The Letters of Gold
A CAREER in ART
During a regionally very well regarded career, RanaSafadi’s work has explored a trajectory of fine art investigations, first using Photography as a medium throughout the 90s and now with oil paint in 2007 and mixed media since 2010.
Investigating the “Now”: what Beauty means in quotidian life.
In her initial work, Safadi’s photographs were overwhelmingly in black and white or in a very reduced color spectrum: an ochre branch against an olive green background (fig 1), a pale blue door against a weathered stonewall (fig 2). She used very ordinary film throughout this time such as could be bought most easily from most markets or shop and she eschewed lighting effects or staged environments. She explored the possibility of photographing things as they “are”, in the most unrehearsed way and medium - but by the mechanical (“modern”) technology of photography then shaping the experience through the critical mind of the artist and thus potentially making it “an art work”. In this phase of her career, she focused on and was intrigued by landscapes and abstract compositions made from the objects encountered in everyday life and she took these non-human subjects and treated them to the same formal processes as she would have done more conventional Portraits and portrait photographs.
Her investigation was into the way that “normal” photographs (of holidays, of scenic places) are created as part of the normal culture of which she was a part – precisely Jordan and beyond that the shared cultures of the Arabic world.
She asks what is it that people see as worthy of being understood as beautiful? Where does beauty lie in the consensual world of our shared culture? After all, every time a family fresh from holiday agree on the “good” or “beautiful” pictures from amongst all those they have taken while on a trip, every time they favor an image on aesthetic grounds, they are helping to create a consensus and an opinion (first amongst themselves, then amongst all those who see it – either for or against it) of what is beautiful and what is important.
Safadi excluded the distraction of the human presence in her images, but nonetheless explored how the human gaze and the quotidian human gaze, creates beauty in quotidian life and in the objects that link us to our history and culture – Safadi did not make a career out of photographing the monuments of Jordan or its world famous touristic sites, instead she asks us to look at old village houses and Jordan’s lovely and harsh ecologies, its subtle natural delights and the iron strength of its traditions behind the seemingly fading artifacts of a traditional way of life banished by modernity and ‘prosperity’.
Consistently with this aesthetic approach, she also eschewed Portrait Photography at that time (much to the consternation of some friends who were surprised that a photographer might not want to photograph them). Indeed, her works in this way are understandable as emblems of emotional states – and these states are reified into the substance of the world around us, seeming to have a personality (so that each delicate and hard to place emotion and feeling seems to find an iconic representation – she says, “This blue door could be an icon of longing and optimism, the strong presence of our history, of our families’ experiences and how they shaped us, and that means we carry this forward with us as we are and it helps steer our responses, now we have become the people that we are with all our new projects and new ideas”.
The act of looking in this way through a photograph is always in some way an act of “creating”, and creativity is a sign of the optimism in the human heart. Safadi defiantly finds beauty and purpose in her world’s most neglected experiences (specifically because they are so familiar and dismissed from normal consciousness as part of the ‘every day’) .
This then, is the outlook that gives power to her works: for example, of (fig. 2) her photograph of the pale blue door in the northern city of Salt which suddenly seems aglow with its color as you deeply look into, a study in nuanced shading done with a colorist’s eye. She first uses here in these works her understanding of her Arabic and Islamic cultures to analyze her feelings towards the culture of Jordan around her, and to explore how the people of the country in their quotidian lives view their world and their understanding of themselves – and most of all, how they look for the beautiful and the significant in their experience of their quotidian world.
MATURE EVOLUTIONS and EXPLORATIONS
In the last few years, Safadi has explored oil, applied with a knife and in many different color palettes, some harmonious and some richly contrasting. She works on canvas using oil paints though very rarely acryllics and very rarely either pencil or brush. Sometimes the canvases have been treated with photographed images, or else she uses photographs to inspire her. The gorgeous colors with which she lavishes her canvases invites a sensual interaction from us (evident to the eye, there is clearly a tactile sensation to be experienced from touching the thickly layered oil paint and so she invites us to flirt with synesthesia, one sense intertwined and invoked by another.)
She makes her viewers really consider the way that we apprehend the world around us and to make us think about the reality going on outside ourselves and which our eyes and imaginations then organize into meaningful things for us. The elegance of her means of playing with such strong emotions is one of the reasons why her work is so strong.
Safadi wants an immediate sensual response to follow the viewer’s initial understanding and so first we see the image and its colors and after a moment the meaning of the image becomes clear – whether a portrait splendid with colors emblematic of the artist’s emotions, or a rhapsody of colors like a melodic form.
Then, as, then we approach her painting, seeking a clearer understanding of what we are seeing, we start to see the complexity with which she treats her medium, colors fused together, comments in the most subtle touches of paint on a photographed face – different combinations suggesting alternative progressions of responses, playing and exploring a host of feelings, colors each suggesting an emotion, all in dialogue with each other like a secret language of color that we have overheard and that Safadi has recorded in her works which are also emotional documents.
Every human life is full of a creative force that effects the world around us, as we consume and purchase, create and comment, and add to the mosaic of voices that help shape the consensus that is the dominant vision of the world around us. RanaSafadi’s portraits are gloriously aware of her subjects inner lives and the color seems like an outpouring of this creative and transformative force that is also part of who her Portrait subjects are. Perhaps for this reason, her Portrait projects are of subjects who she energy and creative force she seeks to represent truthfully.
Like her photographed work, she explores in her oil paintings both what is beautiful and what is significant in human life as we really live it – that is to say, to explore our experience of, our way of seeing, the world as we really experience it in our daily ‘quotidian’ life. But Safadi is concluding here that no life is quotidian, every life is a wonderland, and her paintings are full of this life affirming optimism battling through every dark color space or every overwhelming white dazzle of paint.
Arabian Modern / ARABIAN MAXIMALISM
Safadi’s work is part of a context of modern Arab artists working in a plethora of mediums. She is a voice working along others in defining what is the Arabian “Modern”.
We can understand Safadi’s work better if – like her – we ask, What does our Arabic culture mean today to contemporary Arabs, as it is being created and relived in our real experience?
Arabian contemporary Arts and Aesthetics of this kind of post-modernity, this Arabian Maximalism school, those that share this ‘Arabian Maximalist’ outlook, have recognizable features:
- Using a sophisticated understanding of aesthetic visual languages (whether from fine art traditions or from the vernacular, from cinematic and internet and televisual sources)
- Using this access to a globalized cultural vocabulary to re-examine elements of the shared Arabic culture, our “turath” (and for musicians like ZadMoultaka, the experience of “tarab” in a modernized compositorial language)
- Having the creative individuals behind these works being self-conscious and aware of themselves as “artists”, as being involved in extending what may once have been craftsmanship into the realm of ‘art’ – just as Safadi’s photographs are Art, just in the same way that the European Romantic movement made “Artists” out of those who might earlier have been seen as craftsman or functionaries (like Canova, like Stendhal, or Haydn, or Mozart in the Bishop of Salzburg’s service).
- Though it is impossible to completely generalize, often Arabian Maximalism is deeply flavored by a return for inspiration the traditions of Arabic and Islamic culture, calligraphy and aesthetics (Ottoman color palettes and an exploration anew of the stylistic tastes present during Arabic history).
A definition for this contemporary “Arabian Maximalist” culture, as a philosophy or art movement, may best summarized by repeating Walter Pater’s famous definition of the Renaissance mind-state “To LIVE EACH MOMENT VERY FULLY in all possibilities of emotion or color or experience, and to be always engaging with and think of what the maximum joy you can have in your world will be, and how to obtain for now and for the future”.
AGAINST an Arabian Modern identity?
Every individual creation may be seen as entirely unique just as every Artist who self consciously views themselves as such will also want to be recognized for what is unique or distinctive in their work. Of course any talk of “zeitgeist” or “art movement” is an imposition of ideas upon artifacts and performed activities, in an attempt to discern a pattern or regularity that holds between them and that may not truly be there. However, beyond this general unease and fear of projecting a false or inauthentic meaning, we can see the lines of argument in opposition to this specific movement, and the discomfort that any such movement might create.
Many people for example who deny there is a shared Arab identity or desire for one insist also that what they are claiming politically must also be a reality culturally (the much discussed end of “Arabian Nationalism” in many ideological works, leads to a desire to dismiss any shared pan-arab cultures too). In a globalizing world, such critics would have us accept that countries with a shared language (for example, Egypt and Tunisia) would nonetheless have no deep cultural contact and are not places whose peoples can share a common worldview or any of the aesthetic values that a common worldview creates.
Alternatively, too many commentators defending Arabic civilization heavily valorize what are in fact remoter concerns for most people (for example, stressing Arabic culture’s shared poetry and classical Arabic linguistics) as being what our contemporary culture really is – thus the failure of these concerns to be really valid is seen as a failure or decadence of the contemporary Arabic society. In answer to this, we are well reminded that there is always a place for the kitsch and for the playful in every society (who knows about European music and would not think Mozart’s Magic Flute an important cultural work?)
Now in the Arab world, today’s generations familiar with new technologies are creating Culture using these new technologies – for example, films and plays and internet YouTube programs. Or else, people are establishing architectural schools and landscapes and buildings, or they are creating and sculpting and painting, and many more things.
If indeed the millions of people who see themselves as Arabic or as contributing to Arabian cultures have commonalities beyond use of language and engaging in the ideas and world views of that language (and I believe it is self evident we do), what are the aesthetic voices of these commonalities in today’s experience of our technological and visually dynamic world?
The phrase “Arabian Maximalism thus encompasses an attitude, an aesthetic worldview, with a plethora of manifestations and which informs a wide variety of cultural signs and signifiers. It explains the aesthetic and cultural themes that are most expressive of Arabic culture in its contemporary manifestations, in the lifestyle choices its peoples make.
Finally, it seems shocking to many people in the contemporary Middle East that so many who have not experienced our lived experience here presume a darkness or joylessness is “inherent” or present somehow in the culture “itself”. Many observers, for example in Western Europe, who were familiar only with political clichés extended from Europe’s own grimmer experiences (for example, that dour fundamentalism or primitiveness characterize Arabic societies) have been amazed during the 1990s by the mood and the culture of places like Dubai, hedonistic while self-confidently modernizing.
But of course love of pleasure and the experience of delight and beauty is a deep part of our world, and a deep part of our contemporary cultures too. It is theorized by the desire to always have this ‘maximum’ delight that any sense or experience offers, a sensualist experience of the world, informed by a love of Arabic culture’s many golden ages aesthetically imbibed through activities and experiences, of seeing and doing.
Renaissance versus Decadence
This facet of the Arab “Modern” is the aesthetic characteristic of a renaissance, which is now going on in the Arab world, a huge efflorescence of culture undocumented for the most part in Western academic circles but unmistakably of the present.
Much like Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries, immense cultural engines are shaping these incredibly deeply connected and rich cultures. Our time and epoch is also shaped by many small states
- With a shared language and history, but with competing or conflicting political interests
- Each creating cultures which are easily accessed and shared by their neighbours and rivals
- With vital strategic and cultural resources in demand by the great powers of their time as the struggle for geopolitical and class interests
- And having to navigate the demands of these great powers exerting undue influence and sometimes direct manipulation on their societies
- And thus using cultural and aesthetic displays (Museums and World Cup tournements) as a measure of their success and their superiority in different fields
- And so using famed artists (like ZahaHadid, like the singers Um Kalthoum and Fairuz, like the film director Nadine Labaki whose short plays elegantly and mesmeringly have made the reputation of the popular singer Nancy Ajram) to engage each other in aesthetic tournements that produce a splendid efflorescence of artifacts, performances and creativity
The optimisim and indeed hedonism of the Maximalist movement in Arabic culture stems thus from the pleasure-experiencing aspects of people’s lives as actually lived. Maximalism is therefore a signifier of the culture’s strength and vitality. It seems, beyond debate, that it is documented and measured in the deeply important medium of money, resources and investments that have fuelled the financial success of connoisseurs like Christies and Sotherby’s, the Ayyam Gallery and Canvas Magazine, which have now identified and capitalized upon these commonalities of Arabic creative life in our contemporary era.
Against this, should we really be seeing only ‘Decadence’ as so many suggest?
It is indeed undeniable that commentators have often seemed under the pervasive thrall of negative stereotypes about this Middle East area; the political conclusions which many commentators have indulged and continue to indulge have led to a misconception of the Arabic world as culturally atrophying rather than struggling to realize new forms and solutions, and thus have mistakenly placed Arabic culture as in a state of cultural derivativeness and “Decadence”. But ofcourse, in a globalized world where ideas are shared easily, ‘post-modernism’ and modernism have been a recognized European and American and indeed global phenomena and syncretism and heterostatic experiences are part of this engagement that Arabic speaking people engage in with other people continuously. It seems the argument of “decadence” reflects an attempt to project a European teleology of ‘progress’ (towards interests or social trends suitable for the Arab World in the eyes of Western countries, for example). Orientalist and ‘Westernising’ narratives have certainly played a part in the self-critique of many generations of Arabic thinkers and artists. The Arab “Modern” self-image here contemporaneously invoked by both speakers of Arabic and we participants in Arabic culture is of a more eclectic intervention into the collective memory, and draws as freely on ‘the desert’ as on Beirut and Cairo’s twentieth century urban life, on the elegant garden palaces of the Andalus as iconic of the culture - with their unmatched libraries whose balconies of finely emboidered stone open onto views of perfumed fountains and water, as so many refined spaces now do in Saudi Arabia and Dubai (desert countries which seem, self-consciously so sometimes as in the oasis aesthetic of the UAE’s “Bab al Shams” palace). Orientalist images becomes fuel for inventive Arab artists playing with kitsch and for appropriation by normal people in this culture as part of the commentary that forms our historiography.
Even artists like Safadi who decline in documenting directly this kind of idealized self image, nonetheless engage with possibilities of Utopia, precisely by being hopeful for and seeing the good in the conventionally unredeemed, the doorways of closed old houses in ancient villages, the Roman streets that have now become the street markets of the Souks downtown.
LETTERS IN SAND, LETTERS OF GOLD
Rana’s Book – an essay on the future of modern Jordan as a CULTURE, and a tribute to Jordan and its women and its history - the beautiful things in it, a gift of admiration to her majesty.
Oral history. One of the most amazing thinkers in the middle east, Prince Ghazi, inspiring Islamic Arts revival.