Sara Naim. Courtesy the artist and The Third Line, Dubai. Photo: Cité internationale des arts x Maurine Tric.
Adopting a scientific approach, Naim has used an electron microscope at 50,000 times zoom to analyse dead skin, Aleppo soap, and soil, resulting in abstract images refashioned as sculptural photographs. For Building Blocks held at The Third Line in Dubai (16 January–27 February 2019), Naim examined memory and its cognitive associations by looking at the cellular make-up of three elements linked to her Syrian heritage: jasmine, soil, and Aleppo soap.
The gallery was also filled with the smell of soap, stacked as building blocks as is the norm to dry them, creating a poignant reminder of lost architecture in the war-torn country. Alongside these sculptures, complex abstract imagery from the artist's samples explored how memories within embodied materials fluctuate between familiar and unfamiliar.
For her most recent exhibition, Rose Tinted (12 May–8 July 2022), held across two floors of The Third Line's gallery space, Naim presented photographs drawn from utopic scenes of landscapes and food as an idealised exploration between perception and existence of the scene in question.
As writer Vanessa Murrell aptly observes in the accompanying essay: 'Naim analyses how our viewpoints are shaped by our perception, and how we rarely regard anything as it genuinely is. Both consciously and unconsciously, we project our expectations, desires, or aversions onto an experience, in turn, that influences our individual narrative of truth.'1
Additionally, Naim was recently selected as one of 15 finalists of the 2023 Taoyuan International Art Award organised by Taoyuan Museum of Fine Arts in Taiwan.
In the conversation that follows, the artist expands on her interests in getting beyond borders, what lies beneath perception, and ways to rethink image-making and sculptural photographs.
JDWe met in 2012 at your first solo exhibition When The Lights Went Off We Saw at The Pavilion Downtown, Dubai. We interacted more in 2014 during your MFA at Slade—it's been great to follow your practice for almost a decade.
I'm curious about how you continue to use photography to explore the tensions, or rather the interplay, between internal and external boundaries. You look at the body as a bordered site that extends to the natural world, as well as wider ideas about geopolitical borders.
Does this interest come from photography or a curiosity for where art and science meet, or a more general interest in science to inform photography?
SNI think my use of photography as an investigative way of seeing the world began with reading John Berger's Ways of Seeing (1972), which led me to probe the construction of an image—not just technically, but in terms of perception.
We're constantly seeing things through the lens of our own expectations or the failures of those expectations and not through the thing itself.
The way we see is built through so many layers. It comes full circle with my most recent body of work for Rose Tinted, where images unveil this idea of viewing through rose-tinted lenses, while highlighting the fact that our perception is always shifting.
Lived experiences are as beautiful as they are dark and unpredictable. I am interested in stripping back those layers to reveal an alternative. You could call this a process of un-layering—not to see how we want or expect things to be, but as they are.
I also began looking at the photographic image through scientific modalities because that felt obvious. How does looking through the microscope, for example, completely reframe micro and macro worldviews? How does it change perception and what happens when you confuse that space? Can we see it differently?
JDSo really, it's about getting beneath the surface, the skin, or what appears impermeable and solid, and then national boundaries and rules that dictate where one can move or belong?
SNIf you look at a layer, like the tension that's held on the skin, for example, as a superficial barrier and what's assumed to be an official physical layer, there are in fact holes. It can be penetrated by sweat and other fluids from the inside to the outside through a portal.
When you look further to a cellular level, this takes on an otherworldly space, offering further possibilities for merging and emerging. There aren't things like solidity or solid lines. That's really the crux of my practice—describing boundaries as unfixed and elusive geopolitically to borders that define countries and people's movement.
JDThe question about borders and nations, as we know, is a colonial construct and you are part of a Syrian diaspora. How do you feel about ideas of a borderless diaspora and breaking away from the colonial framing of nationalism, complex identities, and their evolutions?
How much does the diaspora framing relate to your work, if at all, in terms of images you deconstruct?
SNIt's an interesting question because people do love to frame you based on your background, such as me as a 'Syrian' artist or you as a 'Nigerian' writer. Of course, heritage and where I come from play a role in my perception and therefore the work that I make.
But again, going back to this idea of the non-boundary, Syria was also part of Lebanon 80 years ago and their separation is in very recent history. When you look closer, we are all more connected than we think or assume.
This idea of statelessness, a rejection of the colonial framing of nations, is both interesting and empowering—we all get to define who we are for ourselves. I don't always have to state that I am a Syrian artist as the works themselves speak of and reference this.
If anything, I feel perhaps more connected to a kind of third culture rather than belonging to the Levant or Syrian culture.
For Building Blocks in 2019, I scanned soil from my grandmother's garden and Aleppo soap, using an electron microscope. I magnified the samples to represent and consider other ways nostalgia operates, where looking closer at something might not make you understand it more.
The opposite happens here: resulting images are lost in abstraction and disconnected from reality. Since this body of work, I began to think of nostalgia as being warped in memory and subjective. Who is remembering and what are they remembering? What is preserved and discarded in that?
JDWhat constitutes nostalgia also inherently shifts over time.
SNYes, totally. Memories we think belong to us can also be shaped by things we've read or be an inaccurate memory of the actual events, so what purpose does nostalgia serve?
If anything, I feel perhaps more connected to a kind of third culture rather than belonging to the Levant or Syrian culture as I never lived in Syria, although I do feel connected to it. Identity is multifaceted and we can belong to many places.
JDThinking of performative gestures in your work such as the 'Pain' series from 2019, you invited sitters to Vipassana meditation sessions and asked them to draw the emotions and sensations from the experience. How was working collaboratively with participants in this way?
SNFor the 'Pain' series, I facilitated several large-scale meditation sessions. Each person had specific coloured pens and pencils, and the paper had a list of sensations including waves, throbbing, tingling, pressure, pleasure, pain, and lightness, which they visualised after an hour of guided meditation.
Participants circled sensations that applied to their physical state while remaining in meditation and drew their physical manifestation. Without attributing craving to pleasure or throbbing to pain, we are left with a pure sensation. I wanted to know what that looked like and for sitters to look at pressure or tingling free of aversions and desires, pleasures and pains.
After the sessions, I blew up the originals, scanned them, and printed them with the same paper they were made to retain their format. It was collaborative in the sense that the work came out of this performance, and it was the first time I had worked this way. Some sessions had up to 100 people. It was moving to fill a large warehouse and have everyone sitting, meditating, and drawing on the floor at the same time.
JDDo you see yourself continuing to work in a more collaborative, participatory way to inform your photography?
SNPrior to the 'Pleasure, Pressure, Pain' series, I wasn't used to collaborating, which takes practise and really knowing how to engage with others. There's a different dynamic to instructing, guiding, and wanting to realise work out of it.
As much as this work had a set of guidelines for partaking, there was a level of spontaneity in the resulting drawings, which made it feel very live and visceral. And I appreciated that. So yes, I'd love to collaborate more in the future.
JDYour most recent exhibition, Rose Tinted, featured utopic scenes including food, vegetation, and landscapes that didn't quite correspond to their sculptural form or frame. Where did you draw inspiration from and what kind of images were you engaging with?
SNI wanted to have an array of utopic scenes, mainly cinematic representations and travel. I decided on imagery like a mountain scene, a tropical island scene, a desert, seas, and lagoons, really going for stereotypical scenes you see on postcards as well.
You can see the tension between the ideal and the real, as each shape is disjointed from the image within it.
These became my frames of reference, and I made these quick drawings—almost cartoonish outlines—to determine the shape of the image, such that a frame is paired with the image that seemed to work best but is not correlated.
It reminded me of being young and the norms we are given—for example, those two arch shapes that render a bird or spikey sun—which defers so much from what exists in nature or reality. You can see the tension between the ideal and the real, as each shape is disjointed from the image within it. I was really interested in critiquing pure reason as this relates to the image.
We're constantly seeing things through the lens of our own expectations or the failures of those expectations, and not through the thing itself. One image is that of a sunset, idealising this notion of 'sailing into the sunset'. It also references Old Masters' landscape paintings to locate the history of man's search for truth or enlightenment.
The frame relates to your question about image construction. I wanted to highlight the fixtures and screws that bind the artwork together, so I connected the MDF to the photograph and plexiglass with reversed industrial nuts and bolts. It shows the merging of the construction of the image and the construction of the sculpture, as well as a mirror of these processes. —[O]
1 Vanessa Murrell, 'Sara Naim: Rose Tinted Rivers, Roasts and Roses.' The Third Line.