I’ve been waiting for months to publish this interview with Annie Kurkdjian. I learnt about her late last year and was immediately intrigued by her paintings. They are dark—depicting acute psychological distress and physical discomfort—and also playfully colourful—with instances of humour and eroticism. Having emerged out of a background of immense social turbulence, the artworks feature characters who are often locked within a disoriented state. When not solitary and brooding, they find some comfort by physically clinging to those closest to them.
Annie was born in 1972 in Beirut to parents who were survivors of the Armenian genocide. Here she tells her story:
I just read your biography on the website of Albareh Art Gallery (Bahrain) that represents you and other prominent artists from the MENASA region. The first paragraph explains your work very well:
Annie Kurkdjian was born in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1972 and lives and works in Beirut, or “the orgy of Beirut”, as she prefers to call it, herself profoundly informed by the Lebanese Civil War and this theatrical stage of conflict and war. But unlike the painters of her generation, Kurkdjian is not searching for an escape into an idyllic site of solace and consolation, or obsessed with the literal representation of war. The horrors and trauma of war are translated in her work as warm intimate spaces of metaphor and embodiment: Transformations of the body, psychological horror, paralysis and deformity. Her paintings are conceived as academic studies on fear and psychosis: How to represent myself through different stages of mutilation, torture, and ultimately, the impossibility of redemption.
The Lebanese Civil War lasted from 1975 to 1990 and resulted in an estimated 120,000 fatalities. I would begin by asking you about your experience. What were your childhood and adolescence like? What did you learn by being on the territory of conflict? How did you grow up?
To talk about the Civil War experience is very confusing for me today because it is at the same time very far and very near. It ended in 1990, 28 years ago—it’s been quite a while since then. But, any little thing, a firework during a celebration, the view of an injured animal, any little that is somehow related to that period, or to violence, can, in an instant, bring all the trauma back. Like the “madeleines” of Marcel Proust, but in a negative way.
With time, trauma is transformed, but never healed. Memories become unbearably sad sometimes. I cannot understand how we succeeded to deal with it. Living half an hour of that period today can make me mad. I can’t handle it. My childhood is mostly a dark room, a candle replacing electricity, loud bomb sounds, adults and family in panic, waiting for something all the time, the bombs to stop, the electricity to be restored, a miracle.
As a child, I mostly experienced the feeling of boredom, not so much fear. I had no idea of death or the cruelty of life. There was constant frustration. There was no possibility of planning anything. Things would just be cut unexpectedly—the picnic cancelled, school programmes interrupted, cartoons on TV vanished. And violent scenes daily—some of them are so deeply rooted in my memory.
I think, in such an environment, a child has no other rescue than his or her imagination. The world of fantasy becomes so developed. All the cancelled plans had to be reinvented in my imagination. With my already introvert nature, I had to create a little world of mine, and live in it. Little but fantastic world, coloured and full of love. My need for the freedom of imagination naturally led to my need for the freedom of mind. Imagination being my only tool of survival, I became extremely aggressive each time somebody would try to limit it. Later, I developed this same aggression towards all people who would try to put obstacles to my thinking.
Until the age of 12, I received a very high level of love from my parents. Even if outside was hell, inside was secure. Every little drawing, each idea of mine was met with encouragement. At 12, something really big happened. My father was murdered. I saw his picture in the newspaper, kneeling, shot in the head. It was one huge, awful moment! All my life, until this day, is just an effort to survive that scene. Things after his death were so difficult: dealing with the war without a father, seeing my mom constantly depressed, my brother constantly angry, and me stuck in an awful post-traumatic disorder which I was unable to get rid of for years and years.
I think it’s this event that finally led me to art, the need to express, to take pain out of my soul. I know perfectly that I will never be able to say it all, or to find consolation, but I know also that I will constantly try. As the artist Christian Boltanski says: “If you experience trauma, you can express it in so many different ways. You can speak about landscape. You can speak about your food: it’s always different; Trauma is the beginning of life as an artist.” I’m in this context all the time. I always have this urge to tell, to create images, a language. A pure transparent language, and I’m always unsatisfied because what I want to say can never fit in words or images or a language. But I can say that the love and encouragement that I received early in life did give me a certain amount of immunity. Today, I feel I can face all the ugliness of human nature, without losing my faith and trust.
Along with the visual arts, you have studied experimental sciences, clinical psychology and theology. Have these disciplines affected your art?
My decision to begin painting was pure coincidence. When the civil war ended, I was 18, the age to decide what major to choose for a profession. The war took from us the capacity to consider the long term. So I did what most of them were doing, I studied business without seriously thinking about what I really loved. I had a fiancé at that time, and the plan of a conformist life was all ready. A life with no special taste, with no colour, no spirit, nothing.
One day I decided to do something new. I saw an ad about a painting workshop in a newspaper and I went. It was love at first sight. We began to paint with oil on canvas. I was completely under the spell, it seemed magic to me. So sensual—working with colours and forms, observing nature, shadows, human bodies, faces. The térébenthine perfume became like a lover’s perfume. Until this day, I feel secure when I smell it. I discovered later the entire dimension of intellect and spirituality behind that sensuality. Painting was all that I always wanted. A beautiful universe on the canvas, that was waiting just for my hands to be created.
I began to love passionately all the human sciences, literature, the other arts, theology. Everything was making me understand the secrets of painting more and more, and made my art deeper. However, the decision to let everything behind and dedicate myself to art wasn’t easy. It was like gambling. I wasn’t at all sure if I even had talent. I just took the risk.
I loved your original and consistent style of portraying the human body and your vibrant staging of action. Looking at your work, I was somehow reminded of Colombian artist Fernando Botero and Mexican artist Leonora Carrington. Who are your influences—both art movements and specific artists?
My first inspirations came from the Expressionists and also l’Art Brut (because of my work in a psychiatric hospital). Today, I find inspiration everywhere, I discover each day inspiring new artists, new books , new ideas. You open internet and all the world is there. The challenge now is to select, to limit the exposure. A movie for example exposes us to a huge number of images per minute. If it’s not good, it’s such a waste, it’s exhausting. I try to choose the images I really need, analyse them slowly, and take my time.
Which emotions are you most interested in exploring?
The general feeling is anxiety maybe that leads to feelings of laziness, lack of motivation. My characters are shy, immature, naïve. It is not clear if they are innocent or guilty, intelligent or stupid, children or adults, good or bad. Not clear if they’re suffering or not, and if yes, why they are suffering.
I love Bruegel’s characters so much. They confuse you, you want to approach them to understand them more. Beauty comes almost always from contradiction.
Do you have paintings that you consider openly “political”? If yes, what do they illustrate—I mean which events or ideologies?
Art is in its essence revolutionary. That’s why when any revolution happens, art is somehow involved very often. But by essence also, art is beyond all ideologies, philosophies and politics. It can lower itself sometimes, to serve noble causes, humbly, freely and willingly, but we can never impose upon it the role of being a servant to an ideology. We destroy it that way. It reacts automatically and the result is awful. We can’t sacrifice higher values for lower values. That’s a terrible thing.
Why did you decide to “number” your paintings on your site—instead of giving them names/titles?
It’s because giving titles can direct the viewer somewhere while all I want is them to be totally free to imagine anything they like. Unless the title is in itself capable of opening new horizons. That only happens when one really knows how to deal with words.
I like the fact that your paintings are very basic and simple, they have no direct references to any particular culture. They look like a documentation of universal human habits. You show men and women—weak, silly, cute, crazy, anxious, shocked—who could belong to any place and any period. Did you originally set out to show common human tendencies or were just intending to visualise the traumatic Lebanese experience?
Thanks Tulika, glad to hear that. When I work, I tend to just concentrate on the art and get a little detached from everything else. I always look at things from a distance, even my own self, my relations, my pleasure and pain. Rimbaud inspires me to always question what is the self; am I not another? Am I not everybody, in every place and every time? An artist is an extremely passive and transparent being, to the point that any other can be him. The traumatic Lebanese experience, sure, will reflect in my work but also the universal human being. All kinds of human beings, from the worst criminal to the saint. That seems too ambitious, maybe? A real artist is somehow a dead person. Dead, because full of love. He’s broken and open. Even if he’s talking about the most mediocre things, his shoes, for example, he’s the entire humanity. He’s universal and his shoes are eternal, above time and space.
Some paintings of yours show characters that are dependent on other characters. In Numéro 134, a woman is wrapped around a man. In Numéro 196, a baby is over a mother’s head. In Numéro 303, a big female is carried by smaller females. Tell us more about the interactions and relationships that you depict in your work…
Yep, they’re all relational beings: most of them hang onto each other, hang onto objects, to their own solitude sometimes. Torturing each other or in mutual pleasure, hiding between each other, covering each other, giving birth to or eating each other.
What are your thoughts on Lebanon and the Middle East of today? Do you think your country has coped well with the tragedy of the Civil War?
I’m moving from the Middle East soon. I will continue to love Lebanon from far. Challenges are extremely big, otherwise. My creative energy is partly lost on so many absurd issues in Beirut and that’s a torture. I’m exhausted of the never-ending problems. I just want to have a quiet and calm encounter and do the paintings! I’m a good person when I create. I’m a peacemaker as long as I produce art.
I’m not pretending at all to find peace in some other country. Peace needs war; it has to be won. If there’s a massacre somewhere, even the blood of one innocent wasted, we’re all engaged, responsible. I’m aware of that all the time. I’m in war all the time. I’ll move just to seek a better encounter for my creativity so that I continue my war better. Art is my weapon.
There’s no escape from the war otherwise. We have to fight tons of lies daily, you’re all the time fighting to keep your true identity, as they want to make you believe in things, lose hope, fit into a sick society of zombies. Maybe between the exploited and the exploiter, the exploiter is apparently more in peace, because he has wealth and comfort, he smiles more, has a better look. But that is another lie too. Wealth and comfort can not at all create peace. Spiritual war, the war for truth can. And that is as violent as the war with guns. My country will be healed of the traumas, if each of us fights for truth on his/her own way. My way of fighting is the canvas.
What are doing right now?
Lots of exhibitions all the time. I’ve also been lately working on a poetry book with a friend of mine. I work a lot. Creativity is a torture for me but it’s the only moment I feel real. Taking a break from work is like taking a break from myself. It’s like lying. If it’s too long, it makes me sick.
Links: Website (www.anniekurkdjian.com)