The Lebanese artist's new installation at London's Nour Festival shines a timely light on the forgotten victims of conflict.
Dia Batal work looks at mourning rituals in Syria
When London's Nour Festival of Arts from the Middle East and North Africa kicked off earlier this month, one of its main aims was to show the British public "thought-provoking and challenging" work. The curators probably didn't imagine the exhibitions would demand so much from the artists themselves. But when Dia Batal explains her forthcoming installation, her voice lowers to a whisper. "It's probably the most distressing piece of art I've ever worked on," she says.
A project co-funded by the UK's Arts Council and Nour Festival, Mourning Room will fill the remarkable Arab Hall in London's Leighton House. Usually, it's decorated from floor to ceiling with hand-painted tiles from Damascus, but Batal will cover them with another layer bearing the names of those who have been killed in the conflict in Syria.
"The idea is to create a kind of mourning space," she explains. "In the Arab world you have the ritual where people come to the family of the deceased and pay respects for three days. But because of the conflict, a lot of people have not had the chance to do that - sometimes they've not even been able to bury their loved ones in the usual way."
In fact, some have even been buried in the middle of the night in private gardens so their families don't reveal themselves as being connected to an activist.
"There have been some really interesting collective rituals that have sprung up, which I wanted to reflect," Batal continues. "There are night demonstrations in town squares, and after a long day of shelling and burying of the killed there is mass singing - it's sad but it also celebrates the uprising, too. So I am using recordings of these 'mourning chants' in the installation as well."
Batal grew up in Lebanon before leaving for London and earning a Master's in design at Goldsmiths in 2007. She was disillusioned by the constant cycle of assassinations, wars and strikes in Beirut. "It became obvious that you can't really plan for anything in your life, living in times like that," she says. But she has family in Syria and regularly goes back to Lebanon.
"It becomes very difficult when you're on the outside," she says. "I've ended up watching videos of the people named in Mourning Room – of their funeral, maybe, or even the moment they were killed. They had to be more than a name for me. And that was important – as ugly as the videos are, this is the ugliness of what's happening. You can't really pretend it's all fine. If they're going through this, I need to be more than a spectator. I need to engage."
This sense of engagement with the public is also apparent in her Translations series, also being shown at Leighton House. The sculptures are undeniably more playful, reflecting both her background in interior architecture and furniture design and her interest in Arab text. In one piece, for example, she has created a bench in the shape of the letter "waw" in Arabic, which means "and".
"It makes more sense if you read Arabic." she says. "But the way the bench is curved in the shape of the 'and', it creates connections between people when they sit on it. 'And' is a connecting word. So the meaning of the text dictates the design."
It might seem a long way from her sombre Mourning Room, but Batal sees the connection: "Art always fills more than one purpose. But for me, it's always about trying to establish a personal link between the viewer and the piece."
Dia Batal's Mourning Room and Translations are at Leighton House, London, from November 6 to 30. Visit www.diabatal.com