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Notes on the ceramics of unity, national and otherwise

Miscellaneous

Interdependence is a notion that has come back into favor since the end of the last century. Though youngsters are still spending remarkable amounts of time sitting alone in front of their computer screens and keyboards, they are – thanks to Facebook, Twitter, and so forth – also enjoying the warm embrace of virtual friendship while they do so.

This article was featured on the Daily Star’s website (www.dailystar.com.lb) on December the 31st, 2011, written by Chirine Lahoud.
 
Anyway you don’t have to be connected to recognize the cloying lure of group belonging. This century, like the last century, one of the favored ways to express your individuality is to purchase the same brands of clothing, electronics and automobiles as everyone else.
Gefinor’s Espace Kettaneh-Kunigk is hosting “Interdependences,” an exhibition of 29 new, and less new, ceramics by Lebanese sculptor Michele Assaf Kamel. True to the show’s title, this body of works variously represents one’s dependence on the other.
Kamel’s older works – vases, bowls and the like – are more decorative. Her latest artworks are more edgy, angular and thematically driven. Resembling a child’s building blocks – or, alternatively, concrete bricks – the medium of these pieces speaks directly to architectural metaphors.
In her 18x51x13 cm ceramic sculpture “Nahnou” (We), Kamel’s vision of the collective is comprised of two reddish blocks, one a shade darker than the other, each with a stylized representation of the Arabic letter “noun” (the English “n”) projecting as a bas relief.
The blocks are designed to resemble a single rectangular block that’s been divided by a z-shaped rupture. As it resides between these two “n” sounds, the jagged breach between the two halves can be seen to resemble the Arabic “h,” so that the ensemble forms the Arabic word “nahnou,” the title of the work. Both complementary blocks represent the two component parts of the collective (or at least the duel) “we.”
In her press materials, Kamel writes that with this work she wanted to deal with the “we” and “you” dilemma, to examine “the reciprocate approach with the Other, the perpetual dependency and the questioning of the unavoidable coexistence.”
With the artworks in this exhibition, Kamel has tried to find a symbol for individuality and unity. They are, as she puts it, “three-dimensional” expressions of her will.
Depictions of struggle are evident in many of these sculptures. Whether it is a struggle between two men, or to unify a population, this impression of constant conflict seems to be a leitmotif of Kamel’s ceramics.
Equally true to its title, Kamel’s 33x38x15 cm sculpture “Kbesh” (“arm wrestle” in Lebanese Arabic) takes up the theme of arm-wrestling – one of those archetypal tests of strength among men of a certain disposition.
The bottom part of the sculpture has the unadorned aspect of raw concrete. The upper part has been adorned with a motif of six hands, rendered in black against a blue background, The motif has the hands poised in the locked position of an arm wrestle.
A couple of lines of blue paint drizzle down on the unadorned ceramic below, as if a deliberate representation of haste.
Given her interest in representing co-dependence – and putting aside the title for a moment – the interlocking hand motif can also be read as a symbol of mutual help – as if one hand were offering a hand of assistance or rescue against a hopeful blue sky.
Kamel is also fond of working the number 17 into her work – that being the number of sectarian communities in Lebanon, minus Judaism.
In the piece entitled “Home” (14x24x10 cm), the onlooker finds an irregularly shaped ceramic block with the word “HOME” written in English, and transliterated into Arabic script, on the upper left. To the right, the number 17 is written in Arabic numerals.
Here, Kamel presents the onlooker with her fondest wish: That Lebanese, regardless their religious affiliations, stand united in one homeland. There is also a hint of friction between the text and the sculpture itself, however. Though it is not obviously a precise representation of anything, the ceramic block most resembles a stubby, toy-like replica of a rifle.
Michele Assaf Kamel’s “Interdependences” is on display at Gefinor’s Espace Kettaneh-Kunigk until Jan. 28. For more information please call 01-738-706.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 31, 2011, on page 16.

 

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