Foundland Collective’s new installation is an intimate window into the Syrian refugee experience.
Artists Ghalia Elsrakbi and Lauren Alexander are recipients of the first United State’s artist residency at the International Studio and Curatorial Program to take place in partnership with Edge of Arabia and Art Jameel. Art Radar spoke with them to learn more about their brainchild, the Foundland Collective, and their current installation being shown at ISCP through 26 September 2014.
The Foundland Collective’s work has been shown in exhibitions and festivals including Kadist Art Foundation, Paris (2012), Impakt Festival (Utrecht, 2011, 2012) and Visual Arts Festival Damascus (Istanbul, 2013). They have given various masterclasses and lecture presentations, and contributed essays and visuals to international magazines and journals such as Open, Krisis, Esse and Ibraaz. In 2013, they completed an artist residency at the Townhouse Gallery in Cairo. The Collective comprises of the artist duo Lauren Alexander and Ghalia Elsrakbi.
Lauren Alexander (b. 1983, Cape Town, South Africa) is a graphic designer who holds a BA in Graphic Design from the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa and an MA in Design from the Sandberg Institute, Amsterdam. In addition, Alexander began an MFA in Design from the Dutch Art Institute in Arnhem in 2009 and is currently part of the tutoring staff at the Royal Academy of Arts in the Hague.
Ghalia Elsrakbi (b. 1978, Damascus, Syria) received a BA in Graphic Design from the Artez Hogeschool voor de Kunst, Arnhem and an MA in Design from the Sandberg Institute, Amsterdam. Elsrakbi attended the Jan van Eyck Academy in 2009 to do postgraduate research.
Art Radar caught up with the dynamic duo during their residency in New York to find out more about their collaborative projects, their pivotal experience in Cairo and what they’ve learned about “Little Syria” and its displaced population in New York.
Could you tell us more about the Foundland Collective? How did it get its name?
Foundland Collective (established 2009) is a Syrian–South African collaboration whose work draws on design, art, writing and research. Foundland focuses on critical analysis of topics related to political and locational branding through visual and written forms.
Our name “Foundland” comes from our invested interest and fascination in topics related to place and politics. At the start of our collaboration, we were based in the Netherlands. As non-European citizens, we wanted to forge a space where, as outsiders, we would be able to comment on our position within society: hence our feeling of forging or creating our own space or platform and the name Foundland.
You were awarded the first Edge of Arabia and Art Jameel residency at ISCP. Has this experience spawned any ideas for upcoming projects or future installations?
We were very lucky to be awarded the first Edge of Arabia residency at ISCP, and as part of our application procedure, we formulated a research proposal before we arrived in New York City. We had the idea of investigating an immigrant community which existed in Manhattan in the late 1880s. This Syrian, Lebanese and mixed origin migrant neighbourhood, located close to where the 9/11 memorial site is currently located, was a bustling community with plenty of cultural and gastronomical influences on New York City. The area existed until about the 1940s, when the community was forced to move to make way for the Battery Park area.
Our goals are to find out as much as possible about the area formerly known as “Little Syria”. We will be doing this by meeting various political and activist groups who are working towards engaging more attention for the area and [saving] the last remaining buildings preserved from this period. We will be collecting and gathering research from all sources, and we aim to use the material that we collect to crystallise an artistic response in the form of an action in public space, a written piece or a visual manifestation. Besides this, we are enjoying meeting curators and artists from around the world and expanding our network.
In 2013, you spent six months in Cairo meeting and witnessing the displaced Syrian population there. Did that experience lead to a shift in your work? What was the result of this shift?
The time we spent in Cairo during our residency at the Townhouse Gallery was crucial to our practice. We began to observe events in the Middle East as they were taking place at much closer proximity, in comparison to our work before 2013. During this period, Ghalia’s family migrated from Damascus to Cairo because of the conflict in Syria. These events are relevant to our newer work, including Friday Table (2013-2014). Ghalia’s family’s story is an example of displacement that many Syrians are currently experiencing, particularly middle class Syrians who do not have a specific engagement with politics.
We draw on the specifics of her family’s story, which plays a part in a collective narrative – namely, those of families and communities that need to move when they don’t want to, yet feel they need to. Despite not being involved in politics, they are always in some way implicated in the complex and dangerous context inside Syria. They have the feeling that they need to move in order to secure a future for themselves, for their families and businesses. Such stories form the beginnings of new migration patterns and shifts in entire communities within the Middle East. We witnessed this, for example, in 6th of October City, a satellite town outside Cairo, where thousands of Syrians have settled in the last few years.
Escape Routes and Waiting Rooms presents small, intimate stories as a contrast to what the general populace knows about present-day events in Syria from mainstream media. Does your art capture both the personal and global aspects of this conflict? How?
We are concerned with the way in which an image of the Middle East is created through the lens of mainstream media. In Map Projections (2014), the third component of the exhibition, we re-appropriate news imagery to create a projection that is a flickering map of the image of Syria. News images and reports are formulated by many different factors like the limitations of journalists and photographers to move freely, the interpretation and translation of information, the politics of broadcasting and the media industry’s desire to sell their products. We don’t aim to create a better or more truthful narrative. We would like to use the visual language of broadcast media, which is how most people learn about current affairs, to provide the audience with an alternative perspective.
Our foremost intention for using domestic tropes and intimate stories is because they are understood by the general public. It allows us to speak about topics related to politics in a way that is accessible and provides an alternative image to news media. Most viewers can easily relate to the image of a dining table and the ritual of family dinners, and will be able to project their own imagination about these occasions onto the work. When collecting and editing information related to Friday Table, it was important for us to include images of the past as memories that exist around the setting of the table. For those who used to participate in daily meals but can no longer be present, the ritual of communal meals only finds a place in the images that remain. Images or memory, which were once ingrained in daily habits, become a more important leftover than the table itself.
What did you find surprising about the responses to the instructions for the Waiting Room installation: “draw the house you left behind and add any stories or details that you wish”?
In the case of Waiting Room (2014), the tent installation included in the exhibition, we re-visit a very well-known image in the media: the white tent, commonly associated with refugee camp dwellings. The tent reminds us of displacement, helplessness and emergency resettlement. However, many of these tents that are being set up at a rapid pace at the Syrian borders with Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, are proving to be far from temporary. For the tent installation, we asked displaced people from different backgrounds to sketch their housing situation prior to departure from Syria, as a way to depict and make visible what has been left behind.
Juxtaposed with the instability and reality of their displaced situation is a collection of houses’ ground plans that enables the viewer to consider emergency living habitation as an involuntary yet permanent reality. For some people, it was a very painful experience remembering their previous home. Many no longer have visuals or evidence of the places they left behind. By re-tracing the living structure of the home, one remembers the permanence, ritual and structure embedded within that place. Different people volunteered different kinds of information. Some mentioned the view or places that were visible from their former home, other people mentioned the way in which their houses were altered once refugees moved into their homes. Stories depict unique and subjective experiences.
Please tell us about your field research in what used to be New York’s “Little Syria”. What did you learn about being displaced in New York City?
“Little Syria” was formed in around 1880 by immigrants who were searching for a better life in the United States, many of whom settled on the lower West side, near to what is now the 9/11 memorial site. To this day, there are a few buildings which are officially left over in the “Little Syria” area. There is a group of activists working hard to maintain publicity and awareness for the area. Not much is known about the area by the general public and the valuable contributions made by early settlers. “Little Syria” was host to well-known Arabic writers, thinkers. Many publications about art, culture and literature were published in the area in Arabic and English as early as the late 1800s. Middle class Americans at the time were fascinated by stories of religion and lifestyle in the Middle East and immigrants made a living by sharing stories and traditions from the region to a United States audience.
We are interested in tracing – through early Arabic publications, found objects and stories – the experience of being an Arab immigrant in the United States, how this was perceived by American citizens and how Arabs perceived themselves within this new context. In contrast to the generally negative perception in today’s America of what it means to be an Arab, this early period in history harks back to positive narratives of entrepreneurial flair and ingenuity.
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