Dialogue with Sculptor Monkith Saaid Before His Passing

By Bandar Abd al-Hamid
"Untitled" by Monkith Saaid

Monkith Saaid (1958-2008) was a distinct presence among Arab sculptors of his generation. His artistic experience combined creativity, an intensity of ideas, talent, innovation and a humanist tendency which left him completely open to the dynamics of life in this world. During his lifetime, Saaid was renowned for his spontaneous, joyful laughter. He was not at all afraid of death, yet his love of life truly astounded us. When I met with him alone or with his wife, author Rebecca Joubin, and their young daughter, Jana, he talked about life as if he were talking about some great artistic work; Jana showed that she had inherited his sculptor’s spirit as she touched his face in an attempt to discover him.

In the late 1970s, Saaid left Iraq to escape execution and thereby lost his Iraqi citizenship. He arrived in Syria with just a small bag on his back. From the beginning, his ambition extended beyond narrow borders. He studied sculpture in the Fine Arts College in Damascus where he graduated in 1982. He continually embraced life, refusing to be intimidated by distance, which often separates the artist’s work from its viewers, both close and far away.

His life was not just about immigration, but counter-immigration, for he had emigrated from Syria in the late 80s to Holland, where he lived and worked successfully as a sculptor and installation artist throughout the 90s. Then, at the end of the 90s, at the peak of his artistic career not only in Holland but also Europe as a whole, he made the difficult decision to return to Damascus. That decision, however, did not prevent him from continuing his work with faraway galleries. Indeed, entering the dark and unknown corners of the art world did not hinder the strong mark he made on the international art scene. For example, in 2007, Saaid’s sculpture “Reading by the River” won an honorable mention at the Torpedo Art Factory in the city of Alexandria (USA). Four hundred artists entered this competition, the organizers chose only 118 to exhibit their artwork, and Saaid was one of the eight winning artists. The Art League of the Torpedo Factory selected his “Climbing Forty Stairs” and “Before the Last Supper” to be exhibited in the Washington Square sculpture exhibition of that same year. Earning the honor of designing the UNESCO’s Paris office sculpture prize, Saaid also designed an installation for the project “Book in a Newspaper,” which is supervised by Iraqi poet Shawqi Abd al-Amir.

During the final months before his November 21, 2008, death in Holland, I conducted this interview with him in Damascus.

In the past years, in your exhibitions I have noticed that you have added many new mediums to your art work. Your sculptures include not only bronze, but glass, metal, water, even sound. However, along with the changes, there is continuity in themes relating to your relationship with the self, with the other, and with life. Can you tell us about some of the first turning points in your artistic universe?

In my earliest work, I measured my body as it was and attempted to reduce it proportionally. Thus, my first sculpture series was about my relationship with myself and my own search for balance. The second was about my relationship with objects and people surrounding me, while the third expressed my relationship with modern myth. I was especially interested in how myth manages to move from one country to another, for it emigrates the same way humans do. Myth also has its own personal reasons for emigrating, including persecution. My next collection portrayed betrayal and the many forms it can take. This ended with the age’s betrayal of me. For we live superstitious lives, always waiting for the absent and unknown.

In many of your works, the planet looks like one similar point while taking continuously different positions. Can you help us interpret this theme? 

These transformations start from the point of Ibn ‘Arabi and Sufism. In Sufism all humans revolve around one point. Indeed, the whole universe circles around this same one point. And so in my series “Reflection of Surroundings” (1990s), you see men and women revolving around one sphere. Sometimes they play on it together; sometimes they argue on it together. At times, they stand above it, alone; at times they carry its burden on their back, alone. But that sphere, whether an oppressive force above them, or supporting underneath them, is always present. Indeed, it is always the same simple, ungarnished sphere. This simplicity is also part of the soberness and simplicity of Sufism, which serves as both the psychological and emotional source of inspiration for me. Over the course of my life in exile, where I have often been forced to lose material possessions and start all over, I have become detached from all that is material and now I am drawn toward Sufism.

While the shape of the sphere is simple, however, I am always searching to change its position. Indeed, like life, it is always renewable. I cannot appreciate art which is static or unchanging. Thus you will find some of my work in this collection, as well as others, even dances with the movement of the breeze or wind.

Your last works of art, which are monumental in scale, represent Adam and Eve in different situations – flying, standing and sitting down next to a half-eaten apple. This sculpture installation is currently exhibited in a garden of the villa belonging to Feres Naim in the suburb of Yafour near Damascus. The sculpture garden you have created there with eight large sculptures is the first of its kind in Damascus. I would like to talk about the first situation we see Adam and Eve in: swimming in the open space in two different directions and facing each other. Each of them hangs in the air with their feet attached to thin, three-feet-long metal rails resembling pliant branches moving gracefully with the wind. As I understand, the flying position was not in your original sketch, and it proved the most challenging to install. What is it that attracted you to positioning your sculptures in this flying position?

Adam and Eve are the source of humankind in nature; flying is the first movement associated with the onset of love. For there is something that resembles flying in love, as man and woman swim in space the same way the fish swim in the water. Water has borders, though, while the atmosphere – like love – has no visible borders.

Of course, the flying movement also attracted me, since I am always searching to tempt balance and equilibrium in my art. Like most of my sculptures, the figures are held up in the air by just one point, seemingly defying gravity.

In 1992, you won the prestigious Dutch prize for art and culture. Your sculpture titled “Contrasts” was made of two open arches with a man standing at the center, his arms wide open. You created this sculpture at a time when we were being warned about how our actions were damaging the environment. How did you reflect your own apprehensions in this sculptural design?

In this design, I attempt to present my personal vision of art and culture. I see two major dimensions in life: the vertical and the dynamic nature of time, which contrasts with the horizontal esthetic nature of place. The duty of the artist is to connect the points between time and place, in order to build life. 

In my view, war, pollution and racism are the three destructive forces unsettling life. This is the premise on which I designed my work, which includes two incomplete arches symbolizing nature and culture. The first arch, which is three-quarters of a circle, represents nature. One quarter represents solid earth, while three quarters are water. The second arch, which is half a circle, represents the contradictions between the internal and external worlds of the artist, and that between matter and spirit.

With the bronze figure that moves in a balanced manner between two open iron arches, you have combined the materials of bronze and iron. Why did you choose to work with bronze and iron? And why did you position man at the center?

Naturally, I used these two contrasting materials on purpose. The two arches made of iron were prone to rust, symbolizing death and mortality. They contrast with the bronze sculpture figure, a symbol of immortality, since bronze is immune to rusting. The balanced man made of bronze in the midst of the two arches represents eternity. His position in the middle points to the center of the world, an idea that I borrowed from Leonardo da Vinci. 

In the summer of 2001 you created a monumental installation in the mountains of the Lebanese town Aley along with several Arab and foreign sculptors. This work consists of two permanent stone pieces taking the form of two marble seats with traces of humans chiseled into them, alongside an eight meter form made of metal knives, which stirs with the wind and makes sounds. Can you tell us more about the philosophy behind this installation?

I created this installation at a symposium in Aley, which sought to bring about a dialogue between civilizations. It was headed by Wajdy Murad, the head of Aley’s City Hall, who engaged in the project with great love and dedication. When I accepted the invitation to participate in this symposium in the Aley mountains, they asked me what type of stone I wanted to work with. I told them I could not answer until I saw the place, the home of my future artwork. In fact, I needed to see it before I could even decide on my project. Thus, as I have done for other projects, I surveyed the town for three days before the symposium began. I learned that in this town many had lost loved ones who had crossed the sea to escape war or to look for work. Most were waiting for the return of a loved one. Thus I decided to chisel the inverse features of someone lingering patiently on the stone for the return of a loved one. Next to it, I placed an eight foot high wind chime made of metal knives, which would move and make music with the wind, symbolizing, according to Chinese philosophy, the return of a loved one. I chose a position on the mountain for my installation, overlooking a rural road, because the road enables loved ones to return to their parents and homes. The installation thus constitutes a permanent obsession for those waiting for absentees. Furthermore, I have attempted to combine the functional and the esthetic in this work. The two stone seats could become a rest station for travelers, lovers or those who simply wish to meditate in nature. On the road, I placed some red dirt, which reveals the peculiarity of the place, making it open in all directions. I entered the element of time through the movement of the metal knives with the rhythm of the wind as both a force and whisper, and also the echo of the sound. Thus I created a piece of artwork that is connected with life and not a work for museums. It is not important to connect this work of art with immortality but rather for it to give way to offspring, communicating its memory.

You have several other monumental installations in Lebanon. Can you tell us about them?

In 2003 I participated in a symposium in Ehden. There I created a 13-meter-high installation titled “The Chair.” Made of copper, metal and sound, it consisted of a set of inverse stairs leading up to a chair at the top. I attached a series of wind chimes to the chair, the chimes symbolizing the incoherent words of the leader sitting on the chair, dictating to the masses. The inverse stairs symbolize the deviant means through which the individual can reach power. A single point supports the stairs, and they rotate with the movement of the wind. From what I have heard from others, though, the monument was toppled to the ground in the latest wars which have hit Lebanon.

Then in 2004, I created an eight meter installation, which found a home within the new Al-Nahar newspaper building in downtown Beirut. This work was inspired by a smaller sculpture titled “Before the Last Supper.” While the original work consisted of 13 traditional looking chairs, in this installation I adapted it to the theme of reading a newspaper at the café by using ordinary café chairs. Still, as in the original, the rooster is at the top, symbolizing Judas’s betrayal of Christ.

These large monuments in Lebanon are considered art installations, because of the philosophy behind them. Indeed, you spent a lot of time throughout the 90s experimenting with this form of art in Holland and the rest of Europe. You were probably the first to bring installations to Syria. Your most recent installations were exhibited at Al-Mada and Al-Sayed galleries in Damascus. What attracts you to this type of modern art?

When I just began as an artist in Europe, I approached my work as part of an incomplete diary, a form of defense in a life of exile. Installations provided the perfect psychological and philosophical outlet for me to measure my existence. At first in my installations, I was interested in the photograph, which transfers from memory to memory. I found that the photograph worked very well with my search to discover the personal details of my life. I focused on memory before it transformed or changed into myth and superstition. It was only after I had a sudden heart attack under psychological and physical pressure that my interests and ideas changed. At that moment I began to focus on transmitting all that was real and imaginary into a lasting visual sphere. Here, my true relationship with bronze started. While installations are displayed in one place to a specialized public, my bronze sculptures could travel throughout time and space, conveying my feelings and thoughts to more people. 

To what extent is it possible to attribute the artistic work to philosophical ideas and human concerns? 

There is no artwork without an idea and philosophical stance. Art is a product of the period, the condition under which the artist lives or experiences. We are the generation of the computer and Internet, with all their advantages and disadvantages. To me, the idea is far more important than the details. The major goal of every artistic experiment is to portray humans in all their sadness and happiness, victory and defeat.

What is your personal relationship with sculpting? What form has this relationship assumed?

Sculpting is my first language. Like other sculptors, I speak this language by touching, whereby the very act of touching develops into a focused sense. Indeed, touching is a pulse which differs from place to place. That is the reason there is always a talented blind sculptor out there, for the blind individual has a special sense of touch which grows out of need and over time. In my own case, I always feel that my fingers could make my need of the visual sense unnecessary.

How does your daily relationship with sculpture impact your life and your relationships with things that you see in different places?

The art of sculpting has stimulated my sensory perceptions and given me a never-ending sense of curiosity. When I wake up every morning, life surprises me once again. I learn immediately from what surrounds me. I learn from the window that overlooks the outside world. I learn from the bird, the tree, the rain, the snow. I attempt to touch things I encounter; my hands get closer to fire, ice, water, stone, iron, wood and cloth, with varying degrees. The days in which I do not learn something new are for me a personal tragedy.

Of course, sculpting has become an essential part of my daily life. It has entered the very fabric of my being and impacts my position toward all that surrounds me. I see the world around me through a sculptural lens. That said, I am not committed to any one specific material for sculpting. To me, there is nothing which can be excluded from artistic use. Yet, while I continually experiment with new material, bronze is perhaps the most malleable material, which meets my desire in sculpting.

You have found yourself in many different environments which have broadened the scope of your personal activities and interests. Please elaborate on how these constant environmental changes have influenced you.

As a child and then teenager in Iraq, I used to read classical European literature. Once, when I was expelled from school after I had defended myself to a dictatorial teacher, I discovered a nearby library. I used to wake up early every morning and leave the house, so my parents would not notice I was not in school. During those hours, I would devour books at that small library. I must have read the whole canon of translated European literature at that time. Herman Hesse was my favorite author. It was only when I was a young man and had settled in Holland that I returned to my own Eastern origins and made sense of it all. I connected with the spirit of the East through the works of Al-Halaj and Al- Sahroudi, who are at the center of balance in my cultural life now, whether I find myself in the East or West.

Through hobbies, talent and professionalism, art impacts both the creative artist and the spectator to varying degrees. How is art reflected in your personal life?

Art is comprehensive, moralist and educational. It is a force which elevates the general taste of the people. It has more than one indirect mission, which includes the restoration of balance to the public and personal life. Indeed, when people talk about the cities they love, we find that it is both the hidden and declared artistic touches in these cities which give them special character. This applies to lifestyles – the pastoral, Bedouin, and rural – where individuals innovate substitutes to art in their daily lives.

I live 24 hours as an artist. There is not one moment of the day that I do not see the world through the eyes of an artist. I have never been able to separate my personal life from my life as an artist. Even in the daily movements or discoveries made by my baby daughter, Jana, I see art and find inspiration. 

As an Eastern artist who has lived and worked extensively in the West, you know that there are always dialogues and problems between the East-West encounter at different levels. Where do you stand on this relationship?

I am always preoccupied with this dialectic. In Holland, we artists worked a lot on what we called the dialogue of the “dual culture,” and the influence of place on art. At that time, I organized an exhibition-workshop on the influence of art in transmitting culture. Along with other artists, we presented lectures on the idea of dual culture. Nineteen artists from different countries and languages participated. At the center of the workshops and talks was the question of harmony with place.

Europe is not the mother of all arts, though it has played a major role in the discovery and continuity of art. Nonetheless, throughout the last century, non-Western artists have proven their competence in presenting distinguished works in Europe.

You lived quite a few years in Holland, and still visit often. In your opinion, what are the special characteristics of modern art in Holland? 

Holland is the mother of art schools, from Rembrandt to Robin to van Gogh and Carl Apple, all the way to postmodernism. The artistic scene in Holland is open to all schools and approaches. Video, then the computer both made their impact on art. Next chemistry came into the artistic work, in addition to the pencil and the ancient broach.

In Holland the most important lesson I learned is that art is all-inclusive, and it has inspired me to this day. As I walk in the streets of whatever country I find myself in, my basic instincts find art in every corner of the streets, walls, traffic and people. No material is excluded from art. In fact, my apartment in Damascus is made of material I have found in the streets and put together as a usable form of art deco. One of my most successful exhibitions in the Atelier gallery in Rome was called “Life’s Passages.” Here my sculptures were constructed of discarded pieces of metal and iron I had found on Ahda Ashariyah – one of the most polluted streets of Damascus – and then combined with bronze. Art can be found in every corner of life, however small. This is the most important lesson I learned in Holland.

Translated from the Arabic by Elie Chalala

This review appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 15, no. 60 (2009)
Copyright (c) 2009 by Al Jadid


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