Painting is the best therapy for Beirut-based artist Annie Kurkdjian, who grew up during the Lebanese Civil War.

In a recent video interview with ARTINFO, the soft-spoken artist talks about war, anger, ‘artist’s block’ and how she became the architect of her own life through painting.

Annie Kurkdjian, 'Untitled', 2013. Image courtesy the artist.

Annie Kurkdjian, ‘Untitled’, 2013. Image courtesy the artist.

Unlike painters of her generation, Annie Kurkdjian (b. 1972, Beirut, Lebanon) does not portray literal representations of conflict, nor does she resort to idyllic escapism. Instead, her oeuvre is defined by a gentle, whimsical, painterly voice that unexpectedly and uncannily captures the full force and brutality of war and violence. Informed by academic studies on psychosis, Kurkdjian’s paintings are playful yet darkly provocative, shrewdly embodying the fragility of humanity.

Kurkdjian exploded onto the Lebanese art scene when she received the Jouhayna Badoura Prize in 2012, one of the most distinguished art prizes in the region. Her work has since been shown to great acclaim at Art Dubai 2013 by Albareh Art Gallery.

In a recent ARTINFO interview entitled “Art in Beirut – Painter Annie Kurkdjian”, Kurkdjian discusses her traumatic childhood, the motivations and challenges of being an artist, and her search for personal and artistic identity.

Watch the ARTINFO video interview with Annie Kurkdjian on YouTube.com

A childhood of war

The Lebanese Civil War lasted for sixteen years, massacring Kurkdjian’s hometown and childhood. In the video interview she recalls:

[The Civil War] began when I was two and until I was eighteen, I thought that was the world. I never thought there was another kind of life. Until I travelled and I discovered, in Europe, for instance, how life is.

The sudden realisation of her stolen childhood led to anger, but it wasn’t until the age of 22 that Kurkdjian found an outlet to express it. Kurkdjian had obtained a Master’s degree in Business Administration, but when she discovered the art of painting, she knew that she had found her vocation:

I’m trying to express all that [anger] in paintings, because it’s the most peaceful way to express anger, I think, art. […] it’s like Post Traumatic Disorder, but I’m managing it with […] artistic ways. It’s the best therapy.

Annie Kurkdjian, 'Untitled', 2012. Image courtesy the artist.

Annie Kurkdjian, ‘Untitled’, 2012. Image courtesy the artist.

Studying psychology: Painting as freedom

As Kurkdjian reflects in the interview, she used to see torture daily for sixteen years. Yet, the subjects in her paintings do not flail in abject horror. Instead, a mute, restrained despair pervades not only the victims but also the victimisers, as well as the space in between. Kurkdjian’s biography at the Albareh Art Gallery’s website states:

Surfaces become concave, legs stretch into arms and the eyes become fixed inwards, extending beyond the canvas, into unforeseeable places that are forbidding yet tempting and sensuous. The destination could be redemption, but might as well be loss and darkness.

The depth and subtlety of Kurkdjian’s paintings are due in part to her academic studies on psychology, philosophy and theology. In particular, an internship at a psychiatric hospital in Lebanon had a profound impact, helping the artist overcome a mid-career artist’s ‘blockage’. Kurkdjian said:

[During the internship] I saw how psychotic people paint. And I began to understand what painting is, because there was freedom. They don’t think about anything. They just express. And that was the lesson for me. After I graduated psychology, I re-began to paint and I found myself.

Annie Kurkdjian, 'Untitled', 2011. Image courtesy the artist.

Annie Kurkdjian, ‘Untitled’, 2011. Image courtesy the artist.

Painting a life, painting to live

The painterly voice that Kurkdjian found for herself consists of a dark, acrid world softened by warm earth colours. The despair sits beside a constant search for mercy and dignity, at times sensuous, at others exposing shame. Above all, Kurkdjian takes inspiration from life and its instabilities, carving out a world through her art even as she tries to fathom and make sense of it. Kurkdjian says that:

I work […] on humans in my paintings […] and relations between humans. And I call it existentialist painting.

Since finding her voice and artistic identity, Kurkdjian began to earn a living with her work. She proudly declares:

I decided in 2009 to do my own exhibition because I felt my work looks like me, and I felt my identity is in it. I was sure of myself. I’m beginning to make a living from it. [At] first, it was very difficult: I had to do very big savings to survive [sic] but now, I’m making a living.

Michele Chan

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Related Topics: Lebanese artistspainting, identity art, art about trauma, art about violence, art about war, video interviews with artists

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Brittney

By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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