Continuing my series of interviews with writers, poets, sculptors, directors, creatives, and now the wonderful visual artist Rabab Ghazoul. I first met Rabab in Cardiff in the early 1990’s, when she was devising and directing experimental live performance. Over the past two decades it has been a delight and education to observe her evolution as an artist.
20 Questions…. Rabab Ghazoul.
Rabab Ghazoul is a visual artist whose practice draws upon a range of media and processes to explore our negotiations and constructions of the political. Part social observation, part investigation into the realm of public narrative, her work has seen her referencing or re-staging existing ‘texts’ – from news media footage to an existing art work – by way of exploring the coerced and de-stabilised nature of our affiliations. Born and part raised in the Middle East, her experience of dual cultures informs an ongoing interest in belonging and identity, but often at their point of fragmentation or dissolution. In this sense her chosen ‘text’ is less the culture of home, and more the ever-present effects – or ‘home’ – of late capitalist culture, through which we continue to rehearse our prescribed and ritualistic movements. Born in Mosul, Iraq, she has lived and worked in Cardiff for the last 20 years.
What first drew you to your particular practice?
When I graduated I started making experimental devised performance after studying theatre at college…then in my late 20’s I found myself making much more visually-oriented work, using installation, space, objects, and my inspiration was in the main lots of – visual artists! I figured I probably wasn’t a theatre maker any more, I wanted to work in this other way…
What was your big breakthrough?
I’m not sure I’ve had one. There was a point, after I’d moved away from theatre and was showing my work in galleries I liked and respected – that was definitely a kind of breaking through I suppose – from working in one discipline to being taken seriously in another. But ultimately, I think breaking through is always about your own crap as an artist…for years, I wanted to make work like person X or Y, or be this or that kind of artist, but then there came a point where I just accepted: I do. What I do. I make this kind of work. Get with it.
What is the most challenging aspect of your work/process?
Self doubt…procrastination…too many ideas…not enough ideas…fear of starting ideas…life being too short to realise all one’s ideas…chaos of the mind…melancholy of the heart…being utterly inefficient…being control-freakishly efficient…working alone…working with others…
Is there a piece of art, or a book, or a play, which changed you?
Well there are memorable moments. Probably the first time I saw Pina Bausch’s work…it was a video of one of her shows, I must have been around nineteen, and I couldn’t believe this is what theatre could look like. Later on, the work of people like Santiago Sierra shifted my head and thinking. And I remember a rare intake of breath seeing Alfredo Jaar’s “The Eyes of Gutete Emerita” because – with both a precision of means and an excess of means – he managed to say something about the unsayable – about the most monstrous humanity has to offer…I think that’s extraordinary in art.
What’s more important: form or content?
How do you know when a project is finished?
Deadlines for showing take care of that: time’s run out, you gotta share ready or not.
What advice would you give a young writer/practitioner?
I’m really not sure, but above my desk I’ve got this pinned up, which is what Jeremy Deller said when he was asked what advice he’d give to artists:
“Don’t listen to everybody, actually don’t listen to many people, just do what interests you and what you like. And if you do that within your work people will understand that maybe… And don’t look and see what other people are doing too much and get upset by what they’re doing. It’s important to just think about yourself really, so be selfish really. And be open. Be selfish and open, and be willing to change your plans but not necessarily compromise…”
What work of art would you most like to own?
A Cy Twombly…Magritte’s Day and Night…One of Michael Landy’s beautiful pencil drawings of weeds…anything by Caravaggio…
What’s the biggest myth about the creative process?
“Suffering artist in garret”, “Creativity being unique to artists”, “It happens when you’ve got plenty of time to concentrate and focus.” As to the last, that never happens. Creative stuff just falls out when it wants to, it tumbles, it trips over itself, in between bouts of Abso-Lutely-Nothing…So I’m not obsessively beavering away in a studio for hours on end…My physical studio is the place where I store old bits and pieces. But the real studio is in my head, and wherever that’s at – and the setting is usually pen, notebook, laptop, camera, conversations.
What are you working on now?
I’m researching a project based on Blair’s testimony to the Chilcot Inquiry, it’s ambitious and I suppose if it ever goes ahead it’ll be a project inviting communities to reframe that shameful moment. I’m also starting a new video work about the culture of benefit gigs and fundraisers. And I’m making applications for future projects that may or may not happen and in the meantime this is frying my brain.
What is the piece of art/novel/collection/ you wish you’d created?
Jeremy Deller’s ‘The Battle of Orgreave’.
What do you wish you’d known when you were starting out?
Nothing other than what I did and didn’t know really. Though I got there eventually in my 30’s, maybe knowing when I was younger that I could’ve gone to art college would have helped? But I think I’d still rather have gone my own circuitous route, if I hadn’t I’d be someone else making different work.
What’s your greatest ambition?
Fulfil my potential as a member of the human race.
Fulfil my potential as an artist.
Earn enough money to hire a permanent PA.
How do you tackle lack of confidence, doubt, or insecurity?
Buddhism. I chant. To deal with that stuff.
What is the worst thing anyone said/wrote about your work?
The worst things have probably been things I’ve thought and said about my own work. ‘That was humiliatingly bad’; ‘your attempts to be an artist are doomed’, ‘you lack courage to make what’s in your heart.’ Progress is that I don’t think these things anymore. I’m sure others have hated and loved things I’ve done in equal measure but I’ve not been privy to their thoughts…
And the best thing?
Can’t remember, but some nice things happily…I recently created a sung artwork in a gallery that involved 43 singers to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the second Gulf War. People said lovely things after, but mainly that they’d felt moved. For me that’s one of the best things people can say about your work, that their heart was involved in their experience of it.
If you were to create a conceit or metaphor about the creative process, what would it be?
You start climbing a mountain. You think it’s going to take X amount of time to get to the top. It takes way longer. The views are great. It can get really cloudy. You feel exhausted. At a certain point you wish two men with a stretcher would appear to carry you down. You get to the top. It feels incredible for about two minutes. The climb down flies by. You’re at the bottom of a mountain.
What is your philosophy or life motto?
‘Late starters of the world unite’
What is the single most important thing you’ve learned about the creative life?
Don’t try and make anything other than the thing you can make.
What is the answer to the question I should have – but didn’t – ask?
All the sadness in the world, in the same boat, as all the happiness…
Some further links and information about Rabab and her work: