ArteEast is pleased to present an interview with artist Nour Ballout as part of our Artist Spotlight series.
Nour Ballout (b. 1993, Beirut) is a Detroit-based interdisciplinary artist and curator. They received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Wayne State University and are currently an MFA candidate at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC).
Nour is the founder of Habibi House, a neighborhood-based community art space and social engagement residency in Detroit, as well as the annual Book + Print Fest at The Arab American National Museum (AANM). They are the recipient of the 2019 Knight Arts Challenge Award, the 2019 Kresge Arts in Detroit Gilda Award, and the 2019 Applebaum Photography Fellowship. Nour has exhibited their work across the United States and participated in several artist residencies including the Ghana Think Tank in Detroit and Flux Factory in New York.
ArteEast: Can you tell us about your work in general and the main themes you return to in your practice?
Nour Ballout: My work as a visual artist and curator is rooted in a social practice exploring the concept of home as it manifests within bodies, built environments, and communities. Photographic self-portraiture, collaboration, and space making intersect while I interpret then disseminate my experience of coming home to my body and the world as a trans-masculine queer immigrant. By reconsidering the right to look, the paradoxes of representation, access, and privacy collide as I pursue the right to love and feel comfortable in my own body. Through my practice I assert my presence; I claim the right to multiplicity. My identity exists beyond its politics.
My current work examines the ways belonging and exclusion overlap in the trans Muslim community. Through photographing myself and other trans Muslims, I navigate the complexities of gender, sexuality, religion, and ethnicity, exploring how built environments and communities—even spaces that seem like home—can systematically negate, challenge, discipline, and surveil trans, brown, and queer bodies. The Muslims in North America archive establishes a new form of recorded history and serves as a catalyst for power over controlling our historical narrative.
I break bread with the people I photograph. By sharing domestic space, we build the trust and intimacy necessary to create work that depicts their story. I share the ownership and rights of every image included in the archive with my collaborators. The collaborative methods of creation in this project defy imperialist assumptions of the ownership of images as something that is inherently the photographer’s. Together, we create, communicate, and own our individual and collective narratives.
AE: You are currently completing your MFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). What has your experience been and how have you seen your practice evolve since you started the program?
NB: My experience at SAIC has been complicated. I had lived in Detroit in an intentional way outside of institutions. For a long time I worked for myself. It was a culture shock to enter an institution. After the adjustment period, I am experiencing a transformation in my practice. I have been doing a lot of exploration, through reading, looking and listening. I have had the opportunity to work and learn from creatives that I admire, as creatives but also as individuals that have a lot of integrity in their work.
AE: Can you tell us about the use of storytelling in your multidisciplinary art practice that ranges from performance to weaving and installation?
NB: Habibi House is a neighborhood-based community art space and social engagement residency in Detroit. Through this model, I invited artists, curators, and individuals across communities to engage in the process of collectively reimagining home outside of traditional institutional structures. Expanding my practice to encompass the ways I live and love, I invite my communities to become part of my practice, rather than subjects of it. It’s important for me to engage with art making in this way because I strive to produce work that encourages us to question the ethics of the tools we utilize and constantly investigate the assumptions, exploitations, and impacts of our mediums. I say this all the time now, but I used to say that I was creating a safe space, but through trying I realized it isn’t possible to create a safe space in an unsafe world. What I aim to create through my practice is accountability. Habibi House is an accountable space; it’s a space that says I want to show up, I want to build the world I want to live in but when I don’t do it right, I am going to of course correct the mistake, I am going to actively and continuously seek ways of improving. This is a value that dictates many aspects of my practice and life, which are not that separate.
AE: In 2019 you won the Knight Arts Challenge Award for the exhibition and public programs series, A Real Arab Blueprint, you curated with Roula David. Can you talk about the programs that you have been working on over the past year as well as forthcoming projects related to this series?
NB: ARAB: A Real Arab Blueprint, curated by Roula David and myself, questions what is contemporary Arab Art and what does it mean to be a contemporary Arab artist? This year-long series showcases contemporary Arab Art as a forum for deeper community contemplation around the experience of Arab creatives.
The Detroit based international project presents a wide range of perspectives and expressions of the “artistic life” lived by contemporary Arab artists and creatives from diverse backgrounds. ARAB aims to push against the western narratives of “Arabhood.” Through this exhibition and events series across disciplines including dance, storytelling, and engaging discussions, we contextualize and advance the conversations between the varied Arab communities, altering the larger public perceptions of what it means to be an Arab Artist today.
Bringing together this collection of artists highlights the complexity and diversity of who is an Arab and what is Arab art. Recognizing that we cannot encompass a complete depiction of who is an ARAB within a singular exhibition, performance, or culinary experience, we merely scratched the surface in answering this question and aim to evoke curiosity and more questions than provide answers.
We have our program mapped out around mediums of making. We’ve hosted a few events thus far that can be found on our website, arealarabblueprint.com. This month we had our first in person event, Manaeesh & Mimosa Open Mic Brunch at Spot Lite in Detroit. And as you can imagine, everything is intentional, even the choice of brunch foods. In August we’re focusing on Media, and in September we’re looking at music. We have 5 Detroit based musicians & DJs moving us the evening on Sept 9th. September is also Virgo season, AKA, my season. So I’m co-opting this program to be my birthday party.
AE: What and who are some of your major creative influences, and why?
NB: What inspires me is a need for what I am making, or the absence of the kind of work I’m looking for. I also don’t want to be complacent, I want everything I do to be intentional. I feel as though in photography many artists tend to be complacent and not challenge themselves about “why” they take the photographs they are taking.
Some of the artists and academics that I am currently looking at or reading include Olivia Arthur, Bieke Depoorter, Tina Campt and Ariella Azoulay. From Olivia Arthur’s work, I am specifically looking at her Jeddah Diary series, and how she portrays the subject in her photos without revealing their identities. Ariella Azoulay’s work has helped me interrogate the medium that I use (photography), and question whether I can ethically engage with it. Reading her work affirmed my discomfort with portrait photography and challenged me to ask myself, is there an ethical way to create my work? And, can I create an opportunity for a stranger to ethically engage with my images?
AE: What are other recent or upcoming projects that you are working on?
NB: I recently curated a billboard exhibition across the city of Chicago, and have been having regular programming as part of ARAB A Real Arab Blueprint. Some really exciting things coming up are all in the curatorial realm of my practice.
I am working on a project with the University of Michigan, Tunde Olaniran, Avery Williamson and Yo-Yo Ma, focusing on healing and processing what we have been moving through the past year and how it has shifted us. The project works to strengthen our human connection and develops a shared empathy around individual journeys and experiences during the global coronavirus pandemic, the current transition period, and evolution to a new normal.
NOUR BALLOUT ONLINE: