For Noor Bahjat al Masri, pilot artist for SAFIR’s Artist Program, 2016 looks like a good year. Noor has just completed a residency in Manila’s Galerie Stephanie, an experience that enabled her to explore new ideas – as well as the vibrant culture of the Philippines. Urban Manila was a little too hectic, she smiles. “I lived on the 20th floor, and you and I would have struggled to have a conversation over the sounds of traffic if the window were open!” On the other hand, the surrounding islands awed her with their placid beauty. She fondly recalls one island with only four traffic lights and nature like you’ve never seen before, wondering how anyone could choose to live elsewhere. It was during these contemplative solo nature retreats that she was struck by the difference in herself when in nature and when in the city – something that would form the groundwork for her exhibition Which one is your thread? the culmination of her residency at Galerie Stephanie.
I caught up with Noor on Skype, and our conversation was more effective than my customary morning coffee. The young artist brims with infectious energy. Her excitable speech knows no punctuation – at least not commas and full stops. But as a fellow Syrian, the “yanni” and “heke” dotting her sentences are sweetly familiar to me.
We only briefly spoke of what it means to be a “Syrian artist,” for Noor rejects the expectation that Syrian art must necessarily be directly involved with themes of war and conflict. “I want people to see me for who I am, not just as a Syrian who is representative of the entire situation,” she insists. “If you want to do something, don’t tell me you’re sorry. Go do something. I’m okay, don’t worry about me!”
So who is Noor? Beneath the sparkling humor and easy laughter, there is a current of something driving her, something powerful. It is when she speaks of her work that she is the most animated.
Her exhibition in Manila, Which one is your thread? is the result of Noor’s struggle to untangle her thoughts and behaviours from those of others.
“I often find myself doing something, but the intention, the idea, it did not come from me…why am I here? What do I want? I tried connecting all these things, which is how I arrived at the metaphor of the thread.”
Noor visualizes thoughts and ideas as interconnected threads. One of her paintings, Where Do Your Thoughts End? (right), features a girl with a jellyfish perched on top of her head, replacing her brain, which she holds in her hands instead. Out of the displaced brain, real threads dangle down to the ground. Viewers in the gallery can step on them. “She doesn’t want to think, so her thoughts have become worthless,” Noor explains. The “butterfly effect” – that the smallest cause, such as the flapping of a butterfly’s wings, can have largescale events – also influences this search for the origins of our thoughts and behaviours.
Which one is your thread? radiates Noor’s frustration at a perceived complacency in our society, particularly in our unwillingness to question ourselves and our surroundings. She used to leave her paintings untitled, but found that this often intimidated viewers from engaging with the sentiments she communicates. She now titles her paintings with questions, urging viewers to find their own answers within the paintings.
“What I don’t like is when you put up an unnecessarily long explanation next to painting,” she laments. “It’s like you’re assuming the viewer is incapable of receiving ideas unless they are spelled out plainly.”
“I don’t want everything I do to be a reaction to what I am receiving…I want things to come from me.”
Growing agitated, Noor tries to trace the sources of often problematic patterns of thought, which she attributes to a “system” that floods our environments with trivialities as a distraction from the real issues. “We care about things that don’t matter that much in the big picture!”
This big picture that she paints for me is bleak, involving war, smugglers and refugees. It’s not hard to see where it comes from, and I wondered, was it was harder for her to forget the Syria crisis than she claimed? “No, it’s very easy!” she exclaims, with a hint of irony. “All you have to do is look in the mirror and tell yourself, ‘I’m very ugly, I need to fix my nose, I need to fix my teeth, become more beautiful’ and even when I become more beautiful it’s never enough.” But away from the influences of urban life, Noor finds that her thoughts and priorities are completely different – another reason to love the natural islands of the Philippines.
Don’t think of her as someone who would prefer to live in isolation, though. Despite her appreciation for nature and its placidity, Noor vehemently believes that “everyone needs a struggle…if you don’t have something prickling you, you won’t have the satisfaction of resolving something. If you’re not interacting with society you may as well not be there.” Often it is these clashes with society that produce meaningful work. Her painting, Where Does Life Take You? is directly influenced by the stark divide between the upper and lower classes in Manila. On the left of the canvas is a dining room in an opulent household, and on the right there is the interior of a crowded jeepney, a mode of public transport commonly used in the Philippines. A woman is seated in the center, present in both scenes, connecting them. She faces away from the wealth as the jeepney transports her to another life. The fine line between both scenes suggests a close, parallel coexistence between the two worlds, despite the wide gap between them. “I knew I had to work on [this] painting because it was something I noticed a lot, and it really moved me.”
With her ability to extract the threads inside her head and tie them to tangible objects in our world, Noor promises to produce works of art that are at once deeply personal and universally relatable. Will she continue to work with these ideas developed in the Philippines? Or does she think she has worked them to the limit? “If it’s still there, it’ll come out,” she laughs. “That’s what my art is for. Even if it’s something insignificant and silly, if I’m thinking about it, it will come out.” And I, for one, can’t wait to see it when it does.
Translated from Arabic
Rosy Tahan is the Project Assistant at SAFIR. She buys too many books and has too little time to read them. In her spare time, she is a student at NYU Abu Dhabi, studying Psychology. She is currently recovering from a severe coffee addiction