On other-worldly inspiration

The artist and graphic designer Nayla (Noonz) Karam talks to ArtScoops about playing ‘let’s imagine’, nomadic ways of working and exploring NFTs 

Have you found combining your passion for painting with a career in graphic design a challenge or do you think the two complement each other? 

Both. First, I found dealing with time management tremendously challenging, since I needed to prioritise my responsibilities as a mother after having my daughter when I was aged 20. These included financial obligations, with the result that my graphic design work, rather than my personal paintings, became my primary focus. That said, the two majors complement each other in terms of techniques, tricks and skills, when I’m working on a subject for my paintings. Since 2003, I have been able to put my graphic design techniques and skills to use whenever I’m working on a concept or brainstorming for a project, whether it’s on canvas or a digital piece.

You have shared some wonderful memories of moments in time and interests that inspired your artistic side during childhood. What particular aspects of arts and crafts do you think helped to ignite your passion and nurture your talent?

Painting and sketching always captured my attention the most, even though dancing and music played a big role in the way I expressed my freedom. I started sketching and illustrating aged 10 and particularly enjoyed copying a live object and putting it onto paper. Five years later, I began my journey on canvas.

Helping my father build model boats and crafting chalks during my school years was a playful, fun activity that complemented my love for all kinds of art. It’s also how my parents first noticed my talent and gave them a greater reason to encourage me to develop my art. They advised me to enter the Technical School of Design at the age of 16, instead of wasting my time in the high school French system, which forced students to choose between mathematics, science and literature as a sector. I graduated from technical school aged 19, in 1999, as the top student in the graphic design school departments in Lebanon and registered at the local Lebanese University of Fine Arts without telling my parents, for financial reasons. Graphic design was still a poor major and underdeveloped at the time in the Lebanese universities. The Fine Arts department entry test was another challenge, attracting 120 applicants for just 25 places, with students accepted based on the grade results of the entry test. Limits on places were always an issue at local universities.

More recently, has the pandemic and the situation in Lebanon influenced your art or are you able to compartmentalise external events when working?

I have always lived in my own cocoon, my own world and a mind filled with animation and visions of cartoons. My disconnection from politics and societal obligations was something built in and helped me to keep going without being affected by the situation. That said, my responsibilities as a single mother and the challenge of having to leave my rental home and personal studio in 2020 sapped my energy, making it difficult to work on my art. 

The subjects you depict in your figurative work are varied and intriguing, in part due to the way you capture their personality so vividly. How do you find and choose them?

It’s really just a game of imagination and the idea of another world existing. ‘House of Mirrors’ is about people with whom I’ve experienced different phases of my life. It brings together cartoonish and illustrative elements, among others, that reflect the character’s story and the scenery behind each phase. They are assembled with a dynamic play in geometrical forms, representing life’s obstacles. Each piece tells a unique tale with a strong composition and vibrant colours.

How did you select which works to show at the ‘Big Picture’ collective currently taking place at Street Art Gallery, Dubai? 

I presented the selection, with the final choice made by the jury ahead of the exposition. ‘The Whisperer’ is a portrait of the unique artist, Maher Diab, who is my soul brother, close friend and a colleague from my university days.

What are you currently working on? 

I am currently planning to take my art into the world of non-fungible tokens (NFTs). They are creating a huge buzz right now and I’ve always enjoyed combining my skills, taking what I’ve learned and experimenting, so am keen to explore this medium. I think in some ways moving into digital art makes sense, since I have a graphic design background.

I’m also keen to minimise my space and living lifestyle, now my daughter’s older and independent. I’m planning to try life on the go, as a nomadic graphic artist, so getting rid of bigger equipment makes sense, at least for now. It might work out and it might not, but that’s very much a part of my character – I like to jump into a game and see what comes out of it. I strongly believe that work should be fun and satisfying.

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