Sundus Abdul Hadi describes herself as a multimedia artist. Her ability to weave different materials and platforms into strong unforgettable sounds and images is exceptional. Influenced by Iraq and her Diaspora, Sundus has created an important body of work that will forever be relevant as a reflection of an important period of time in our worlds.Q: How would you describe your art? A: It is both a reflection of our current times as well as a projection of an imagined reality. Q: There might be many sources of inspiration; is there one source of energy that drives your creativity more than others? A: Inspiration is a hard word to use when it comes to my work, because a lot of the subject matter that I’ve worked with I would never classify as inspirational. However, the harsh realities of war, occupation and exploitation hold countless stories of survival and resilience. I strive to record those stories visually. I’m also very interested in ancient heritage and iconography, and the age-old urge to create images to tell the story of our time. Q: How does Iraq fit into your consciousness and subsequently into your work? A: That question relates to both a very personal sense of identity, as well as a social sense of responsibility. The injustices that Iraq has suffered have made it into a powerful symbol of the state of our (my) world, politically and metaphorically. Every Iraqi, no matter how apolitical, has suffered first hand from the corruption and violence that runs so rampant there. However, through suffering, there is also healing. That is where I’m at now. It is necessary to acknowledge the tragedies, but one must also focus on how to overcome them. Q: You grew up in the UAE, and lived most of your life in Montreal; how does the concept of home, exile, belonging, and distance play its way into your art? Does it at all? A: Home, exile, belonging and distance were concepts I dealt with through my art. Although my work was not explicitly about those topics, it was always between the lines. After all, I wasn’t born in Iraq, nor was I raised there, and the only home I knew that provided me with rights as a citizen was Canada.
It’s a complex equation. On my visits to Baghdad, I was always considered an “ajnabiya” (a foreigner), whereas in Canada, my identity as an Iraqi was always on the forefront. I spent much of my adult life exploring these complexities, until I had enough of the identity crisis. As confusing or contradictory as it may be to some to try to understand who I am, I’ve accepted myself openly and without prejudices.Q: Would you like to exhibit your work in Iraq? A: Yes, in Iraq and in many other places around the world. Generally, I would love my work to have more exposure in the Arab world. Q: Do you make art so it can be a vehicle for encouraging social change? A: I hope to create an image that will urge my viewer to reflect and question. I also hope to encourage those who are creatively inclined to produce their own work and tell their own stories, no matter the medium. The ultimate privilege is to have someone be inspired or motivated enough to express themselves through music, art, or writing after seeing your work. Q: What expectations and limitations face contemporary artists from Iraq and the wider Arab world? A: That is a multifaceted question, because expectations and limitations can be self-imposed, imposed on artists by their governments and environment, and imposed on them by the art industry. For Iraqi artists living inside Iraq, the challenges they face are quite different from those faced by those in the Diaspora, such as myself.
I have the utmost respect for any artist that produces in the dire situations of little or no electricity, lack of social or professional support, and limited resources. However, I feel as though one of the most underlying limitations that artists in Iraq face is that being an artist is not considered a respectable profession due to shifting priorities in the country over the past few decades.
In the more established global industry of contemporary art, there are just as many expectations and limitations. Some of the issues that I have faced personally are censorship, and industry politics. The art world can be just as corrupt and incestuous as any big-money institution. Most of the time, there simply aren’t enough legitimate opportunities for independent artists, as much of the opportunities are monopolized by big name galleries and associations, and who you know (wasta!).
In general, being an independent artist makes it more difficult to exhibit, sell and expose your work to wider audiences, or gain the attention and respect of the larger institutions.Q: Are there enough spaces to exhibit and discuss and develop? A: No. However, there are some really great grassroots programs, organizations and galleries that provide independent artists such as myself with opportunities to collaborate and connect with other like-minded people, and reach out.
Sada Iraq is an amazing non-profit organization that is providing a great platform for Iraqi artists within and outside Iraq to connect and develop. I was one of their teaching artists, where I worked as part of a distance teaching program last year, which was, in my opinion, a groundbreaking bridge between young Iraqi artists, students and filmmakers inside Iraq and practicing Iraqi artists around the world.
Also, never underestimate the support that you can get from small community centers and organizations to take on projects or exhibits that larger institutions would shy away from.Q: With the kind of work that you create, how difficult is it for you to support yourself and your family through your art? A: I have never produced any of my personal artwork with the goal of sustenance. I choose to sustain myself by working in other disciplines, as a multimedia artist. I work as art director, teaching artist, community worker, and often with the music industry. These are other passions of mine that give me room to express myself creatively and collaborate with other like-minded people. I do that mostly through The Medium, which is a multimedia company founded by The Narcicyst and art directed by myself. Q: Your major body of work thus far has been Warchestra. Please describe its inception, its early childhood, and its reception by the world as it and you have matured. A: Warchestra was born as my response to the way the war in Iraq was represented by the Western media. As a spectator of the war as well as someone who was intricately connected to its tragedy, I felt a strong responsibility to counter the blatant stereotyping and one-dimensional imaging that was being fed to the viewer.
My interest and research in the rich cultural heritage of Iraq, coupled with the musical environment I was surrounded by in Montreal, formed the conceptual foundation of the project. Replacing weapons of violence with objects of culture was my way of subverting the propaganda of the war in Iraq, and bringing forth an image that didn’t exist in the media. Warchestra’s goal was to redefine, re-imagine and reinvent the war in Iraq and have it exist in a possible, yet imaginary alternative to how we, as spectators, consume media.
The project evolved to becoming a collaborative effort between myself, The Narcicyst, and a handful of inspiring musicians and poets, and together we created a soundtrack to each painting, with the aim of transporting the viewer/listener to a re-imagined space of image and sound.
The production period was quite intense for me as an artist, and as an Iraqi in the diaspora. I spent much of my creative energy meditating on the destructive nature of violence, politics and war. In the process of transforming the concept from war to one of empowerment, I let myself get creatively and mentally drained.
Although I feel as though “Warchestra” did its duty in humbly doing its part in documenting and subverting the social and political issues that Iraq was undergoing between 2003-2010, today I see it functioning as a time-capsule. It is a reference point to what the country was going through during that time from a subversive perspective that has little or no presence in the mainstream, as well as my own struggles with my identity and understanding of it all.
Unfortunately, some years on now, I feel that I wasn’t able to receive from the Warchestra project the same efforts that I had put into it. Although it was exhibited widely in Canada, it didn’t reach the audience that I hoped it would in the Arab world, where I feel the people would understand the work on a different level.
Warchestra. Click to view slideshow.
Q: What role does music play in your visual art? How are the two connected?
A: Music is a huge part of my environment and makes up a lot of how I understand creativity. My first art form was the piano, which I played from the age of 4. My personal interest in Iraqi musical heritage, coupled with Warchestra’s foundational concept of replacing weapons with instruments naturally led to the evolution of the project to include music.
Music has a beautiful collaborative quality that is not found in much of the visual arts which tend to be ego-driven and solo-produced. I identify myself as a multimedia artist because I don’t want to limit myself to one medium of expression, and also because I’ve actively developed my skills in audio, video, and the digital arts over the years.
Finally, music will always play a special part in my process because of my start with Euphrates back in 2001, where I developed my visual art in unison with and through their music, producing their album covers and their aesthetic. What Sandhill did through beats, and what The Narcicyst did through lyrics, I chose to do through images.
My work had to become mobile. I went back to my roots as a graphic artist in order to create with limited resources, and collaborated with my sister Tamara whose photographs have always been a great source of inspiration for me. Although I find graphic art to be less challenging than the physical act of painting, digital collage is just as rewarding. It was the perfect medium for me during the transitional period of healing, travel and new collaborations.
Flight. Click to view slideshow.
Q: In Flight, you visited many places outside Iraq, the exclusive locale of your previous works, what are the connections in your mind between Iraq and Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt. A: I won’t lie that I was very hurt about Iraq throughout the production of the Flight series. I felt let down by my country. My last visit to Baghdad was very difficult, as I experienced one of the most intense bombings of 2009- the devastating attacks on December 8th. After that day, I felt a strong disdain towards Iraq because the fear, violence, tragedy and trauma that are so abundant in that land manifested within me.
What hurt the most was that I felt that my people had given up, normalized the abnormal and hardened to its realities. I felt like I didn’t belong there, rejected and judged by most of the people I had come into contact with during my stay. The negative had outweighed the positive. This caused a deep conflict for me, identity-wise as well as for my artistic process, which was so Iraq-centric for so many years. As I started healing that conflict within me through the Flight series, I spread my reach towards other countries and places that had been touched by the same injustices that Iraq suffers on a daily basis.
Suffering is indiscriminate, and healing should be as well. It wasn’t about making political references anymore, but rather about the human condition of rising above hardship, especially in light of the events of the so-called Arab spring.Q: In this work, you collaborate with your sister, who is an established photographer and artist. Your mother is a visual artist as well, and you are married to a recording artist; how has being in a talented environment like that shaped your art? A: It is a true blessing and I am grateful every day for having such inspirational people around me. I don’t need to go far to feel inspired, supported or constructively criticized. Collaborating is the most interesting part, and over the years I have gotten comfortable with photography, sound and video thanks to being exposed to them so closely. Q: The Arab Winter was a project that you collaborated on with Tamara Abdul Hadi, Narcy, and El Seed; it was a response to the term the Arab Spring, which was coined by media types to describe uprisings across the Arab world. Why did you choose to engage in this project; why did you call it the Arab Winter, and why in Montreal? A: Montreal is a city that is very dear to me. It is my home away from home, and has seen me come of age and become the person that I am today. Despite my frequent visits to the Arab world, I would always go back to Montreal to reflect and produce, work and live.
When the opportunity to curate a show at the Under Pressure Fresh Paint gallery came up, Narcy, El Seed, myself and Tunisian calligrapher Karim Jabbari started brainstorming for a concept that referenced all of our work and identities. The common denominators was that we all had a foot in Montreal and a foot in our homelands, and we were all directly touched by the political events pre-Arab spring and post.
More than anything else, we were all critical thinkers that held a degree of hesitation regarding the celebratory representation of the so-called Arab Spring. As exciting as it was, we were careful not to buy into the hype. Hence the title, coupled with a tongue in cheek nod to the brutal Montreal winter (the exhibition opened on December 2nd, 2011).
We designed the exhibition to reflect the Arab street and its complexities, referencing our past, our present and our future, with over 60 artworks by seven artists, including my sister Tamara, my mother Sawsan, my father Taghlib, and the core Montreal team that included myself, Narcy El Seed and Karim.
Arab Winter. Click to view slideshow.
Q: Is there an ideal audience for all your works? Do you want a particular group of people, age, mindset, or background to be exposed to your work? Does the audience factor into your work at all? A:Audience is possibly the most important factor I consider when I create an artwork. The duality of my identity as a blend of both East and West sensitizes me to both societies and communities. I am fully aware of that responsibility, because even visual language can be misinterpreted. For example, this spring, my work will be included in a group exhibition of female Iraqi artists at the Veterans Museum in Chicago.
I was very apprehensive at first, and had to carefully consider the circumstances, statements and context around the exhibit before I was able to agree to participate. Luckily, I trust the curator and know that she is very cautious about how easily the exhibit can be used to normalize the complex, loaded and imbalanced relationship between the US military and Iraq.
The fact is, if our voice as Iraqi women is not included in the context of the veterans museum, it further perpetuates the omission of the Iraqi voice as part of the discourse around the war and occupation of Iraq. And we are not quiet nor soft-spoken with our artwork. I want to expose people who would have otherwise never met an Iraqi other than in a war context to my work, and simultaneously, expose Arabs that wouldn’t consider sharing their stories through art to my work as well. To teach, and to share. To change perspectives.Q: What’s the word with Seen, jewelry in the form of Arabic calligraphy? Is it possible to save this art form from the grasps of the cliché? A: “Seen ” is truly a pet project for me. I often turn to making jewelry when I’m transitioning from one series to another, because it allows me to be creative while using the least amount of conceptual brain power! Sometimes I just want to make things with my hands and daydream.
All of the jewelry I’ve made starts out because I want to wear it myself and can’t find anything like it on the market. Then I’ll make one for my sister, my husband, my mother. Starting the Etsy page was an experiment and it went quite well, except that my production is not consistent enough for it to become my main trade. Maybe one day.
Arabic calligraphy is a beautiful skill that I have been practicing for many years now, and jewelry design is my favorite medium to manifest it. I’ve also been collecting Arabic proverbs for many years, so putting them on jewelry keeps these words of wisdom close to self as reminders. The cliché is more in the messages you put forth- as long as I’m not being asked to put your name on a bracelet then it’s a positive trend!Q: What does the future hold for you? Shakomako? A: Makoo shakoo! Except, I hope to always continue learning, producing, teaching, and being challenged. Thanks for reading and for giving me the platform to share my views. Peace!