Mounir Fatmi (b. 1970) is a Moroccan multi-media artist living and working in Paris, achieving immense exposure with international solo shows such as those at the Museum Kunst Palast in Duesseldorf and the AK Bank Foundation in Istanbul. In an interview with Fatmi, he discussed the pivotal themes of language, architecture and the machine as being the basis for much of his work. These ideas are universal concepts that are applicable to all artistic expressions, not just those from an Arab background, however when asked about his vivid use of language Fatmi responded that “especially the Arabic calligraphy that I use as a visual sign, I can get closer to the idea of identity”. Using this understanding we can classify those of his works that do include Arabic text as expressions that make commentary on some aspect of Arab and personal identity.
Fatmi works in mixed media and displays a clear commitment to commentary on current affairs and personal views, particularly in the realm of politics. Fatmi’s work often criticises political ideologies or observes specific events and those affected by them, notable examples being September 11th and the Arab Spring.
Mounir Fatmi, The Impossible Union, 2011, Arabic calligraphies of steel, Hebrew typewriter (Detail),
This process of text distortion is seen in the work The Impossible Union, 2011, this sculptural piece of an old-fashioned typewriter, replaces the expected paper with an explosion of Arabic letters made from steel. The typewriter is a German make, military style with the manufacturers stamp on the front in German ‘Olympia Werke West GmbH’, the keys of the typewriter are letters in Hebrew type and in place of paper emerging the Arabic calligraphy explodes in severe and contemporary forms. The piece signifies the power of the word and the political situations and struggles that transcend time in a collision of text and letters. The audience are unable to escape from the emotive execution of this piece, a comment on political affairs, historically and in the current time. What emerges from this piece is the merging of three cultures and the inability to escape from the idea that these are connected in forming the current Israeli / Palestinian conflict.
Any combination of German and Jewish elements, such as this piece, will always evoke the idea of the Holocaust and the exploding Arabic words are seen as the result of the German machine and Hebrew letters. I propose that the Arabic here represents the Palestinian territories and Fatmi is expressing his own feelings and view of a political situation using text as a vehicle. The text implemented is not only Arabic text but also German, Hebrew, and English in the title ‘The Impossible Union’ to connect and crossover political issues that concern both East and West. Of all the text’s used it is the Arabic that is the most prominent and as I have established earlier, there is a duo-role of Arabic calligraphy; that of a narrative meaning and the aesthetic opportunities it provides. In this instance the words that emerge aren’t really words; they are a collection of letters, becoming an icon and grammatical visual message. Fatmi is calling for political awareness of how conflicts are created and also of the sense of beauty in humanity between cultures, beliefs and governments.
Fatmi’s piece, Modern Times, A History of the Machine, is an installation consisting of three parts; two moving wall projections showing cogs and interconnecting patterns moving with noise, an expression of ever changing and disproportionate politics and the economic state of the modern Arab world, and a floor piece made up of steel circular band saws.
The centrepiece of Modern Times combines the delicacy of calligraphy with the aggressive and sharpness of metal saws seemingly cutting into the very space it inhabits. The text is cut out of the steel forming a negative space allowing the floor element to visually connect to the projections above. The shapes of the calligraphic text overcome the literal meaning of the words as they disappear into the floor reflecting the overpowering nature of the machine; the machine here representing the governing bodies of the Arab world. This machine is further explored through the projecting moving cogs reminiscent of a factory suggestive of modern industrial society.
Within this moving projection text appears and disappears taking an abstract form reflecting the speed and change of the physical and political architecture of the Middle East and the effect this has on the population attempting to keep up. We propose that Fatmi uses text as a means to imply ideas, not for its literal meaning but to form part of the piece’s construction, helping to produce visual space and a ‘linguistic game’ that forces the viewer to reassess their preconceptions of the political and social state of the modern Arab world. Fatmi distorts the written Arabic word, retaining its fluidity but transforming the traditionally soft elegance of calligraphy into severe metal contemporary forms in order to connect text to his clear political dialogue. Fatmi discussed how his work “aims to bring the Arabic calligraphy to a contemporaneous modernity” so that text and calligraphy, once bound only to religion, now has varying roles in expressing many parts of identity, such as a political opinion.
Mounir Fatmi, Modern Times, A History of the Machine, 2009-2010, Details.
Fatmi, in his text inclusive works, acknowledges the powerful and rich heritage of the written Arabic word but, as discussed in our interview with him, his aim is to “desecrate this history, to deconstruct it and to bring it to a new modernity, to take it off the idea of religion and at last that it can become a material for any visual artist”. At #OCCUPYARABART we see Fatmi as a powerful example of a contemporary Arab artist who is expressing new ideas through mixed media experimentation. We have explored only one aspect of this dynmaic artist; his use of the Arabic text. Fatmi successfully moves the insinuation away from religion and into the spheres of socio-politics via compelling and vivid installations and narratives. We look forward to bringing you furhter, mutliple aspects of Fatmis many works, installations and series.