A conversation with the acclaimed Tunisian artist, who's currently working on an upcoming exhibition in Dubai this March.
Nadia Kaabi-Linke captures a sense of the trap
The entrance to Madinat Jumeirah during last year's Art Dubai was the scene of a rather humorous meeting between art and body.
Nadia Kaabi-Linke's vast sculpture in chrome-plated aluminium, Flying Carpets, was one of the winning pieces in the Abraaj Capital Art Prize (ACAP) for 2011, unveiled during the art fair. Her work hovered above the foyer - a bridge of shimmering geometry that curved through the space.
Yet some of the taller art-lovers, their thoughts buried in a whirl of conversations and concepts, just mistimed a necessary bow to Kaabi-Linke's piece. Simply, there were more than a few bumped heads.
But such cerebral collisions are also fitting. Kaabi-Linke is an artist who builds her conceptually challenging work on extensive research, yet uses divergent approaches and mediums to explore concepts in a distinctly tactile and tangible way.
The Tunisian artist has been back in the UAE for the past three weeks, holed up in Maraya Art Centre in Sharjah, preparing for her solo show at Dubai's Lawrie Shabibi gallery in March.
Following her ACAP win, and her appearance in last year's Venice Biennale, Black Is the New White is an eagerly awaited show. When The National spoke to the artist, she'd finally laid hands on the object that drew her over here.
"You can only find this style of lobster pot here in the Emirates," she said, gesturing to the white wire trap that forms the central installation piece in her forthcoming show. Its funnel entrance, like a yawning wormhole, appears inviting yet somehow aggressive - used to lure lobsters in to their doom. But the weave in the pot's metal structure looks remarkably like the Star of David.
"All of the works in this show are in some sense a trap, directly or indirectly," said Kaabi-Linke, explaining that this piece meditates on the entrapment in a sense of victimhood felt by both Palestinians and Israelis.
White Is the New Black also looks to be particularly charged by last year's revolution in Tunisia, which ended Zine El Abidine ben Ali's near quarter-century rule. Kaabi-Linke talks about the show as trying to reposition viewpoints towards the long-term rather than focusing solely on the nuances of here and now. In the wake of revolution, tourism disappeared from the white-sand shores of her country. "The Occident is always presenting itself as supporting democracy and revolution in north Africa. It clapped for this beautiful revolution, but after the fact these people didn't come."
Provocative advertising campaigns on the streets of London, showing a flannel-shirted man in sunglasses basking by the Mediterranean and the words "They say Tunisia is a real hot spot", were not enough to draw the same bulk of tourists back to the country after the revolution. Now, Kaabi-Linke explained, it's necessary to reconfigure the way Tunisia has approached tourism, so vital to its economy, and move away from the anonymous concrete masses that line its coast to create something more integrated and considered to the populace.
She has rendered this by recreating the walls of Tunis's ministry of tourism on canvas, a paint- and wax-heavy image that oozes with sluggishness. In the corner of the image is a small, barred window. "I'm making it look like a prison to say, do you want this old kind of tourism or do you want people who are interested in the background and the history of the country?"
She referred again to the defining element of this show - the sense of a trap, and implicit warnings about constructing new traps that will ensnare the country in the future. Creating divides between Tunisians and visiting foreigners in what she sees as an anonymous tourism of the past only spells trouble for the future.
The hinge of Black Is the New White is a fake fashion label imagined by the artist, "Joseph Van Helt". She has created a billboard-size advertisement for a new range of "Van Helt" kanduras for men, yet made from the same cloth as the abaya. "The kandura is not comfortable like this because it's a very heavy material, but the shine looks beautiful." Shot out in the UAE desert, the piece is an inquiry into "why historically would women wear black and men wear white".
This interest, she said, had arisen from a new conservatism since the revolution. She mentioned the claims among parts of Tunisian society that Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party now holding 40 per cent of parliament since October's elections, was receiving funding from Gulf countries.
"The Tunisian women, before independence from France, used to wear a white silk cloth on their heads before they went outside. It kind of meant you are traditional, but it's still a very open and white garment.
"But now I see people wearing black, wearing niqab. Why would we take something like that when we already have our traditions?"
The artist is now off to Kiev to oversee the construction of a small army of glass scarab beetles due to be arranged peering over a stone shelf in the gallery: a potent symbol of the exciting, creative surge of the revolution but a great unknown ahead.
Black Is the New White opens at Lawrie Shabibi in Al Quoz, Dubai, in March