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Interview: Nadine Kanso on Photographing the Streets of Beirut

With her jewelry line, Bil Arabi, in high demand and a photography exhibition at Cuadro Gallery launching April 29th, Nadine Kanso has every reason to be rushed—and yet, she arrives to our interview at The Archive in Dubai’s Safa Park with an easy smile, one lemon tart, and two forks to share. Kanso speaks to with the informality of a girlfriend about everything from the artistic inspiration behind her photographs to being a strong Arab woman torn between Beirut and Dubai.

How do you relate to the Arabic language and why is it so intimately tied to your photographs and jewelry designs?

I studied graphic design, which is why I like font and typography. The evolution of the Arabic font was quite basic from the Prophet Muhammad’s time until about 20 years ago. Then, when print magazines started coming out and the computer became popular, the Arabic written language adapted.

I always use language in both my photography and my jewelry design. I like to play with words that can have more than one connotation and challenge people to decide for themselves how they will interpret the meaning.

At what moment did you know you were meant to be a fine art photographer?

I always have my camera with me, and I worked as a photographer for a fashion magazine when I first came to Dubai back in 2000—but I’d never thought about trying fine art photography.

Then, in 2006, a friend of mine convinced me to exhibit some photographs at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London for a group show, Arabize Me. It was crazy! I had just two months to produce a series of photographs. I realized that this was a door that had opened for me, so I stepped in and took on what awaited inside.

When I returned to Dubai, the gallerist Isabelle van den Eynde gave me my first solo show at the space formerly known as B21, and everything moved quickly from there.

Your photography pushes the boundaries between memory and reality. What techniques are you using in your studio to achieve this? 

I’ve always loved collage and it is an ideal medium for exploring memory. In the past, I’ve used old Kuwaiti magazines from the 50s and 60s to overlay a dream-like element to my photographs.

I’m going to be showing a new series titled What If in Dubai April 29th, which is part of a group exhibition called Urban Reflections at Cuadro Gallery. This time, I took a chance and made a new kind of diptych. One panel is a photographic detail of Beirut and the other panel is made with 18K gold.

How would you describe your long distance relationship with Beirut? 

I have a fiery love/hate relationship with Beirut that I explore from behind the lens. Although I haven’t lived there for years, I’m nostalgic for the city and miss the small things like a coffee on the Corniche. It’s where I grew up and that was a good childhood, despite the war—though I wouldn’t say it was a walk in the park. A lot of times we had to hide or run, and there were bombs falling. However, I’m a positive person and take the best out of everything.

Photos courtesy of Nadine Kanso and Cuadro Gallery. 
Interview by Danna Lorch

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