Opening in December is the exhibition Beyond the Archive: Paintings by Reem Bassous. That may seem miles away to you, but for Honolulu-based artist Bassous, it is right around the corner—she is creating 10 paintings, some of them impressively large scale, for the exhibition, and she only got the green light in February, when assistant curator Healoha Johnston was asked if she was interested in filling a gap in the museum’s exhibition schedule. Johnston jumped at the chance.
She immediately thought of Bassous, whom Johnston has known for six years. Noted for her works on paper that she cuts out and reassembles (her portion of the 2012 collaborative drawing installation Negotiating Dystopia she did with Maya Lea Portner at the museum’s Art School traveled to Washington Studio School Gallery and earned a review in the Washington Post), Bassous is also an accomplished painter.
“I approached her and said I wanted to exhibit the paintings,” explains Johnston. “It’s a greater risk, because the paintings are more spontaneous and evolve more organically. Reem has developed a lot of exhibitions, but more often they’ve been works on paper. This is the first time in a long time she’s been able to create an entire body of work in paint for a museum show.”
Born in Lebanon in 1978, Bassous grew up amidst the Lebanese Civil War, which endured from 1975 to 1990. Her work focuses on this time, as she tries to make sense of this turbulent era—making her a part of an international cadre of Lebanese artists. “The question of Civil War memory is acute for many Lebanese, who have come together in the post-war period to debate the war and create public commemoration,” writes Danish scholar Sune Haugbolle, whose work deals with social memory, cultural production and ideology in the modern Middle East, in his 2011 paper Historiography and memory of the Lebanese Civil War (which is part of Bassous’ research for Beyond the Archive). “In their view, the war has continued through other means in the post-war period, and the periodic rounds of violent conflict plaguing Lebanon since 1990 are directly related to the Civil War. Remembering, analyzing and understanding mass violence in Lebanon…is not just an academic exercise, but for many Lebanese an urgent task directly linked to political reform and reconciliation.”
Bassous has shown her work internationally. Closer to home, her work on paper Once There Was, Once There Wasn’t, appeared in the museum’s Artists of Hawai‘i 2011, earning her the John Young Award. She burned and worked paper until it looked like the remains of a bombed-out car. You could almost smell the acrid smoke and feel the inferred rubble beneath your feet (much like you feel like you can step right onto the desolate field of Anselm Kiefer’s Nuremberg).
Bassous and Johnston invited the HoMA blog to Bassous’s studio at the University of Hawai‘i, where she teaches drawing, to talk about the beginnings of the exhibition, the work, and how Bassous’s themes parallel ongoing issues in her adopted island home. Seeing how artist and curator effortlessly communicate and work together—they talk weekly and Bassous jokes that she trusts Johnston more than she does herself—offer great insight into how an exhibition comes to be.
How did you conceive Beyond the Archive and decide to go with paintings on canvas?
Reem Bassous: Healoha is so familiar with my work, it seems like the perfect relationship in terms of preparing for a show of this caliber. And one of the things that we realized is that my drawings are very planned, and very deliberate, very conceptual, whereas the paintings are far more instinctive, they deal a lot with raw emotion, and come from an unspoken place. They are much less planned. I was interested in introducing figures in this series, and I’m interested in having the figure emerge from the paint as opposed to predicating what I think a figure should look like. One idea I was passionate about was the subject of identity killings during the Lebanese Civil War—militias would set up impromptu checkpoints, stop people, look at their IDs, and if they were a wrong religion, ie not the religion of the militia, they would line them up and assassinate them.
It goes back to the founding of Lebanon, right after the Ottomans were ousted [in 1918] and the French were helping form a transitional government then an independent government. The French were meeting with the Maronite patriarchs. Maronites are a sect of Catholicism that follows the Lebanese St. Maron. The Maronites determined the division of Lebanon, and its separation from what was called Greater Syria. And so when they drew the map it was a kind of cocktail of religions. Religion has as much to do with identity as it does with belief—it has to do with culture, a way of living. The writer I’m obsessed with, Sune Haugbolle, uses the term “national identity”—it’s a perfect term in relation to religion because the combination of these multiple religions has resulted in a unique national identity with respect to Lebanon.
When Israel was founded in 1948, we had a sudden influx of Palestinian refugees. There is a consensus that the Lebanese Civil War started because Lebanese citizens were divided into two groups—one group that supported Palestinians’ right to stage operations from Lebanese land against the Israelis and another group that were opposed to it. Because of that, the Palestinians retaliated and that’s how the Civil War started.
With respect to identity killing, Christians and Muslims would stage these assassinations. It was specifically, for example, the PLO or the Shiites, and they were fighting one another. And Christian Phalangists were responsible for some of the worst killings in Lebanon. My parents were stopped twice at such checkpoints, but they have a very confusing list of information on their IDs, so they were too much of a risk to assassinate and were let go in both incidents. They had witnessed firsthand people being lined up, but had driven away before the assassinations took place.
So that’s how the figure paintings started, then of course they become something else, because I’m not illustrating a story, but the paint does its own thing. Through the process of creative destruction, the image emerges. At the moment I don’t know what the figure paintings are going to look like. The trauma that will come through will be the physical trauma of the paint, in a sense. The paint will undergo a lot of abuse, and excavation and sanding. That’s what will surface in the end. As a painter this is an important message for me to send across—the paint has its own magic. We shouldn’t always dictate our ideas, or enforce our ideas before the physicality of the paint, and that the paint can achieve on its own. I think that especially in today’s contemporary art world, people get too carried away with their ideas, and as far as I’m concerned, in enforcing that too much, they don’t need to be using paint. They can use anything else. If you’re going to use paint, you have to develop a deeply intimate dialogue with the paint so that you’re allowing it to do its job. In a sense you become a means to helping it achieve that end. The painter Cecily Brown has a great quote, she likens painting to a cat—she says you basically put out your hand and the cat comes close and tells you how it wants to be pet but if you try and hold the cat down and force it to be pet in a certain way, it will walk away. And it’s the same with painting, you don’t want to force it, you just have to be there and it will happen.
Healoha Johnston: I’ve held on to one of your statements made when we first did the gallery walk through. You explained that you want to incorporate the figure, but you’re not interested in humanizing the war. Your interest lay in the way the figures introduce a human presence to your previously vacant urban scenes, but that the presencing results in a parallel between empty buildings and what we’ve discussed as “shells” of the human figure. These figures share a relationship with the built environment having survived the war, but remain traumatized by the experience.
RB: Yes, like the buildings, the people become shells. [Pages through black notebook] From my notes, a few of the descriptions with respect to the figure are: playing with the tension of the figures, absence or presence in the paintings. So not all the paintings do have a figure, but the figure is involved in some capacity whether it be through the viewer as a figure, or the figure as spectator, participator, anticipator, aggressor, so all of these things come into play.
You make notes on your work?
RB: While I’m painting, I stop and sit down and just write a few things down. Usually, I write my notes on the side of the painting. But I am not doing that this time, because I have a different plan for the side of the painting. As I’m working these things come to mind. This is my biggest argument with everyone I talk to about art, with respect to the concept of a body of work. There are two schools of thought, a lot of people think you should formulate a concept before investing time in the studio, and I really believe that the best concept marinates and bakes through the process of studio work. So that’s where I come up with all these ideas. If I had stuck to the original idea, I would be doing very specific paintings about identity killings. But through the application of the paint and this creative destruction, it becomes something else altogether.
HJ: I agree. I think the figures are situated much more in the contemporary experience rather than the historical experience, because you’ve allowed the idea of the figure in the work to evolve. In the beginning you were thinking about the identity killings, specifically the fact that your parents had witnessed these things, and that you as a young child were in these sorts of situations growing up in the Lebanese Civil War. But now, the figures have the opportunity to be a little more situated in today, as they are positioned in the aftermath, along with the buildings and with the iconography, which we haven’t really talked about yet. Looking at how the figures are both entangled in and emerging from a background of religious icons, the context that offers, and what that says about your generation having grown up in a civil war, this body of work considers how people today are grappling with their personal history, how it relates to a larger national identity, and how new perspectives about religion are emerging after all of this.
RB: I have to consider there are many artists who have tackled the figure in painting. Some of my biggest heroes, like Francis Bacon, Giacometti, even someone more contemporary like Daniel Richter who has multiple figures in paintings, and Cecily Brown, Adrian Ghenie—I’m bringing all these artists to the table. And of course Gerhard Richter and Anselm Kiefer are voices who are always there. But the question is how do you then make it your own? The only way to do that is to bring your own mark, as opposed just your own story. Bringing your own physical mark that only you are capable are doing because you have a very different kind of energy than anyone else. So just through that, allowing the paint to be and do what it needs to do, the image will surface. The idea is always there. The Lebanese Civil War will always be what I work on, in some form or another. No matter how far the image strays, this is what I do, this is what I am. So it’s just a matter of how it manifests itself in the image.
Reem, may I ask if you are Christian or Muslim?
My mom and dad are Protestants, which make up only 2 percent of the population, so we are a minority of a minority. We’re Beirutis, which is a specific group of people, people who have been associated with the American University of Beirut, and are not specifically Christian or muslim—their focus has always been on secularism and education. My mother’s family is a very international group of people. We have Sunnis, Shiites, Hindus, and Buddhists, all different sects of Christianity—it’s a fun group of people.
Perhaps this explains why these are powerful, universal images, but I don’t feel a chest-thumping, finger-pointing anger in them?
HJ: Yes, she allows the viewer to have a position. She presents information and is making a statement or comment through that, but allows room for the viewer to participate in that formulation.
RB: My anger is all sides. I know first hand the atrocities…so for me to take one side over another would be hypocritical. I lived in east Beirut during the Civil War. Beirut was split between east and west Beirut. The east was predominantly Christian and the west predominantly muslim. However the Beirutis stayed in downtown, or close to downtown, which is where my grandfather and aunt lived. And even though we are from there, our house was just across the border in the east, on a hilltop in a much quieter part f the city and it just so happened to be on the other side. So even though I was in east Beirut in he Christian part of town, I had a huge chunk of my family on the other side of town. So there was no way for me to engage in a debate that would isolate the other side. Even after the war ended, during a political science class we would get into these arguments or debates. When I was an undergraduate, a lot of my classmates were sons of very prominent Phallangists, so they naturally had one side to protect. So they would always say to them Beirut has a limit, and that they wouldn’t cross into west Beirut, even long after the barrier was taken down. I thought it was such a ridiculous statement—these are the educated elite in a sense, but they weren’t really elite in any way, except financially.
You started work on the paintings, and have already completed two?
HJ: She’s a very fast worker. There are very few artists who have as a committed a studio practice and are able to anchor themselves within the work to produce on that scale on that kind of a deadline. That’s just he truth.
RB: I don’t waste any time.
It’s exciting to see such large canvases, when so much locally produced work is small, due to artists’ space limitations.
HJ: Yes! I said let’s go big.
Let’s take a look at a specific painting.
RB: This [Shelter: Memory Blueprint] is one of the paintings where the figure—as in the viewer—is an active participant in the work. The staircase is almost to scale. This is kind of a physical involvement with the work, the figure is actually going into the piece, which is based on a recurring dream. The dream is of the shelter that I used to hide in during the war. This is exactly what I saw in the dream, the staircase going down, and then the room as it darkens and goes around that wall. This is the staircase looking up, and this is going into the shelter down the stairs.
The beds, the mattress, actually read as windows, so there’s this flipping of space I’ve always been interested in my work, with respect to playing with the shift of space where you’re either looking down or to the sides or the front of something, and putting that all on paper. Perhaps it could be confusing but it’s also very interesting to play with that idea.
It’s a little cubist in that way?
RB: It is! I’m actually a Futurist deep down, and the Futurist and Cubist periods overlap in so many ways. I’m interested in that fourth dimension. What you see here is that constant shift between a commonsensical space and a façade and the interior/exterior.
It is a piece I feel very emotionally connected to. It’s an actual place. In the dream I keep going back there, and it’s been recurring every since I can remember. I started going there when I was 8 or 9, until about 12. It was a place I was so familiar with.
HJ: The biggest evolution in this piece has been that it started out very autobiographical, and Reem really pushed herself to get it to a place where I think it resonates on a broader scale. When it’s hung low, the viewer is in the painting, because you’re approaching the stairs and then you just get lost in this paint. The paint is not an innocent bystander in her work. It’s so aggressive and has its own presence, kind of has its own persona.
RB: Paint is so important as a material. I feel like I have to do it justice, and I don’t because it’s been abused on so many levels [laughs]. It can do something really magical if you allow it to. There’s a huge risk, but it is a risk worth taking just because the outcome if you succeed is so gratifying.
HJ: And so powerful.
RB: The title of this is Walking Away from 1982. That was the year I moved back to Beirut. I was born in 1978 and flown straight to Greece when I was five days old. I came back when I was four, it was the year of some of the worst massacres, and the year we had the highest number of casualties, which is this number, 19,085. I don’t know how much of a presence the numbers will eventually have. I am comfortable with obliterating them and having them be an underlying layer, but I do think they are very important in terms of what this painting is about.
HJ: These are the religious icons we mentioned.
RB: The icons which previously have been exclusive to the drawings have been as of last summer been making their way into the paintings a little more. To me, when I juxtapose them of course there are design considerations but conceptually they are reading to me more as a web and the figure is either caught in it or breaking away from it and I think if you consider the hidden meaning behind that, we are slaves to our religion in Lebanon, we really are. Very few people can break out of it, this is where I’m playing with that idea.
HJ: In the past the iconography often represented a religious or national identity. Reem would have Christian and Muslim icons in a single piece and then she would destroy the paper using a blowtorch or firecrackers to create ruptures and things like that, but in this case there’s a figure, which means that the icons are no longer necessarily representing the identity. The figure in Reem’s work is interacting with the religious iconography, and are not represented by the religious icon. It’s a departure from the meaning of the icons previously. To me, this underscores the intellectual movement that has taken place since the war on the part of artists and authors among others, who are not only critical of religious conflict, but are ultimately refusing to have their identity defined in a one-dimensional way.
RB: This is an intricate Islamic pattern. Part of why I started doing all of these is because I think Islamic is absolutely beautiful and I’m very obsessed with making it a contemporary practice. I am in a delicate situation where I am not Muslim so I do not want to appropriate this, but I am Arab and so I feel like somebody has to do something with it. On the other side, I do incorporate Coptic design, which is Christian, and they are actually very similar. The Islamic is far more refined. And in the past I have introduced actual Christian iconography. My research is specific to the Middle East so everything I have used is middle eastern, even the Christian iconography, either from Lebanon, Syria or Egypt, because we do have a very different type of Christian iconography than what you would find in Ethiopia or Europe from the same time period. I do think it’s such a beautiful design to begin with but conceptually that was necessary for me to tackle.
You said you’ve been told here in Hawai‘i that your subject matter is too heavy. Yet your work, although it’s specifically about the Lebanese Civil War, can be seen as reflecting issues here as well.
RB: By making sense of my own history and culture I hope it will engage people to do the same on a local level. A lot of students say to me, “You have the war, this is real drama, we don’t have that.” But to quote my mother, we all have our own wars, and that’s certainly true for a lot of people here, it’s just a matter of finding out what that is and bringing it into the light, on your terms.
Hawai‘i is a great place to start with social commentary because there is so much happening. People worry so much about being confrontational—and that’s where research comes in. If you do the research to back up your information then nobody can touch you in that respect. And you can say I’m doing this from a very informed perspective, I’m doing this because of these hard facts that I researched and double checked and confirmed. That’s how the package of studio work and research feed off each other.
HJ: Reaching some ground that is not polarized—I hope your students embrace that idea. Lots of people in Hawai‘i feel neither here nor there, but it is important for artists to attempt to understand our current reality by grappling with issues in a serious way so we can get to a place that isn’t polarized.
I’ve always been encouraged by the way Reem pushes her students to deal with these confrontations, and doesn’t push her own experience on them, but tells them they have to find their own issues. Reem has referred her Hawaiian students to me when they say, “I don’t know where to go to find research and Hawaiian sources, I don’t speak Hawaiian so I don’t know if I can find resources that I can understand.” There are a lot of English language and Hawaiian language resources for young people. I feel like they aren’t tutored in the research process and are left in an uninformed, yet opinionated position, which often results in one-dimensional artwork as opposed to layered depth.
RB: I had a proud moment this week, I had a Hawaiian student who was tackling an aspect of Hawaiian culture and Healoha had previously schooled me on this particular topic. The student was approaching it very superficially and I said yes, but then had all this ammunition to pass on.
HJ: She uses that, she doesn’t dismiss it as something irrelevant to her, it becomes part of her instructional arsenal, and her students have the added bonus.
What’s been amazing to me is that I have followed Middle Eastern art and art history for several years now in part because I feel like what’s happening there is fueled by the local politics and I feel like in Hawai‘i, the art that I’m most interested in is also fueled by its political undercurrent and it is rooted in a historical experience. But that history is ever present, it’s really not historic, it continues today. I saw a parallel between what was happening in the Middle East and what’s happening here. What I’ve come to realize is even though Reem lives here in Honolulu, much of her work is so on track with what’s been happening in Lebanon and other places in the Arab world. It’s been an amazing experience, and I think what we’ve always done where Reem’s artwork is concerned, is evalute her bodies of work and interrogate its art historical place within contemporary art and, specifically, Middle Eastern art, even though she lives here.