INTERVIEW WITH CAMILLE ZAKHARIA by art journalist and writer Lisa Pollman
Camille Zakharia, Allah Ybarek (God Bless), 2013, photo installation (24 prints), Limited Edition 3, 280 x 280 cm (approximate)
You left Lebanon during the Civil War in 1985, where you had just graduated from the American University of Beirut in the Engineering Department. Do aspects of your formal education as an Engineer come into play in your series called Division Lines? How? I have always been fascinated with geometric shapes, forms and patterns. This is most evident in my "Division Lines" series, where the main elements consist of paint on asphalt - simple straight lines that offer a vast number of configurations to consider. I believe my engineering background plays a role in the act of reconstructing the photographs. In these works, I see an interesting blend between art and science.
How idea of identity and place illuminated in your artwork? For someone who fled his country at an early stage in his life, questions of identity and place play an important role in my art practice, and remain topics that are dear to my heart. This is illuminated in several projects including "Lebanon Canada via Bahrain" (1998), a large-size billboard produced for the Canadian Museum of Civilization on the occasion of an exhibition titled The Lands Within Me: Expressions by Canadian Artists of Arab Origin, Elusive Homelands (1999 2000), documenting the living environment of Middle Eastern families who emigrated to Canada, and more recent project "Belonging" (2010 2012), examining the concept of identity and place as expressed by expatriates living in Bahrain. After leaving Lebanon, you lived in the United States, Greece, Turkey and Canada. You now reside in Bahrain. Has being a diasporic artist had an impact on your work and the narratives that you examine? How? My love of photography began at a very early stage in my life. I started documenting my immediate environment soon after I moved to Beirut in 1980 to study at American University. After my departure from Lebanon, the camera became an important tool - helping me connect with new places and people. It helped me overcome the state of loneliness from being away from home. From then until now, I am constantly documenting the journey that I have experienced and am currently embarking on. This journey has been enriched by the fact that I have lived in several countries, been exposed to different cultures and have had the opportunity to meet people from various backgrounds. My work is a visual diary that reflects my own experience, living a nomadic life, which can also describe the life of others, those who chose to leave their countries for political or economic reasons. Youve lived in Bahrain since 1999. Do you feel that you have had more freedom to observe your home country by living outside Lebanon? I was devastated when I left Lebanon. Totally crushed. It felt like my whole world had crumbled. I used to count down the days to return until I could return for a visit, talk on the phone with family members, and receive letters ... everything seemed difficult, if not impossible. These were dark days that left internal scars that were hard to heal or forget. I had immense nostalgia and was unable to think straight. Every detail reminded me of Lebanon and how much I missed it. As time went by, I became more and more absorbed with my daily activities and new life. Gradually, Lebanon became more and more distant. This is unfortunate, but true. Thirty years have passed since I left. In the process, something died inside me. I feel indifferent to many things that used to matter to me in the past, returning at some point to Lebanon being one of them.
I feel a sense of nostalgia when looking at your Elusive Homelands series. Do the narratives found in your work address survival as someone who has lived through a Civil War or as someone who has spent many years in exile (or both)? The stories told through this series revolve mostly around how these particular Middle Eastern immigrants adapted to their new environment, the transitions that they had to go through, the determination needed to make things work, and the strength of human will. All the stories started with the reasons behind why they left their homeland, mostly due to instability and war, and their immense feelings of nostalgia. They all have a kind of happy ending, having found a new home in Canada. The participants were extremely generous with me, sharing their most intimate and sometimes difficult memories. This project helped me understand my own conflicts and answered many questions that I had had for years. The immigrant experience, displacement and search for home are intrinsic issues addressed in this project. Can you please tell us the story about the artist whose work you saw on top of ice plinths and how it resonated with you and your work? This was a remarkable exhibition and occurred during my stay in Canada. To begin, the artist placed well crafted ceramic vases of different shapes that she had made herself on ice plinths. Once the ice melted, the vases fell on the floor of the gallery and broke into pieces. For the second day of the show, the artist "fixed" the vases by gluing different parts together and attempted to reassemble them. The repaired vases were placed on ice plinths which led them to break again. The artist kept gluing the vases again and again for the whole duration of the show. At the end, the vases looked nothing like their original shape. The transformation of the vases really resonated with me. The act of falling and reconstruction reminded me of the human condition. We fall, stand up and keep moving on. We carry the scars of past experience - which oftentimes shape who and what we are. Some get stronger, learning from their fall, while others may be crushed, unable to bear the impact. I found the symbolism of the show quite impressive. As a photographer, when and why did you decide to pursue the technique of collage? My first trip to Bahrain was in the summer of 1991. I was staying in a penthouse in the Umm Al Hassam area of Manama, overlooking the sea. I was a bachelor with no clue how to make a simple meal. I converted the kitchen into a darkroom. The fridge was full of films, chemicals and photo papers. I used to spend long hours tirelessly printing.
I ended up with many scrap photographs that I found difficult to throw away. I started experimenting with the collage technique. It was a revelation for me at the time, joining visuals that had nothing to do with each other, recreating scenes that would not usually coexist together. Sometimes the final results make sense, and sometimes they dont. Everything is permitted. For me, working with collage is a therapeutic process that I need to practise regularly. It unleashes my fantasies. Some collages need to be well calculated with a high degree of precision and workmanship, while others flow freely and uncontrolled.
Camille Zakharia, Muharraq V - Bahrain, 1998, Archival Inkjet Print on Hahnemuhle Fine Art Paper, 14 x 40 cm, Stories from the Alley - Edition of 25
Tell us a little bit about your interest in urban landscapes and your series Double Vue. What have you found out about humanity and the globalized condition through the shape and size of the worlds cities? Documenting my surroundings is of great interest to me. What made this topic more exciting, is the fact that a huge wave of construction invaded the Arabian Gulf at the turn of the 21st Century. The region witnessed unprecedented changes into the urban landscape, with high-rise buildings being built in what seemed to be overnight, gigantic shopping malls, entertainment parks.... I prepared several projects with the main focus on the urban landscape, attempting to draw visual similarities and differences between the past and evolving present. Some of the projects were commissions, including "Al Bilad" for the British Council about the Sultanate of Oman and "Sharjah History Images", supported by a Sharjah Production Grant. I also have completed a few about Bahrain: "Distorted Memories" commissioned by the British Council on the occasion of a
touring exhibition My Fathers House: The Architecture of Cultural Heritage, Coastal Promenade commissioned by the Ministry of Culture of Bahrain, the photographic essay for the "Reclaim" project that won Bahrain the Golden Lion Award for Best Pavilion in Venice Biennale for Architecture (2010) and "Double Vue" prepared at the request of the Alliance Franaise (2007) to be exhibited at Maison Jamsheer, a beautifully renovated traditional house located in the alleyways of Muharraq, Bahrains second largest city. The exhibition was a great success, placing composite photographs of different landscapes all housed in a humble space, inviting the viewer to contemplate on the surrounding fast changes and compare with the disappearing traditional way of living. Youll be participating in the first edition of ArtBahrain this Fall. What are your expectations/hopes for the Fair? Do you think it will benefit contemporary artists and the art scene in Bahrain? How? It is good news that Bahrain is contributing to the growing art scene in the region with the Art Fair scheduled this October. Of course, my hopes are high, and wish Bahrain all the best with the event. I hope too, that it will be a great success in order to attract more galleries in coming years. These kinds of international events benefit both the local art scene bringing awareness to an outside audience of what the place has to offer and to the artists, giving them better exposure to collectors at large. What are you working on at the moment? Currently I am engaged with the making of an ambitious project titled "Spring" which consists of intricate collage works celebrating the t