On a Saturday morning this November, I had my first artist interview with Poline Harbali in her cozy studio-apartment in Paris. That turned out to be a very inspiring conversation with intense exchange of deep thoughts.
Poline Harbali is of Franco-Syrian origin. Her artistic practice is constructed around the search for her identity, which is particularly difficult when she has no direct access to her family in Syria. Poline then started to work on family memories through collected photographs which are then superimposed, wrinkled, redesigned, printed on transparent or textile fabric or burned iron. Poline’s art strives to pose questions on various topics including femininity and to expand the traditional use of materials into a new context, for instance, giving new definitions of embroidery. Her embroidery work is currently being exhibited at bookshop-gallery, Violette and Co in Paris until 29 November. Her works were seen at JABAL Art Fair of Beirut in both 2014 and 2015.
- You specialised in graphic design, photography and illustration at school, in what way have these practices influenced your art?
At the beginning, I studied Master in Philosophy for four years and I already specialised in aesthetic, and for me, it is important to put ideas into forms. At the beginning in my photography class, I was working with old pictures of my family. My father is Syrian and my mother is French, while all other family members are in Damascus in Syria, but we can’t go to Syria because of the war and all the complicated situations. Then, photography became important as a means to share the life with the family in Syria, pretending I am living with them, because my family in Syria and I would exchange photos from our life. This was the beginning of my work –I was trying to find the missing pieces of myself, my identity through photography.
- How is your family background and identity important to you as an artist?
My family background is very important because I’ve always been striving to search for an identity. There is not one thing from either my mother’s family or my father’s family that can tell me who I am, and that will always keep me wondering about my identity. As an artist, I am not very interested in giving answers to people. What I like is researching and trial and error. So wondering about who I am, who my family is and how I can interact with them has influenced the topics of my work for sure, and also the way that I am working. That is, I am not trying to communicate certain messages, but I am more questioning through my work rather than answering questions. I put questions from my mind into forms.
- It seems your artistic practice stems from your quest to discover your identity, and you started this process with photography, can you tell us more about that process, how did you go further from that?
Yes, I started with photography. I’ve been always interested in “transgression”. As I come from an Arabic family, and in Arabic perceptions, there are many norms or rules of how you should behave as a woman. I think I never felt fine with what my family told me to be. To start with, there were a lot of Syrian tablecloths which were made of specific way of Syrian embroidery called agabanee, with gold threads, in vegetal patterns like flowers and plants. This embroidery is an activity that women do a lot at home, including my grandmother. And I really feel close to all the women in my family as I felt we’re concerned about the same wondering. So I wanted to use and work with this technique but make transgression about that. It means that, originally embroidery was something to keep women at home and to just spend their time while waiting for men to come home. And I wanted to make it in the opposite way that I make embroidery because I want to embroider and to talk about myself through embroidery, such as my fears as a woman, my sexuality or my intimacy in general.
I try to make something not beautiful. That’s an important point because traditionally we always want women to make beautiful things, for decorative reasons. But I want to make something raw; sometimes mixing it with beautiful things, for example, I love using floral patterns which I superimpose with something dark and raw.
- I see. So I think that’s a way how you to try to expand the traditional use of materials into a new context. Is that what you’re doing in your art?
Yes, exactly. I think it’s very important for me to use traditional materials, like fabric, because I’m really questioning the tradition in my work. Also, I’m working with clothes in an installation project right now. I make use of homewear clothing that I got from my grandmother and then I make embroidery, drawings and prints on it. I think the materials are like a soul. For example, homewear clothing in my grandmother’s generation was something very specific that represents women’s roles in the family as a wife, a mother. There is a book that I really like called A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. I think it’s very important to always have the time and a place at home that you’re with yourself to focus on yourself, your work, your desire… So with this project, I hope to re-establish an individual space for women through these white and not decorative homewear clothes. I’m just trying to question why it’s so important for my grandmother to be a wife, to have beautiful homewear and to be always very pretty for somebody else. Also, I want to bring out all those things which are forbidden by moral norms and make women ashamed of, such as rape, abortion and other humiliations, and expose them on the outside on the homewear clothing, instead of keeping them inside women.
- Any artists who have particularly great influence on your perceptions and practices of art?
Well, there’re a lot. I really like Louise Bourgeois that I find the way she was doing her art was very interesting. What I like is that she’s not afraid of working on both more intellectual or conceptual art and raw or brutal art together. Her work is not conventional in the sense that she has plastic art skills for sure as an artist, but she’s also a conceptual artist at the same time. I’m very sensitive to her work. Two or three years ago in Berlin, it was my first time to see a work of hers in person. I saw this huge work with many drawings of red hands, which was powerful for me. I was crying.
Also, I like Kiki Smith because I find her work very seductive. She’s not trying to fit her work into something else, but she focuses more on the process than the results and I also like working this way. So she’s a big inspiration.
Then, the music of an Austrian singer called Soap&Skin who inspires me too. She has a traditional background too but she’s very experimental and contemporary. This is similar to what I do –questioning the tradition and making something new out of it.
- How do you define femininity? What do you think about women artists in the contemporary art world?
I think there should be no definition of femininity and there’re a million ways to be a feminine person. This is what is really interesting in our time. We can make the choice even if it’s not easy at all to make those choices. This is something very different from the years before. I’m not seeing myself as an angry feminist, but I think of the book King Kong Theory by a French writer Virginia Despentes. She says in our society women always define themselves from men. I think both for her and for me, a lot of people think being feminine is to be soft, kind, smart but not too smart, pretty and a bit sexy or seductive somehow. For example, there is one part of the book talking about the double standards between men and women. I always felt myself as a raw person who doesn’t like following others’ expectations. For example, if you’re not always soft or very independent, you speak in a frank way; people would think you’re like a man. And this is something bothering me a lot. I think it’s time to remove these gender stereotypes. There has been definition of femininity for a long time, but I think it’s very important to not have one.
- You exiled yourself to Nantes, Montreal and Barcelona. As I come from another culture but now living in a different one, I am very interested in your experiences of displacement, can you share your feelings about that?
I am a person with wanderlust and I like being like this because every time you move out, you have a chance to redefine yourself, to break through people’s perceptions of you. When you encounter new people, you always discover something new about yourself, and you have a broader view of what life can be or what you can be. The year in Barcelona was particularly difficult for me, but I learnt a lot about who I was and why this experience was complicated for me, so it was an important experience. Learning a new language can help to express yourself differently too. I was wandering around for almost ten years, but now I feel that I want to gather all those experiences and build something in a place. At some point, it is important for me to belong to a place for some time at least and then I can transform all the things that I’ve collected from my experiences into some forms.
- What impacts do these displacement experiences have on your artistic creation?
What can be seen in my art that is related to these experiences is that I like to experience new ways to work. I don’t define myself with embroidery or photography. In my work, I’m not only searching for subjects, but also searching for forms that I don’t even know what it is. I think I’m wandering in my art.
- So now do you see Paris as your home?
Yes, I really feel home in Paris. I’m French but I’m originally not from Paris. I’ve been living in Paris for around four years, but I really feel home here. When I went to Montreal, I really felt home there that I felt connected with that city which has my rhythm. But I thought I needed other experiences, so then I decided to go to Barcelona. I think it is possible to have different little homes and whenever I go back to Montreal from time to time, I still feel myself having nice energy there, so maybe it’s like a second home. And everyone in family comes from different origins and has been to different places too. I think it’s important to find and choose a place to be home by myself. Moving around can bring different perspectives that can make a person complicated but also very interesting. I feel lucky.
- How would you describe the art scene in France or in Paris? How do you interact with it?
I don’t really know because I don’t feel very connected with the French art, not that it’s not interesting, but it’s less related to the “questions” I ask with my art. I’ve been participating in the JABAL Art Fair in Beirut for two years. From the art fair, I can feel more connected with the Middle East art because those artists and I are concerned about similar questions, such as war, violence or women’s life. But what is different from other Middle East artists is that I use materials that are more similar to French art. For ideas, I’m more inspired by French writers.
- That’s interesting and brings me to another question: How does your art interact with the French contemporary culture?
I always like reading and I think that’s why I studied philosophy. Reading is like endless conversations with the authors. As you read, you always answer and question the writer. Conversations with people are always with certain notions or goals, but with reading, you can always question the writers, which is something very important for me and my art. I work a lot on books. When I read a good book, it always inspires me on my art somehow. I like putting a concept into a form. And I always like questioning more than answering and my art is like questions without words and can make people question themselves while I question myself. There is not any goal. I didn’t choose to do something with words like writing or cinema because words are much more definitive by nature compared to visual art. That’s why I like visual art which is more flexible and open.
I also want to talk to you about a French writer called Olivia Rosenthal that’s really inspiring me. She’s questioning the moral norms and the impacts of the family on her life. Like, she would also speak about how family secrets can influence your life a lot even if you don’t know them. So it’s mainly about the conflict between individual thinking and outside norms in the family system. Then, this is something really well done in the Turkish movie Winter Sleep. This spoke to me a lot because it’s in Turkey and my grandmother is Turkish. In this movie, you can how the family system is working and how in the Middle East, expectations from society can influence almost your every behaviours as a man. This movie is very violent for me because the tension was always kept below the calm surface. This is really in the Middle East culture and is very inspiring to me.
- What role does art play in your life?
I can’t say that I’m making art just for myself because I think when you make a form you want it to be seen. I’m making my works differently every time after some feedbacks and observing people’s interactions with my art. I think it’s always a bit political, not in the sense of defending some right, but in the sense that I’m really questioning topics like femininity, family secrets. It’s important to make art for myself for sure, but also to try to make repressed ideas visible to the world. Sometimes I just feel the need to find a good form to express what I feel. It’s very important for me to express all my colours inside me through my works. I have to create a form to get my feelings and questions out of my body so that it exists outside my body and it’s not mine anymore. Maybe it sounds weird… Maybe lots of thoughts come up to me and it’s like I need a place to deposit them, or else it may be too overwhelming. It’s important for my life and my art that at some moments I really concentrate on all my thoughts and questions and other moments I put them away.
- As a young artist, have you had some moments of feeling lost? How do you cope with that and find your own way?
I think in my creative life, there are moments when I’m more productive and other moments when I’m not doing anything. At the beginning, I would feel very anxious. I think this is normal and the beginning of the process. When I create something, I have to leave it for a while to let it grow and then get back to it to make it differently. That’s also the research part. As I also work for Le Monde as an illustrator. Illustration is more like an intellectual work because large part of the work is about finding the concept and how to link it with an image, so it’s like a philosophical work but with pencil. It’s also something important for applied art; it’s not just about looking for a good form. I’m trying to experiment with different forms from the same place, so it’s an evolution. Sometimes, it can be stressful when one week I keep working on the same thing, but the next week I don’t like it at all. It’s hard to be always satisfied with everything you do. Well, the way to cope with it is that I try to keep doing it. There is no rush. I just enjoy the process of making art, so I make it. That’s it!