An interview with Saif Almurayati
by Jessica Holburn.
Born in Baghdad and forced to flee from Iraq to escape Saddam Hussein’s regime, Almurayati has a unique story to tell through his challenging and multidisciplinary art forms. He and his family lived in refugee camps in Turkey and Iran, spending six years in Syria before eventually coming to settle in Australia. From there, he studied at National Art School, allowing his creative impulses to flourish. He won the Blake Prize for Human Justice in 2012. Jessica Holburn talks to Almurayati about his past, his present and his future.
JH Describe your personality in three words.
SF Pragmatic, respectful & confident.
JH Do you remember what it felt like when you first came to Australia? Was it a difficult procedure to enter the country?
SF I believe it was far less difficult for me than it was for others, as I was fortunate enough to have access to the United Nations once we reached Syria, where I was registered as a political refugee. Within a few years, my family was granted a visa and came over to Australia.
JH Do you ever feel like you can call a place “home”? Or is the world your home? Or are you happy to not feel pinioned to one defined space, that is, would you prefer to be in a space that is boundless, without boundaries?
SF After travelling and moving between countries, the concept of home became ambiguous for me. Then, the realisation of what ‘home’ means to me as in ‘safe and soft place to fall’ became apparent. I consider Australia is my home but would consider a world without boundaries would consequently reduce prejudice and enhance acceptance of differences with the freedom to express yourself.
JH Are you able to share one childhood memory with our readers? Perhaps something not so deeply personal that you cannot share, but a story from your childhood you might recall fondly or perhaps something that was traumatizing?
SF Born in Iraq, although my family was constantly subject to a continuing state of fear and repression, as my father was a doctor and my mother a teacher, we led a relatively ‘comfortable’ lifestyle. It was more about position and social status than any joy and happiness. I use the word ‘comfortable’ very loosely, if you can call being subject to daily bombings on the way to school ‘comfortable’. Born into a dictatorship, I became part of the uprising against the continuing repression. It was a stifling, suffocating environment. Political persecution ensued, and consequently I was forced to flee the oppressive regime as a political refugee. This resulted in personal exposure to different social, religious and political structures. The vast experiences and memories determined who I am today.
JH What was your experience like at National Art School?
SF Over the four year course, I believe I grew and developed both as a person and an artist. It opened new horizons for me, enabling me to develop new techniques and also to obtain diverse knowledge of art theory and history. It also opened new doors for me for example through the University I applied for and was granted the Paris residency, which was an illuminating experience. I also had the opportunity to both meet and be mentored by like Dr Stephen Little and Mr Bill Wright. One of the most enlightening subjects I undertook was Aboriginal Studies, taught by Alex Tromph, increasing my understanding of Australian history consequently, Australian society.
JH Your work thus far has been an exploration of identity, loss, displacement, renewal and transience. Will you continue these themes?
SF Yes, as I feel I’ve only just touched the surface of these complex and relevant issues. Through my art, I address issues relating to humanity. I attempt to define the nature of individual identity as it slips between different cultures. My artworks, while dealing with loss also focus on hope of new possibilities and horizons.
JH Can you discuss why language and text are significant aspects of your work?
SF Language for me is very important as a tool of communication. Using the text in my artwork enables ideas to flow especially when combining different languages, attempting to demonstrate the idea that despite all our apparent differences, the core is the same. The mere fact that parts of so many languages are derivatives of other languages emphasises this issue.
JH Are you inspired by any artists in particular and if so, who?
SF Anslem Kiefer has a major influence in both the philosophical and practical approach to my work. I consider Kiefer a mentor. I like his fearless choice of both the subject matter and his subsequent methodology. Studying Kiefer’s work is learning that history repeats itself over and over again. I was also drawn to the work of Santiago Sierra, who criticises our societies and invites the viewer to reflect on the absurdity of all social activities, as similar than we realise.
JH Do you affiliate with an art movement?
SF I don’t belong to any art movements but have a great admiration for art povera.
JH What has been one of the most unusual moments in your career as an artist?
SF When I had my exhibition in Paris, I was both delighted and humbled by the attendance of the Iraqi Ambassador, with him selecting two of my works to be displayed in the embassy in Paris. This was unusual due to the fact I fled the country, yet from his attendance, things appeared to be changing. This I felt was symbolic of a type of reconciliation with my homeland/birthplace.
JH What has been the greatest compliment somebody has given your art?
SF The recent article in the The Blake Prize magazine where the judges’ reviews of Paddy Crumlin & Dr Rod Pattenden describe my work as
…an outstanding expression of what many people, who are the refugees and economic and political diaspora throughout the globe, experience and feel. This stressful, and at times, tragic mobilisation, is often not of their own choosing but a survival mechanism. Almurayati captures the challenge of how people search for their place in new cultures…
And, on a lighter note, during my third year, Colin Lanceley, the prominent Australian Artist, walked into my studio, looked at my work and turned to me and said “Son, I think you’re mad.”
JH Do you strive to create work of beauty or do you strive to create something challenging – or both?
SF I strive to create something real. Leaving it open to the eye of the viewer, as art should not dictate, but should provoke thought. How others perceive whether beautiful or challenging or both is entirely up to them.
JH How do you approach a canvas? Is it something you feel organically?
SF The approach for me is totally organic, when the idea is set in my head – the sky is the limit. The use of materials will vary, and in some stages, the artwork takes on a life of its own. It’s like a passionate conversation; therefore I definitely have to be in the mood as there is nothing mechanical in my approach.
JH Can you give me some insight on your practices in sculpture too? Is there any special significance for you to work with one medium over another?
SF My preference is for ceramics and wood is linked to the idea of clay and wood as my connection to nature, as I view these mediums as the least processed material to work with.
JH Your photography is also dealing with the notion of surface, colours diluting, disintegrating, evaporating, rippling, it's almost as though you're linking the insides of the human body to aerial landscapes in an abstract way... Is that a correct analysis to make?
SF That’s a good analysis, as mentioned the landscape, which includes the human beings turned into a mixture of earth and blood.
JH Your installation work appears to deal with surfaces; in one instance we have a kind of concealment at play, where objects are enigmatically wrapped in the midst of tugging and twisting movements. It’s as though you are conveying an internal state of mind that is being stifled, denied breath. In another recent installation piece it's as though a bomb has gone off inside a TV set, filled with decaying, flaking, burnt out, wax-like surfaces. This built up formation of clay, paint, tea and coffee for glazing, among other recycled objects that reflect upon daily life, all of this culminates into something quite uncannily eerie and haunting to look at. What themes are you exploring here?
SF These bodies of work were created to emphasise a very important period of my life. 1991 is the year, the uprising is happening against the repressive regime of Saddam Hussein, consequently collapsing resulting in the massive exodus. It’s a reflection upon the journey we undertook to reach a safe haven.
The objects for example are representing how powerful war is, its cruelty, its suffering, its unseen absurdity, when human life becomes disposable and also the tugging and twisting is symbolic of the emotional chaos created by the internal conflict between the desire to stay and fight and the need to flee to stay alive. Also it has changed my perspective of what is actually important in life.
The decaying, flaking surfaces I create represent the transient nature of the mass fleeing in conjunction with the emotional turmoil experienced throughout this journey. For example, when attempting to cross the border between Iraq and Turkey, the sheer physical reality of war is realised through the bombardment from the air, whilst simultaneously coping with the soldiers on the ground and the hazards of land mines. A lot of people lost their lives, their safety and their homes. The whole landscape turned into a mixture of earth and blood.
The atmosphere I was trying to communicate was the reality of the situation for those involved, including me. It’s not just what you see on TV.
In this body of work I was trying to engage the audience by creating an awareness of the futility and waste of war through my first hand experiences. Provoking the thought of the reality that history is repeating itself – do we, as the human race ever learn?
JH Where do you see yourself taking your video work in future? More explorations of cultures, text and shifting textures, as in your Blake prize awarded video piece Unfolding History?
SF Yes, very much so. The video has been a discovery process for me, with the realisation of how powerful that this medium actually is. I see it as a practical way of engaging an audience. I’m drawn to the video work of Santiago Sierra and also Stephen Little.
JH Are you inspired by books and music? If so, what do you read and listen to?
SF Usually classical music for example Vivaldi Four Seasons but I appreciate good music of any genre. I enjoy Russian literature for example I particularly like the writings of Dostoyevsky and Maxim Gorky. I also enjoy South American writers like Paolo Coelho and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And finally I should acknowledge the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe and Pablo Neruda.
JH What is your life philosophy?
SF Life is about a delivery of a message that while we are all different, our similarities outweigh our differences. Although we can still believe in different religions, speak different languages, possess diverse cultural backgrounds, essentially, we are all human beings living in an increasingly smaller world, consequently our exposure to cultural transmutations are abundant, frequent and ubiquitous. Life is about respecting others rights to their own choices, learning from each other, understanding, acceptance and tolerance.
JH Do you believe that art is life or do you feel there is a separation between the two?
SF Art depicts life, and in saying this I would like to reiterate the words of Joseph Beuys that ‘Art was at the pinnacle of a pyramid containing all the spiritual, historical, scientific, and psychological matter of humanity.’
JH You are very well travelled for a young man. Have you found your favourite place in the world as yet or are you still looking?
SF My favourite place in the world is Barcelona, it’s a city that I instantly thought I knew, the streets and even the people looked familiar, despite the fact I don’t speak Spanish, the language wasn’t a barrier at all. Maybe I lived there in a previous life.
JH Where do you see yourself going? What ambitions do you have for the future?
SF To practice my art with the view to do humanitarian work.
Saif Almurayati has his first solo exhibition in Sydney at Janet Clayton Gallery, 2 Danks Street, Waterloo, from July 3 to July 27, 2013