The Fountain And The Fig: A Conversation With Nadia Ayari About Poetry, Politics, And Paint

This month The Third Line presents Nadia Ayari’s The Fountain and The Fig, which drops us in a jungle so dense the horizon is invisible. I was reminded of ‘Figs,’ a surprisingly bodily poem by the typically dry D.H. Lawrence. The series of paintings tell the story of three characters—Fig, Blood, and Tree—as they challenge the relationship between domination and sensual awakening. Layers upon layers of oil paint were applied in such a way as to create an almost reptilian texture on Tree’s leaves.

Spending some time with the show, I admired the depth behind it but also felt that there could have been additional works, as if the story Nadia is telling still needs an ending. Although she has tried to get away from being labeled a political artist, Ayari who is Tunisian but based in New York, has chosen to use shades of deep purple and green which evince an unmistakable connection to recent events in her home country and power struggles that remain to be resolved.

Pouring, oil on canvas, 2013.

Pouring, oil on canvas, 2013.

My interview with Nadia Ayari follows:DL: The paintings comprise a series with full-fledged characters. What would happen if they were viewed out of order?

NA: While I was planning the installation of the show, I had all the pieces laid out in the order they were made, more or less. A friend who was in the studio at the time, agreed that after I placed Spit in between Splitting and Tongue the ensemble “looked more like a show.” I enjoyed playing with this balance. I think if the works were viewed in a different order the ‘story’ of the fig, tree and blood may remain the same while the narrative of purple, green and reds may vary.

DL: Although much of your work is full of clues insinuating that humans exist, you never paint figures. Is there a reason for this?

NA: About four years ago, I stopped painting figures, although some of the characters do have anthropomorphic qualities. I transitioned out of figuration to abstract the narrative and loosen the work’s ties to explicit political events. Like you, I get the sense that the world depicted in these paintings relates to the one ‘we’ the viewers reside in.

Splitting, oil on canvas, 2012.

Splitting, oil on canvas, 2012.

DL: You are Tunisian and often write or paint art related to politics. It isn’t lost on me that the colors you chose were purple and green, which have some political meaning. Do recent political events have any role in this series or are you focused on a larger struggle for domination than a national cause?

NA: If you will allow it, I’ll point to one of the stanzas in D.H. Lawrence’s Figs to begin answering this question:
“The fig is a very secretive fruit.
As you see it standing growing, you feel at once it is symbolic:
And it seems male.
But when you come to know it better, you agree with the Romans, it is female.”

In between its Carthaginian and Byzantine eras, Tunisia was a Roman colony so figs are part of the country’s cultural vernacular. However, I did not set out in these paintings to represent the fall of Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali or the subsequent election of the current Islamist-led government. But those events are available to the viewer and they are free to contextualize the work within them. My brother visited my studio when I first started working with these images in 2012. He took one look at the tongues emerging from the red mouths of the purple fruits and said: “It’s about the extreme pain that comes from gaining ‘freedom of speech.’” And while that isn’t how I read the works, I think his interpretation has its place.

For me the works focus, not of a national political landscape, but on instances of our surrounding political structures by presenting allegories of dominance and desire.

Tongue, oil on canvas, 2012.

Tongue, oil on canvas, 2012.

DL: In a recent interview with Ibraaz you refer to your move to New York City as a time in which you were occupied with “…facing the bourgeois mechanisms on which my paintings relied: galleries, museums and collectors’ homes.” Is it important to you to make those mechanisms less elite and more accessible? Or do you appreciate the need for “bourgeois mechanisms” to exist in parallel with public art programs? How much of this is about artists needing to make a living?

NA: This is a really great question. At the moment, I am more concerned with what happens to the works these mechanisms absorb than I am with making them less elite. Once I graduated school and moved to New York, the romance of being an artist dissipated very quickly. In today’s New York, most artists have to work a full-time 9 to 5 job in order to afford their studios. This leaves very little time or energy to make art. Perhaps it is better to face this reality as a young artist- to dissipate the romance early on and force some difficult decisions.

DL: Who were you reading or listening to when you were painting this series?

NA: Early this summer and nearing the end of the series, I was interrupting Melville’s Moby Dick with Towards a Minor Architecture by Jill Stoner. Like everyone else this May, I had the new Daft Punk on repeat.

'The Fountain and The Fig' installed in The Project Space upstairs at The Third Line. Photography by Shafi Saidu

‘The Fountain and The Fig’ installed in The Project Space upstairs at The Third Line. Photography by Shafi Saidu

Good Ideas:

The Fountain and The Fig will be at The Third Line in Al Quoz through 24 October, 2013. For timings and additional information click here

You can read ‘Figs’ by D.H. Lawrence here.

Image Credits: Courtesy of Nadia Ayari and The Third Line