Mohamad Khayata — How Retrospecting Forms

Written by Samer Betar. Published on 3 October 2022.

Carrying intimate memories related to a place during mobility and movement plays a major role in creating an expressive image of the radical changes that emerge from that space. This conversation with the artist Mohamad Khayata is part of a research focusing on the interrelationships between different types of life forms, or societies within one life form, and the impact of a previously existing system. The conversation explored aspects of his practice centered on issues of migration, identity, and the impact of social norms on the environmental space of the Middle East, especially in Syria and Lebanon.

Suffering from the constant confrontation with war and economic instability, the artistic approaches and forms of expression in the region have been subject to drastic shifts whether on conceptual or materialistic scales. New formulas have emerged to reorganize the art scene, based mainly on individual initiatives from those who have a chance to connect with the global contemporary art scene. The interview with the artist thus centered around a double question: to what extent has the artist’s migratory experience led him to imagine his practice differently? And how does the artist manage to infuse his works with the new artistic discourse acquired during this mobility?

With a calm, balanced tone, combined with sarcastic impulses, Mohamad discussed a personal treatment of these topics within his works that combine painting, sculpture, photography, and installation. He shared how his perspective evolved under the influence of the surrounding issues and circumstances. Arguing for the role of the return to his initial environment, that of his childhood, as the essence of his work in a now distant context.

Photos: Mahamad Khayata.

“I used to live in Al Mazzeh1The name “Al Mazzeh” describes literally the taste of the cactus fruit, in Arabic “Sabbar”. The ara was famous for the perennial plant, and the “Sabbara” is a spot there where one could find this fruit. area in the countryside of Damascus which, when I was a child, was an agricultural area filled with different types of trees. My grandfather worked in the land during that period. Mazzeh – as we know it today – did not even exist! The houses were few and distributed in the agricultural lands. At the time, there was a beginning of change in the area which witnessed the emergence of more solid housing blocks. Like many landowners, my family also built a house on the land. The field was not the same anymore even though the flowers and some trees remained around the house. This transformation was an important point in forming my opinion about the change that occurred in the area.” Al Mazzeh, which was allegedly founded between 661 and 750 by Yemeni migrants, is today a sea of reinforced concrete, asphalt, residential, and commercial projects. The orchards, trees, and flowers still exist, but only within Mohamad’s artworks. In his painting “Haqleh” from the project “Flowers and Memories” the contrasted coloring scheme represents how the land was vanishing leaving a space of emptiness while the figures’ eyes are admonishing what is happening.

He held on to these images during his studies at the Fine Arts Faculty in Damascus. He also carried them with him when the war started in Syria and he was forced to head to Beirut, like many young people who were looking for a safe place to settle in. “When I arrived in Lebanon, I began to see the strange situation in this country, starting with the obvious segregation in everything: social, sectarian, political, and economic. At that time, the concept of Eastern and Western Beirut was clear to all who were in it before, but with the advent of a large number of Syrians who were not sufficiently aware of this concept, the borders began to intertwine, fade and change.”

The Syrian youth were distributed in different areas around Beirut, which also prompted local and international organizations to follow their distribution in order to be able to work with them. This reinforced the state of the alleged vanishing city limits. During this stage, Mohamad began to identify the dynamics and characteristics of the country, whether political, economic, or social. This also contributed to forming the image of how human beings distinguish and identify themselves by their territories at the expense of everything else, even at the expense of each other, in the case of this region.

Photos: Mahamad Khayata.
The distinctive attitude is very similar to the one that affected the land of the cactus, although here it is not changing only a part of nature, but replacing a whole existing system. “An example I witnessed during my frequent visits to the Raouche area is that there were influential parties who began to put forward the idea of establishing modern commercial projects on the waterfront. This has sparked widespread controversy against such a project, which contains the seed for placing more boundaries, class segregation, and cement ruin there. At some point, they already began to define working areas by placing macropod blocks around certain areas along the shore.” This stone, which was designed to control the sea waves, became an element of the declaration of spheres of influence.

In addition, Beirut has begun to sink under piles of rubbish and waste. This ongoing problem is yet to be solved. The exacerbating issue brought back to Mohamad an old memory related to the story of the “ozone hole” when he was in school. “There were talks about how it can cause many diseases and dangers to us, and I had the idea that we should fly a big balloon to plug the hole and solve the problem. I thought the balloons would rise and we would no longer be able to see them. They would surely go to plug the hole. This solution may work for Beirut’s waste or macropod blocks.

”In his project ‘Takhalli’ in 2018, Mohamad used mixed media varying from chalk, sand, natural glues, paper, and wool to build a collection of sculptures responding to the feeling of being surrounded by signs of limitations, and borders. Most of the works in the project visualized spherical and planet-like shapes that float, carrying problems and concerns toward the sky. As for the macropod blocks case, which was present within the installations, Mohamad also designed a wearable headpiece and performed a photography shoot near the places the commercial projects were meant to be established.

Photos: Mahamad Khayata.
Since Mohamad got to know his new environment, he started with a mindset of resistance and denunciation to reconsider the nature of the materials he uses in his practice. “After a period of confrontation with these scenes that surrounded daily life, I noticed that a large number of people had begun to get used to it, and some even stopped talking about them.” The adaptation to the existence of these problems made bigger catastrophic issues seem familiar, and even more so, perhaps becoming part of the normal life cycle. Back in 2014, we could already see signs of altered use of material in Mohamad’s work, in response to the Syrian community’s modes of adaptation. In “Stitching my Syria Back”, he proposes a collection of photographs featuring a piece of cloth stitched out of different fabrics forming a blanket known in Syria as “Madeh”. These photographs featured figures interacting with the cloth while immersed in their surrounding environment, and the materialistic effects produced in the place they live in. Such work confirms that Mohamad was attempting to transform his own bits of memories, material research, and social interlinks into a visual representation that tells his story.
Photos: Mahamad Khayata.

Mohamad’s study of societal adaptations also applies to the cause of immigrants. As mentioned earlier, a large number of Beirut refugee arrivals considered this city to only be a temporary destination on the way to ‘cleaner’ and more ‘civilized’ places. Typically these are European countries that were, and still are, receiving a number of refugees, including those who crossed the sea through a journey similar to stories from literature and science fiction, which no longer seem strange to anyone today. On the one hand, it symbolically represents a crossing from pollution to cleanliness, from sadness to hope, from the unknown to confidence, and other analogies that differ according to the different individual experiences. However, these journeys are not considered in their emotional, poetic, or literary context, but as an act of infiltrating, mutating, and exploiting a natural cycle to achieve this fantasy of perfecting the environment and clean practices.

Photos: Mahamad Khayata.

The sea itself here has two contradictory representations, the flood of responsibilities, fear, and problems where it represents danger, and the hope, chance, and future where it is seen as a destination. In a series of paintings titled ‘The Aegean Sea’, Mohamad explored these journeys’ effects on nature and human beings. He also showcased that being forced by a certain situation to flee far away does still affect the place you left behind, or the societies you interacted with. The figures in these paintings are the ones who did not make it to the other side. Their eyes are intentionally kept wide open to say that they are still alive, but as a part of the sea, keeping empty spaces on these paintings gives them a sense of incompleteness that lets you decide how the story could end.

All these experiences helped shape most of the works Mohamad produced during the period between 2013 and 2019. The year 2020 was a turning point for him, with a total change of perspective, as a result of the tragic Beirut port explosion on 4 August “This explosion revealed to me many facts, regardless that this city is very fragile, my neighbors are nice, different, and have hope despite everything that happened! The space I used to live in was changed by the explosion. This place that surrounded me and constituted a private world opened up around me and began to expand, reaching the salons of my neighbors, the city’s streets, the harbor, and even beyond that. This changed my view of a decision I had always refused to take, which is to travel away from this part of the world to another place, and perhaps take a position of disavowal of what is happening around me in order not to occupy myself with what is not mine, but I am still here today.”

The explosion completely changed Mohamad’s perspective towards life in general and brought back in force images from his Syria experience. In his most recent project ‘Above the Fray’ 2019-2020, he pictures figures performing a posture showing a state of dismay while waiting for a road to be revealed out of the clouds. “My latest series, Above the Fray, marks something of a shift and perhaps a feeling of escapism from all this focus on war, uncertainty, and terror.”2Anna Wallace Thompson: Interview with Mohamad Khayata. No publishing date given. All The World’s a Stage. Atassi Foundation Beirut 2017.

Recently Mohamad started working on a new project that looks at ways of communication, or social interaction, and the qualities of exchange between city residents concerning daily life issues. The aim is to study how these interactions impact the general environment and push to generate new spaces outside the museum and gallery walls. This project will attempt to approach the art experience differently by installing works in homes in certain neighborhoods, and setting up an exchange program for these artworks to move from one place to another. And this will be all the more effective, as he plans to work with the hosts so they become the art piece’s custodians, in charge of managing discussions or answering questions about it. “Such a method can be more informative than hanging works in a gallery that will not attract everyone.”

Mohamad’s experience transmits a clear picture of how forced change and mobility, erosion of the concept of homeland, and undermining a space of interaction can translate into the practice of art. In addition, the artist’s existential state is based on the accumulation of retrospective, and personal images generated by the new situation he is in, as well as the limitations it imposes on his actions and his practice. Here we can wonder whether the concept of nature is defined by intentional interactions and the ability to judge their existence, or by other factors that are not clear and tangible, sensorial, or maybe even spiritual approaches that we have to consider and contemplate in order to achieve greater knowledge and a proven linear determination towards a clearer definition of what is nature.
Photos: Mahamad Khayata.