this forced migration is an integral part of me and my work. I can relate to the fig, peach and quince, and most of all, to the olive groves, and the memory of a tree next door. How does this integrate in your work?
MB: It has been said that all art is inescapably a self portrait. When I paint, I always find myself immediately extracting ideas from what is occupying my mind at the time, whether it be personal, social or political. I feel that I cannot escape the fact that I not only create images that bring out what is inside me individually, but that I must also integrate the social, the historical, that which is larger than myself, and which cradles my existence. The rich and deep folk roots of common people in Lebanon and the outer region, their kindness, their cuisine, their egalitarian life connections, their stories, struggles, faces, names, hands, trees, stones and memories; these are a primary inspiration. I feel that as artists, as we explore new methods and media and further develop these modes, we do not necessarily have to suddenly separate from the old, especially when it comes to our motivation and purpose. I feel that I have a commitment to my roots not only because I have been nourished so much from these roots, but also because I want to put nourishment back into the roots. This provides for a much stronger, more meaningful connection to ones art.
LR: You speak about “The lost memory of a misplaced homeland”. How do you see the relation between “memory” and “loss”, “homeland” and “misplacement”?
MB: There is a broader as well as a more focused reading of this relationship. Our home, all of us in the human family, is the Earth, in its primordial, prehistoric form, before man’s dissection and defilement of it. The memory of the land in its original nature will always remain within us, no matter how difficult it is to see the Earth as it had been. This loss, or misplacement or displacement from our original nature, is a continuous struggle of the modern man. The memory that we retain within us cannot absolve us of our sins to the Earth. The connection is as strong as the connection between mother and child. Likewise, the narrow memory-connection that a person or a family has to a village or a valley or a seaside, can sometimes be as intense as the memory-connection that humanity has to the broader Earth. The loss produces within us an agony, the connection to that original home produces a sense of displacement, and the memory produces a longing to back to what was.
LR: In 2005 you were a part of a collaborative venture with other artists from OTHER Collective to execute a “Mural” under the title “Journeys”. The Mural dealt with migration and resettlement, as well as other issues. Tell us a bit about that.
MB: The immigrant experience, with all its complex issues and struggles, was a theme that many of the artists in OTHER, and some other artist friends of ours, had explored in their own work over the years. We decided to create an exhibit that asked each artist to create a body of work that is a personal interpretation of the idea of “Journeys and Distances”, where journeying from one place to another or from one state of mind to another retains a connection between the old and the new, the before and the after. The individual bodies of work by the artists, half of whom were members of OTHER collective and half of whom were invited artists, spanned a variety of approaches to the theme and a multiplicity of media, including painting, ceramics, digital graphics, video, sculpture, photography and an audio soundscape. In addition to these, four of the OTHER artists collaborated on a mural that was central to the exhibit and which was created inside the gallery during the two month interval of the exhibit, focusing on the dichotomies of old and new, original homeland and New World, East and West, agrarian and urban, egalitarian community and modern metropolis. In the mural, we aimed to show three phases of being: old, new, and intermediate. We wanted to show that those who migrate to a new country do not do so empty-handed, and do not thereafter completely assimilate into their new home as some would like them to do. They rather bring with them their identities, their talents, their skill sets, their faces, their tastes and their names. We also depicted the similar manner in which those who live in the Old World and those who live in the New, are integral contributors to their respective societies, and organically become part of it, whether that society is actually organic and naturalistic or hard and industrial.
LR: You have finished last month with a new exhibit that was on show at the “ALLEY CULTURE GALLERY”, with four other artists. Tell us a bit about the exhibit, and about the pieces that you had there on display.
MB: I like Alley Culture Gallery because it is a very different type of gallery. A husband and wife team with a history of involvement in community art and social justice activism transformed the large garage behind their house into a community-based gallery, and they have two exhibits a year, one in the autumn and one in the spring. These shows draw creative people both young and old, activists, artists, and just the most interesting gathering of people in Detroit’s underground. Although the show was called Harvest, the artists showing had very differing connections to this idea, such as Jack Johnson’s installation of countless found object assemblies, gathering together ideas from his own personal life, from his days as a soldier and witness of war, to his anti-war activism, to his wrestling with society’s expectations and what it suggests through words. I showed a group of paintings in this show from my “Land Memory” series and my “Land Memory Revisited” series.
LR: How do you describe the development of your work over time? How did it evolve, who and what inspires you?
MB: In addition to my folk roots being my primary personal inspiration and muse, certain socially committed artistic giants have been my steadfast and reliable influence over the years, including Fairuz and the Rahbani Brothers, Marcel Khalife, Sheikh Imam, Ziad Rahbani, Hamza El Din, Mahmoud Darwish, Mohammad Al-Maghout, Ghassan Kanafani, Naji Al-Ali, Kamal Boullata, Etel Adnan, and others such as Vincent Van Gogh, Claude Monet, Mark Rothko, the Russian Constructivists, the German Expressionists, and Islamic Geometric Designs and Calligraphy with their infinite complexities. Since my youth, in my poetry and early drawings, I’ve explored the idea of a dual or merged identity. The portraits I paint attempt to go beyond and re-define the skin of the subject, bringing together the person’s face with its surroundings, abstractly and emotionally. In the last few years, the overbearing socio-political atmosphere that has brought with it violence, domination and intimidation on a global scale brought me to paint a series of faces that stand in resistance, withstanding the tumultuous gusts that surround them. After the 1991 Gulf War I explored a theme called “Oil Armageddon”, a series of drawings and paintings showing a sort of torn-up landscape, whose perpetrator is absent from the picture. The landscape shows whirlwinds on the ground and in the sky, where the landforms seem to move in an ominous, foreboding manner. There is also a dark void beneath the earth that swims quietly within itself, showing the beginnings of the earth’s reaction to what man has perpetrated. These drawings were very passionately rendered in an attempt to give life to the land, and refute the savage hands of war and the scars it leaves. My explorations of this theme brought me to a visual language wherein the manipulation of land images depends on what I want to communicate at the time. This was an important place for me to reach artistically, because at the time, I was not able to visit my ancestral village of Bint Jbeil because of the Israeli occupation, and I wanted to be able to explore my connection to the land. I could not do this by directly observing the land, so I had to create an imagination of it. Later paintings evolved into the “Land Memory” series, where I explored various aspects of my relationship to the land, such as distance, shelter and ambiguity. Throughout these paintings there was an exploration of not only the land, but its relationship to the sky above and the underbelly of the Earth below, to varying degrees.
LR: You have been working on a series entitled “Land Memory”. One of the pieces that I thought was just phenomenal was “Land Memory Rebirth – II”. Could you describe the series and maybe elaborate on this specific piece.
MB: After the July 2006 War, I began my “Land Memory Revisited” series, where the land was no longer the object of my personal issues as in previous paintings, but took on a life of its own, in a tumultuous upheaval where the land itself writhes in struggle and effort, just as it is with the people of the land. Also, the vagueness of the frontier between land, sky and underbelly is further exacerbated. The “Land Memory Rebirth” series is the theme that I am currently exploring. In this series, I am interested in finding what is beneath the Earth, including the secrets of life, strength, tranquility and dignity, presented through a language of abstract symbolism found in the forms beneath the land and within the land’s environs. In the painting “Land Memory Rebirth – II” the space above is a very white element, be it land or sky, that is unclear, but its whiteness has a sense of spatial openness. On the other hand, the bottom part has a darker definiteness. It contains within it certain figures, the larger of which is a monolithic figure representing strength and a secret knowing.
LR: Any last words?
MB: I would just like to say thanks to you, Maroun, and everyone else who has assisted with Lebrecord. I hope we can collaborate more in the future.
LR: It was great having you Mohamad, we’ll keep our news section updated with your latest.
MB: I do appreciate that and I wish you all the best.
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