featured culturalist

featured culturalist: libyan poet and author farrah fray 

part of the 4-part interview series for issue #5: "reclaiming empowerment"

Portrait of Farrah courtesy of the artist 

Portrait of Farrah courtesy of the artist 

Like many of the women in the arts that inspire me, I met Farrah online. Farrah is a Libyan author, poet and artist based in London. She recently published a poetry collection titled "The Scent of My Skin" that explores culture, displacement, feminism and what it means have grown up in Libya and London. Farrah is also an editor for Banat Collective and a contributor to Khabar Keslan, below is our interview with her: 

Hi Farrah! Tell us a little bit about yourself (the facts and the quirks!)

Hi! Well I’m a Libyan author and creative based in London. I’m 23 and I also study translation; a quirk, hmm- I really like cliches! In the sense of taking a cliche and rendering it to its absolute extreme to make a point about things; I’m a sucker for t shirts with “LOVE 4 EVER” and that kinda thing.

As an artist, writer, and poet, how does your heritage/identity influence your work?

Being Libyan influences my work so much! Even if what I’m writing isn’t quintessentially Libyan or about Libya, somehow it becomes about Libya and being a Libyan diaspora. My thoughts, feelings, and experiences are informed by my background and journey; your identity follows you wherever you go, so it’s definitely really present in my work.

Source: www.farrahfray.com

Source: www.farrahfray.com

In this issue, "reclaiming empowerment" is our inspiration. What does empowerment mean to you?

I guess empowerment means feeling brave enough to take on the things that scare you the most. I mean, for so long I didn’t even think that I should be writing about Libyan women, or displacement, or feminism; but reading other peoples’ work and journeys makes you feel empowered; it makes you feel like, yes, I can write about these things. The kind of fear I’m referring to isn’t just fear of criticism or censorship, but I suppose also the fear of breaking the glass ceiling, and doing the things you should; that kind of fear is often taught from a young age, and I think empowerment is about reclaiming your position in that power dynamic. Oppression often works because of fear so empowerment for me means overcoming both fear and oppression.

What are your sentiments about the current art scene in the Middle East? In your opinion, what are its strengths and what are its challenges?

The current arts scene in the Middle East is thriving, I’m besotted by it all really. I think the strengths include that it’s not just one genre of art that’s emerging, but that they’re all taking up this space, you see anything from installations to zines to short films. Another strength is that art in the Middle East, much like a lot of contemporary art doesn’t really rely on industry gatekeepers for validation, there’s so many wonderful platforms created by people who want their voices heard and don’t necessarily have a professional background in art. I think a big challenge for Middle Eastern art will be overcoming stereotypes from the West; as more and more of our art reaches western art circles, which is a great thing; I feel like it’s definitely a challenge with certain issues to be like; yes, these things do affect us and are part of our daily struggles, but don’t stereotype us as just one thing; or define us by that one experience. I also think over generalization is a big challenge; even within countries you get different subcultures and communities, creating art; and to generalize all art coming from different regions as “Middle Eastern” can be quite reductive.

"June and July" poem by Farrah Fray courtesy of the writer

"June and July" poem by Farrah Fray courtesy of the writer

In your opinion, how can we better empower artists and the creative sector in the region?

I think we can empower artists by continuing to create these platforms for meaningful discussion, but also holding different events and talks where you get to really see the people you’re influencing. I think so often it can feel like you’re in a black hole as a creative, so it’s definitely important to have those types of spaces!

What advice would you give aspiring artists in the region?

I’d say definitely give it your all; and remember that there are so many other people creating art, too. Whenever you feel apprehensive about creating something is to ask yourself “if not me, then who?” because no one else can do exactly what you want to do in precisely the way you want to do it. It might be the same concept but there’s no way it would be an identical reiteration; so do it. Your voice is unique and important.

What are your future plans?

I’ve got a lot of exciting things coming up this year, but I suppose generally, the plan is to be more versatile with my work and combine it with other disciplines such as translation, which I’m currently studying. Think installations and subtitles! I really want to show that poetry can be showcased in many different ways, and I’m really looking forward to sharing it with everyone.

"Rooftop" by visual artist Ahmed Drebika www.drebika.ca

"Rooftop" by visual artist Ahmed Drebika www.drebika.ca

For more about Farah and to follow her work you can find her on farrahfray.com or on instagram @farrahfray

featured culturalist: hind joucka founder of 'artmejo'

part of the 4-part interview series for issue #5: "reclaiming empowerment"

"Fertility" by Yazan Setabouha courtesy of artmejo

"Fertility" by Yazan Setabouha courtesy of artmejo

Hind Joucka is the founder of Jordan's first online platform for the arts 'artmejo'. I met Hind on a sunny morning in Dubai during Art Season where she had just attended the launch of MoMA's latest publication "Modern Art in the Arab World" - which features her grandfather's work on the cover - and we immediately hit it off! Hind's fierce passion for the arts is contagious and her pioneering energy is undeniable. Hind's late grandfather, Syrian artist Mahmoud Hammad, is known for pioneering Modern Art in the region and I truly believe that the apple does not fall far from the tree. 

As a woman and as a pioneer for the creative scene in Jordan it only made sense to feature Hind as part of the series. Below is our interview: 

Hi Hind! Tell us a bit about yourself. (The facts and the quirks!)

I am an art journalist based in Jordan, founder of the online gallery ‘artmejo’, a platform for artists and art enthusiasts to connect and explore new talents in the region, and co-founder of ‘Art at the Park’, a cultural fair that brings together art, music, literature and dance. I also give art tours around Amman with Airbnb and work as an Online Marketing manager for The Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts. In between juggling work, I like to pick up a new hobby every once in a while that I know I’ll eventually get bored of and quit after a month or two!

How did you begin your journey with artmejo?

artmejo was created back in 2014 as a university project when I was studying Journalism at Kingston University, London. I came up with the idea of an online platform specifically focused on the art scene in Jordan, that aims to bring together all art events and activities happening in the country under one umbrella. Galleries’ online presence wasn’t as widespread as it is today, which meant that if you were interested in attending art exhibitions, you had to be on the gallery’s mailing list. What we’re trying to do is to make all these events and activities, which are already free and open to the public, more accessible to everyone. Around two years ago I decided to quit my full-time and my half-time jobs and focus all my time and energy on artmejo. Today, artmejo’s services have slowly grown to cater for areas which were otherwise missing in the art scene here in Amman. We provide various services to galleries, artists and clients by linking them with one another, selling artworks and curating spaces. I’m proud of all the small feats that have come along the way, but the project I’m the most proud of is the Marriott Amman Hotel lobby curation project. I learned a lot from that experience and I got to work with three of the country’s top galleries to create a homogenous collection of artworks by artists from all over the region.

"Mountain" by Adnan Samman courtesy of artmejo

"Mountain" by Adnan Samman courtesy of artmejo

In this issue of follow the halo, “reclaiming empowerment” is our inspiration. What does empowerment mean to you?

Empowerment is synonymous to expression. It is being strong and confident enough to express yourself and your opinions despite social and political stricture. It is letting your inhibitions run wild and free no matter what medium you choose to do it through. No one grants us empowerment - it is within us, we create our paths and we decide what’s wrong or right. It goes beyond gender, race and class.

"Almost night" by Ghadeer Abu Bukha courtesy of Artmejo

"Almost night" by Ghadeer Abu Bukha courtesy of Artmejo

As a curator, art buyer, and journalist, how do your roots/heritage influence your view of the art world and love for the arts?

I come from a family of artists starting from my grandparents, down to my parents and brothers. My grandfather Mahmoud Hammad and my grandmother Dora Fakhoury were part of the modern art movement in Syria and the Middle East, my father is an architect and artist and my mother is currently working on a catalogue raisonne for my late grandfather. I’ve been attending exhibitions since I was 8 years old and I’m convinced that the more we open ourselves to all types of art, the better we get to understand an artist’s work, their unique style, technique and any overlying or underlying motifs within a piece of work. Of course, growing up surrounded by a specific style of art inadvertently influences your taste but I’m fascinated by anything created through a person’s imagination and skill.

What are your sentiments on the current growing art scene in the Middle East? In your opinion what are its strengths and what are its challenges?

It’s honestly such an exciting time for art in the region and in the world in general. The whole world is now connected online, making it easier for artists to showcase their works and for people to open up to new styles. Artists from different cultures and backgrounds are creating movements of self expression and pushing boundaries, and the online revolution is allowing them to spread beyond physical borders. The challenges? Our region is unfortunately riddled with political and religious unrest, which in turn is building a gap between Eastern and Western art scenes. Surroundings feed into an artwork’s subject matter more often than not, and so we see a lot of works from this region being influenced by conflict. Wars have birthed influential art throughout the years, such as Pablo Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ and Palestinian artist Ismail Shammout’s ‘Odyssey of a People’, so I think this aspect of it shouldn’t be viewed as a challenge, but more of a reality that we’re living.

"Single Man" by artist Kholoud Abu Hijleh courtesy of Artmejo

"Single Man" by artist Kholoud Abu Hijleh courtesy of Artmejo

In your opinion, how can audiences better empower artists and the creative sector in the region?

We have to value the artist and the artwork they create equally. Ask any upcoming artist about the word they hate the most and they will tell you it’s ‘exposure’, because this is the word often used as an excuse when a job or a project doesn’t have enough budget to pay the artist. It’s frustrating because this ‘alternative’ to getting paid isn’t used in other careers. Obviously exposure is very important and some work is sometimes worth doing for free, but it shouldn’t be the new normal to ask an artist to put time and effort into an artwork without providing them with tangible return. This is how we can empower the artists of now; present them with opportunities that allow them to sustain themselves and continue working within their passion as a feasible career path.

What advice might you give young aspiring artists from the region?

What I’m about to say might be contradictory to my previous answer, but my top advice is for them to collaborate! Merging creativity and talent with like-minded or completely opposite-minded people is wonderful and everyone learns something new through it. As I said before, we’re living in the time of amazing technology that allows us to reach out to people from across the world with a click of a button. Get in touch with other artists that you admire no matter where they are and explore ways where you can collaborate on a project together. Chances are, they’ll get flattered and will be excited to brainstorm ideas!

What are your plans for the future?

I am currently working with Jordanian artist Sama Shahrouri on artmejo’s online magazine. This will be an informative publication for creatives to express their views on art in the region, and will delve into art exhibitions, events and conversations happening in the art world on both a local and international scale. I hope we’ll be able to keep coming up with new ideas and projects that further enrich the art scene in Jordan and in neighbouring countries, encourage up and coming artists and link them with one another.

artmejo was recently commissioned by Edraak.org, an initiative of Her Majesty Queen Rania Al Abdullah's foundation, to bring local artists together for a collaborative project. artmejo is also a platform for art collectors, artists and art loves alike. For more about Hind's work and artmejo you can follow them on instagram @artmejo or www.artmejo.com 

To learn more about artmejo you can find them on www.artmejo.com or @artmejo on instagram. 

featured cultuarlist: lizzy vartanian collier

part of the 4-part interview series for issue #5: "reclaiming empowerment" 

By artist Shaikha Al Ketbi courtesy of curator Lizzy Vartanian Collier

By artist Shaikha Al Ketbi courtesy of curator Lizzy Vartanian Collier

Lizzy is a writer, curator, art historian and founder of London's well-known art blog Gallery Girl London. Although we initially met online, I know her work mostly through her recently curated exhibition Perpetual Movement which was part of AWAN (Arab Women's Art Now) a festival dedicated to supporting Arab women's art in London. Lizzy is a writer for Canvas, The Guardian, Harpers Bazaar Arabia, REORIENT magazine and other publications covering arts in the region. 

I reached out to Lizzy as one of the women I wanted to interview for our 4-part interview series for issue #5 of follow the halo: "Reclaiming Empowerment". I felt that her experience and knowledge of the arts in the region would be a great point of discussion on empowerment, and what it means to support the arts in the Global South. Below we discuss Lizzy's work, arts in the region, and what empowerment means to her. 

Hi Lizzy! Tell us a bit about yourself. 

My name is Lizzy Vartanian Collier. I am a writer, curator and editor. I have been blogging about art at my blog Gallery Girl since I was 18 (nearly seven years now!), but only really had the confidence to tell people about my writing and pitch to other publications in the last year or so. My ‘main’ (9-to-5) job is in publishing, which has given me the opportunity to understand how books are commissioned, produced, marketed and sold. I have always been interested in art, which makes sense since my parents met at a gallery opening. My brother and I used to spend our childhood weekends drawing at the Tate Modern and the National Gallery in London, where our appreciation for all things visual was cemented.

Besides art I love to dance, especially ballet and ballroom, in fact, I love waltzing so much, that when I am sad I just listen to Strauss and I am instantly happy. I read and write four alphabets, and speak bits and pieces of five languages, but I’m not really fluent in any beside English (typical Brit!). I am also very creative myself and I love to draw and make clothes… maybe one day I will share them with the world too, but for now, I am concentrating on supporting and spreading the word about the arts I love that has been created by others.

As a curator, art historian and writer, how do your roots/heritage influence your work?

As I have gotten older I have felt my heritage in the Near and Middle East really pull on all of the work that I do. I am half English, but my mother is Armenian from Beirut, my grandmother was from Aleppo and my family has been in the Middle East for over a century. I didn’t visit Beirut until my 20’s for various reasons, mostly because I think that my mother was afraid to go back – after leaving at the age of 15 due to the civil war – and to see that her beloved home might be changed and unrecognisable from what she knew as a child. Having not been to Lebanon in person until adulthood and my natural pull towards the arts led me to discover the region through culture. I think our inherited identities impact on and influence everything we do, and my mother’s strong Beiruti mannerisms and identity has had a big impact on my work.

By artist Thana Farooq courtesy of curator Lizzy Vartanian Collier

By artist Thana Farooq courtesy of curator Lizzy Vartanian Collier

Can you share a specific work you feel was influenced by your identity? 

Perpetual Movement, the exhibition that I recently curated during Arab Women Artists Now Festival 2018 in London, was almost a direct analysis of my own experience of growing up in diaspora, where memories of ‘home’ had been passed down from my mother. The artists I worked with all touched on similar themes of memory and migration. I don’t necessarily deliberately put myself into my work, but I am after all the person on this earth that I know best, so my own ideas and experiences unconsciously seem to make their way into many of my projects. Moreover, when you are geographically very far away from a place where your past is deeply rooted, the emotional pull is especially strong, as this location is less tangible, so you naturally find ways to explore it by other methods.

It is apparent in your writing that you focus on exhibitions that highlight the global South. Why is that?

It isn’t a conscious thing, but I am genuinely interested in parts of the world that I wasn’t necessarily very exposed to growing up in the UK. I always find it fascinating viewing visual culture from parts of the world I know nothing about. And, while in some ways it is a great shame that many exhibitions I go to have been produced by artists from parts of the world I know nothing about, in some ways I think it is extremely beautiful to gain your first impressions of a place through painting, photography, sculpture or installation.

When I was studying for my first degree in Art History, we learn about any art that didn’t originate in Western Europe or North America, which seemed ridiculous to me. I was interning for a blue-chip commercial gallery in London at the time that was exhibiting a lot of Chinese art and had galleries in Brazil and China as well as the UK. It was at that moment that I realised not only was art from outside the West important in terms of its visual qualities, but also in terms of real monetary value. I became the one girl on my History of Art course to always veer away from better-known Western artists and periods. In fact, I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on a Chinese artist. I then decided to tap into my routes and focus on the Greater Middle East for my masters degree and have kept my focus away from the West ever since.

By photographer Yumna Al Arashi courtesy of curator Lizzy Vartinian Collier 

By photographer Yumna Al Arashi courtesy of curator Lizzy Vartinian Collier 

In this issue of follow the halo, “reclaiming empowerment” is our inspiration. What does empowerment mean to you?

Empowerment means taking control for yourself, but also highlighting, supporting and presenting the talents and individualities of others and ideas you admire and believe in.

What are your sentiments on the current growing art scene in the Middle East? In your opinion what are its strengths and what are its challenges?

I think that the growth of museums, galleries, art fairs and biennials in the region should be applauded. I am at somewhat of a distance from everything that is going on, but from what I read and see online, everything looks brilliant and really exciting. What I love so much are the collectives and young publications like Banat, Jaffat el-Aqlam, Khabar Keslan, Jdeed and Halo, that are really going out of their way to highlight the talents of young creatives, it feels like there is a real community. They are so supportive and I can’t really think of an equivalent network here in the UK and I am really envious!

In terms of challenges, perhaps the region needs to connect more with those outside of it. To me, as someone who is naturally very tapped into what’s going on in the Middle East, I am pretty much always up to speed with what is going on, but I often find people within the European art world are a little clueless about events in the region. It would be beyond wonderful if the creative community in the Middle East engaged more with those outside of it and vice versa – through conversation different cultures and traditions could learn so much about each other.

In your opinion, how can audiences better empower artists and the creative sector in the region?

I think audiences can better empower artists by taking the time to visit exhibitions and telling others about the work of creatives they admire. We are so lucky that we can share our inspirations within seconds via social media; so if you see something you admire, share it! Artists benefit most when their work is seen, and the more people see it, the better.

What advice might you give young aspiring artists from the region?

To not be shy! Go and speak to people, reach out to those you admire, and ask lots and lots of questions. People often ask me how I got to write for so and so publication, and it is because I sent the editors emails, pitched ideas and generally annoyed them until they had no choice but to reply to my messages. Nobody came to me. If you don’t ask, you don’t get, and even if nobody replies (it happens to all of us), at least you know you tried. It really doesn’t hurt to make the first move. I am naturally quite shy and quiet, but as soon as I got over the awkwardness of physically talking to people I didn’t know, I managed to make really great connections who support me and who I can ask for help if I need guidance. Confidence can get you so far. If you don’t tell people about what you’re doing or show them your work it could really hinder you. A conversation is free, so I would encourage everyone to connect with like-minded artists, creatives, writers, curators whenever they have the opportunity.

By artist Nadia Gohar courtesy of curator Lizzy Vartanian Collier

By artist Nadia Gohar courtesy of curator Lizzy Vartanian Collier

What are your plans for the future?

In the very immediate future I am taking a reduced version of my recent London show Perpetual Movement to be displayed during Armenia’s very first art fair (11-14th May). While this is very exciting, it is also very nerve-racking and I am hoping it will all run smoothly. After that, I want to take some time out to recuperate from doing three jobs at once for the past six months, I am moving into a new flat and I am about to turn 25 (!) so, for the summer, I plan to rest and equip myself with better curatorial skills. From this exhibition I realised that there is so much more to learn and I want to be more prepared for the next time. I also plan to continue connecting with artists on a more relaxed basis before heading to Lebanon and the UAE in the autumn. I have ideas for shows and things I want to research but nothing is set in stone as of yet, watch this space!

To follow Lizzy's work and learn more you can find her on gallerygirl.co or on instagram @gallerygirllnd