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There is a quiet confidence about abstract artist Salameh Nematt that can initially go unnoticed when first meeting the artist. And it isn’t until you engage in detailed discussion, when Jordan-based Nematt purposely broadens his shoulders and settles into a debate about his politics, life, and art, that one begins to fully understand how relevant his work is to the times we live in now.
Without the burden of ego or the sentiment of self-interest, Nematt occupies our shared space during the interview as prominently as light illuminating a room. Such detailed forensics of our brief time together may appear a little excessive, but there is something quite remarkable about this man, lying just below the surface like an iceberg. Such dynamics make for an exchange that is as much determined by bouts of silence as it is punctuated by his will to speak.
Like American abstract expressionist Cy Twombly before him, Nematt professes to paint without the formal constrains of detail or direction, because for him the freedom to express himself has come at a price. And he appears not to have taken that for granted, or be constrained by the jargon of a formalist approach. For Nematt, taking a pencil to paper, of building up a montage, and of adding coloured pigment to canvas are the actions that make the artist feel most comfortable and at ease with himself, as he and his work find their place in a country and a wider region up-ended by revolution.
Influenced by the fleeting principles of French Impressionism and the emotive colourist canon of European fauvism, Nematt appeared always to be looking outwardly for a more inclusive palette. But where the decorative delirium of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism appeared to sanction a positive new appraisal of the modern world, for Nematt working in Amman in the early 1980s, art had become something of a political tool in a war against prescribed totalitarian ideals. Tellingly in conversation the artist talks of his move away from the idle beauty of presentation toward a more fractured sense of abstraction: ‘I felt that with all the political turmoil and oppression in the region, I could not just do nice landscapes and beautiful flowers. I could not separate art from politics and vice versa. I became an established journalist with an intense love of art, to the point that some colleagues described my writings as a work of art, with rhythm and colour, just like a painting.’
And with his move towards abstraction decided, Nematt was able to employ more of the sentiment of American abstract expressionism, in which colour itself acted as both the narrative and plot. Like to an ethnographer looking anew, Nematt forensically absorbs the social and political changes around him, and interprets them as visual parables.
Nematt spoke to The Culture Trip about his work and his passion for abstraction.
Rajesh Punj: For an audience unaware of who you are, can we begin by your introducing yourself, explaining your interests, your critical and cultural views, and something of your motivation to paint?
Salameh Nematt: I was born in Damascus, Syria on 2 October 1962. But my birth certificate says I was born in Amman, Jordan on 22 October 1962. My mother, who’s a Lebanese-Syrian, was eight months pregnant with me, and was on a visit to attend the annual Damascus International Art Expo. In those days pregnant women did not know their delivery due date. She was rushed to the French Hospital in Damascus, where I was born by accident. My Jordanian father was upset that his first-born (and only) son was born in another country, as he could not visit Syria because of his political views that would have had him arrested at the border. And in order for me not to be registered as born in Damascus, which would have made me a Syrian citizen, and which would have meant I would have had to serve in the Syrian military once I was of military age, I was smuggled into Jordan and registered as being born in Jordan 20 days later.
My father was a simple farmer who later got involved in the real estate business. It was my mother who was interested in the arts. It was from her that I developed my initial desire to explore everything artistic. My father was not impressed, to say the least. Later on in school, as a teenager, I met a fellow rebel student and teenager artist by the name of Ammar Khammash, and he somehow got me to start painting, and introduced me to what was then a very small art community in the then sleepy little city of Amman. As I got more and more involved in the arts, my father increasingly felt I was a hopeless case in terms of following his footsteps as his only son, whom he hoped would take over his real estate business.
RP: When did you turn to painting? And can you explain some of your original influences?
SN: Within a year or two I found myself fully involved in painting, to the point that I dropped out of school and held my first solo exhibition at the age of 19, against the will of my parents, as well as the patrons of art at the time. It was HRH Princess Wijdan Al-Hashimi, a member of the Royal family, and the head of the Royal Society of Fine Arts, who encouraged me to go for it, and even agreed to officially open my show. My paintings for that exhibition in 1981 were influenced by the works of Impressionist and fauvist European artists, particularly (Vincent) van Gogh, in addition to the influence of my friends Ammar and later Fuad Mimi, an already established artist who had graduated from St. Martins in London a few years earlier. At that time, Ammar, was already the master of watercolour paintings, and Fuad was known as Jordan’s (Paul) Cezanne. Both of my friends were mostly recognised for their cityscapes of Amman and landscapes of Jordan. Ammar later went on to study architecture in Jordan and the U.S. and became one of the leading architects in the region, in addition to being an established visual artist and designer in every sense of the word.
My first exhibition was a success, as 30 out of the 33 paintings on exhibit were sold; although I must say for a modest price. For me, at the age of 19, it was a significant milestone in my life.
RP: Given the choice, do you have a greater passion for painting or for collecting artworks?
SN: For me, it is very hard to separate the two. I had a voracious appetite to collect artworks, but I had little income to satisfy my passion for collecting. A journalist who had bought one of my paintings, convinced me to take a job as an art review writer for the only English-language daily in Jordan, The Jordan Times. That job provided me with financial security to pursue both my passion for collecting art and painting whenever I had the time. Art was always my biggest passion, but journalism provided me with a more stable income. Then I discovered that I also enjoyed the politics of journalism or political journalism as a form of communication, and I approached that with a similar passion. I would write as if I were painting. Later in my life, I approached paintings, as if it was an act of political writing. It was hard for me not to be sucked into politics having experienced the power of the written word.
RP: With regard to your more substantial paintings, why have you chosen abstraction? And for each work how do you measure the degree and manner in which to apply your paints?
SN: I only moved into abstraction at a later stage. I felt that with all the political turmoil and oppression in the region, I could not just do nice landscapes and beautiful flowers. I could not separate art from politics and vice versa. I became an established journalist with an intense love of art, to the point that some colleagues described my writings as a work of art, with rhythm and colour, just like a painting.
RP: Might it be argued that abstraction in its purist sense is a lesser art than good representation? Or alternatively for you is ‘the object’ and ‘the figure’ a distraction from pure expression?
SN: I personally don’t think there is anything called lesser art in any form of artistic expression. Representative, figurative or even photo-realistic artworks are as important as abstraction or semi-abstraction, or what you may call expressionism in its many manifestations. Objects and non-objects are in the eye of the beholder. I don’t understand why we really need to categorise things in such a manner. All representation is a form of abstraction that has been made recognisable, and all forms of abstraction can be seen as representative art made unrecognisable by the artist. The receiver or spectator could make his or her own choice of what they choose as their preference, in terms of what they feel is more appealing.
RP: Are you seeking to communicate in all of your works a sense of heightened expression; barbaric, impulsive and unchallenged?
SN: I don’t know if I have any particular or specific idea or thought that I want to communicate when I work on a subject. A lot of things happen when you look at an empty canvas and think what you want to do with it. Sometimes you try to do something specific, but end up with something totally different. You think you’re in command of what you do, then without knowing, what you do takes command of you and you simply surrender. The most important thing is not to have fixed ideas of what you want to produce. Going with the flow sometimes is the best thing to do, because it could lead you to something even better. That’s the magic of art, I think.
RP: In the 1950s ‘American Abstract Expressionism’ had a well-publicised relationship with Cold War politics and the appeal of liberalism. With your work what are your politics, your critical position? Are your paintings an expression of your liberal ideals?
SN: You may be right. But to define my politics as liberal or conservative is too simple. You’re right that I’m the product of my life, my own environment and my experiences for whatever that’s worth. But if there is any underlying force that I’m obsessed with, it is the concept of freedom. Not freedom from a physical prison, but rather freedom from the prison we put ourselves in with our own volition.