During the opening at The Ismaili Centre’s Zamana Space, the Syrian-Armenian artist created a live drawing performance accompanied by musicians from Iraq and Spain…
Playing oud and guitar, while the artist made ink drawings on a projector, the musical accompaniment was made to illustrate cultures melding together, something that runs through the heart of Mourad’s work.
The exhibition, which is the first in what will be a series presented by Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum in London, is inspired by the Old Testament story of Babel. In the tale, God punishes mankind for attempting to build a tower to heaven in a bid to reach him. To punish them for their presumptuousness, God creates many languages, preventing his admirers from being able to communicate with each other and therefore smashing their hopes of building the tower.
And, while many people might view this as a curse, Mourad decided to interpret this story as a blessing, because it marks the beginning of diversity and in turn allows for cultures to explore each others differences, generating intellectual and emotional wealth. Thus, the central work to the London exhibition consists of a six-layered fabric tower, hanging from the ceiling and brushing the centre’s floor. It doesn’t quite reach heaven, but it does give the audience an idea of the scale and ambition of the builders in the Old Testament tale.
Born in 1970 in Qamishli, Syria, Mourad can be considered a double refugee, his family fled Turkey during the Armenian Genocide; before he then became a refugee himself again, leaving Syria, and now living in New York. Growing up in Aleppo, he has been exposed to different cultures, languages, histories and traditions. At times, the marks made within his work look like Arabic calligraphy, and then a moment later they appear as Roman column. You walk around the tower however, are confronted with Armenian churches. And yet, despite their differences in origin, all of these elements appear on Mourad’s fabric tower with ease, as though they were always meant to have existed together.
While it is predominantly covered in images of buildings, the work also includes scribbles in incomprehensible languages and hieroglyphic-like symbols from a variety of sources. Though the cities in Mourad’s Babel are imaginary, they look real, with cultures flowing in and out of each other effortlessly. Growing up, Mourad was fascinated by Babylonian and Sumerian culture, influences of which can be seen within the work, which is made quickly, without planning. The way in which aspects of different cultures have been fused together has been done to enable viewers to find parts of themselves within the work, illustrating that communities are made up when different peoples come together.
To create the work, Mourad spent the last week of June working in situ in London, collaborating with a group of local art students. The six-metre hanging sculpture consists of monotype printing on fabric, which was printed and cut with the help of his assistants. Throughout this period, Mourad also allowed visitors to walk into the space and watch him as he worked, offering them the chance to see him at work. The collaboration process is important to Mourad, and as in his interpretation of the story of Babel, it allows him to create communities, sharing skills, ideas and differences.
In addition to the wedding-cake-like monument to Babel, a number of monotype prints made during the creation process are also on display around the Ismaili Centre. Displayed flat instead of in the round, viewers are able to view fragments of the larger tower, giving them the chance to decipher the imaginary civilisations printed across Mourad’s tower.
On a variety of media that includes paper, fabric and acetate, the works allow the viewers to look into the fabrication of the tower, and to understand how different fragments were pieced together. Like the ancient story of Babel, many of the buildings printed onto the fabric appear as though they have been inspired from the earliest civilisations and, Mourad’s monotype technique – which he dips in black ink – creates the idea of aging with time.
Mourad has a fascination with cosmology, something that the story of Babel appears to be against. As in the musical performance during the exhibition’s opening, Mourad’s fabric tower illustrates cultures melding together. Within the Old Testament fable, God punished mankind for attempted to reach their dreams.
But, instead of believing in the end of everything, Mourad decided to take an optimistic view, reinterpreting the curse as a blessing, the start of diversity and our wealth of languages. Mourad’s Seeing Through Babel includes many cultures, civilisations and histories. Within each window, he represents a space for every one of us, providing a space where we might find a symbol or shape from our own culture, reminding us that while we cannot erase our past, we can certainly add to it to create a greater story.
Kevork Mourad: Seeing Through Babel is on display at Ismaili Centre, London until 15 August 2019