When art is your comfort zone

The collage and mixed media artist Nevine Mattar talks to ArtScoops about getting creative against a backdrop of national chaos

Nevine Mattar has long made the use of colour a hallmark of her art, with her inimitable protagonists and cityscapes marked by a wonderful kaleidoscopic vibrancy and warmth. However, even she has noticed something different in her work amidst the multi-layered crisis that continues to grip Lebanon, her homeland.

“The pandemic has given me more time to put into my art and I’ve appreciated every moment of it - every stroke made,” she said. “I’ve always lived with colour - I can’t do black and white. But I can see that as a result of what’s happening around me, my work has become more intense, both in colour and emotion. Perhaps it’s coming from the uncertainty, the not knowing what’s going to happen tomorrow.” 

Nevine describes art as her first love, despite having built up an impressive academic career over the decades that has involved teaching at several of Lebanon’s universities, including the Lebanese American University, which she also attended, and the American University of Beirut and Balamand University, where she is currently a lecturer in cultural studies. “I graduated first in art, but my father insisted on me taking another subject at degree level, so I studied psychology, education and history,” she explained. 

She noted with a wry smile, however, that even teaching has become something of a calling, given the disastrous state of the Lebanese economy. “The challenges are huge, ranging from the drop in our salaries in real terms to trying to teach some students who don’t have access to the internet,” she admitted. “We just have to do our best.” 

With her studio badly damaged in the horrific explosion of August 4 at the Beirut Port, Nevine has been working on her art in her dining room for the past nine months, but was quick to downplay any issues this has caused. “I don’t mind - honestly, there are people in much worse positions than me right now,” she said. “But I think that since the explosion and with the economic crisis escalating, I see my art more as my go-to comfort zone and therapy. I certainly can’t put what’s happening on canvas – if anything, creating art is a chance to block out everything else.” 

Nevine travelled extensively as an art student, acquiring expertise in a diverse range of disciplines spanning Sumi-e (Japanese ink painting), illustration and painting. Today she works in collage and mixed media, with her output encompassing design, murals, paintings, papier-mâché, books and illustrations. She describes her work as a synthesis of influences and techniques, fuelled by a love for integrating media, with expressionism at its core. “I truly think art should make a difference, which is why I admire genuine innovators, such as Jeff Koons, Andy Warhol, Toulouse-Lautrec and Grayson Perry,” she said.

Her art is usually created on themes that are borne out of her interests and then meticulously researched, often involving a deep dive into the past.

One of Nevine’s greatest passions - the Harlem Renaissance movement of the 1920s and 1930s – is a topic that she’s explored extensively in her work. “I love African American music and art from that era – Romare Bearden, William Johnson, Aaron Douglas to name just a few proponents – I find it so expressive and emotional,” she said.

Her highly popular show titled ‘All that Jazz’ showcased this very theme, featuring a wonderful array of pieces that took viewers back in time to the glorious, heady era of jazz and blues, brimming with musicians, concentration etched on their faces, proudly displaying their boldly patterned outfits, complete with eye-catching headwear, and arms wrapped around their saxes, guitars and trumpets. The successful sale of one piece from this collection, a large-scale collage of fabric on canvas titled ‘Homage to Romare Bearden’, reaffirmed Nevine’s position on the regional art scene and served as a major confidence booster. In another project, she immerses herself in the history of tapestry, taking inspiration from an era when torn clothes were painstakingly patched and the creativity this involved. 

Nevine’s work has certainly caught the public eye over the years, with exhibitions organised in Lebanon and internationally on a regular basis since the 1980s. She also supports local good causes, donating art to auctions for the local children’s cancer charity and a sale held to raise funds for Lebanese affected by the explosion last year.

Against the current chaotic local backdrop, she is currently preparing for an exhibition on the theme of urban life in Beirut at the behest of gallery owner Cherif Tabet which is planned for September. Explaining the concept, Nevine said she expects to be exploring the city’s rich societal diversity through mixed media, form and design. “I’ve already begun the research,” she said, “and it will certainly be satisfying to try and find some beauty in our country after witnessing so much destruction.” 

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