Keeping us in suspense

The visual artist Houda Terjuman, who was born in Morocco to a Swiss mother and Syrian father, explains how the ‘rootlessness’ she felt in childhood has found its way into her paintings of small objects that often appear to be floating freely against their backdrop

Why did you choose the term hybrid migrant over other descriptions, such as second-generation migrant, for example, to describe your status and how do you think it has influenced or guided your art?

We used the definition of hybrid migrant in a group show in which I took part. In fact, we - the second-generation migrants - have not experienced migration like our parents; we haven’t suffered exile, loss or displacement – instead, we were born in a country and also grew up and lived there. However, we inherited this feeling of nostalgia and loss of our home. Being uprooted became our reality, which is why hybridity more accurately defines our status.

Has it been a challenge to reconcile the benefits and disadvantages you describe of a mixed heritage (freedom and mobility versus regret and displacement, for example) in your life and work?

I don’t really see my mixed background as having been a disadvantage. Admittedly, it was perhaps a little difficult at the beginning of my career because I didn’t belong to a specific community of artists. The art world tends to position artists in specific regions and I was perceived as being neither Middle Eastern nor North African nor European. But over time and with the onset of globalization, I found my place somewhere in between them all. Displacement, mobility, nostalgia and resilience are inherent in my practice, being fundamental to it and are also a great source of inspiration.

Your art is usually suspended, floating freely, giving it space to exist, but also instability. What message are you hoping to share with your audience by adopting this unusual method of creativity?

The explanation as to why my works are suspended has its origins in my childhood. When I was a child, I literally felt like I was floating between my various identities. I was not rooted in any one place and felt as if I didn’t belong in my local community. This made me feel afraid and unsettled but at the same time, gave me a sense of freedom and creativity.

When I started painting and sculpting, I felt compelled to reproduce these feelings which would allow viewers to understand that freedom comes at a cost. Being uprooted produces an under-layer of fear, loneliness and instability, but it also brings strength, the capacity for adaptation, open-mindedness, tolerance and an empathy for the unknown.

You describe your sculptures and paintings as little familiar objects that weave stories. Which comes first, the story or the art?

I decided some time ago that I wanted to narrate stories with a brush. I like reading haïku (short-length poetry of Japanese origin, traditionally on the theme of nature), since it transports you to another reality in just a few lines. Through my art I want to reach out to the viewer and present them with something they can quickly and easily interpret.

Given your Syrian heritage, what has been the impact of the civil war on your art?

Seeing such dramatic images of families walking away from their homes in cities that were totally destroyed was unbearable. I found the footage of traumatized children with their haunting eyes and haggard faces especially agonizing. It made me ask myself what future can they possibly envisage?

I started painting on the themes of loneliness and hope; a lonely chair in the meadow, a ghostly presence looking at the sky where golden lands fly high, like the legendary El Dorados that the Spanish explorers were told about when they arrived in South America all those years ago.

How has Covid-19 affected your work, from both a practical perspective and in terms of what you’re producing? And what are you working on now?

This pandemic instilled fear and worry in me and as a reaction to it, I found myself gradually taking shelter in my own space. Fortunately, this isolation eventually also generated a period of creativity, during which I began truly appreciating the concept of stillness and decided to explore it. In this way, I believe that art has the power to reignite aspiration. 

With art galleries and museums shut, I started adapting to a new reality. I tried to adopt a positive approach to this new challenge and decided to strengthen my online presence, creating content and connecting with art gallerists, curators and artists so that we could share our thoughts. Many galleries and art fairs opted to move online which allowed us to visit plenty of virtual events.

During this period I also found myself developing what’s termed a soft fascination with nature. Connecting closely with the natural world provided a welcome distraction from spiraling thoughts and had a healing effect on my fears. As a result, I’ve enjoyed integrating forests, woods and meadows into my work.

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