When I first encountered with Ali Cabbar’s works for some years ago, I was moved by the different associations and reflections conveyed through his exceptional visual language which was simple and direct. His works have the potential to unfold themselves through multiple layers that would be activated by the effort of the viewer. Hence, they all carry a sense of disquiet and loneliness with fragmentary and incomplete narrations.
Years after, I detected both form-wise and content-wise similarities between his works and Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. Eventually, while working with Ali Cabbar for the “Disquiet Shadow” exhibition in 2009 and 2010, Pessoa’s book functioned as a compass for my curatorial decisions. Therefore, I once again followed the paths of this book in my attempt to write a text on his works.
The entire life of the human soul is mere motions in the shadows.1
Ali Cabbar’s work addresses political, psychological and existential dimensions of an individual, processed from a highly politically engaged life. Yet, none of the politically charged issues in his work implicates a didactic tone, instead they conceal themselves either with symbols or black humour. In this way, he creates a shadow, which veils the disquiet of his experiences. Nevertheless, a suspicious viewer would always have the pleasure to reveal what is hidden in the shades of the shadow.
The burden of feeling. The burden of having to feel.
Narration is a precept for Ali Cabbar’s works. All the works has their own narratives with lapses and incomplete tenses. They are mostly fragmentary, as if moments and motions extracted from either anonymous anecdotes or personal reminiscences. Some of them are subtle in deceit. Some of them are innocent. They are painful. They are disquiet.
I’ll appear in the fog as a foreigner to all life, as a human island detached from the dream of the sea, as a uselessly existing ship that floats on the surface of everything.
The works, mostly, are in the form of series and sometimes just in one piece. Ali Cabbar’s narrations always develop as a personal inquiry toward certain issues that he has been confronted with as an individual: for instance his resentment toward political powers; his questions to the axiomatic powers and authority; his sorrow towards a nation with a short-term memory loss; and his fight for freedom. Hence, it is possible to follow the traces of an exiled individual’s experiences.
But my self-imposed exile from life’s actions and objectives and my attempt to break off all contact with things led precisely to what I tried to escape.
Exile is, indeed, not a choice and always linked to the possibility of return. However, it designates a new realm that is different from the homeland. “Exile discourse thrives on detail, specificity, and locality”2. Therefore, it is possible to perceive two or more realities that one should experience in exile.
Let’s cut a path in life and then go immediately against that path.
Moreover, as a solitary experience, exile also indicates an opposition to the place where one is forced to live.3 It could be a schizophrenic experience, as it demands a continuous effort to locate oneself.
I’m two, and both keep their distance – Siamese twins that aren’t attached.
One of the most important characteristics of Ali Cabbar’s works is how they oscillate between these realities. They always inhabit either more than one reality together or the opposition between these realities, even if they are juxtaposing with each other. Yet, in some cases these realities are too far away to intersect. In that respect, they might be forcing the viewer to read the works in multiple ways according to these realities. There is a constant tidal situation between states of these multiple and diverse realities. There is nothing that is maintained as stable, however, an alternating charge and discharge of meaning could be read. This is the situation of being inside and outside at the same time.
Suddenly, I am all alone in the world. I see all this form the summit of a mental rooftop. I’m alone in the world. To see it to be distant. To see clearly is to halt. To analyse it to be foreign.
The aesthetic distance to these realities that the works create also emphasizes the artist’s position as someone who witnesses, observes, and records by using his unique way of expression. This very distance simply shows how he rejects to be a part of these realities as an accomplice of what they indicate. Yet, in this very act of recording –only by producing art works, which undertake the responsibility to express-, he utilizes black humour as a way of undertaking the cruelty, injustice, and emergency of his experiences of life. This manifests a connection between aesthetics and politics in his works.
For me he had the visual mission of a symbol…
At this point, an over-exposition of symbolism takes place. All throughout of his art vantage, regardless of the dates of the production, he has duplicated meaning by using visual rhetoric. And even in some cases, an artwork itself becomes a symbol by itself. His drawing style plays an important role to achieve a clear perception and recognition of these symbols.
Ali Cabbar had an education on graphic design and for the last 15 years, he has been living and producing in Belgium; the country where the ligne claire is developed . Itis a drawing style pioneered by Hergé (Georges Prosper Remi), the creator of The Adventures of Tintin. It uses clear strong lines of uniform thickness and weight, along with strong colours without shading or cross-hatching. For this reason, it is also called Democracy of Lines.4 In alike manner, Cabbar’s drawing style, evidently, follows Ligne Claire and therefore, quite distinctive in terms of clarity and simplicity.
In this simplicity, he is also obsessed with details. These details function as the foreshadowing of his narrations. In some of these works, the exaggerations of the scales and paradoxical visual elements make these details more obvious.
I sleep when I dream of what doesn’t exist; dreaming of what might exist wakes me up.
Hence, such compositions present dreamlike states; as if a shift from realistic to surrealistic by unfolding discreet and fragmentary stories. In such cases, amnesia creates lapses in the narratives of the works. As the stories are spontaneously being completed by the viewer, amnesia also imply a defence mechanism to cope with whatever being experienced now.
1. Pessoa, Fernando (2002). The Book of Disquiet. Ed. and Trans. Richard Zenith. London: Penguin, p. 380, 122, 85, 380, 27, 20, 80, 60, 127.
2. Naficy, Hamid (Ed.) (1999). Home, Exile, Homeland: Film, Media and the Politics of Place. New York: Routledge, p.4.
3. Said, Edward (1990). “Reflections of Exile.” In Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures. Ed. Russell Ferguson. Cambridge: MIT Press: 357-366.
4. Herge. Retrieved Jan 04, 2010, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herge
Ligne_claire . Retrieved Jan 04, 2010, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ligne_claire
INTERVIEW WITH ALI CABBAR
In the Shadow
Başak Şenova: I would like to start with the term “disquiet”, since it is the most detectable feature in the entire exhibition and its physical construction. Throughout the works, this term also has close associations with the state of solitude, not as being destined to it, but on the contrary, as a choice in life. How do you approach these two terms?
Ali Cabbar: Disquiet can be described as an awkward state such as being “copy/pasted” into an environment one doesn’t belong to, or like one sees in a bad collage. I often feel this way. Actually, I feel disquiet not only in my soul, but in my body as well.
As for solitude… Yes, mine is by choice. Maybe that’s why there’s only me and my shadow in all my drawings. Solitude is the choice of a person who feels he has that strength within him. It becomes necessary for an artist, for a person who produces.
Although human beings are social creatures, they feel that they are alone at certain times in their lives. They are both a pack and solitary. I prefer solitude. You can see the efforts of a solitary and disquiet figure trying to communicate in many of my works. I see that figure as a resistance icon. I try to create a personal sign language by using disquieting body movements. Like a semaphore.
B.Ş.: What about “exile”? Where does the attribution of exile stand in this context?
A.C.: Exile… the feeling of not belonging anywhere, like a castaway who washes ashore and tries to live as a guest, but never knows if there’s ever any hope of going back.
A person doesn’t become an exile out of the blue. When a person is born, it is assumed that s/he is going to grow up and live belonging to a place. However, political, religious, economic reasons can force some people to leave their home. Psychologically accepting the state of exile takes place at the end of a process.
For me personally, this is how the exile process has unfolded: First you become arrested through antidemocratic enforcement, you get tortured, are imprisoned for years; this is called captivity. Then when you come out, you can’t adapt to life, alienation begins, you go abroad to escape it. You try to find a roof to put over your head in another country; you’re categorized as a fugitive or refuge. After many years, you become a citizen of the country you live in, and you divert yourself for a while by considering yourself an immigrant. Fifteen years later, when you start thinking philosophically, you come to realize that you are an exile. You now belong nowhere. Although the passport in your pocket makes you a citizen of that country, it doesn’t make you from there. If you go back to where you were born, you see that you no longer belong there. You’ve become homeless. It’s as if part of your memory has been erased. At this point, you start thinking; maybe some people are born an exile. This has nothing to do with the captivity or fugitiveness you went through in between. I find the feeling of not belonging, or not being able to belong, liberating. It flushes the pointless feeling of belonging and nationalism out of a person.
Another situation created by exile is displacement. An exile, just like an immigrant, is a displaced person. You may think that an exile is forced out, whereas an immigrant makes a choice. But I think that unless one has been pressurized from the outside, no one would leave his home.
Are circumstances worse for a person who is displaced, compared to a person who always lives in the same place? I see being displaced as an “opportunity”. Or as a new beginning…
B.Ş.: The works question the concept of personal freedom by indicating an oppositional, even tidal situation that is closely linked to your past. This questioning also signifies the difference between the state of being inside and outside.
A.C.: When you look at the whole of my works, the attempt to understand and explain the concept of freedom becomes apparent. I’m looking for answers to questions such as: ‘is there any such thing as personal freedom?’, or ‘are we free to the extent that we show opposition?’. I sometimes ask myself whether people really want freedom, because it seems as if the “unbearable lightness” of being a pack makes their lives easier.
As a member of a generation who was in search of freedom, I became part of a struggle that took place in the 1980’s. Now when I evaluate those days, I realize that the struggle itself was more important than the defended purpose. It is necessary to show despotic political powers that they cannot cow everyone into submission, that it’s not a completely open field out there.
Being inside is usually understood as being in prison, not being free. But in some cases, the outside isn’t free either. Although it seems like a contradiction, in some oppressive regimes, being in prison can make a person feel more liberated. He is paying for putting up a fight and not surrendering.
I believe that what matters is feeling free inside our minds. State, family, society, economy, and tradition have all taken us captive, and we have willingly accepted the repression.
If we were to look at these concepts from the perspective of space and dimension, I would naturally prefer the outside, the wide openings, the sky, the horizon. I’d like to forever walk in the open wilderness.
B.Ş.: Modes of “pain” shape the narratives of the exhibition. Yet, “black humor” is one of the tools you use in your artistic expression as a mechanism for resistance. The use of parody in response to traumatic events is seen nearly in all your narrative-based works.
A.C.: Pain is something I feel when I look at the world. It comes with helplessness and anger, and is suppressed with a pill of dissapointment and amnesia. Perhaps that is why the figures in my works seem to be squirming in pain.
I’m not a person who expresses himself by talking. But for some reason, or because of this, my works “talk too much”. My experiences –both good and bad, memories, political views all reflect on my work. It’s true that I use symbols as an expressive tool. I like to give different meanings to clichéd symbols. For example, although a blindfold symbolizes torture, I also want to add to it the meaning of not wanting to see. Or, whereas tied hands symbolize captivity, I also identify it with how, in reality, we enslave ourselves. I carry the hope that an observant viewer will see beyond the obvious and understand the hidden notions.
The body movements in my drawings can be read as a sort of traffic sign or amblem that explains feelings and notions, like scenes composed and constructed as if on a theatre stage. I want to transfer my disquiet to the viewers and have them leave my drawings with questions on their minds. I know it’s not right for me to do this.
Black humor enables people to communicate without the use of certain dangerous words. It’s a good means to criticize the system and one’s self. If this is a quality I possess, I’m not that bad off after all. Humor is a good thing, no matter what color it comes in.
B.Ş.: At this point, could you also explain the role of fiction, and the patterns that are used in the exhibition?
A.C.: I have the feeling that I am watching the events outside me develop as if from a display window or from a screen: as if I have fallen down to earth from space in a transparent orb. Sometimes I become invisible. No value (religion, nationality, property, business life, tradition, custom) carries any significance for me. I watch people around me who respect these values and live a “normal” life with envy. I constantly have a feeling of disquiet, melancholy, as if I was “dizzy from low blood pressure”. Alienation, a dark outlook on life, disappointment… Most people’s lives are shaped by coincidences. What I mean is that our being here and not there could be because we missed a bus. Some people call this fate. We might have willpower over certain small aspects of our life that can create change, but our general course is defined outside of us by factors such as gender, education, and class.
It’s difficult to explain the construct of life, but I’d like to say this about the construct of my works: I usually work to create a series. I sometimes think that a drawing needs a “sibling”. I look at a drawing and wonder what took place a second ago, so I make another drawing. Therefore, I end up creating a consecutive series, like animation frames. My series “Human Situations” and “Pull the Strings” are examples of this narration.
B.Ş: Amnesia operates as another defense mechanism for you to cope with life. In its broader sense, amnesia has been systematically constructed as a defense mechanism. Yet, what if this defense mechanism is spontaneously programmed and applied on individuals by a system? What if such a system eventually comes to a point where it constantly hacks itself through a cognitive architecture of dissociations?
A.C.: Our mind capacity may not be able to hold all our memories. And sometimes it may be necessary to “delete” certain memories, experiences, and particularly unpleasant things in order to take the load off the mind and enable the “system” to function properly. But unless a person has an illness such as dementia, human memory does not forget anything important; it may only suppress it for a while. I might be emphasizing a suppressed memory loss in the exhibition works entitled “Shadow’s Shame – Amnesia”.
Blindfolds equal torture, amnesia equals escape; or blindfolds equal not wanting to see, amnesia equals the reaction the system wants and expects from us. The system has gone beyond the imagination of even those who direct it, and continues to program individuals by constantly recreating itself. Millions of people living in all four corners of the world, in different cities, and countries (are) unite(d) around common inclinations, common ideals (!).
B.Ş.: Political powers don’t see the field of contemporary art as a threatening platform, which is understandable considering its limited access to the public. Yet, your work has been shaped by your reaction to ongoing corruption, and to the circumstances created by suppressive and axiomatic political powers in the country. How do you see the potential of your efforts in terms of challenging this power?
A.C.: The notion that political powers do not consider contemporary art to be a treat, if that is indeed the case, is due to the extent of democracy established in a country rather than how much public access art has. Many works that we enjoy seeing today in galleries and biennial exhibitions used to be censored 30 years ago, during the September 12th regime. Exhibitions would be closed down, artists arrested. Having a democratic or fascist government makes all the difference in the world to an artist.
Apart from that, political powers, wherever they may be, are built on fear, lies, and propaganda. People willingly submit to them, and this makes things much easier for these powers. I think that every artist has a problem with authority, and they should. “A Celebration of My Defeats” series can be taken as a criticism of militaristic/authoritarian governments, which have been an ongoing part of our country’s past. On the other hand, the “Shadow’s Shame” series is a call for revolt against this.
It would be naive to assume that art alone could “fix” the world. I don’t recall any revolution that took place as a result of an exhibition. Public interest in art is another matter. I think that contemporary artists put every effort out to reach the public, even if this sometimes means making concessions from art. I’m not optimistic, but I am hopeful.