The Cutting Edge (profile of artist Buthayna Ali)

Art shouldn’t be hung with a ‘Don’t Touch’ sign on it, says new media artist Buthayna Ali.

The Artist

I first met Buthayna Ali in 2003 at the launch of her exhibition Promises which focused on war and violence in the Middle East. Back then, the event was one of the first new media art exhibitions to be held in Syria and Ali was still an emerging artist who had only just finished her postgraduate studies at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts in Paris.

Fast forward six years and Ali has left a distinctive mark on the Syrian art scene, working to promote new media art despite a lack of funding and interest from galleries.

“New media art is still underrated in Syria,” Ali said. “The layperson does not reject new media art. Rather, it’s the traditional artists who oppose it, mainly because they don’t know what it is.”

A new generation of Syrian artists, says Ali, is seeking modern tools to express itself with. Traditional framed oil paintings and canvasses, she explains, do not make it onto the list.

“Art is about life and we are in the age of multimedia,” Ali said. “Therefore, it’s natural that we want to express ourselves using the language of this age, which is new media art.”

During the Syrian parliamentary elections in April 2007, twelve students from Damascus University’s Faculty of Fine Arts criticised candidates running for positions in a video installation entitled Vote, made at one of Ali’s workshops. The videos were screened at the Umawiyeen Square two days before the election results were announced.

“The students voted using their own tools,” Ali said. “Through their videos they made their opinions known, that this was not the way they wanted to be represented.”

Vote 2007

Ali has always been calm-natured, yet she also refuses to shy away from controversy. Her works of art often draw on themes that break the taboos of religion, politics and sex.

The inspiration for one of her most well-known installation pieces, entitled Marionettes, came from seeing kitschy lingerie spread out on a peddler’s small table next to the Saida Ruqayya shrine in Old Damascus.

“It’s common to find such lingerie sold in the streets next to religious centres,” Ali said. “I find that very strange in such a conservative society like that of Syria.”

Marionettes 2007

Marionettes was exhibited in Point Ephémère in Paris in 2007. The piece featured eight items of lingerie hanging by strings like marionettes in front of eight mirrors. Visitors standing in front of the mirrors could see themselves wearing the lingerie.

“I wanted to raise the same questions that occurred to me when I first saw the lingerie,” Ali said. “I wanted people to ask themselves: ‘It’s impossible for me to wear this. How would it look on me if I did? I’m curious to try them on, but I’m not brave enough, are you?’”

One of Ali’s most recent exhibitions was a collaborative video installation with Syrian artist Bayan al-Sheikh, held at the Netherlands’ Glow Festival in November 2008. The work created an optical illusion with four round screens hanging from the ceiling that broadcast a whirling dervish as viewed from above. A fifth screen located on the floor showed the same whirling dervish, but shot from a different perspective. Every now and then the screenings were interrupted by videos and sound recordings of people in the streets of Damascus discussing everyday topics.

Ayn 2008

“Mevlevi dancing is a way of exiting reality and entering a more spiritual world,” Ali said. “Yet when talking to dervishes about their everyday life you find out that it has nothing to do with Sufism.”

Indeed, Ali’s last Syrian exhibition was in 2006. In the installation entitled We Ali turned Alrywak gallery into a playground, hanging more than 50 black rubber base swings with words such as ‘money’, ‘love’, ‘sorrow’ and ‘business’ written on them in white. Visitors walked among the playground as these same words were broadcast, reverberating around the room.

“I wanted to say that life is like a swing,” she said. “While swings symbolise freedom and flying, no matter how high you swing you will always lose momentum and slow down. You always end up left stuck between two ropes and in need of somebody or something to give you another push.”

The Artist in her exhibition We Nous

While Ali still struggles to display her work in Syria, she knows there is much interest in new media art.

“Unlike traditional art which is framed and hung with a ‘Don’t Touch’ sign in front of it, visitors can interact with an installation work and use all of their senses,” she said. “This is what makes new media art so special.”

Buthayna Ali’s latest installation on the Israeli war on Gaza will be on display from March 15 in the Green Art Gallery in Dubai.

Buthayna Ali
Buthayna Ali was born in Damascus in 1974. She graduated with a degree in the History of Islamic Art from the Sorbonne Paris IV University in 2001 and obtained a postgraduate diploma in painting from Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts in Paris in 2003. Ali taught at the Faculty of Art in Damascus from 2002 to 2007. She currently lives and works in Canada and Syria. For more information log onto www. buthaynaali.com.

This article was published in Syria Today magazine. Issue no. 47

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