Interview: Karam Natour

by Danielle Gorodenzik | 26.08.18

Repeat After Me, still-image from the video ‘Repeat After Me’, 2018.

Under the trees of Jaffa, I had the pleasure to interview artist Karam Natour about his solo exhibition Repeat After Me currently on view at Umm el-Fahem Gallery. The exhibition features video works as well as digital drawings co-created with a new entity – Sage. In the main video work, Natour introduces his extended family to his artistic practice simultaneously as they become an artwork themselves by participating in the video. In this exhibition, Natour analyzes repetition via traditions, heritage, and history.

DG: Can you describe the process of creating Repeat After Me?

KN: The project began when the term “repeat after me” revealed itself to me in 2016. The term vibrated and manifested itself in my mind long before the actual works did. I knew this term was going to be the title of the exhibition and started a process of examining this phrase by studying the idea of repetition specifically — cultural, educational, and societal repetition. 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.

I also wanted to look at language as a means of education, as it shapes, governs, and limits the way we think. Repeat After Me does not have subtitles, which puts body language and sound on the main platform. I wanted the audience to look at the faces of the characters in the film. I wanted to release the viewer’s concern of constantly reading the subtitles that for me function as a disturbance. You don’t have to understand the words in order to know the meaning, you can understand through facial expressions and bodily gestures.

DG: In Repeat After Me there is a scene where you greet each family member with a kiss on the cheek, showing the dynamics in your family.

KN: It is traditional in Arab culture to greet by holding hands and kissing on the cheek three times. I wanted to focus on the role of traditions that make Arab culture unique. I took that tradition to the extreme by having a very long line of family members who greet me one after the other.

There is also a superstition that when a glass breaks the evil also breaks and is taken away from you. You say in Arabic “inkasar elshar” which translates to “the evil has been broken”. It’s a good thing, a good sign. I asked family members to bring plates or glasses that they didn’t like but have never thrown away. They manifested the superstition by breaking the evil and giving it value in a literal way. The symbolic and the real merge.

DG: You integrate art historical references in your work, I found the breaking of the glass as a reference to Ai Weiwei’s Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995, also in your drawing Saturn you inserted Maurizio Cattelan’s golden toilet titled America, 2016. Why do you incorporate art history?

KN: The exhibition Repeat After Me generates two frequencies of repetition in parallel. The first frequency of repetition relates to future tense, and in it, I am creating a new cycle. Meaning, if Arab people felt that they are repeating some kind of history up until now, I am aiming to create a new possibility for the future generation, to repeat after me. I am proposing something that opens up new territories that have not been examined by telling them, “here is something new, here is something else”. Meaning: make art, make culture, make something that plays with Arab traditions that are considered common, solid, and definite.

The second frequency of repetition relates to the past tense, and in it I am opening a door to art history by looking back at figures whom I admire and consider masters or mentors – particularly video artists. In Repeat After Me, there is a fountain scene which of course relates to Bruce Nauman’s 1966 photograph Self Portrait as a Fountain where he spits water as a fountain. There is another scene in which I refer to in Chris Burden’s 1975 video, A Poem for L.A.  where he repeats, “Science has failed. Heat is Life. Time kills”. I create my own cycle where I blend between Arab, European, and American culture.

Repeat After Me, still-image from the video ‘Repeat After Me’, 2018.

I feel that I am bringing Arab culture out, moving forward. My work is not based on nostalgia, memory or the past. Nostalgic art is important but I feel that there needs to be a place for art that is constructive and taking initiative. This way there can be a healthy balance between past and future.

DG: In your previous works with your immediate family (mother, twin brother) there is a very strong and natural chemistry compared to your extended family members where there is a  kind of timid cautious feeling. Why did you decide to incorporate your extended family into the video work Repeat After Me? And how was that experience?

KN: I wanted to place my family members in situations where they have no control. I was directing 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.

DG: What are your various entities? Where do they appear in your work?

As part of my artistic practice, I co-create works with different entities that are channeled through my physical body. These entities have specific names and are part of the DNA of my drawings. I work with different mediums, including video, digital drawing, and installation. All entities are present in all mediums, but when it comes to the medium of drawing, each entity has its own style and its own phase. For the past 4-5 years, I have been collaborating with Jester, who is the first entity I channeled through my physical figure. He functions as a muse, as a guide that pushed my artistic endeavors. Now there is a new entity that came into the picture, Sage. With Sage, the collaboration resulted in the three cycle drawings Saturn, Sun, Venus.

The Sensual World VI, 2018, Digital Drawing, 50×80 cm.

The Sensual World IV, 2018, Digital Drawing, 50×80 cm.

This was the first time I made a work that did not include my physical body. My body was a recurring motif in all of my works and I never imagined I would make any artwork without my presence. On the surface-level, this is partly because of narcissism and egoism. But when you look deeper you can see that it is really because of the energy. With Jester, I don’t feel like it clicks if I’m not there. Jester is all about trickery, making fun, but he is also partly demonic. He is connected to playfulness, festivals, and drugs. Jester blurs lines and loses control. But then came Sage, whose energy is different – he is about colors and meditation. There is something more universal.

DG: Is Sage spiritual?

KN: Both of the entities are spiritual to me because that is a part of my channeling. I feel as though they are sharing the same physical body, and each entity is hosted inside of me. From that point of connection, we start the collaboration. Of course, the collaboration is about the chemistry, meaning we are two entities and the chemistry of us together creates the artworks. It is not purely Sage or purely me, it is a mixture. So Jester can be channeled by you, creating a unique collaboration using your own experience and vocabulary. With Sage’s drawings, I had no idea what I would create, my computer was like a blank canvas. I looked at maps of astrology and was captivated by the aesthetics but I didn’t know where it was going, adding my interpretation and created my own “salad”.

Saturn, 2018, Archival Inkjet Print, 1.4m diameter.

Sun, 2018, Archival Inkjet Print, 1.4m diameter.

Venus, 2018, Archival Inkjet Print, 1.4m diameter.

In the exhibition, there are three planets, Sun, Saturn, and Venus. I believe that Jester came from Saturn and Sage came from Venus, the planet of love and beauty. The Sun relates to me (my earthly autobiography as Karam Natour), and represents all of the planets. So when I talk about the video it represents the Sun, it is all-encompassing. I interpreted the opening sequence of Werckmeister Harmonies by Béla Tarr in my video work, the character János Valuska is at a bar directing customers and telling them, “You’re the sun, the sun does this [hand motion]”. This is actually the most important scene for me in Repeat After Me. I felt like I was giving a gift to my Uncle. He is the only person in my extended family that has a relation to art. He was once an actor and stopped because he wasn’t making enough money and everyone was against the idea that he continues to act. Today he is a construction worker. I asked him to participate in my video work and showed him the scene we were partially reenacting in Werckmeister Harmonies. He was upset saying, “I don’t know what this is! I thought we were going to shoot a Hollywood-style film with a team. I don’t know what video art is!” It was really awkward, I felt shattered because I thought he wouldn’t show up on the shooting day. Then he arrived and I began to direct the scene but he stopped me and said, “Don’t say anything”. And then we started rolling. He began dancing this bizarre surreal dance, I really felt that he was channeling something so huge, so cosmic. I could have never foreseen that. It was the first and last take.

Repeat After Me, still-image from the video ‘Repeat After Me’, 2018.

Repeat After Me, still-image from the video ‘Repeat After Me’, 2018.

DG: He steals the entire scene. What is he supposed to be? A godly figure? An entity?

KN: I create my work intuitively and many reasoning’s come after the fact. For example, a woman at the opening was also questioning who he is. She stated “I saw Saturn,  Sun, Venus.  And now I see earth, moon, sun, and this person! So he [Natour’s uncle] must be Saturn because it was once believed that Saturn was the original sun, and now Saturn is an ancient sun.”

At that moment everything aligned because my uncle was the first person in my family who had anything to do with art and now he is giving me the energy and in the film he is saying that I am the sun. It was really crazy. That’s my theory until now! But my uncle is Saturn actually, the ancient Sun.

Repeat After Me, still-image from the video ‘Repeat After Me’, 2018.

DG: Looking back at your artwork Nothing Personal, some readers may have seen exhibited at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in 2017-2018, you chose to only speak English. Repeat After Me is a sharp contrast, I thought it was an interesting choice to put the viewer in a situation where if they do not speak Arabic they just have to guess.

KN: I wanted to free people from this need to always have to understand. Also life in general, you don’t always need to understand everything. When I see people reading subtitles, I think to myself – there is a whole image, why spend time trying to read these little words! So I wanted to clearly state at the beginning of the film, “this film is without subtitles”. Because it is humorous, and to make a clear statement, I don’t want you to be busy trying to understand me. Maybe you don’t need to understand.

The Sensual World II, 2018, Digital Drawing, 50×80 cm.

The Sensual World, 2018, Digital Drawing, 50×80 cm.

Karam Natour (b. 1992) lives and works in Tel Aviv. Natour completed his MFA studies (Hons) at Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. His works have been exhibited in various museums and venues in Israel and abroad, including Tel Aviv Museum (2017, 2018), Israel Museum (2017, 2018), Oberhausen Short Film Festival (2017), Janco Dada Museum (2017), and Rosenfeld Gallery (2016). Natour has received awards from The Yehoshua Rabinovich Foundation for the Arts (2018), Oberhausen Short Film Festival (2017), and The Pais Council for Culture and Art (2017, 2018).

Karam Natour’s solo exhibition Repeat After Me is on view at Umm el-Fahem Gallery.
Umm el-Fahem Art Gallery, Haifa Street, Umm el-Fahem


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