OLGA STEFAN KARAM NATOUR: BLURRED LINES
In his most recent exhibition Blurred Lines (held at Hulu Gallery in Split, Croatia and curated by Olga Stefan), Karam Natour explores the dynamics of power structures within society. Natour, a young artist and professor at the Academy of Art and Design in Bezalel, mainly works with video—a medium which allows him to maintain an ironic and playful stance in his practice, which often involves himself and his family.
Karam Natour: Blurred Lines
Curated by Olga Stefan
HULU SPLIT, Croatia
Location: Loggia, Golden Gate, Dioklecijanova 7 street
Opening: July 13 at 8 p.m.
Duration: July 13—27 2020
Karam Natour’s work, much like the author himself, inhabits a place in between states. Natour makes video, but also digital drawings. His videos are at times cinematic, other times basic. Linguistically he navigates between Hebrew, his native Arabic, and the global English mandated of every artist. The dialogue is scripted and improvised, metaphorical, and concrete. Small events and moments open the way to universal truths. With humour, Natour shows us how serious existence in this world of ambiguity and uncertainty really is. He is both an Arab and an Israeli, an artist and citizen, and always a minority.
It is this shifting power relationship that is central to his work, a topic he explores through the mise-en-scene of situations he tries to control but which always run the risk of ending in chaos. In the first videos he made, starting with Yoman (2014), and continuing with Heat in My Head (2015), he used his immediate then his extended family. A key moment in the latter video that may help us understand the power interplay that preoccupies him is at the beginning when Karam tells his mom, “speak in Hebrew not Arabic, and say something intelligent to impress my friends.” These friends are, in fact, his colleagues at the Bezalel University, all Jewish Israeli and non-Arab speakers. Initially his mother, looking bored, leaves the frame, then she delivers some truisms, which Karam derides as “embarrassing.” This incident may be interpreted as typical in a mother-son relationship, but the question arises: Who is in charge in this exchange? Karam the director, his mother, who subverts the process he established, or the viewers for whom the video was made in Hebrew, let alone us, the global audience, for whom it was later subtitled in English despite Karam clearly declaring that he doesn’t want people to have to read a translation?
Heat in My Head (2015)
For Natour, language is inherent in power relations, it is a tool of control but also a means of connection and often, misunderstanding. Therefore its function is always thematised in his work. Take the video Nothing Personal, where the artist directs an event in which he plays an immobilised artist in his studio needing help from the paramedics. Swerving between reality and fiction, metaphor and plain speech, Natour explores the condition of the artist who, in fact, needs the help of outside forces to complete his projects. While lying on a bed in the middle of the frame and recording the entire event with the video cam on his computer, Natour calls an ambulance because “I cannot move, and I am so scared,” speaking to the operator in English, not Hebrew. Both the operator and himself speak broken English to each other, neither being completely comfortable, thus levelling the field and neutralising the power of the majoritarian which is also manifested through mastery of language. Recorded in real time, the video shows the paramedics arriving about three minutes later, bringing two teams, not only one, and demonstrating extreme care for the mysterious case of the immobilised artist. “There is something in me that I can’t get out myself,” whines Natour. After a few minutes, one of the paramedics notices the camera filming the crew and mentions it in Hebrew, but the others don’t seem troubled by this fact. Soon after this, Natour starts to feel better, he is able to move and breathe normally. “It is typical of stress,” claims one of the paramedics. Before leaving, someone takes Natour’s ID number and health insurance information, then wishes him a quick recovery. Natour made the video a week before a solo exhibition when he was under extreme stress, not knowing exactly what to produce. There are many layers of meaning to unravel in this work, starting with the limited freedom of movement of the artist who depends on various benevolent outside forces, from audience to participants, and from exhibiting institutions to funders. But of course there is also the topic of the tension between minority and majority tempered by the usage of English by both parties, and maybe even of ethics: what is OK to do in the name of art? Natour opened himself up to risk, assuming the potential consequences of his action, maybe even putting a sick person’s life in jeopardy if another ambulance could not reach them, but also of course of being discovered by the paramedics for staging the situation.
Karam Natour is an artist who undertakes sometimes poetic, sometimes blatant analyses of identity, citizenship, intimacy, and power relations by playing with language, and performing actions that rely on repetition, humor, and mutual trust. He doesn’t make any absolute political statements, yet by using himself and his family in his videos, he becomes the incarnation of the political body through which we can grasp the existential conflicts that he, and other minorities, carry.
Nothing is Personal (2017)
You consider yourself a video artist despite also working in other media, for instance illustration and photography. What does the language of film offer that other media do not, and how does video respond to your needs as an artist and truth-seeker?
Through my teenage years I watched a whole bunch of films and fell in love with the way in which films managed to visually portray complex and sometimes simple ideas through narrative, both linearly and nonlinearly. At the time I was doing fairly terribly in school and did not really feel a connection to the whole apparatus of education, so films were my private escape from a reality I did not wish to be part of. Then, when I decided to enroll in college, I applied for the Screen-based Arts department at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design (Jerusalem, Israel) which focused mainly on video art and video installation. It was during these years that I experimented with video as a medium, its limitations and its possibilities. The drawings evolved from my interest in video and although my practice employs a variety of media including video, drawing, and installation, I consider video my ‘mother tongue’. Naturally, every medium has its advantages and disadvantages, but there is something about the “time” element within the medium of video that enabled me to question existential notions in a way that other media did not allow. For instance, for one of the video classes in college, I did a video piece where I recorded myself saying “I am Alive” for over an hour non-stop, screaming it, whispering it, saying it slowly, saying if fast, de-counting the words, stopping, counting, until the camera storage card was full. It was extremely liberating to do that piece and it gave me a sense of… being alive. That said, I am not too keen on the conviction of truth-seeking in relation to the medium video (or any medium in that matter). I tend to enjoy swaying between two opposite modes of truth-seeking and fiction-making and feel they are equally revealing.
And while we are on the topic of language: language and its relationship to personal and national identity plays a very important role in your videos. You are Arab-Israeli and your mother tongue is Arabic, yet the language of the majority population is Hebrew. In some videos you allude to the fact that despite having to translate everything from Arabic to Hebrew to make yourself understood, a third layer is the necessity to also translate to English, the international language. What is gained and what is lost? How do you relate to inhabiting a space of constant translation and what is the relationship between language and identity for you?
I am interested in language as a means of miscommunication. I feel that more often than not, language limits our perception in this three-dimensional reality, and when a thing (object, person, idea, etc) has a name, its fate remains trapped within the linguistic realm. For example, when I see a chair and say “this is chair”, I thereby limit its function to be only a chair, whereas a chair can also be a table, or even a bed (for cats or small animals). Language has and still does play a major role in my practice. As a student at the art school I was the only person in the class who spoke Arabic, which is my mother tongue, and the main language that was spoken there was Hebrew. But then again, most of the artists and artworks that we were taught about spoke English and the texts we had to read were also in English, so it was quite a multilingual experience. In my earlier works I had attempted to deconstruct language and see what happens. For example, in the video work Yoman made in 2014, there is a scene where my twin brother and I are standing opposite each other, and he begins saying the Arabic alphabet in the right order, while I’m saying the alphabet in a haphazard order and quite sarcastically. I am not interested in merely deconstructing language, but to create a space where there can be play between deconstructing and reconstructing.
Your videos also explore the nature of familial intimacy and love, a protected space where we can be vulnerable and strong, where we can reveal ourselves but sometimes not entirely, where sometimes we are expected to perform and other times we are allowed to fail and disappoint. You use your extended family, but mostly your twin brother and mother, to analyze these dynamics through various performative exercises of trust, repetition, and re-enactments. How do you convince your family to accept being placed in vulnerable, or what might seem embarrassing, positions? What is it like directing them, and what have you discovered about your family and your relationship in the process?
I never really had any aspiration to collaborate with my family or to have them participate in my works, in fact I wanted to be as far as I can from them. When I began studying art it felt like landing on a new planet which was far away (conceptually) from my family and people I was acquainted with throughout my upbringing, and I actually liked that and did not fancy it any other way. Studying and making art was kind of discovering a buried treasure and I felt very selfish and possessive about it, so sharing it with my family was not something I considered. Somehow in my third year in college I had a strong impulse to make a video piece with my mother and my twin brother that explores the power dynamics within the family sphere. I just felt that my family was a major aspect of who I am and I did not want to repress that aspect, but rather let it lead me. Needless to say, the thought of asking them to participate in my video works really terrified me. But after making a few works with my mother and brother, I felt I needed to move on to the wider circle of my family (aunts, cousins, uncles, and grandmother). At the time, I was, in parallel, very interested in the idea of repetition, mainly in terms of education. That’s when I started working on the project “Repeat After Me” which was the main focus of my solo exhibition in 2018 at Umm El Fahem Gallery. The project began when I became interested in the idiom “repeat after me” which is an idiom I remember as a 1st-grade pupil in school where the teacher would make us repeat sentences so we can remember them. I knew this term was going to be the title of the exhibition and started a process of examining this phrase by studying the specific idea of repetition—cultural, educational, and societal. For example, if you look at families, often children’s way of thinking is shaped and formed by their parents, and even their ancestors, continuing cycles of a specific heritage and history. That notion was the starting point of “Repeat After Me.”
Working with my extended family was intensely challenging and it required a lot of energy from my side to make it happen. Prior to shooting the film, I had made for them a private screening of my earlier videos. Up to that point, they literally knew nothing about my practice, let alone about what video art is. But I was very surprised when they agreed to be part of the creation. So it was quite revealing and at times very scary. I wanted to place my family members in situations where they have no control. I was directing and giving instructions but anything could have happened. For example, there is a scene where I ask my cousins and uncles to repeat after me, and at that moment they didn’t know what I was going to say. I stated aloud, “I am a human... I am a number... I am a bank... I am a donkey.” They were confused and laughing when I said, “I am a donkey” because it is an insult. I thought that one of them would just slap me, and in a way, I wanted it to happen because it would show the restriction, criticism, and unacceptance in Arab culture—I wanted to bring out the honest truth. I think what I have discovered about my family and our relationship is that we have a much stronger bond than I had imagined back then. And that they are my guardian angels. Oh… and that my twin brother is way funnier than I am.
In one of your early videos, Heat in My Head, there is a segment where you direct your mother to speak Hebrew not Arabic, and to say something intelligent that will impress your peers. I was very moved by that scene due to the many layers of meaning that could be drawn, from the power relations at home to those among friends and colleagues, and of course to those on the macro societal level of the minority and majority populations of Israel. Your mother tries, with no enthusiasm, to answer, but you berate her, then she leaves the frame. What aspects of that scene were scripted and improvised? What does that scene mean for you and how you want your work to be understood?
The whole piece was 50% scripted and 50% improvised, it was a conscious decision that I had made prior to shooting the work. I wanted there to be rules that all of the performers (including myself) follow, but also to leave an open place for things to occur that are not scripted. In the scene with my mother, which is basically the opening scene of the work, there were 3 rules that me and my mother had to follow: first, both of us had to sit still and face the camera, second, my mother had to answer the questions that I was to ask her, and third, we both had to speak in Hebrew. Neither my mother nor myself knew what kind of questions I was going to ask, I wanted to leave it for the momentum and the energy of the performance to lead the conversation. Such a decision embodies within it a potential for awkwardness, risk, embarrassment, but also play, humor, and spontaneity. And all of these elements were important for this particular piece. The reason I asked her to speak in Hebrew and not in Arabic (which is her mother tongue) had to do with the culture I live in and the power structure that I felt was imposed on me, not just as an Arab citizen living in a Hebrew-speaking country, but especially as an Arab art-student studying in a Hebrew-speaking art academy. Art felt like a great way to deal with these uneasy and highly-charged issues of political identity. Coming back to the idea of language as a “power” tool, I remember feeling quite uneasy about myself when speaking broken Hebrew with other students who spoke it fluently—once I speak Hebrew others would know right away that I’m Arab, and in a matter of seconds there is a cultural barrier that is revealed. It is a very minor feeling but it has a deep impact and made me feel very overpowered. But then again, I’m interested in this power mechanism from a viewpoint of art-making solely, it is not about who is in power and who is overpowered, but rather: what is power? is it transformative? can it be funny? can it be ironic?
Humor, like language, plays a central role in your work. In fact, one of your alter egos under which you create digital drawings is “Jester”, the term of a royal clown that for centuries was the only entity permitted to tell the monarch the truth through humor. It has been posited by others that the artist too occupies the role of the jester in society. Tell us how you see the interweaving of humor, truth, art, family, and identity in the rapidly changing political and social climate we are living in today.
Humor is highly important to my practice and I believe it is extremely healthy to be humorous. I’m all for mastering the art of laughing at one-self. But it is very hard for me to generalize about the role of the artist in society as a jester—there are many kinds of roles that artists occupy, some artists are more like scientists, others are more like businessmen, and some are more like scholars. I do believe, however, that artists are indeed a significant part of culture. In terms of social and political climate, I would not know about that either, I rarely read the news. I mainly watch cute cat videos on Instagram.
Karam Natour was born in Nazareth, Israel in 1992, and was raised in Shefa-'Amr, Israel. He studied in Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, receiving BFA in 2015 and MFA in 2017. Natour started to teach in Bezalel Academy of Art and Design from 2018. Check out more of his work here.
Olga Stefan is a curator, arts writer, documentary filmmaker and independent researcher, born in Bucharest, raised in Chicago, and currently residing in Zurich. Her exhibitions and writing can be found at http://www.olgaistefan.wordpress.com and The Future of Memory, the transnational platform for Holocaust remembrance in Romania and Moldova through art and media that she founded in 2016, is online here: The future of memory.