As part of 15 Invitations, Lebanese artist presents project on AAA’s Ha Bik Chuen Archive.
On show from 21 June to 3 September 2016, Walid Raad’s contribution to Asia Art Archive’s 15 Invitations for 15 Years reveals the artist’s research into one of the institution’s special collections.
Walid Raad, an artist of Lebanese origins and currently Professor of Art at the Cooper Union, New York, creates works that are based on extensive research and present parallel realities that merge truth with fiction. A widely acclaimed project entitled The Atlas Group – realised in a fifteen-year period between 1989 and 2004 – explored the contemporary history of Lebanon through a host of fictional characters and collaborators of the artist’s invention.
The ongoing Scratching on Things I Could Disavow is a history of the art in the Arab world viewed alongside the region’s geo-political, economic, social and military conflicts of recent decades. The project is inspired by the recent emergence in the Arab world of a new infrastructure for the visual arts comprising arts festivals, workshops, fairs, biennales, museums, galleries, funds, schools, journals and collections, among others.
For AAA’s 15 Invitations, Raad developed a body of work resulting from his interest and research into the Ha Bik Chuen Archive at AAA, which the artist discovered and explored during his residency at the Hong Kong institution in September 2014. On 20 June 2016, just a day before the opening of his project in the AAA Library, Raad also gave an introductory talk about his long-term, ongoing collaboration with the Louvre in Paris, focusing on the history of Islamic, modern and contemporary Arab Art, as well as the growing arts infrastructures emerging in Arab cities such as Abu Dhabi, Doha and Beirut. The talk was followed by a conversation between the artist and AAA Head of Research and Programmes Hammad Nasar.
The Ha Bik Chuen Archive is a “window into Hong Kong’s art history”. Ha Bik Chuen (1925–2009) is a Hong Kong artist known primarily as a sculptor and printmaker, but who also worked with photography, which he used to document exhibitions he visited, and created book collages, for which he collected materials such as illustrated magazines and artist portraits. Ha’s entire collection has been stored in his Hong Kong studio since his passing, and in 2013 Ha’s family invited AAA to map, assess and digitise some selected materials from Ha’s archive. The AAA archive now consists of a continuously growing selection of Ha’s collage books, exhibition documentation and exhibition catalogues.
During his research into the Ha Bik Chuen Archive, Raad realised the affinity between the Hong Kong artist and his own collaborator, Suha Traboulsi – one of Raad’s fictional characters, created as an influential modernist in the Lebanese art scene in Beirut. Traboulsi greatly inspired Raad and has collaborated with him for years.
In a 2016 article on Frieze, Raad’s use of fictional characters in his artistic practice, and particularly the creation of Traboulsi’s identity, is revealed thus:
The likes of Janah Hilwé and Farid Sarroukh, as well as Traboulsi, are never present in person, but they are almost always conjured in biographies, artists’ statements and, from time to time, actual artworks. Traboulsi is the most complex of these characters. She is the perfect surrogate and ideal predecessor – a feminist forebear with the capacity to restore an art-historical narrative that has been otherwise broken, forgotten or dismissed. It’s not impossible that someone like Traboulsi, as scripted by Raad, could have been active and influential for much of the 20th century, albeit in a corner of the Arab world where no one was really looking for her.
According to Raad’s fictionalised history of Ha Bik Chuen’s artistic career, between 1967 and 2009 the Hong Kong-based artist collaborated with Beirut-based Traboulsi on a number of projects. Raad recounts that most of these collaborative works remained unseen until Ha’s death in 2010, when his archives were “unpacked and studied”. In his statement, as reported by AAA, Raad says:
The two met in 1962 when Traboulsi travelled to Hong Kong to research Chinese calligraphic practices. They struck an immediate friendship that soon turned into an artistic collaboration from afar: Ha in Hong Kong and Traboulsi in Beirut.
On show in the AAA Library are two collaborative series. The first, Editor’s Introduction (1972–1980) comprises several “sculptural spaces” built by Traboulsi and inspired by Ha’s ephemera-laden collage books. The second, entitled Notes (1983–2009), consists of Traboulsi’s reproductions of canonical modern paintings by Arab artists, including Inji Efflatoun, Abdel Hadi el-Gazzar, Hamed Nada, Ibrahim el-Salahi, Marwan and Seta Manoukian, among others. Raad writes about the works:
The Traboulsi reproductions were scattered among several of Ha’s collaged notebooks. Traboulsi never revealed where her productions were strewn, and it has taken several years of painstaking archival research to reassemble some of her paintings shown here.
According to the 2016 Frieze article, Raad’s creation of Traboulsi’s fictional identity serves a variety of purposes; not only to expand on the history of art of lesser-known corners of the world as well as to create inspiration for the artist, but also for the artist to distance himself from his own work:
Traboulsi also fulfils a baser function. Attributing works to her, or enlisting her as an ally, allows Raad to participate in projects while distancing himself from them. She appears in his place; the organizing entity is often denied the use of his name or acknowledgement of his involvement. This is trickier than it sounds, opening up issues of complicity, leverage and institutional critique that are so prevalent in Raad’s thinking that they have become a medium in and of themselves.
C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia
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