On September 6, 1985, at Atlanta Nexus Contemporary Art Center, Nabill Kanso unveiled a series of paintings titled "The Split of Life." There is still a lot of talk about these paintings. However, descriptions of them are always characterized by terms such as chaos, warring figures, violent colors, and apocalyptic visions. I began to wonder why these paintings are so impossible to ignore, and why the contents is so inaccessible that we never get beyond the description. I began to apply a variety of classical analytical mode to Kanso’s paintings, but in so doing sacrificed them for methodology. I began just looking at the paintings. Under scrutiny, a variety of themes, in particular "power," "death," and "sexuality," appears in all seven of "The Split of Life" paintings. I would like to look at these themes, how they work, and the poetics, which ultimately organize the themes within the paintings.
It is misleading to speak of power, death and sexuality as if they exist as three separate themes within these works, when in fact they are so interrelated that to isolate any of them is an artificial manipulation. The title "The Split of Life" in itself implies a multiplicity. This is the first indication that an image for a theme, or a form or an idea, is not what is important in these works, anymore than the "The Split of Life" could exist as a dualism. It is precisely this multiplicity that makes these paintings so difficult to comprehend. For this reasons this article will not have a beginning, middle and conclusion but rather will be an open presentation. To discuss these paintings as if they were narrative would defeat the step Kanso took when he broke with the Western pictorial tradition and began to present the ideas of the world and its forms in terms of its multiplicity and interrelatedness.
When viewing the work, there is a sense of overall-ness, a sense of one painting running into another, a "black net" that sits on the surface hiding the paintings inner structure and distancing us from the secrets. It is a polyvalence (1) of economic, cultural, political and sexual discourse. This net is not to be confused with an overall strategy, for everywhere there are holes in the net to remind us that "relations of power-knowledge are not static forms of distribution, they are matrices of tansformation"(2). The net is not just a formal manipulation to tie the divergent contents of the paintings together, but a very real device that grew out of the complex discourse of the paintings and ultimately from the poetics of the painter.
My first approach to breaking through the net was to discuss the paintings with the painter. He spoke in the same synthetic terms in which he paints: consequently I decided to subject him to the same scrutiny as his paintings. Traditionally the painter is excluded from an investigation of his work to prevent a bias. However, I consider investigating this painter a necessity because his poetics are being explored. In fact, one may make the case that to separate the painter from his work is to artificially separate interrelations that are essential to understanding.
Nabil Kanso was born in Beirut, Lebanon where he attended French and Lebanese schools. His education continued in London and New York. He now lives in Atlanta, although his time is divided between the United States, Europe, South America and the Middle East. He presents a view of the world, which is not made up of political boundaries arbitrarily defined for us by the superpowers. In the words of Edward Said: "The more one is able to leave one’s cultural home the more one is able to judge it, and the whole world as well, with the spiritual detachment and generosity necessary for true vision. The more easily too, does one assess oneself and alien cultures with the same combination of intimacy and distance" (3). The question of cultural multiplicity as opposed to cultural dislocation comes into play. "Orientalism" is a form of cultural dislocation because it imposed a western culture on the "orient" in such a way that what is reflected back by the "Oriental" is not the "Oriental" culture but instead a colonized culture. Cultural dislocation is colonialism. Cultural multiplicity on the other hand is maintaining one’s own cultural identity and presenting it with or including an awareness of other cultures.
"Orientalism" is essentially a European system of knowledge about the "Orient" (geographically from the Mediterranean to China) developed primarily by historians like Renan, Sacy, and Lane. It is an "Orient" known intertextually, with a frame of racism as well as a variety of stereotypes developed through text rather than experience. Though Britain sought to dominate through economic control, and France, in its frustration, settled for an intellectual and pedagogical role, little was really known about the "Orient" because it was culturally so inadequately penetrated. There are of course degrees of knowing the "Orient" as exemplified by Sir Richard Burton, who spoke the language flawlessly, penetrated Islam disguised as a Muslim doctor, took a wife and even accomplished a pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. Said’s position on Burton was "he was preternaturally knowledgeable about the degree to which human life in society was governed by rules and codes(4).
This French-Anglo Orientalism" eventually came to the United States through men like Sir Hamilton Gibb, who "from his early career at London, to the middle years at Oxford to his influential years of Harvard Center for Middle Eastern Studies"(5) brought with him an intertextual "Orientalism." "The Orient for Gibb was not a place one encountered directly, it was something one read about, studied, wrote about within the confines of learned societies, the university, the scholarly conference" (6). (Roland Barthes has said all operations of language are deformation) Presently there exists a French-Anglo-American Orientalism, however, it is now the United States that dominates the "Middle East" (7). It is also important to note that men like Gibb and his successors in the past and at present advise and influence policy making in the US government. Much of our knowledge of the "Orient" is the product of colonialism. However, there is a decolonialization surfacing as evidenced by members of the Hull group on Middle Eastern Studies, Anwar Abdel Malek, Homi Bhabha and Edward Said.
Nabil Kanso is the first Middle Eastern artist to surface outside, if not against the framework of colonialism. He presents a unique view of his and other cultures. The thrust of the new uncolonized and its decolonizing effects is difficult to judge, as this movement is just becoming now identifiable. Kanso not only has the ability to present an uncolonized view of the Middle East (and therefore is not culturally dislocated), but a multi-cultural view of the world as well as. I believe this to be true not only by virtue of his education, travel experience and interpersonal relationships, but most of all by his paintings.