An Egyptian muralist in East London

Interview with Nazir Tanbouli – 17th September 2013 in Hoxton, East London

Egyptian artist, Nazir Tanbouli recently completed a giant mural in the stairwell of the former Reeves Paint Factory in Dalston, East London. The following images were captured over a 2-3 week period as he painted on site followed by an interview at his home the day before the official unveiling to the public.

“Joan Miro and Matisse put the challenge to me on the surface before they died. It becomes like a chess game and they made their moves but now they’ve died. Now it’s my turn to engage intellectually with that and like a chess game you engage and interact by creating moves not just by talking about it. So they moved the shapes and left them for me.”

All images © 2013 Colin Cafferty

So what attracted you to this project? It’s quite an ambitious project – the sheer size of it and you weren’t going to get any financial benefit from it. So why did you decide to go for it?

Because of two things…

Number 1, as a muralist, you need a wall like a painter needs canvas. You are not a muralist until you have a wall. You’re out of work until you have a wall. So you’re always on the look out for walls.

Number 2, walls are the first surface of drawing or painting ever – the caves. We did caves before we did papyrus, before we did anything, before even any art form. So the number 1 art form in the history of Man is the scratch on a wall. Yet, since we started to organize society, the wall is always controlled by somebody…who gets to commission the artist and dictates. There’s a lot of dictation in mural painting and that’s why you get great painters like Diego Riveria but you don’t get the value of what the picture says…the picture more or less says what the communist party told him to say. So this is a flawed point in murals as an art form. And also because it involves money, a budget, so there’s always someone chipping in the money; the church, the government, the corporation – they dictate what they want on their wall.

So this job was very interesting as you’re given a wall and because you’re not given money, there’s no conditions so you’re getting a very rare chance of a wall and freedom. This is a rarity in mural art. The least bad thing you could get from a client…is that he wants one of your works that he’s seen before. In the best case scenario [with a client], if he’s not going to dictate to you, he wants you to paint like yesterday and this in itself is not progressive enough.

So you had total free rein on what you put onto these walls?

Yes, and a total chance to add to my portfolio an advanced piece that projects what I think today in respect of yesterday and open a new kind of way for commissions tomorrow. So this is a chance to move on from the Kingsland because I don’t want to do the Kingsland again. I don’t want to do monsters with black ink again. I’ve done enough of that.

Would you say that your mind was in a different place when you embarked on the Kingsland project compared to the mural that you’ve recently done at the Paint Factory?

My mind was in the same place. I had the same desire which is I’m going to do something that no one has seen before, something that I haven’t done before. This is how I work every time and this is the spirit. I don’t really know what it’s going to be like.

Is it possible to be creative if you’re doing similar work to what you’ve done previously or is the whole nature of being creative that you experiment constantly?

There are two sides of the job…

They say in Egypt that the failing businessman, when he crashes, he looks in his old books. I’m not failing, my creativity isn’t drying up yet so I don’t feel any desire in revisiting my old books seeing if there’s something that I could exploit that I missed. Maybe one day, I will reach this point – the creative drive changes. I hope not.

You mentioned a moment ago that you don’t have a preconceived idea of what the final result will be. How did this particular mural evolve from Day One? It must have been quite intimidating to arrive on that first day and have these four and a half floors of blank canvas. What was your approach to filling that space?

The staircase for me is very interesting. My first art degree was Interior Architecture. Staircases, corridors, tunnels, lifts, escalators – all of these things we refer to as transitional spaces. Usually transitional spaces are either ignored or very mildly decorated in order not to look ignored. I was always interested in crazy ideas, loud ideas, high frequency ideas. If you have a domestic space or workspace room you can’t do that because people can’t perceive that for 24 hours. But this [staircase] is a pure transitional space, which means that you can use it to do something interesting, crazy, because people are not stopping. The staircase is one format when it comes to walls and paintings that you cannot traditionally compose on because it’s not a square, it’s not a rectangle, it’s not even level and you can’t see it at one time. So for me, I found it interesting as it’s an untight composition and I’m very good at composition in the traditional sense. I’m almost theatrical, Rembrandtian in my figurative compositions. So I needed to break out of that structure. I want to make things flow, I want to make things swim, I want to make things look like they were a bunch of leaves blown by the wind. So the stairs gave me a chance to do that. It’s endless – nobody is going to see it all at one time – so it allows you to move from style to style whilst in one painting you have to be consistent. But this is like a hundred paintings, every corner could be totally disconnected but it’s also an interesting game of transition.

What was your approach on Day One when you got there because you told me that you started in the centre, so half way up the staircase, whereas traditionally you’d expect to start at the very top or the very bottom? What was your line of thinking behind that?

One of the common things done with a staircase mural is to make it a narrative mural and I started in the centre in order to avoid any temptation of narrative. So I just chucked something in the middle.

My first experience of painting [pause]. My uncle who is coming in three days time – he was painting in his room and I was sitting on the floor. I was under 2 years old; he was 18. He had an oil painting on the easel and his brushes and he was working. And so if you can imagine this from the perspective of the child sitting on the floor, the easel is 1 metre 20 high. My uncle went out for a box of cigarettes, I climbed up on his stool, I got the palette knives, I dipped them in the paint and I started stabbing the canvas and having a go at it. So my archetypal relationship with painting is me small painting giant and me being challenged by that.

My painting is adrenaline driven; there’s an element of physicality and this adrenaline comes from being inside a space that is much larger than myself and even much larger than my eyes can contain. It puts me in a fighting position. For me, the icon of Saint George and the Dragon is one of the things that [best] describe my status. I wrote before that what you’re looking at in my painting is the dead body of the dragon that once used to be my white canvas. So for me, when I say I have a mural, I tell my wife, “this dragon needs knocking”. But the nature of this mural felt like having a cage-fight with a dragon because you close the cage at the bottom and you’re trapped inside these steel bars…so it’s got a high level of physicality.

Before I started, I spent a month in the summer doing exercises – push-ups, press-ups and sit-ups – like I’m going to war. I love it when it’s big, I love it when it’s scary and the first thing I do is like what any actor does when he gets up on a new stage. He’s got to clap his hands and shout to see exactly how far his voice goes in this theatre…filling the space. This is what you do in a painting like this. You go and just chuck buckets, chuck buckets! Create something, claim it! If it was stable, you claim it by destabilizing it. Then it becomes your responsibility to restabilize it. Because by the time you’ve splashed the muck on it, you can’t go now. You were able to leave and avoid the fight as long as it was a white wall but now you’ve walked in and in front of everyone you’ve splashed that sh*t on it. You can’t go away. You’re stuck in this fight until you win it. You can’t lose it. If you lose it, you lose your reputation.

At one point I called to see you when you were in the middle of your work and you said that it’s all come together in your head now and you were beginning to view the space as a giant twister. Can you tell me a bit more about that?

I wanted something abstract and I wanted to avoid any kind of composition. But over time, I found myself interacting with the architectural form itself. So a staircase, in a way gives you physically and psychologically, a sense of spiraling. After the middle, I went to the ground floor and the entrance area and I was planning to make it like the floor before, things just floating but I felt that the forms I created had some kind of speed and direction and maybe that’s because this was the main focus in my drawing over the last year. The energy caused by the direction, the speed of the mark and how that is the core of drawing. So when I looked at what I had done, it felt like things were rotating…

The basement is dark and then it starts to lighten bit by bit because the building next door is short so it blocks the light but the higher you go the more light you get. So I’m going to underline this claustrophobia in the basement and gradually take it to some kind of visual catharsis when it reaches the fourth floor. So at the bottom, I made a point of making it claustrophobic, fast, dark. By the time you hit upstairs, it’s like you referred to, a swimming pool. I wanted the sensation of floating in blue sky or blue water. It’s not a swimming pool – it feels like a swimming pool. I wouldn’t call it sight response but technically it is. What happened is an unconscious response to the architecture of the staircase.

This transitional space is linking what? Linking Dalston High Street – very busy, very active, very crowded, very colourful, very polluted and you’re coming from England so it’s more likely to be grey. Then you are going to go into a place where most people work in graphics, design, photography, visual jobs. And all of them work on computers, sitting at monitors. They use this transitional space not just to go in and out of the office but to go out for a cigarette break and back, for lunch and back. So my idea was some kind of colour break really. You walk in and visually I put you in some kind of ambience that creates some kind of wall between the office and the street and makes this wall itself, interesting, refreshening, exiting for a few seconds. If you sit there for an hour, it will be too much. If you’re passing there for 10 seconds…

My impression is that you’re going to see something new in it every time…

You can’t control which angle that someone is going to look at the same wall. His eyes are receiving colour. It’s got impact with colour combinations in relation to other colours. So I’m affecting him on a daily basis whether he likes it or not.

Do you feel a sense of empowerment through your art? Just as you described a minute ago, you can reach out to people at a subliminal level, they don’t even realize that what’s before them could change their day in some small way. When they go back to their computer and sit down, they may be bringing something from that transitional zone…

Empowerment is not the word. I see it in relationship to how fellow painters can see it. That would be empowerment. But with the audience, I don’t seek empowered. You don’t fight the dragon to be empowered. You fight the dragon to exist. I seek existence. As an artist, my only way to exist is to function publically as an artist. I have to have function in order to claim existence. I feel like a top dog when another painter looks at it…I have a sense of social, ethical and cultural duty and I wouldn’t be sleeping in peace if I feel like I’m not fulfilling it like I should be.

Who are the main influences on this particular project – both artistic and non-artistic?

The last two years, I’ve had an ongoing fight with Joan Miro. I had to do something to sort [out] my problems with Joan Miro. I spent about 10 years of my life sorting my problems with Picasso…I finished my problems with Picasso in the Kingsland. After this project, my problem is not really with Miro, it’s with Matisse. Directions of painting are like directions of philosophy or directions of music. The kind of stuff I do is rooted in Native America, rooted in Andalucian and Islamic Art, rooted in Indian Art, rooted in Native Australian tribes, rooted in African tribes, rooted in Medieval Europe, rooted in Japanese tattoos.

But benefitting from the immediate artist and I don’t mean those who are sitting next to me in East London now. Joan Miro died in 1973; I’m born in 1970 so he died in my lifetime. So for me he is immediate and like any scientist, for me he is the scientist who I need to go and look at his papers to see how can I develop my research…he took from Matisse…

So in a way this project is a study of Joan Miro?

No not study. Intellectual interaction. But as a painter, the beauty of art is that you pack your intellect on the surface…so Joan Miro and Matisse put the challenge to me on the surface before they died. It becomes like a chess game and they made their moves but now they’ve died. Now it’s my turn to engage intellectually with that and like a chess game you engage and interact by creating moves not just by talking about it. So they moved the shapes and left them for me. I was impressed but now I’m trying to interact with that.

It’s the archetypal image of a man confronting his monster. There’s a modern quote that says, “Everyman needs his Moby Dick”. Whenever I feel like I’ve had enough with a monster, I make a new one to engage with. That’s why I never find any artist of my generation as inspiring, challenging, because none of them are monsters to me. But with the likes of Matisse, Joan Miro, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko – I see monsters that are very difficult to compete with. Not impossible, I’m getting there. But my generation, people around me, pppppsh! I mean some of them are alright but really nothing to scare my horses at all.


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