The artist Zena Assi spoke to Sophie Kazan on the occasion of her exhibition (3 July 2021).
Artistic technique … is very important to me. I am always trying to mix things up and get out of my comfort zone.
Before becoming an artist, you worked as an advertising executive and taught at ALBA (Académie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts or the Lebanese Fine Art Academy). Many of your images, particularly from this series, Herbes Folles, contain the vestiges of labels, logos (for example, Put it in a Nutella jar, d’après Van Gogh) and mediaspeak. Do you feel that your viewers respond to your using the iconography of day-to-day life?
Yes, I did a Master’s degree in advertising and in those days that included a couple of years Foundation Course. You were taught everything from traditional still lives and portraiture, mixed media work, graphic design and ceramics – I loved it! This training really stayed with me. Then I worked in advertising and I still look at things as an advertiser or a graphic designer would; I consider a layout and identify the strongest points … that is always going on in my mind!
Artistic technique though, is very important to me. I am always trying to mix things up and get out of my comfort zone. I spent a year in a studio in London, learning about etching. I wanted to know how to do it properly, using the same acid base and techniques that artists used since the 15th century. Authenticity is important to me and I want to do things step by step. It is a slow process and involves purposefully managing and appropriating materials. I also like to challenge media and I get bored a lot, so the broad range of etching, animation, collage, ceramics etc. suits me!
You have described your artistic process as “layering” and your canvas as a “thinking space.” Do you consider the viewer when you are making work?
I only consider the experience that a viewer will have when contemplating a piece, never the viewer per se.
Focussing specifically on my Bouquets and Herbes, I start the process really chaotically! The canvases get very messy and I take my time. They will sit in the studio and things will happen to them. I don’t like to be in control from the start – where is the fun in that?! Mistakes happen and the work gets pushed into different directions. The canvas stays on the floor, almost like a carpet, with layers building up onto it. Then, I cut it and re-stretch the canvas. I place it vertically now on an easel and start to work on it. That is when I start thinking like a painter and that is when I start evaluating how the work will be perceived, where the focus and the gaze of the viewer will be. Only then.
When did you decide that you wanted to be an artist?
It was a slow process… I even did a year of dentistry! I had watched my sister making wax moulds of teeth. She would be controlling the wax and the candle and that was really impressive! I was inspired, but then I realised that it wasn’t the biology, but the artistry that inspired me. So I turned to ALBA and enjoyed a huge mixture of creativity. After that I worked in advertising for three years. But in that environment, I didn’t really like to be told what to do or think by the client – I am a solo worker, I don’t do well as part of a team! So I became an artist. I should say though that I have always drawn and kept sketchbooks.
Urbanisation and city living draws together many of your works, be they of Beirut, London or elsewhere and yet, you do not seem to identify the locations in your works. Are you drawing them together, as urban environments or is this a way to show their differences?
My influences hover over the sense of home and how memory changes as people move. I moved to London 8 years ago and this was a really intense and emotional time for me. You could say that when you have two homes, you have to leave the first and build the second but this clear break didn’t happen all at once. I spent a lot of time floating in between.
This shows in my work, particularly my city work. Every time I go to Lebanon, I take a lot of pictures of the graffiti. It’s my way of catching up with the social and cultural story of the city – seeing what has happened and how thoughts are vocalised… then perhaps sprayed over and different things appear. This shows the chaotic conflicts on streets.
So, I created a series of cityscapes based on these photographs and notice that there were a lot of bridges in the work. There are not many bridges in Beirut, but I had seen a lot of bridges while walking along the river Thames in London and this seemed to transpose itself into my work. So I have the walls of one city and the bridges of another! These mixed visuals sometimes interconnect in my work.
Another example of this happens in my stencils. I have been making my own stencils for years. With my photographs of graffiti from Lebanon, I basically go onto Photoshop, take some of the details and then have them laser cut into resin to make a stencil that I can use again and again. I am mimicking the gesture of the graffiti artist in a small way and in a small scale in my work. You can see a lot of examples of this in the Urban bouquets and Herbes folles. It all shows how things are constantly shifting and developing over the years. Naturally, my move to London has caused a great shift in materials and images too.
Finally, much of your urban bouquets and cityscapes are extremely balanced and controlled, with strong lines. And yet your collages mark a departure from this – can you tell me about the process that you used here? Was it a conscious decision?
Because my process involves layering, I allow colours to build up onto the canvas before I start working on a painting, at the start of my painting process. I am not in control. The line is more defined as I gain greater control over the piece and how it will look.
In my collages, I recycle pieces of my own work, like a puzzle. What also happens is that I photograph aspects of past paintings and then reproduce them, varying the size and scale to fit in with the project that I am working on. It is like a puzzle. I really enjoy this method and it allows me to see where everything fits together!
Thank you, Zena.