Facetime with a difference

The multi-media artist Fadi El Chamaa tells ArtScoops why he doesn’t see his long-lasting love affair with portraiture ending anytime soon


You refer to your work as ‘A Hymn to Freedom’. How did this definition or description of your art come about?

I’ve never wanted to be constrained by borders in my work, viewing it more as a journey without boundaries and one on which I look forward to getting lost! I’m comfortable with change and believe that when something’s done, it’s time to move on. There can be many reasons, from becoming bored to feeling that I have nothing left to say. Sometimes I’ll experience waves of energy that last months, during which I’ll focus on exactly the same kind of work and then, all of a sudden, I’ll switch. I see painting as an ongoing self-exploration, which may explain why I’ve done a large number of self-portraits.


Do you regard having the ability to bring your ‘alters’ and ‘their state of mind’ to life as a benefit or a burden?

The idea of multiplicity in my art or ‘alters’ comes into my mind when I’m working and is something I’ve always enjoyed pursuing, often sporadically over a long period of time, like the huge collage of 300 self-portraits I did titled Apostata Rex (The King of Apostates). I completed it over two decades in my spare time, while working in advertising, and finally brought it together as one. Some artists prefer to find a certain style or tone and stick to it, like a brand, but I don’t want to do that. I only really began defining my work as ‘borderline’ recently and after analysing it for a long time. In the past, I used to question whether I should be adopting a ‘mode of working’, but over the years, came to realise that this is me and that that’s my story. I can’t change and I don’t want to now; I’m happy with my individuality.


Do you choose the themes you explore in your work or do they choose you?

Both, although I’ve always been drawn to portraiture. I’m fascinated by the way that the human race continues to evolve. I see self-portraiture as a reflection of what I’m feeling in front of people. Sometimes they’re lost, so I’m lost too – it’s a combination of technique and putting myself in certain situations. I can’t analyse the rationale behind what I do; all I know is that over time, I’ve become aware that I’m the first audience viewing my work and I’m very conscious of this.


Although financial pressures took you into the advertising industry, the years you spent there were successful. Do you see them as having contributed to your artistic journey or detracting from it?  

My time in advertising was definitely beneficial as it gave me many of the key tools I needed to tell a story. However, it’s a fast-paced life and although I always painted while working, I felt too drained to fully focus on my art. Over time I became more and more disillusioned with the corporate life and the energy it was taking from me, so decided to plan my exit, which I did with great precision, from 2011 to 2013, and no safety net! It was a risk, since I was on a great salary, but I’m not afraid of taking risks! Ultimately, the move was a huge relief.


The year 2019 was a busy one for you. What do regard as the highlights?

It felt as if everything came together in 2019, which was very rewarding. My solo show at Artlab was definitely a highlight, in part because it gave me the opportunity to display a range of work I’d done over the past 30 years, but also because it included audience participation, which was a fantastic learning experience. Before the show, I decided to send all the potential exhibits to the gallery, with a request to ask viewers to choose what they’d like to see featured. I was super interested to find out about their choices so decided to interview them for a documentary which was screened on the last day of the show. It was a really immersive project and incredibly insightful. The pieces weren’t necessarily what I’d have chosen myself, but somehow the collection made total sense. It was a complete revelation on everything related to my identity and I loved the level of interaction.


Do you expect the coronavirus pandemic and its fallout to influence or feature in your work and if so, how?

Most likely yes, but I doubt if it will be for a while - that would feel too contrived. I know that by default, this issue is going to lead to something new in my work, I just don’t know yet whether it will be literally or laterally. Of course, we’ll all be affected on so many levels, not only as human beings but also as artists, since there are so many question marks hanging over the use of public spaces and venues such as galleries. I suspect we’ll move away from large-scale, public works to others that are more intimate, perhaps painting a person one to one - something that touches the heart – that could be the game in a new era.


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