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ArteEast Exclusive Interview with Artist Dia Batal

Dia Batal has developed a multidisciplinary approach, creating context specific work, mostly designed for physical interaction. This style harmoniously brings the art of calligraphy, the functionality of design and the meaning of words with the use and form of the Arabic language.

DIa Batal Tawilah


Love Bench

Batal was born in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1978. She briefly lived in in Amman during elementary and high school. She studied design in Lebanon, before moving to London to complete her MA in Design and Critical Practice at Goldsmiths College. Her work has been shown in collective and solo exhibitions in Beirut, Manama, Amman, Paris, Liverpool and London. Batal has also worked on a number of community outreach projects and has been featured in Journals around the globe.

AE: You were born and grew up in Beirut, but have also studied, lived, and worked in London. Do you see your art as building upon a tradition or form specific to one region?

Dia: The art I do is context specific, and I use Arabic language and text to tell the story. The subject matter is inspired by social, political and cultural narratives that have moved me in a way or another. And although most of these narratives, whether past or contemporary, stem from the Arab world, they are also universal topics which we can all experience as humans. Whether it is love, motherhood, death, mourning, the meaning of home, being a refugee, etc.

AE: As an Arab artist in the western world, do you see your artistic approaches circulating in a global context? How did each experience in both regions affect your art?

Dia: Using Arabic language and calligraphy with a non-Arabic speaking audience has been a challenge. I think the beauty and visual appeal of the calligraphy itself, and the modern interpretation of Arab and Islamic art has really captured the interest of that audience. But then inevitably I want to explain the context and story behind the piece, which to me makes all the difference. This is something that is I found has not been needed, of course, while exhibiting in the Arab world.

AE: Much of your work is grounded in three-dimensional functional designs, yet also incorporates language in the form of calligraphy. How did you develop this multidisciplinary approach?

Dia: My background at the University was Interior Architecture and Fine Arts, during which I developed an interest in spatial design, and experimenting in different materials and techniques in art/design and as tools of expression. My home and family were a major influence as well. I grew up surrounded by my mother’s artwork, and a circle of her influential friends like Kamal Boullata, Samir Sayegh, Mahmoud Darwish, and Samia Halaby…Both she and my father have been politically active in their fields, and language has been an integral part of their work in arts and journalism, and so it was inevitable that I’d fall for it, and want to integrate this as a tool of expression and narration in my practice.

AE: Do you work with a specific audience in mind to address?

Dia: This depends on the project/artwork. A few pieces involve audience interaction but not really a specific group.

AE: Is there something specific that you would hope for, say, an American audience to take away from your work?

Dia: Perhaps a deeper and more personal understanding of narratives from the Arab world.

AE: How, if at all, does the knowledge that not everyone who will engage with your art will understand the Arabic script influence your designs?

Dia: Using Arabic language with a non-Arabic speaking audience is not easy; my artwork is not created for aesthetic reasons only, and it’s important to create a personal link with the viewer, especially when the piece is about shared human experiences. For example, in the installation ‘Mourning Hall’ at the Leighton House Museum, I covered the walls of a room, covered with hand-painted 15th century Syrian tiles, with names of people killed by the regime during the beginnings of the Syrian uprising. To create a personal link, under each name was the year they were born and killed, a lot of those are my child’s, my and your age…

AE: You have created pieces inspired by the poetry of the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who often crafted political messages through metaphor and striking imagery. Do you see your own artistic practice as a form of political activism? How do you incorporate political themes into your work? After the Arab Spring, did your view of the art world especially the Modern Middle Eastern Art change?

Dia: I think my practice is narrative based, whether or not the story is social / political. The writings of people like Mahmoud Darwish and Emile Habibi are extremely influential because I grew up learning from them in different ways, and so it is inevitable that this appears in often my work. The work usually develops from ideas or news that I’m concerned with, or a situation I’m experiencing and has moved me in one way or another. Recently this has been the experience of motherhood, and all that it carried with it, the responsibility of what to pass on to my daughter, especially as she is growing in a completely different culture than mine. The importance of memory is crucial.

The Arab Uprising has affected many of us in the Arab world and beyond I think. The energy was beautiful, so amazingly moving, the idea that finally people were taking to the streets, demanding change and reclaiming the space was incredibly energizing. This, in addition the injustices committed by the different Arab regimes (that continue to be committed) did affect my work in the past few years of course, as I was following up closely what was going on.

AE: On your website, you mention your interest in “the way the design object functions as a device that has impact on people’s lives within the public and private space . . .” This suggests a process by which the object both shapes and is shaped by context. Do you approach your work with a specific setting or context in mind? How do you understand your role in the impact that follows?

Dia: The work is completely context based, and shaped by it. During the process, the research unfolds different aspects of the story, and this in turn inspires the design, materials and text I am using. For example in the piece ‘Playing on the Beach is a Dangerous Course’, dedicated to the four boys killed on the beach of Gaza while playing in 2014, the materials used were inspired by Palestinian embroidery, the colors of that craft used in Gaza, the fishing rods that carried the fabric with the children’s names (as the four children came from a fishermen family), and the net like fabric, which is also a reminder of shrouds used to fold the bodies of the killed.

AE: A couple of your projects have involved creating spaces for mourning the lives lost in attacks in Palestine and the ongoing war in Syria. Do you see art and design as a necessary part of healing? Have these projects helped you, as a creator, find space to mourn and heal?

Dia: I’m not sure if I can say healing, particularly as those two projects ‘Mourning Hall’ and ‘Playing on the Beach is a Dangerous Course’ are part of an ongoing situation, and crimes that cause them still happen. To be honest it was emotionally very difficult to be so involved in the research and creation of these artworks. It also has made me realize more the importance of having a ‘mourning space and time’, and the difficulty of completely losing this in times of war and conflict. In addition to that, it is important to create a conversation around these topics, tell the stories of these people, raise awareness, empathy, and hopefully push people to act, especially as those pieces were being exhibited outside the Arab World.

AE: What are you working on these days? Are there any upcoming projects you would be willing to tell us about? Any upcoming trips or collaborations in New York? Can you name an artist or curator in the U.S that inspires you or with whom you would like to work?

Dia: I’m currently working on a project that looks at shifting boundaries, borders, and disappearing landscapes. I’m still in the research phase and creating works on paper during this time inspired by the research. Will see where it takes me. This will be interrupted by another major project in a few weeks: Child #2! I have no upcoming trips planned at the moment to the U.S, but we were invited to New York last year to take part in the MET’s ‘Artist Project’, and I fell in love with the city and its energy and hope to return soon!

A few artists based in the United States inspire me, to name a few that come to my mind now: Samia Halaby, Susan Hiller, Jacob Lawrence, Richard Serra…

AE: If you could create a permanent installation in any one place in the world, where would it be? What would it convey?

Dia: I actually have an idea for a sculpture in Palestine, somewhere in the West Bank, overlooking the coast…

AE: Finally, if you had one idea about how the western art world can help and develop a better relationship with Middle Eastern art and artists, What would it be? How can organizations and art galleries in the U.S and Europe really affect artists in the MENA region and help them express their work?

Dia: I think designing more art residencies, research grants and open ended collaborations for artists from the Arab world are very important. In addition, I think exposing the public in the U.S. and Europe to more work by artists from the MENA through exhibitions/performances/talks in art spaces / institutions is important.