Through paintings, collages, sculptures and art installations, the 40-year-old transfers Palestinian archives into new evocations of culture that breathe in the past, present, and future. On occasion, he satirically plasters the Palestinian eye with the Western view.
Having experienced the Palestinian war himself, the opportunity to study in Italy allowed Harb to reconcile his roots. As such, his artwork changes with time but remains heartfelt and symmetrical to themes of war and trauma. Now living between Rome and Dubai, Harb, with uncommon skill, narrates the turmoil of the dispersed citizen. But he isn’t here to dictate the political discourse; it’s all simply part of his panorama of sentimental debris.
Geometric shapes and architecture occupy plenty of your pieces. Is there a favourite building or space that takes you back to a particular memory?
The legacy of European architecture has loomed large in my mind since my years spent studying art in Rome. However, my work looks beyond the aesthetics to the social mechanisms that interrelate with architectural forms; this is always within the context of Palestine. Rather than focusing on physical form, I delve into the way that humans engage with the built environment and how these spaces can be co-opted for various agendas. In Invisible Scenes and Concrete of the Future for example, I explore the ways in which architecture can become embedded within colonial processes and a product of political agendas.
Are you more influenced by artists or the human experiences surrounding you?
My formative years were very much influenced by the work of other artists as I honed my technical skills in Italy, but I came to the point where I was developing my own practice and understanding the ways in which I engage with art. I found I was deeply impacted by human narratives and this led to my artistic explorations of individual and collective memory.
Collective narratives were once framed neatly as ‘history’, but through my work I seek to expose the superficiality of framing that ultimately comes from mass media and hegemonic powers.
How would you describe your style?
I belong to contemporary and conceptual arts, where my focus falls upon the concept. I work with mixed and multiple media and these are selected based upon what best fits and relays the concept.
My work is primarily concerned with the historical past of my country and its place in the current day. The use of collage allows me to construct a discourse that did not previously exist or was at least hidden. I imbed old photography and archival objects within my works, often rare pieces of the past that I cut and insert into conceptual compositions. Both the result and the approach relay a hidden story, the use of genuine historical sources summoning the past to the present – a solution proposed to reaffirm and re-establish the cultural and physical existence of my people.
You have a meticulous approach in creating portraits, an ability to showcase a past interrupted by the present while remaining timeless. How did you develop this unique style?
My work is in constant dialogue between the past and present, the local and global, but rather than dwelling within the realm of nostalgia it seeks to reframe and reassert lesser known realities. I am always referring to my own Palestinian identity, which I find doesn’t always resonate with media portrayals, a notion which many may relate to. So I take a research-driven approach, moving beyond stereotypes and the limitations of verbal language and photojournalism to create a physical representation of multi-faceted social issues. My art interrogates the nuances and problems surrounding shifting borders, displacement and diaspora – topics which I believe resonate with all people in the contemporary moment.
Your collages of diaspora require substantial research. How do you get your hands on the material?
Over the years I’ve amassed a large archive of images as well as video and visual documents. I’ve discovered these items through various sources including vintage markets, antique stores, donations from private collections, auctions and online platforms.
Several of my pieces also include archival images that actually date back to the 1920s, these were acquired through the Library of Congress.
Your work speaks to anyone who feels displaced from their homeland. But do you have art that discusses a personal story – and have you ever created something using your personal archives?
Although my art centres around the Palestinian case, I am always trying to communicate through a universal human language which connects our collective experiences. To do this I avoid zoning-in on my personal or familial experiences specifically as this limits my dialogue to just one very specific perspective. I like to maintain objective distance so that I can draw connections between what has happened or is happening in Palestine and other societies – the Kurdish and Armenian cases are two notable examples. That being said, as with everyone, my personal circumstances and surroundings have inevitably impacted my perspectives and ideas about the world; my own family archives formed my first encounters with this type of material.
Did studying in Italy influence your style or the portrayal of your Palestinian culture?
I studied in Rome and lived in the city from 2005. It was a pivotal experience for me as an artist, living in the space and engaging with this culturally-loaded climate had an immeasurable impact upon both my artistic and human personalities. While Italy did not push me to deviate from my cultural identity as a Palestinian, it helped me to understand who I am from a fresh perspective.
Do you feel a sense of responsibility towards your Palestinian heritage?
Palestine lies at the core of my work and remains the basis for each of my artistic interrogations. As such it’s impossible not to feel a responsibility. There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting. In existential mathematics that experience takes the form of two basic equations: The degree of slowness is directly proportional to the intensity of memory; the degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting. And a growing interest in memory has begun to occupy the art world and society as such over the past three decades. Several books have been published dealing with the weakening of memory in our era. One example is the anthropologist Paul Connerton’s book How Modernity Forgets, in which he highlights the very particular way that the notion actually occurs, “associated with processes that separate social life from locality and from human dimensions: superhuman speed, megacities that are so enormous as to be unmemorable”.
If you look back at your very first piece and your latest, how has your work changed?
An artist lives many human experiences, many of which come to light in one’s practice. At the start was Gaza, Palestine, where I practiced my passion for art during my childhood in the early nineties. On the formation of my artistic identity, there were years of extensive technical practice; drawing and painting in both Palestine and Italy. This later evolved into a conceptual way of thinking and synthesising these skills. Today, my work continues to evolve and reinvent itself. While I’ve stepped away from painting as a single medium for the moment and I continue to draw upon my technical skills while incorporating other modes of working, my focus falls upon humanitarian issues. Art is my mode from which to communicate to a wider audience.
You utilise different art techniques in most of your work, but a lot is handwork. Would you consider more of a digital approach in the future?
As a visual artist I adapt my approach to the medium which I feel best represents that concept I’m exploring at that time. In the past this has been through drawing, painting, video art, and installation with a recent focus on collage. My practice, however, tends to include the human touch. Most recently for my current exhibition, Contemporary Heritage at Tabari Artspace, I produced two pieces that were inspired by 1930s archival imagery. Through a painstaking etching process, which took place over six months, and involved a vast amount of precision, I mapped out the social realities of Palestine both real and imagined. The etchings have been 3-D printed and fixed on to a light-box, illuminating a glimpse into collective resistance.
What motivates you to focus on your current aesthetic choice?
Well, as an artist and a Palestinian whose work reflects upon social and historical factors with a universal reach, especially in our moment of mass migration and unrest, I feel an immense sense of responsibility. I hold on to this feeling when producing works – the idea that my art can speak to many different people on a global scale is truly a source of much motivation.
Exhibition Imagery: Supplied
Imagery Of Nicholas Hlobo And His Studio: Paul Wetherell