Zamana, the exhibition space at the Ismaili Centre once again opens its doors to the visitors. Located in a beautiful building in South Kensington, London, across the street from the V&A, the venue was recently taken over by the artist in residence Kevork Mourad. In late June visitors could come in and see Mourad at work and see his latest project take shape. The complete art installation Seeing Through Babel is on display since July 1st and is free of charge. I went to the official opening and interviewed the artist.
Proud of his dual heritage, the Syrian-Armenian artist describes his work in short as Armenian miniatures and Islamic calligraphy joined together. He was born in 1970 in Qamishli, Syria, in the country where his ancestors settled after fleeing Armenia in 1915. Bringing those two cultures together, Mourad’s visual art projects celebrate heritage and cultural diversity around the world. His art defies national borders and combines elements derived from several religious traditions.
For his current project the artist chose a very relevant and symbolically charged subject – the story of the Tower of Babel in which God’s anger at the humanity caused a multitude of languages to develop. Mourad sees a positive side to this story, as it brought diversity to the world, which is not a bad thing at all. Seeing Through Babel can be understood both metaphorically and literally. The window-piece, best looked at from the outside, obscures the view of the gallery interior with its complex arrangement of pieces of fabric. Individual pieces are covered with figurative and non-figurative imagery. In the middle there is a tree; suspended from its branches are the products of civilisation. People, architecture and writing all go back to the same roots.
Inside the gallery, a large three-dimensional structure emerges from the bottom of the staircase, this is the tower of Babel re-imagined by the artist. Its overall design echoes two well-known paintings by Peter Bruegel the Elder (often referred to as The Great Tower of Babel, and The Little Tower of Babel, both painted c.1563). The structure made of fabric is built of six hollow cylinders gradually decreasing in size as each is suspended above a larger one. Aside from the layer closest to the ground, the cylinders consist of two parts, of which only the upper ones are visible externally. Out of the chaos of lines emerge arches belonging to little mosques, synagogues and Armenian churches. The architectural exterior hides the internal parts which symbolise the multitude of languages, those can only be seen through holes cut out of the fabric.
The artist does not draw preparatory sketches, but has a general idea of how the final work should look like. When asked what happens if there is a mistake, he answers that there are no mistakes. He points to several random details saying that any of those could have been a mistake, but after becoming a part of the whole they are now exactly where they belong.
Mourad studied art at the Yerevan Institute of Fine Arts in the early nineties. As was typical of the time, the teaching focus was predominantly academic and students were supposed to devote most of their time to mastering their drawing. In 2001 he moved to the USA and is currently based in New York City. After many years of artistic experimentation he reached the point at which he became confident that his art truly represented his ideas. A member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, Mourad combines drawing and animation in order to illustrate the music piece during live performances. In his own art projects, which include drawings, installations, animation and video art, he creates little slices of time, landscapes of towns and cities that no longer exist, some destroyed centuries ago, some, like the ancient city of Palmyra, quite recently.
Aside from the two main artworks there are several pieces on paper and transparent film displayed on the walls in the lower gallery. While they could be easily taken for independent artworks or studies, they are in fact mere by-products. In a two-step process a part of the image is created by spreading ink on film, it is then transferred on paper or cloth and further details are drawn on top of the printed image. When a layer of ink is too thick to produce a clear image, the excess is absorbed using a piece of paper. I saw the artist perform an improvised ink-drawing demonstration and it was fascinating to see how an elaborate artwork can be completed in just a couple of minutes.
Kevork Mourad seems like the perfect choice for the first exhibition at the newly reopened Zamana space. His beautiful installations celebrate our differences but also the universal things we all have in common.
The exhibition Seeing Through Babel is open until 15 August 2019 at The Ismaili Centre
The Ismaili Centre
1 Cromwell Gardens
Check out the artist’s website: https://www.kevorkmourad.com/
Read more about the Ismaili Centre here: https://the.ismaili/ismailicentres/london
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