Syrian painter and plastic arts artist Jwan Yosef sits down with Vogue Arabia to talk about dualism, identity, and his exhibition Masking in Stockholm.
Who is Jwan Yosef?
A young man with larger than life plans coated in a somber façade? No, but really, I look to others to tell me who “Jwan Yosef” is. You do start with the most difficult question.
Here’s an easier one: You won and took part in several competitions like the Columbia Threadneedle Prize and the Beers Contemporary Award for Emerging Art (2013). What are you doing right?
Well, things started off right after I graduated from Central Saint Martins. I set out to get a studio immediately and worked like there was no tomorrow. I managed to get some attention to my work and took part in several international shows that led to other projects. Being an artist is still a struggle, but it’s also a bliss that I wouldn’t change for the world.
You’ve lived in Syria, Stockholm, London, and now you’re moving to Los Angeles. I’m sensing a pattern…
I spent the first two years of life in a small town in Syria—Ras Al-Ayn. If there’s any pattern, I’m most definitely moving way out West. All [cities] are extremely different places, yet all have played equally important roles. I believe that one never fully grows up unless he leaves his hometown, or country for that matter.
Someone told me that you don’t know how to drive. You’re probably the first Arab I know without a driver’s license and you’re about to move to Los Angeles. Isn’t that like boarding the Titanic without a life vest?
(Laughs) I know, I’ll be an alien in a nation that is obsessed with their cars. Somehow I thought that I could go through life without ever having to drive a car. I’ve managed to live in hyper urban cities up until this point where cars would be more of a curse than any help. But hey, Los Angeles is such a great place that I might just learn how to drive.
Would you say that you’re a modern nomad or an urban Bedouin?
I’d definitely go with modern nomad; I love the sound of that. However, a modern gypsy is more my reality. Traveling has always been a wonderful thing, but I’d much rather live in one place for a longer period making plans, than live out of my suitcase and on the go.
Your Instagram account says that you’re an “autist from London.” An autistic artist. Hold on, I see what you did there. It’s a joke, right?
Do friends and family consider you to be a funny guy?
My friends have a tendency to laugh at me, rather than with me. I think that my seven years living in London has accumulated a rather sarcastic sense of humor. Americans don’t get it all; Europeans love it; and Arabs think, “Why is he speaking like a foreigner?”
Your art often evokes a certain calmness. Is that also a part of your personality?
Undoubtedly, I’m a very calm person. I enjoy silence even in the company of others. The same thing applies to my work; there’s a sense of subtlety, even when it’s big, it’s not loud.
But, I truly love the whole spectrum: the loudest crowds and the quietest, most serene kind of environment. Anything really, from a full on jam-packed occasion to a dead quiet retreat.
Is creating art a form of seduction?
It can be, yes. It can also be very rejective. I find that my work is seductive in some ways; in the process of making it, in its apparent look, and in my subject matter. Art delivers an infinite variation of approaches that speak to different people differently. I think all kinds of jobs are seductive in their own way; art being a kind of peculiar thing that often times transcends expectations or norms. But filing papers could be somewhat seductive too, right?
Tell me something about your exhibition in Stockholm.
My first solo show at Stene Projects in Stockholm opens on November 10th. I’m showing a brand new series of work where my focus on art material is a focal point. I’m also moving closer to sculptural work, where as a painter, the work has taken a big leap by moving down onto the ground to work around the notion of duality; the in-between state of painting and sculpture. The work itself is super seductive in my opinion, yet highly political.
It also seems to be rather minimal.
Frankly, it’s been a process that’s taken me years. I still struggle with it as I try to locate my own identity in its minimal form. But I discover that the less I show, the more I say. There’s an immense liberty in minimal or abstract work for that matter that leads to openness in interpretation.
You also seem to explore the notion of dualism, mainly about identity. What can you tell me about your own identity? Did you reach a point in life, where you know who you are and what you want?
Oh, duality is a very strong subject of mine—both in work and in person. Being born in Syria from an Armenian mother and Kurdish father and growing up in Sweden has led to becoming a rather versatile person. I feel that, yes, I know the “beings” I can be and things I want through them. I can’t sum it up into one single understanding. I want many things in life and I want to “be” many things, too.
What would you be if you weren’t an artist?
I’d be a writer. It’s a profession that would turn me into even more of a recluse. I enjoy the idea of total detachment in professions—not to work towards a specific client or boss. However, I often find myself missing those kinds of jobs; there’s something tempting about a landscape of desks and people working in a massive office building. I’m a total millennial…
Which book do you have on your bedside table?
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. I know, “liberalism.”
If you were to make a sculpture or a painting of yourself, what would it look like?
I would be a white, blank canvas or a transparent, flat object.
When I say, “Art in the Middle East,” you say?
Inshallah! No, but really—I’d say small but strong. Think rebel forces against the empire (Star Wars style).
Jwan Yosef´s exhibition “Masking” opens November 10th and runs until December 3rd at Stene Projects, Brunnsgatan 21B in Stockholm.