His hair was shaved on either side, leaving a curly wave sprouting at the top of his head. A scarf strewn casually around his neck as he began to describe his works. Some of which were mounted on the white walls, others, sculptures, stood tall, while some waited in boxes, anticipating their mise en place in Geneva’s Analix Forvever, a gallery that dances on the edges of the city’s art district, Quartier des Bains. In discussing his works Abdul Rahman Katanani opens doors, giving us a fascinating glimpse into his life in the confines of non-nationality, and his personality that refuses to be constrained.
Yes these circumstances (born and raised as a refugee in a Lebanese camp) and traditions (Palestinian culture that has been preserved for 70 decades now by bodies not borders) define parts of him but do not in any way limit his achievements, experiences or thoughts. He simply does not allow them to. Easier said than done perhaps, but doable nevertheless. For years his work travelled the world without him, to Spain, Norway and France, as admirers sang distant praises he could not hear – Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are not able to leave. Today thanks to a French residency card (invited by Institut Francais de Liban) we meet in Geneva, Switzerland, where artwork has had the pleasure of travelling with artist. Together they have also travelled to France, where his work was exhibited in various exhibits.
We stood before his works where he began to speak.
“First, I am Palestinian and I was born in Lebanon. I was born in a refugee camp called Sabra, one of 12 refugee camps in Lebanon where I was raised. I started by drawing political caricatures, but that was a long time ago when I was a teenager. After that I started to think more about identity because it is a problem we [Palestinians] face. We haven’t had civil rights, papers, or any social, economic or political rights for the past 70 years, since 1948. We have been considered refugees since our grandparents left Palestine for Lebanon and have been waiting for a resolution that still has not happened. ” he says.
In a world dampened by so many preconceived notions of what career and country make you out to be perhaps it’s best to get any assumptions out of the way before diving in. Yes some things are as one would expect, he says that in Sabra water and electricity are irregular, streets are small and architecture is cheaply made to last, but the story does not end there for the thousands of Palestinians, Lebanese, Iraqis, Mongolians and Indians that have sought refuge there.
“I did not just want to show the misery that is always portrayed in the media, like we are always crying in the camps, and we are refugees and we need help and all that. Actually when I was a kid, I wasn’t crying in the camps, I was playing and having fun. So I started to represent the hope that the kids carry with them. Children don’t worry about the economy or politics,” he continues.
Working with barbed wire and corrugated metal, his substrates of choice, Abdul creates attention fixating sculptures that tell a thousand stories in a thousand languages- in every way free of the borders that we have created for ourselves (however necessary or inutile some may be). He uses unwanted metals, moving them and molding them into universal shapes like trees, water and playing children. Each work of art displayed is intractably different in form but echoes the same calls to action – have hope and live free. Messages that a generation trapped in concrete walls and desk jobs readily associate with nature.
“At the beginning I thought of what materials represent us as refugees and chose corrugated metal sheets, a material that is very cheap and can last for 50 years without damage,” he explains.
The artist now mostly works with corrugated metal and barbed wire. Working with barbed wire often leaves him with cut and bruised hands but he chooses it nevertheless.
Although these are now his substrates of choice he began using another medium. His early days as an artist consisted of plastering large format caricatures criticizing political and military groups that he and many others argue perpetuate corruption in the camps.
“Once, after posting one of my caricatures someone from a military group said to me ‘If you put this up again we will shoot you in your legs’. The next week I did another caricature. I have a lot of friends in the camp, a group of strong guys that started a movement against corruption. So they were afraid to have conflicts with us. But after two or three threats you have to stop. So when I told my family I wanted to go to the Fine Art College in Lebanon, they supported me because my political caricatures were giving me a lot of problems with the military and political groups within the camp,” he explains with a few mischievous smiles.
He worked with his father throughout childhood. He was a carpenter, and his mother mastered Palestinian traditional embroidery. “I love the old Palestinian embroidery and it affects me indirectly and directly,” he says. His work with trees weave in fine wood work, clear influences of his time with his father. One of his pieces, a large noul, traditional weaving machine, replaces thread with barbed wire, clear influences of his time with his mother.
Despite being surrounded by artistic influences, Abdul never thought he would become an artist, in fact he did not realize that this was art. After completing his baccalaureate (high school) under the British system in the United Nations schools in the camp, a friend suggested he enroll at the Fine Art College of Lebanon. So he went.
“They told me to sketch ahead and I finished my masters after that. It’s very easy you go and you finish your masters,” he laughs. Today he has completed his bachelor’s and master’s degree all along exhibiting his works.
He continues in all seriousness, “It’s not easy to convince people, in the beginning people think you can’t do it. Then when you achieve it, they say oh you are unique, you are an artist, you are creative. But everyone is creative. You can do whatever you want, and you will only be better and better so just do it man!”
And he did just do it. He continues to create works that spark critical dialogue on a political and personal sphere like with his work titled Circles.
“This work is about losing hope,” he says as he begins to describe the large eclipse woven from barbed wire.
“The UN told Palestinians, in a week you will be back and the second generation is asking the same questions and getting no real answers for the past 70 years. The first generation is dying and the next generation is in adulthood, like a closed circle that isn’t finished. I live in the same building that my mother gave birth to me in, the hospital became housing.”
The circle grows larger as the barbed wire of perpetual entrapment wraps around itself generation after generation. “Every time the line goes round the problem gets bigger and bigger, but you can choose to unravel the wheel or let it go on,” he says.
He doesn’t complete the circle but leaves one strand hanging, giving us as a community the opportunity to free our isolating borders, whether physical, political or psychological.
“If we want to liberate Palestine and go back to our homes we first need to liberate ourselves and then our society, both actual and psychological borders. It’s not a line between countries, it’s a line between our heads.”
This woven circular shape, also symbolizes a traditional straw tray used to carry food in Palestinian culture and alludes to how tradition can be a border explains Abdul. As he criticizes cultural restrictions like forbidding inter-religious and inter-political marriages. “A lot of stupid stuff, like you cannot marry between families that were traditionally farmers and city folk,” he adds.
He goes on to explain the work hanging opposite the Circles titled Olive Tree. “In my works I like contradictions. As you see here for example the tree I made from barbed wire. It contradicts with the smoothness of a tree. This is from a series about Palestinian olive trees that are being destroyed in the West Bank when Israelis want to take land to make colonies. In response, the Palestinians take an olive tree and replant it, but I feel that replanting an olive tree that was destroyed by occupation isn’t the same. It will grow again, but from barbed wire,” he says.
“If you start thinking about all the things you can’t do in a refugee camp, you will sit down in a chair and do nothing,” Abdul says smiling. “The NGOs in Lebanon teach you that you can’t work without money. Every project proposed always requires a discussion about money that they often do not have the budget to do. Because of corruption, NGOs steal half the money before it arrives in the camp. I believe we can work without money. So I started my project with free materials from the camp.
I love working with barbed wire and corrugated metals but if one day someone told me I had to buy them I would throw them all away. I don’t like the idea of being controlled. I prefer to be free.
My work is a message for everyone that we can do anything and there is a lot to do.”