Doris Bittar is a Lebanese artist who was born in Baghdad. Doris graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the State University of New York, and received her Masters of Fine Arts at the University of California San Diego. She often visits the Middle East to work, and always makes sure to stop by Lebanon. Bittar calls herself a pattern archivist and often writes about Middle Eastern art and calligraphy for Al Jadid,Canvas and other cultural magazines. Examples of Bittar’s art and projects will be shown in Berlin this summer at the Institute for Foreign and Cultural Affairs for the exhibit “Political Patterns.” Doris currently teaches at California State University San Marcos.
Secured States: The Arab World
Secured States Med Small:
My interview with Doris Bittar:
Where were you born, grow up, when did you start painting?
I was born in Baghdad, Iraq to Lebanese and Palestinian parents. (3 Lebanese grandparents, 1 Palestinian from Jaffa).
At the age of one we moved to South Lebanon to Kfarhoune, my ancestral village, then to Saida and then to Naqash – suburb of Beirut. My parents moved a lot. We immigrated to the United States (New York) and moved around some more from Union City, New Jersey to Newark, New Jersey during the race riots. Then to the countryside in Hopatcong, New Jersey where I played in the forest with my four younger brothers and chased rabbits. All in a span of three years. We lived in Massachusetts for two years and then settled in the suburbs of New York City where I went to high school. It was clear from my first year in the states that I liked to draw. In fact, I did nothing else. I did not speak or do my class work or anything. I just drew and looked out the window. I almost failed. Then some time in April at the end of the school year, I began to speak, read and write. I caught up in all my workbooks and was promoted to the second grade. The teachers thought I had a learning impediment. My parents explained to them that English was my third language. I began to paint when I was about twelve, but not seriously until college. I did draw a lot and I made cartoons and animations in high school.
What, at first influenced your work? What influences it now?
I had an art teacher in high school who was greatly influential and supportive. His name is Andrew Courtney. He is an activist and making videos about Palestine. He is also a great photographer. I am still in touch with him. He really tried to help me develop my nascent and shy humor by making cartoons. He took his students into New York City to events sponsored by New York’s high society. I would caricature the mayor and his entourage. Another influence that I did not pursue seriously until college and then graduate school was how pattern was a persistent attraction. I noticed that decoration, ornament and pattern created a powerful feeling within me. I was attracted to it as something that could tell a story, be an abstraction, a structure and a fill. I felt and still feel quite strongly that it has a role to play. Its power is mysterious and that may be why I am continually pursuing it. My family, and in particular my mother influenced me. Our family surroundings had Persian and tribal rugs, and my mother’s embroidery everywhere. She and my father had an impecable sense for space and punctuation.
Can you describe how you create your work?
When I was exclusively a painter six years ago, color had a strong impact on me. I would see a palate and work it through in oil paint. I may spend two or three hours mixing paints before I placed it on the canvas. I usually had a pattern in my head. The “Lebanese Linen” series was greatly dependent on color and pattern as precedents to imagery. However, in my large scale historical paintings where I quoted Delacroix, Fragonard and Matisse, color was less important. Creating an abstract space for intertwined colonial relationships to interact and converse was more pressing. Those paintings were often aggressive interpretations of the Masters, and “corrections” of their perspectives. They were layered with a banner/billboard type Arabic text floating across the imagery. They mixed beauty, aggression and history.
Camo Flag 2:
Has Iran had an influence on your work? How so?
My visit to Iran in 2005 had a profound effect on me. The scale of the architecture was huge, bigger than what I imagined. Tehran, Isfahan and Shiraz underscored a thesis about Islamic or Middle Eastern culture that I was developing. Several questions were on my mind about Middle Eastern culture in general. I wondered how it could be so distinct, yet have so many sources? I wondered what made it powerful and beautiful at the same time. There seemed to be a contradiction or a coupling of contrasts built into it. I identified this by calling it a tension between extremely profuse pattern and an elegant austerity of structure. We can see it at its highest form in Iran, where Islamic art had a big flourish in the 16th century. When we look at the Chahrabagh Madrassa among many other examples we see the massive and imposing arches, huge iwans or niches, and subtle variations of form and shape as a structure for the tiled patterns. The tiled patterns themselves go from floral to geometric to calligraphic. It is over the top stuff, but with a tense restraint that stretches to create variation. This relates, in part, to my interest in how cultures morph, how they collide and create new cultures. Middle Eastern art provides a clue about how cultures can coexist and move on to create new ones without loosing particularities, without being watered down. For example, when we speak of multicultural art or multiculturalism in the United States there is a look to it. I call it the crazy quilt look where pattern reigns supreme but within the limitations of the squared grid. There is not a larger structure or lattice that is directed or meaningful. I think that is why people feel left out of our big cultural experiment. Multicutlural means everything, not just non-white culture. In recent work, I try to come up with a structure that is open to various cultures without pureeing it down to mush. So, yes, Iran, the later Islamic flourish brought this understanding to its highest level. Pattern without structure is the same as sand. It looses it punctum. I want to create structures that can tell a bigger story.
How would you describe your work?
My work is now mulit-disciplinary. Last year, I worked with a poet to make an interactive word play piece, and with a microtonal musician to create an 87-stringed instrument that put three different scales into an interlocking hexagonal structure. I continue to paint flags with pattern, I still make cartoons and animations, I draw still lives and I make maps. Increasingly, it is the location, place or region that inspires my sensibilities and approaches to making art. My approach is one that seeks “problems” that I can pretend to solve. Give me a region, city or country. I will extract its attributes and build a story.
What themes/topics/issues do you paint- why?
I am a student of history. I want to understand the striated layers of historical and cultural assumptions to reveal individual and collective identities. I especially want to get at some of the psychic residues of geo-historical legacies that continue to dog us today. I believe that the decorative traditions have buried within them clues to our questions. The designs, patterns and ornaments are the stepping stones that may unlock to mysteries of why we are the way we are. They also may provide us with blueprints on how to proceed.
Pomegranates Bedouin Candle Holder:
How has Lebanon/Palestine/Iraq influenced your work?
You can add Egypt to that list, where my father was born and raised. Syria figures, too, where I have family and where I have often visited and researched. These places are where I am from. They form a pan Arab collective narrative that explains why I am interested in the region as a whole. They are the places where I learned to love my culture and wonder about it. Their particular attributes drive my projects. These are the places that must succeed. They will become examples to a world that is increasingly paranoid, mistrustful and inhumane. Of course, Lebanon, where I visit frequently and derive my work from has a delicate balance between aesthetics, intellect and humor. The problems of Palestine is where I have focused my activism for over 20 years. The Palestinian people are strong and their stories must continue to emerge into the larger world. I did a series of portrait installations a few years ago based on my visits to Lebanon’s refugee camps. The stories were powerful and resonant. I have an affinity with the processes of Iraqi artists, who bridge the old with the new. Their work has a conceptual edge to it that does not let go of fine art traditions, the pursuit of invention and an eye for craft. As I mentioned, my father was born in Egypt and so that part of my family spoke the Egyptian dialect, and have that humor that Egyptians are intent on cultivating and preserving. I visited Egypt recently – pre-revolution – to be in the 25th Alexandria Biennale. My piece there was about Egypt’s colonial past. I created “Occidental Orients” and “Secured States,” two dovetailing installations that mimicked a situation room with maps from the colonial eras including the Ottoman period. The ethnographic, touristic and religious map facsimiles, portraits of Napoleon and Lord Cromer had Islamic patterns falling on them, as though some patterned light source was falling on them. These were, in fact, a faux light, painted on the walls, maps and portraits. The patterns of light became a witness to history. As though the subjected people were watching and taking note. That piece won an award. A friend told me that one of the workers in the museum made his daily prayers in that room. And then there is Syria, which I believe belongs to the world. Many have a stake in it, can relate to an ethnic or religious segment of it, to its musical innovations, artisan traditions, and of course, it has the best cuisine. I find the Syrian people to be balanced, wise and intelligent people. At this point in their patient history, they are tired of being treated like children who cannot be trusted to forge their own future.
Check out Doris Bittar’s website: