Blooming Pencils and Woven Symbols
A conversation on arts, crafts and culture
At the end of school holidays, Taysir Batniji as a young boy sharpened pencils for hours. Today, a field of pencil shavings is part of his most famous performance. The Palestinian artist was born 1966 in Gaza. In the mid-1990s he had to leave his homeland. With his installation 'Hannoun', Batniji is confronting two central dimensions of his life: the conflictive situation in Gaza, and living in exile. The installation was designed and realised in 2009 at the 53th Venice Biennial, and it is featured in the exhibition 'In the Carpet ǀ Über den Teppich'. The exhibition illustrates the relationships between several cultural centres in Europe and North Africa, as well as the relationship between arts and crafts of arts and crafts. Another work shown in the exhibition is from Amina Agueznay. The Casablanca-born artist loves collaborating with Moroccan weavers and artisans from the countryside. For eight years, she worked as an architect in the United States. With her textiles installations she deals with traditional motifs and craft techniques.
Interview by Mustafa Yapakci and Siri Gögelmann
ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen): Mona Mekouar, one of the curators of the exhibition 'In the Carpet', asked you to join the project. What were your biggest challenges in creating the presented works?
Amina Agueznay: It's quite an honour for me to be part of the exhibition and to present my work next to that of Sheila Hicks. Like her, I'm giving workshops to help Moroccan artisans make new rugs; my project is supported by the Moroccan Ministry of Craft. The challenging part of the work was collaborating with a female artisan living in the countryside. I couldn't stay with her and observe the process, because while the drawing was done in an hour, the weaving took a whole week. So the challenge was to accept unpredicted results.
Taysir Batniji: For me, one of the most challenging things was to adapt the installation to the space, considering all elements like the light and materials. Each museum and each gallery has its own architecture and characteristics. But at the ifa gallery we've managed to resolve some of those details quite well.
ifa: The exhibition investigates the mutual influences between arts and crafts. What is the difference for you?
Batniji: Actually I don't like the distinction of arts and crafts. My work is a piece of art, but the process of realisation takes the shape of craft. I like this confrontation between my work and crafts. I use different materials like salt, chocolate, glass and metal. For the 'Hannoun' installation, as well as for other works, I take the character of a craftsman. For me, crafts are ideas related to the needs of civilization, yet at the same time there is an aesthetic part: the desire of the craftsman or craftswoman to express something through craft. Palestinian embroidery, for example, is not just a mechanical practice. It reflects the social and political life of the Palestinian people throughout history.
Agueznay: The definition of arts and crafts depends on one's personal background. I believe that for most Moroccans a rug is craft – yes, definitely craft with an emphasis on the graphic part. From my fieldwork back home, I identified two different types of rugs: the 'zarbiya' and the 'qtifa'. The 'qtifa' is the predecessor of the 'zarbiya'. It had a double function: it was used as a bed and a cover. Rugs are also holders of a story, which differs between the first and the second piece, and so on. Although there is a different articulation of how I work with the pieces, there are changes in the whole working process from conceptualization to realization.
ifa: What characterises your working process, and which aspect of your work is particularly important for you?
Agueznay: Collaborative work is very important for me. I am not a weaver, pottery maker or silversmith, but I love exchange with artisans. For this project I worked with an artisan from Tiflet in the Zemmour region. I showed her the symbol I was interested in and gave her a piece of paper and pencil and asked her to draw it. She said: 'I don't know how to draw with a pencil. Let me draw with my weaving.' I took some videos when she
was actually thinking that she was weaving while she was drawing. It was an interesting experiment. The weaving of the exhibition pieces took quite some time. After that, I wanted to 'break free' from the weaver and try something different. With the help of another artisan, I created the three-dimensional piece shown in the exhibition. It was still textile, but a different articulation of material. For me, the Moroccan craft field is like a place with millions of ideas. At the end, it’s all about process and experimentation.
Batniji: For the performance for the 'Hannoun' installation I'm standing all the time. Sometimes I'm listening to music and thinking of many different things. Sometimes I'm just concentrating on what I'm doing. I become acquainted with the material, the space and my actions. Each time, the performance is kind of new for me, because I have to find a way to deal with these shapes. I can't just sharpen the pencils in pieces without any strategy. Sometimes I manage to do the shape I wanted – sometimes not. I probably already started this performance when I was still in school. I was a good student, but I hated the stressful heavy homework during holidays. At the last minute – just before school started again – I tried to do my homework. But in the end I spent my time sharpening pencils. I like the idea that I started this performance at that time and still continue today.
ifa: Your installation is reminiscent of a multi-layered landscape and resembles a field of blossoms. In the back of the installation is a photo hanging on the wall. What do the blossoms and the photo symbolize?
Batniji: The 'field of poppies' is a suggestion. It's not a real illustration of poppies; it's more like in a dream. It is something 'in–between'. In Palestine we believe that where the poppy flowers grow, blood has been spread or people have been killed defending their homeland. The photo shows my studio in Gaza. I only worked there a few hours, because once the work was finished I went to Germany for an artist residency. After six months I was supposed to go back to Gaza, but the situation there got very complicated and I had to continue my work in Europe. With my work I wanted to confront two spaces: the physical atelier in Gaza – where you can work but you can't go – and the space of the exhibition – where you can work but it's only accessible for the duration of the exhibition. I start the performance from the back of the room and I move forward. But I can never go back. It's the idea of an imprisoned territory. And most of my works from the last ten to fifteen years also reflect the situation I live in: being in two countries and cultures.
ifa: Thank you for the interview and connecting with us.