An Interview with Camille Zakharia
Jeff Lodge: This is Jeff Lodge with Blackbird, and I’m at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts (VCUQ) in Doha, Qatar. I’m speaking with Camille Zakharia, whose exhibition Elusive Homelands is on display from October 4 through November 8, 2006.
Elusive Homelands consists of thirty framed pieces. The first ten, titled collectively Elusive Homelands: The Prelude, are all gouache and pastel on paper. The pieces that comprise The Prelude are dominated by muted shades of yellows, browns, and blacks. And all are dominated as well by the people they portray, the often domestic settings, and with such titles as I Never Thought I Will Lose All of This One Day, Profile of a Casualty of War, The Last Supper, and Departure, they seem to telling a collective story as well as standing alone as individual pieces.
Would you speak some about The Prelude and the pieces that comprise it, how it all came about, why you made the choices you made in regard to subject, media, and so forth?
Camille Zakharia: Elusive Homelands project, which comprises of thirteen photo-collages on paper and ten paintings, deal with issues of immigrants who left the Middle East in recent history, most of them in recent history, for political reasons, and economic reasons—some of them—to emigrate to Halifax in Nova Scotia, Canada. Now, the documentary of their well-being in Canada was done using the photo-collages, because I was able to photograph them individually with their family, elements of their daily life, of their daily activity, of who they are, and everything was available for photography.
And each one dealt with the immigration in a separate story. However, all of them, they shared more or less the same background—they all came from the Middle Eastern culture, and they all knew someone, for example, who died because of no understandable reason. They all had last supper with family members before they emigrated. They all saw these elongated faces seeing them taking off, standing in a passive way, hence the title Departure. They all are leaving family members with false hopes that someday they will be coming back. That’s why I did a work called The Fortune Teller.
So the paintings, they do have a common ground for all the immigrants, despite how they diversified their emigration, and their successes, or difficulties, in a different way. So they all came from the same place; they shared the same—more or less—experiences, so that’s why the paintings describe where they are coming from and what are the important issues that all discussed thoroughly while I conducted the interviews with them.
JL: Later in the photo-collages it’s there—but even in the paintings, there’s a sense of loss and a sense of sadness, even before the loss. Maybe it’s in the colors; maybe it’s more in the eyes of the people who are portrayed. Is that loss, that sense of loss, something that’s common to people who have to emigrate?
CZ: Absolutely. To be de-rooted from your place is a very sad experience, even if you are the most successful and if you meet your objectives, which usually is the case for immigrants because they are so horrified and terrified [of] not being able to make it in a foreign country, and that’s why they work super-hard, in order to prove [to] themselves more than anything else that “Yes, I’m worth it.” And usually immigrants tend to achieve their goals. However, when you discuss with them their homeland, and especially if they can not go back to their homeland, there’s almost a sorrow atmosphere, that there is always the nostalgia—the memory, the parents they left behind, the cousins, the brother, the food, the culture—so of course no matter how successful you are in your new homeland, when discussing the issue of where you’re coming from always triggers some nostalgic and often sorrow memories.
And this can be, as you actually mentioned, in the colors, in the eyes of the people sitting behind who are like behind bars now—we can’t reach them. And maybe it’s again my own interpretation because this project—true, I’m dealing with the issues of other immigrants—but maybe I did it because I needed to answer questions that I’ve always asked. I needed to dare to ask so I want, maybe, to hear this from the mouth of others.
So of course, again, this is my own interpretation of being de-rooted. Definitely the colors, the shades, the barren land, which usually is not—where I come from it’s beautiful green pastures, and beautiful villages—but again, it’s in the memory, of like barren land in more of a symbolic way.
JL: Do very many people get to go back? You had mentioned that it’s common for immigrants to want to go back. Do many get to go back?
CZ: Many wish to, yes. But the reality remains that they cannot. I’ve met people—and I don’t want to sound judgmental here—but I met people who are living and not living, especially parents who have been detached from their homelands. They were in a way—I don’t want to use the word forced, but usually kids insist you have to come—What are you doing here? So they take the parents because they don’t know better and the situation’s no good.
But these people who are so used to being with their families, in their culture, used to their daily activities, not used to taking the subway, for instance, or the bus. These people, when you move then there, you feel that they are not living their own reality, and they only dream of the day when they want to go back. And I’ve seen this in many faces, especially the elder people, whose children are doing satisfactorily, and they really want to help, so it was done on a good intention. But yes, these people, mostly these people, they wish to go back.
You have another segment which have difficulty in assimilating a new culture. So these people, they more or less live in denial “Yes, I want to go back because I am not happy here.” But years go by and they stay there.Yes, there are people who are living in denial who wish, but they never do, they never dare to, because they have it so good there. They forget all the difficulties that they have encountered back where they belong, be it economical or political, so they live in this denial state.
JL: You mentioned the day-to-day activities—daily life. The pieces that make up the prelude, they seem to portray day-to-day activities more than anything else, I think.
CZ: What remains in our mind are memories of small details from our childhood—just sitting in the afternoon, doing nothing, listening to the tarab, the Arabic music, music that goes forever, or going fishing, for example, or having ice cream. These are the small details that remain rooted in ourselves for as long as we live. If you describe how do you remember your childhood, I remember it like fifteen to twenty activities—well that’s it—and they are part of what used to be my day-to-day activity at the time. So these are the elements that I try to describe because they were repeated, again, in one form or another, by the many interviewees I had.
So they all discussed the warmth—the extended family. They all discussed, for example, sitting with the extended family on the balcony one afternoon. They all remember a specific wedding in the village when people went and danced the dabkeh. They all remember having lunch, and the Lebanese mezza, for example, in Ehden. So all these are day-to-day activities remembered in one form or another by the many interviewees, and these seem to play a very important role in the memories of the people who emigrated.
JL: Let’s talk a little bit about the second section in the exhibit. It’s seven panels, collectively titled Cultivate Your Garden. They’re all photo-collages also, both color and black-and-white, and they seem to work together as a single unit. In the exhibition catalogue, it’s called an “autobiographical suite” based on Voltaire’s Candide. You say that the seven-panel “dreamscape represents my surreal garden and resonates a sense of displacement.”
CZ: Cultivate Your Garden is a large collage depicting my autobiography since I left Beirut in the middle of the civil war, and where I had to travel to different countries before going to art school. Now, it is derived from the story of Voltaire Candide, whereby Voltaire ridicules optimistic theory of “all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds,” whereby Candide experiences the bitterness of war, the sadness of diseases and hunger. And he, at the end of the novel, settles down to cultivate his garden and seek fulfillment from his daily activity. So that’s how he comes to term with life, which is full of conflict.
Cultivate Your Garden, the photo–collage that I did—there is a twist in the story, whereby the war came knocking on my door, and I had to leave my country to find a garden to cultivate. And after living in different countries, I failed to find a garden, maybe, a real garden. I found refuge in my art and working in my art and dealing with issues that I was always questioning. And that’s where I felt that my garden is my art, and my friends are the people who share the same ideologies working with the art, mainly artists. So that’s why in the work you see me surrounded by many artists who share the same ground with me. And that’s how Cultivate Your Garden title came to the picture here.
Again, it’s autobiographical, discussing day-to-day activities. I used more than [a] hundred twenty-five negatives to create this large collage, negatives that I took when I was seventeen years old in Beirut and images that I took late 1990s for a artist friend of mine. So again, it’s a marriage of places that I have been and how I remember them, and celebrating art at the same time.
JL: If there’s a landscape in the background, it’s almost an urban landscape with an industrial feel. How does that fit in?
CZ: By profession I’m an engineer, and definitely engineering has a strong base in the way I apply my collages, so that it’s a constructive element in applying my collages. That’s on one level. On the second level, I am very fascinated with different architectures from different countries because architecture is a reflection to the culture itself. So I always take photographs of façades of buildings, not necessarily landmarks. Even the most normal houses or buildings in a new country, I usually photograph them.
So here, my trip is about me as an outsider, standing outside the house, looking beyond it. So I gathered all these houses together, and that’s how the cityscape came to this large collage.
JL: The last thirteen pieces collectively titled The Immigrants, are all photo–collages as well. They’re all black–and–white. They’re of individuals and of families, in the home or outdoors, in a fairly barren Nova Scotian landscape. Why these subjects, and why these settings, and why are the compositions the way they are? And, maybe as important as anything, why photo–collages, when The Prelude were all paintings?
CZ: Why the photo–collage? Because I love the medium. I love to reassemble things. I guess our life is a collage of events, and that’s how I see the world around me, to pick and choose events, and to put them together to make sense to you. And I feel very at ease working with photo–collage.
Now, I did this project for thirteen families to be able to highlight the main issues that led them to leave this part of the world, and how did they achieve—and whether they achieved—their goal in a new homeland. Why I did this? Most likely out of curiosity, because I needed to hear my issues maybe repeated by others in order to understand and answer questions that I failed to answer myself. Now, all the families, they had achieved their goals in a different manner, and they all had specific subjects which made them very different than others. Some of them whose parents built a huge wall in order not to lose their identity; others who played the role reversal between them and their parents because their parents rejected to speak English, for instance, so the kids took the role of the parents.
Others, who are like third generation, and how, not speaking a word of Arabic, how, when your grandparents are Arabs, what influence do you still carry, how are you handing this over to your children? Some of them who were over-qualified for jobs that they are taking in North America for the simple reason that there is tremendous pressure to pay your bills, so they accept any jobs, and you are not, for example, qualified to do accounting there, because you have to re-qualify or you have to take so many courses, which sometimes . . . I mean, I understand when you have to have Canadian experience or North American experience, because you want to be part of the system. At the same time, people are so rushing to find a job, because at the beginning of each month, you have a few thousand dollars to pay rent, so they end up taking less-challenging jobs, so this is dealt [with] in one of the collages.
One of the figures is like an Armenian family who left—for each generation they left one country—from Turkey to Jordan, from Jordan to Beirut when Beirut was booming in its economy; then they had to leave Beirut to Canada. So again this nomadic way of life. Some of them dealt with issues of pure success stories, because they had the privilege to be in a place where you work hard, and this is like the dream of everyone. But what did they trade in return? You always see them nostalgic again. They feel that they lost something, you know.
So each collage is complementary to another, and combining them together becomes a kind of a comprehensive suite of work that answers the immigration issue, which by the way, is a universal. I mean, you are here, I am here, and we are away from our homes now. So it answers many of the issues—the concept of home, your identity, sense of belonging, and all these important elements. It is a good project that dealt with this sensitive subject.
JL: It seems that even those who assume that they can go home, many of them end up living a nomadic life. And when they go back home, they find out that they’re somebody different than when they left. It can still be, even when they’re home, nomadic.
CZ: We change every day. Nothing remains the same. So, yes, I mean when we leave, a couple of years, or three years, from a place, people grow, get more mature. When you go back, you often get shocked that, “This is not how I left it.” Besides, you are so used to a different way of life.
People, when they go back—even if they have the choice to go back—they often get disappointed that, “I outgrew all this, I really need to move ahead in my life, and this place is still not offering me what I’m looking for.” So that’s another type of suspended state of being, not knowing where you belong anymore—you went for [a] couple of years, but these two years are dragging forever because everything is changing around you, including yourself, and maybe less attachment to your homeland.
This project maybe tackles some of these boundaries.
JL: How long has this project been in the making? How long have you been working on it?
CZ: Cultivate Your Garden and Elusive Homelands took me about two years in the making, including the interviews, the photographic sessions, the paintings, the processing, and the collages, so it was a good two years, with [a] lot of research involved on the subject.
JL: Is it finished? Do you see it as a discrete project that has had a beginning and now has an end?
CZ: This project was done, first of all, about more than like six years now, okay? And I still work on issues of identity, not in the same figurative way, more in an abstract way. So yes, I am still dealing with the issue, but not in the same form and manner.