Interview with Nedim Kufi on Virtuality
Interview with Nedim Kufi
Your new online exhibition, Virtuality, looks at our tendency to conceal our true identity behind a mask and adopt different personas. What triggered the idea for this theme?
I joined Twitter at some point. I felt like a stranger so I started searching for friends, like anybody would. It turned into an obsession. I wanted to understand my new friends, from a trust standpoint. As it turns out, and this applies to everyone, that there is an issue with trust and envy online. Therefore I sensed that there was a virtual world, as if it were a different planet, and we call it social media. It’s a society that consists of millions of people. The positive aspect of this society is that it brings together people for all countries and races together. I liked the universality of this world, regardless of the countries or sects that its members come from. This breadth inspired me. So I thought to myself, I should put together a selection around it. I chose any figure or mask that spoke to me as a painter. In this sense, I shifted from being a Tweeter to being a painter. What happened was a that there was a magnetism between these avatars and my eyes and my perception. Over time, this evolved into a selection of painting that I made. I tried to obtain all my subjects’ permissions. They were all receptive to the idea, once I explained it to them. They agreed even though what I was drawing was not my subjects’ real faces. This faceless society to me appeared to linger in space. It bears to relation to reality or this this earth, the street or the city. This is a subject matter that is very rich in inspiration to an artist.
Can you tell me about a certain image or an interaction that planted the seed in your head that the members of this society inhabited a virtual world?
There are different types of Tweeters out there. Some are constructive while others aren’t. There are gentle, sensitive, poetic ones that are empathetic and respectful. While there ones that are vulgar, ones with unacceptable and harsh conducts. This is all a manifestation of what they hold within them. After I observed their tweets on a daily basis, I gained perspective on their situation. As a result of some people’s despair with reality and their weariness of the details of reality, they sought refuge in this virtuality, so that they could live in freedom and express themselves in a manner, which I consider to be, artistic. While they may not think of their expressions as art, I think of it as a naïve form of art. This is no different from painting a portrait. I saw the link towards these people through their Photoshopped images. Since we live in a Photoshop era, things automatically morph from real to virtual. This doesn’t just apply to face, it also applies to emotions and sensations and all facets of humanity.
I felt that this project should be executed in the form of oil portraits, in official terms, in a studio. I experimented with painting these portraits with my finger, because it represented a new experience for me, one where I would feel the oil and the strokes on my fingertips as they went along the faces, as if I were applying make up on them, or sculpting them. Bit by bit, the project evolved from there.
Given that you focus on this concept from the angle of social media, would you describe Virtuality as an exhibition for the 21st century?
Most definitely. Because the circumstances that social media presents only came to light in the 21st century. They have evolved based on human behavior. Humans and their behaviors have influenced social media’s evolution, in an uncontrollable manner. I believe that through people’s actions on social media, they invent the styles and ways in which it evolves. This is completely natural. I imagine that in ten years, we will witness phenomena in this landscape that would have never occurred to us. Therefore people’s ability and energy to drive change, although mostly invisible, is a generator of these emotions and trust that we see on social media. What I generally sensed is that under their masks or avatars, people feel secure. But they tend to forget that the limited scope of these avatars, tiny squares with an image inside them, also limits their dimensions. For instance, I also looked into people that showed their real faces as their avatars and I found them to be more courageous. They were also more capable of expressing themselves in a blunt way. They didn’t need to hide under a layer or a filter.
In your research for this project, you spent two years questioning tweeters. What kind of questions did you ask and did the answers you received shock or surprise you?
Well obviously this type of questioning and seeking intimacy was uncomfortable because not everyone realized that this would be artistic subject matter. So they were cautious, as was I when posing my questions. But I was very gentle in my approach. My main question was: what would have happened if you used your actual photograph? Most of them laughingly answered: “We are better off with our avatars. We are more comfortable this way. We can speak our minds without repercussions”. Therefore there is a sense of security that they seek. So the central issue to these people is how they can mitigate any danger or risk surrounding their opinions. I think that there is a risk, since for instance, one can create several accounts, a youngster can pose as an elderly person, a female can pose as a male, the possibilities are endless. This leads to a complex mix and considerable chaos that could be endless. So the answer was always: “We are comfortable in this guise”.
What did you learn from this Q&A project?
The main lesson was that all people are artists, to varying degrees. Some are not artists in the professional sense, but they all possess the ability to express themselves artistically through their choice of position, shape, and disposition that they convey through an avatar. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a face, it could be a cup of coffee, or a feather, to indicate that they’re writers. In time, I sensed a degree of artistry that could be translated. So what happened within me, when it came to this series, is that I translated their reactions into oil paintings in a very minimal sense. The strokes were minimal, as were the color palettes and the shapes, so that I could portray the core of my subjects’ identities.
Tell us something about the technique you used to transform people’s tweets into oil paintings or portraits.
Sometimes the Tweeter’s virtual name is more important that the avatar. For instance, some of my subjects adopted screen names such as “Is Not”, “Insane”, and “Antar”. In such cases the screen name inspired me more than image as I saw an actor in front of me. So much that I would forget the avatar and focus on the identity that arises from the name. So I would ask myself: “in which way does this person inspire me?”, and based on the answer I would adopt a technique with my two resources: oil and canvas. I opted for a reasonable size that falls in between a miniature painting and a small portrait. How do I gather all these meanings and compress them into a face? So I ended up painting these faces with my bare fingertips, as I found it to be the ideal route.
So all the paintings that we’ll see in Virtuality were drawn with your fingertips, and you didn’t use any brushes at all, correct?
Yes, all of them.
Let’s go back to what you said a while ago: “As an artist, I found that all people possess a raw artistic energy through which they excel, albeit not knowingly.” Can you elaborate on this comment?
People’s relationship with visual arts is a weak one, especially in the Middle East/North Africa (the Arab World). They may react to poetry, song, stories, proverbs, but very seldom do they respond to images. I gave out an open piece of criticism to everyone by reminding them that I am an expert in the domain of images, and as an expert I found that their dealing with images required some effort. For instance, their “montages” of ideas were in poetry or prose, and when converted into imagery, these montages came out as kitsch of the highest order. But they receive validation for these montages, because in their realm, none of them are expert artists and nobody is cognizant of the idea of kitsch. They simply enjoy expressing themselves in a montage-like sequence.
Your art still draws on both Middle Eastern and European cultures, with cultural identity a recurring theme. Which would you say has the greater influence on your work, your birthplace or where you’ve now lived for over 20 years?
Holland for sure has been a more impactful experience for me. It was different because of the experimentation factor, whereby experimenting leads towards outcomes. Nothing is every ready at first, I have no codes or ideologies that are constant. We can always make mistakes and correct them. We can always get through the experiment. This was also true of the Twitter-verse, for it was ever-changing yet valid, like a stream of water that brings everything down with it, both dirty and clean. This is what kept me so engaged with this project, because even the contrast between “East” and “West” becomes very clear in this scope. That is to say, a Western persona generally does what her she wants, walks the talk, and does so without fear, inhibition or limitation. It is a very transparent persona. Whereas the Eastern persona is enveloped and covered up with fears and threats of blasphemy. Therefore mysterious sensations occur with the Eastern persona, and most of the time indirectly so. Mystery also has a flavor and its own personality. I am not against mystery. I always go back and view things through an artist’s lens, and I found this contrast to be inspiring.
Would you say cultural identity is a personal struggle that you are expressing through your work or something that you have now reconciled?
I have most definitely not reconciled it and it definitely saddens me. It’s not a question of accepting something or rejecting it. But I always wished that all these Tweeters would show their true faces without paying a price for it, as a stance, as a principle, as a statement. I have my actual picture up as my avatar as a way of leading by example. By doing say I say: this is how I look, this is how old I am, and this is my situation. But I feel that on the other end, this way of hiding is not always true or justified. For example, there are peoples, other than Middle Easterners that are more forthcoming that this in their portrayals of themselves. They come as they are.
What are your thoughts on the situation in Iraq today?
I don’t really like to talk about it. But during my last visit I felt that Iraq is still very much impacted by the pressure of the war in every facet of its people’s lives down to the very last grain. War gave way to corruption, violence, terrorism, and fear of everything. In a general sense, the entire outlook is very bleak.
As a multidisciplinary visual artist, how do you decide which medium is best suited to a project?
Any project or concept usually gives me signs on which path to take. For example, if it’s similar to photography, that gives you a sign. Or if it’s close to sound, imagery, or animation, or instillation… It varies.
But for this specific project I felt strongly about the fact that it is re-photography, in a manner of speaking, or a montaged/processed form of photography. So I decided to solder it into oil paintings.
So when you embarked on this project, did you experiment with different methods; did you try taking photographs yourself, or did you perceive these Photoshopped images as montaged photography and then tried to play on it?
It was most probably a question of good timing, because I was already obsessed with portraits before I got exposed to Twitter. I always wanted to produce portraits but never had done it before. So I perceived the repetition of portraits (in the form of avatars) that spoke to me when I gathered them on a grid as a selection. To me they exuded an essence of painting, not photography. It’s as if I saw the finished paintings before even painting them. It was most probably a question of timing, but never did it occur to me that this could be a project that involved sound, video or cinema.
Have any particular artists influenced you as your style has evolved? Or do you take inspiration more from outside of the art world?
No I have definitely drawn inspiration from other people. The whole concept of inspiration translates into having a constitution, a personal one you carry with you. This constitute has many layers: it has your childhood heritage, your social heritage. At the same token your vision is personal and focused on certain aspects of life, not all of it but in certain details. For example you might like a certain fruit that you always fantasize about. But from a technical standpoint and inspiration on that particular level, I think of German artist Gerhard Richter as a teacher, not just a source inspiration. It is because he has a concept of freedom and variety, and no limits when it comes to techniques, as they adapt to his mood. I don’t like being confined to a cage of technicality or style.
Let’s focus on style with this specific project, because it evident that Virtuality has strong Pop Art notions to it. So was there a specific artist or school that inspired your style in this specific case or was more an outcome of the filters that these avatars already had on them?
I think the subject in general is indeed categorically Pop Art. But it did not assume the typical American form of Pop Art à la Andy Warhol, per se. The idea itself evolved into something that was more expressionist. The expressionism of the painting was more tied to the German school. It also has aspects that I’ve lived with for a long time, so they were familiar and far from foreign to me. As a result of considerable experience with oil paintings, it turned a bit personal. For instance, how the outline moves and how the colored spaces took shape, these were all personal statements. But that only becomes evident when you contemplate and dig deeper into the works, whereas at first glance it looks like it is tied to the German school.
How did you arrive the six conclusive graffiti works that you did here in Amman, having started with fifty-something finger-painted oil works?
That’s a very clever questions, because I definitely wanted to make a conclusive statement. When I write a story, I like for the conclusion to be a story in itself. Going from finger painting to graffiti happened very organically, I don’t really know why. And since it was spray on paper, it was more youthful in spirit and faster to execute, and there is something very poetic about that. You hit and run, and that in itself is a conclusion. I wanted the grit of the Virtuality story to have a hit and run statement, because even in painting, you can have such powerful and abrupt moments.
Did you share any of these works with the Tweeters that inspired them? What were their reactions?
No I haven’t yet, I want it to be a surprise.
What do you expect their reactions to be?
I think they will be wowed. I think they will like them. But I already have permission from most of them to craft works based on them. I also didn’t replicate their online avatars, I tried to merge two people or two disposition. But it always retains the essence of their avatars.
What’s your next project?
I’m working on a sculpture-sound hybrid. It addresses the relationship between the sequence of sound and modeling of shapes and sculptures. It is rooted in studying voice sequence.
When can we expect it?