A while back during Berlin’s Indian summer, when the weather was more hospitable to a trio of tropics-born expats, I met up with the Doha-based artist duo Christto Sanz and Andrew Weir at a sleepy kietz café in Prenzlauer Berg.
Sanz, from Puerto Rico, and Weir of South Africa, have made waves lately with their vibrant and somewhat in-your-face surreal photographs that weigh in on power structures of culture in locations like their current home Qatar. Their artwork is almost camp, employing unnatural counterintuitive pairings, artifice, exaggeration, and the stage in order to unpack or break down the private codes of the Middle East. Their work has received international praise and most recently graced the cover of Foam Magazine, a staple publication in contemporary photography. As artists who use the camera as just one of several tools and openly reject the title “photographers,” this has raised some eyebrows in the field.
The rendezvous was one of those much-anticipated meetings that always feel a little overdue. As a fellow Puerto Rican expat also with some ties to the Arabian Peninsula, Sanz and I had been in on-and-off conversation since 2012. So when they were stopping in Berlin in between exhibitions on the Foam Talent tour, I jumped at the chance to chat about life as an insider/outsider in the Middle East, the politics of palettes, the small controversy of their Foam cover appearance, as well as their most recent series Liquid Portraits and what could follow.
Christto Sanz: Once you leave it’s not the same to go back. Sometimes I catch myself thinking I would like to leave Qatar, but what would I do? Returning would be impossible.
Nicole Rodriguez: Do they see you as outsiders?
Andrew Jay Weir: Yes.
NR: Does that fact help you as artists?
CS: Not really. There is a stark division between locals, Qataris, and expats. Therefore one will always be an expat. No matter how long you are there, you will never be from there. The Qataris have a lot more benefits than you and those limitations are always quite obvious.
AW: It’s really interesting for us as outsider artists to talk about Qatar because no one has really done it before. And it still feels new and uncharted.
CS: Our current project, Liquid Portraits, approaches Qatar by way of portraiture. We wanted to capture a contemporary local picture. The situation is that there is a vast amount of very traditional artwork, but there lacks a contemporary lens by which to view it all. The idea with these Portraits was to reinterpret these historic moments by constructing an image that would speak to a contemporary Qatar. Perhaps even one caught in the midst of some globalization or an approach to the idea of globalization.
AW: It functions as a bridge between two cultures—West and East.
CS: Also inevitably as a bridge straddling the perspectives of expat and local based on personal experience.
AW: There are so many expats, that the question remains: who is the actual authority? Who is in change of the culture being generated? At the end of the day it’s the expats producing a bulk of the work, but they are marginalized and not fully integrated into the culture. This is a dilemma. Who is the cultural creator?
CS: But you can’t exactly come out and say this.
NR: Has your work been considered critique or reflection?
CS: So when we were doing the interview with Foam for the magazine text the writer explicitly situated our work as a critique. We kindly asked him to change this. The gallery where we are going to exhibit the series later this season belongs to a Shaek.
NR: Are there other artists that have reaped some type of negative impact as a result of the embedded critique of their work?
AW: One poet, Mohammed Rashid al-Ajami [a.k.a. Mohamed Ibn Al-Dheeb], comes to mind immediately. A few years go he was sentenced to life [later reduced to 15 years in 2013] for disseminating a poem considered to be critical of the ruling family.
NR: Do you believe this kind of climate intrinsically affects your work?
CS: For us, our practice, it’s a lot less critique than it is observation.
AW: I don’t think our work is strong in this way and I certainly would not see it as a direct critique. There are others that would come to mind there. Last year as part of his exhibition L’âge d’or at Mathaf, [Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha, Qatar] Adel Abdessemed had a video work of chickens burning. A really strong work. It depicts chickens tied up against a wall and appearing to be on fire. There was a lot of noise.
NR: I imagine by "noise" you mean a dual sense of the word. Was the piece ultimately removed?
CS: No. The museum stood by the work. But his Zinedine Zidane public sculpture Coup de tête (2012) that had been installed at a park in Doha’s Corniche waterfront promenade, supposedly commemorating FIFA 2022 was removed.
AW: They removed it due to the strong wave of local criticism about it being installed in an Islamic state where depictions of bodies and statues are forbidden.
CS: Exactly. The work itself was not so strong in the sense of what you would consider traditionally shocking.
NR: Western shocking.
CS: Maybe. But it was starkly against tradition—“traditionally shocking.”
Things Between Us
NR: What about when it comes to displaying work that conflates humor and tradition? Many of your works seem to be teetering between tradition, misunderstanding or deliberate misinterpretation, satire and construction.
CS: With one work, Things Between Us, the curator (Mischa Michael) had suggested we remove it from the repertoire of the exhibition [referring to the Foam Talent exhibition at East Wing Gallery in Dubai] altogether as it could be interpreted as offensive. This piece—a light box—depicts a Qatari escaping the desert, suitcases in hand, as he is attacked by falcons overhead. Our idea was to present a moment of tradition or, better yet, the dilemma between tradition and modernity. Too often museums will want to experiment with something but will hold back out of a desire to maintain a semblance of tradition. Things… captures that moment, the decision to move beyond but within the broader context of the traditional or what is understood to be the traditional narrative. In the end the curator consented.
NR: How does it feel to refer to a culture that is not native?
AW: That’s the idea, isn’t it? There is nothing concrete. The title of the project itself alludes to this. Liquid Portraits—the melding of solids. There is not a fixed perspective.
CS: The project also inherently has that “outsider-looking-in” feeling. It’s an experience about an observation of another culture.
NR: Considering you were exhibiting an “experience about an observation about another culture” outside its original context and presumably with no reference point, was there a guideline for selecting the pieces you would publish in Foam?
AW: Foam chose a selection of pieces within the greater Liquid Portraits exhibition to include in the Talent issue.
CS: We had already been working two years on this body of work before Foam happened. We had an exhibition planned and then the Foam opportunity arose.
The Advent of Absolute Knowledge
NR: And is the project Liquid Portraits already finished?
CS: We had already finished last December 2013. The exhibition space that had committed to present the work, Katara Art Center, began to face some issues and rumors of closing but in the end as the commitment to exhibit the series had been agreed upon, we are still exhibiting. However, the future for Katara is still uncertain. Unfortunately there is a great problem in finding spaces to exhibit locally. There are no experimental spaces.
NR: Berlin is a mecca for experimental spaces popping up and closing down. It’s a constant. Are artists themselves taking up the initiative to open artist-run spaces in Qatar? Maybe Doha specifically?
AW: It’s too expensive and unlike other cities where you might be able to arrive and just start something. In Qatar you can't just show up as only an artist. In order to be in the country you need a reason. You need work.
NR: So how did you end up in Qatar as an artist?
CS: I am currently working for QMA (Qatar Museum Authority) in the multi-media department documenting the museum and compiling all its visual materials. But before that we were studying in Bacelona where we met. After that I went to live in the States, in Baltimore, but I found there was nothing really there for me so I decided to move to Qatar and just risk it.
NR: And you stayed.
CS: And I stayed. Despite my family back in Puerto Rico—my mother in particular—begging me not to. They didn’t know anything about the region, how it would be. It was completely foreign. I’ve already been there three years.
NR: Do you both plan on remaining there permanently?
AW: It’s hard to say. Everyday is something new.
CS: You never feel at home. You always feel in transition.
AW: But you always have this fear of being kicked out of the country.
NR: What role does the color play in your work?
AW: Color is really important. When I was 16 and I first moved to Qatar everything was gray. Color was an interruption.
CS: Many of the artworks there, in Qatar, in the Middle East, are really black and white. There is a huge fear of using bold color. Coming from Puerto Rico and South Africa, color is intrinsically important to us. It’s the natural language. So we began working with the idea of exaggerating color and creating combinations that would heighten the sense of that exaggerated construction.
NR: How did you arrive at the duo? Where did it all begin?
AW: While studying in Barcelona. I began helping Christto as an assistant since he had more of a background in photography and it really takes more than one person to stage and create everything.
CS: When I moved to Doha we thought of doing an exhibition, a project together. Things worked out well and we decided to continue to work together and make it official. But we never began with the intention of being a duo from the beginning. It has altered the process of making work.
NR: How has being a duo—being perceived as a package—altered the creative process?
CS: We are constantly discussing ideas, researching and troubleshooting how to best create an image. Conversation. Many times it results in fights over what is possible and what is not possible to create within an image, but it has developed a conversation that would just not be possible if you were working alone.
AW: Many times it pushes concepts and ideas further than they would go otherwise.
CS: Since Andrew’s background is business, it also lends projects a completely different outlook and together usually both of these views make the work stronger.
The Factory of Good Intention
NR: What about your models. How do you find them?
CS: This part is incredibly difficult because no one likes to get their pictures taken, especially the women. For example, in The Factory of Good Intention, we had in mind creating a series of different nannies of Qatar, but when we would approach the nannies about this they would be completely confused and weirded out.
AW: The families they worked for would be present in these encounters and it would further alienate the idea for them.
CS: They don’t understand. Many don’t speak English either and this is an added barrier. But for this particular project we secured three workers that allowed us to take photos. The Foam cover image, Mimetic Gestures I, for example, speaks a little to the contemporary Indian worker of today in comparison to the historic worker of yesteryear, “the pearl diver.” It is a history that repeats itself in a different version of the same story. The slavery continues.
AW: But ideas of slavery in the Islamic world, from what I have understood in my own experiences, are quite different from the West. They are almost like family. There is an expectation that they are treated with a type of respect.
Mimetic Gestures I
NR: So how did the models react to the finished product, their portraits, but also the magazine, the cover? This cover was so prevalent everywhere.
CS: In the end you try to explain what you are doing to the models. They see the final product, in this most recent case the Foam Magazine cover and they seem pleased but they really don’t understand the context. When they model for us we are also paying them more than their own salaries, which lends this all another interesting dynamic where you are putting someone in the context of art, removing them from their normal context and paying them well for it.
NR: How does the medium itself come into play? You have a habit of striking tension between extreme ends of a spectrum: traditional and modern, East and West, local and expat, cultural observation and broader philosophy, How do you see yourself embedded in the culture of photography? Do you feel displaced there as well?
CS: We don’t consider ourselves photographers because we aren’t so interested in technique or light or any of the traditional photographic concerns. We only use the camera as a tool to create the image but that technical preoccupation does not exist for us. Not like some of the other artists involved in this edition of Foam.
NR: How was that received, given this is a photography magazine, and a photography exhibition?
AW: I can say some might have been bothered by this, especially given that our work was on the cover.
CS: Their perspective is more technique. The gallery we exhibit with in Dubai, East Wing, is also completely focused on photography, which is not our total focus. I don’t want the medium to limit us. Too often the word photographer itself has a negative connotation.
NR: You have been traveling with the Foam exhibition to Paris and Amsterdam. How has your work been received outside in the West?
AW: It’s difficult to say to what degree people are actually understanding if they are completely removed or unknowing of the context in which it was created. We want to make our work accessible, but at the same time it is not. You must, to some degree, be involved in a conversation.
CS: There was a panel discussion we spoke at that was a little nerve wracking. Also the added fact that it was being recorded, there was the background fear of saying something compromising, something that might be construed as negative about Qatar.
NR: Your work is at surface so Qatari-centric and in this conversation we have touched a little on a nostalgia and desire to maybe return to the West. How would your work change if you left?
AW: We’re exploring precisely that in our next project and I think with the traveling Foam exhibition we began to see this at work.
CS: We don’t want to be artists that only speak to or about one region. Because ultimately it’s not who we are, it’s what we are currently living in the moment. We have other worries, not only this one.
AW: Even though the immediate content points directly at Qatar, there is a lot of general philosophy imbued there that is removed from the state.
ArtSlant would like to thank the artists for their cooperation in making this interview possible.
(All images: Christto Sanz and Andrew Weir, Liquid Portraits, 2013–2014, Lambda print on photographic paper; Courtesy of the artists)