Creativity in the wake of violence—Nilu Izadi utilizes the bullet holes on Beirut’s historic landmark Yellow House as apertures for an actual camera obscura. She speaks to Christina Eberhart about growing up in England with ties to Iran.
A landmark of French Mandate style architecture designed by Youseff Aftima for the Barakat family in 1924, the Yellow House was once peacefully positioned on the outskirts of Beirut. But as time passed, development spread and the house was absorbed into the fabric of the city. By 1982, the house was at the center of the Iran-Iraq war straddling the very line between East and West, strategic for Chrisitian Militia snipper activity. As a result of the ensuing conflict, bullet holes and looting ravaged the house. 28 years later, Nilu Izadi used the house as a site-specific photographic event—with one bullet hole and a darkened room, she transformed the house into a camera obscura. This action, in the name of art, reclaimed the Yellow House from its violent past.
Earlier this year in May, I was at Art Dubai close to the Ruler’s Court, the Dubai Creek, and the Dubai Museum’s Bastakija Fringe Art Fair. This yearly event organized by XVA Gallery is the cultural hub and center where some of the best emerging and established contemporary art from the Middle East can be found. Photographs from Nilu Izadi’s Yellow House project could be viewed at Janet Rady’s Fine Art from London.
Christina Eberhart So what made you choose to work with the camera obscura?
Nilu Izadi I was at art college and doing lots of sculpture, white blocks mostly and then I started piercing the block and making shaped cones because I was interested in the white surface, texture, and light. The work was all about light and how it falls on different surfaces and defines shapes. I worked with white on white, minimally, because it reminded me of the white light and heat and dust of the Middle East. I was very much interested in the oriental shapes and patterns found inside mosques as they elevated matter in a different way to the iconography inside European Churches and Cathedrals.
And then my tutor said, You keep sticking your head inside a cone to see the light, why don’t you make something that you can walk into, that you can actually stand inside and walk around. I thought that was genius, so I made a building that you could actually walk into where you could experience the light. It was a white domed building with a corridor, completely free standing, and it was the summer of 1995, which was the hottest summer I ever experienced. There was not one cloud in the sky until one day, when I was standing in my sculpture by myself, one cloud went past and I saw 18 clouds projected onto the walls through the holes I had made in the ceiling. And that is how I discovered the pinhole effect inside a camera obscura. It was an epiphany.
CE Why did you go to Beirut in particular? What drew you there?
NI I had heard that there were still lots of buildings there with bullet holes in them. I am particularly interested in architecture and abandoned buildings.
CE What do derelict buildings mean to you?
NI It comes back to my interest in my family’s Iranian roots. Born in the UK, I visited Iran a few times as a child and went back five years ago. I visited my aunt’s grave which is in the family crypt (in Behesht Zahra). Originally, my grandfather had bought it and decorated it with the family name. We found the old key to the room…There was rubble on the floor and the ceiling had caved in. It is the Iranian custom to have sofas up against the wall where you can sit and pay your respects to the family when you visit. When we walked in, those sofas were still there, completely threadbare.
Standing in the mausoleum, I was suddenly overcome by this sense of time as this place had not been touched for 27 years, and it gave me an incredible sense of abandonment and sadness.
So when I went to Beirut to see this building called the Yellow House, I suddenly was really overwhelmed by the sadness of this story, and I could associate with the different chapters of its history. Almost journalistically, I saw the massive story behind this building. Not to mention the unbelievable grandeur and beauty of the site.
CE How did you feel about being there, and how did it affect you?
NI It was only when I actually walked into it that I grasped how beautiful it was. I was kind of on autopilot, I only had four days and I was overwhelmed because the Yellow House (a grand set of eight apartments) is enormous. At first, I only saw the details. But the most important thing is that when I first walked in, I burst into tears because I had never seen anything like it especially the main salon on the first floor…I could not quite grasp it and so while taking photographs, I tape-recorded the history an architect on the project was telling me. So, I clicked and clicked and took a whole bunch of pictures. I looked at them on my computer and they became two-dimensional images, but then in the morning I looked at the images again and was really choked up. They were so concentrated, an image within a frame, I had nowhere else to look or walk, so then that became the more powerful experience. So my impressions kept shifting between the 2-D experiences because they are all so powerful and different.
CE Why do you think we feel like this about buildings?
NI Because you wonder about family life and the warmth and the hearth. Buildings are there to be lived in and to be shared with and to be one’s shelter. And then you see a building like this and you think, God, if the architect only knew, or if only the building had been placed only a mile away from this point, then it would have been a completely different story.
CE But it is alive and it survived to tell the story. The energy that was invested in this building is still reflected here.
NI Yes, and on so many different levels in this case. There is for one, the plaque of the Barakat family, and then you have the slogan of the sniper, all set against the French decorative Mandate style.
CE What would be your interpretation of what happened to the building?
NI Someone threw a sentence at me the other day that indicated “war tourism.” I found that very upsetting. I thought it was such a crass way of putting it. Personally, I found it just very sad, this majestic backdrop to war. You can hear the echoes of the bullets, of men running and falling. You can see the different chapters of the house and the different people who have walked through. There are humbling paintings, there are the bullet marks and bombed out sections of the building, all set against this yellow stone and Art Deco style. There are the footprints in sand which has come from the snipers’ sand bags which protected their bunkers; there is graffiti on top of graffiti, it’s all like a chart—a tree with the lines in the trunk demarcating time.
CE And there were artists living there as well. For example, Halim al Karim who came to look at the show, said he had spent some time there?
NI Yes. 15 years ago he accompanied Mona Hallak who was responsible for starting the campaign to keep the building from being demolished. They wanted to see how it felt living in the house for a few days. The Barakat family, who lived there until they were literally evacuated when the war started, commissioned the building as a set of eight apartments in the 1920s. When the building was first built, it was situated in the outskirts of Beirut but by the time the war started the house ended up on the road to Damascus which was the front line—the demarcation line that divided the Christians in the East and the Muslims in the West. The building was a sniper’s stronghold for the duration of the 20-year civil war.
Then the building was left alone, which was when it was heavily looted. It was then that new holes were blasted through stonewalls so that the thieves could steal the remaining ironmongery, art deco tiles, furniture and mouldings. [pointing at the small iron sign with the family name] That is the only thing that remains of the Barakat Family. It took us about two hours to find it because it is tiny.
CE The Yellow House is your first project that has explicitly political overtones. Do you think you will continue to work in this genre?
NI My work has definitely taken on a different tone. I am interested in the source of the camera obscura projection, whereas before I was only interested in how I could manipulate the image. It was all about the photograph and the projection inside the installation, but I am now relating the site, the aperture (in this case, a bullet hole) and the image much more concisely. I am interested in the relationship between all the elements involved. This piece is a lot more about content, collective memory, and conversations that can be had about war, and it is topical and relevant to the times. The building has such a rich history—it is all entwined.
CE In the Middle East, photography has not been embraced as an art form as much as in the West. Do you think that is true?
NI I know of some photographers. I admire Shirin Neshat who put Iranian photography on the map 15 years ago. She is quite direct and shows the veil, the gun, etcetera—basically showing what the West thought of Iran then, images of violence and of women being oppressed. I think her images are powerful. I also fell in love with a photographer called Bahman Jalali who very sadly died a few months ago. I regret not having met him, he photographed Tehran during the revolution uprisings, the Iran-Iraq war and Iranian landscape and architecture and, more interestingly, archived all the photographs of Golestan Palace and the Qajar dynasty.
CE In the forum talk here at Bastakiya this morning, Hans Ulrich Obrist was talking about involuntary and voluntary exile. Can you elaborate a little on this subject?
NI Well both my parents were born in Iran and educated in England. My mother does not consider herself an exile as she has been in Britain since the age of two and there was nothing involuntary about her choice. I also have that sense of being English. But I am more affected, as I did not have a choice. Even though I am a British, I feel almost like an involuntary exile because of this.
CE But how do you reconcile that with living in the age of globalism and being a global citizen…this emphasis back to your roots. Why do you think you have to make that connection back to Iran even though your upbringing has been in England?
NI I feel I have lost a sense of heritage, it is being diluted and my grandparents were all incredible people—it is about honoring the family tradition. My sense of the future is further removed from me, so I try to hold on to what I have and by not speaking the language, I already feel at a disadvantage.
I think it was a simple question about 20 years ago, because the Internet had not changed the world. Now we have such a lot of cross-pollination, yet you would think that cross-pollination would eradicate racism, but it has not. Racism still exists.
CE What will happen to the Yellow House now?
NI It is being turned into the Museum of Memory of Beirut. Plans have been drawn up and the camera obscura will be a permanent exhibition piece. I believe they will start the work this summer.
CE What do you think of Dubai?
NI I thought Dubai would be like Las Vegas but it is more Blade Runner! It’s the future.