Why did you become an artist? Do you remember the exact moment of your decision?
I think I became an artist because I had no choice. Art has always been the dream of my life. I have always had an explicit predisposition for drawing and painting, a predisposition which fortunately has been noticed by all my teachers, who have often spent more than a word in encouraging me to pursue my dream.
Furthermore, creativity has always been a component, albeit not too obvious, in my family: my father is an Islamic Art painter, and his mother, my grandmother, also has a great talent for drawing. I often think of their work.
You come from an international family: your father is from Tunisia, and your mother is Italian. To be grown in such different cultural codes – how does it feel? What’s your parents’ attitude towards you choice to be an artist?
It was not easy to grow up in a family with a dual religious, geographical, linguistic and cultural identity. I was born and raised in Milan, to an Italian and Christian mother and an Arab and Muslim father. As often happens to mixed-raced subjects, the cultural mix alienated me from both the family and non-family environment, making cultural assimilation difficult to realize. I always felt alien, always hang in the balance, in a perennial cultural bubble.
Half of my family speaks a language that I barely know, and the other half can barely pronounce my own name…
I remember that my father’s family was very impressed with my drawings and portraits when I was a child, but also a little worried, because it is known that in Islamic culture it is forbidden to draw living forms. Only God can do it, create living forms. That is why Islamic art is composed of geometric shapes and symbolic elements.
But using a trick, a ploy, they use geometric art and calligraphy – mostly religious writings – to portray a living form, an animal for example, painted inside the geometric shape.
This stratagem was really inspiring for me, and I often start a piece keeping it in my mind: I call it abstract-figurativism.
Does art allow you to feel some sort of affiliation? What can you say about the local art community? Was the art world friendly?
The human dynamics of Art are often repulsive; it is a very complex environment. In this complexity, however, I found a way to feel like I’m a part of something, especially in Europe. I often find understanding, empathy and closeness, but I would not use the word ‘friendly’ anyway. It is very tough indeed.
You have mentioned that you were good at drawing. Why did you make a turn to sculpture?
All the choices regarding the media have been made in relation to the work needs, but I do not rule out the possibility of going back to drawing. In fact, I am working on it right now.
In your earlier works, there are parts of real animals (bones, tails); later, it appears as there is a prevalence of artificial sculpture details. This transition from real to artificial things – is it just a conceptual part of your projects, or is it something about the evolution of material/medium? Or does it imply something different?
It was not a premeditated decision, but an exigency of my research.
Reasoning on symbolism, a few years ago I started concentrating on developing symbols, or, perhaps more precisely, on depriving the material from its symbolic context. The material was pork meat, chosen for its symbolic energy, strongly present in my biography since forever as prohibited food.
The pieces, for obvious reasons, were almost impossible to exhibit, but for me this process was a way to definitively understand that it is man who creates symbols, who gives names and power to objects. I understood and internalized the symbolic value of my gaze and my gesture as a human being and as an artist; following this principle, I was able to attribute strength and symbolism to all kinds of materials.
Sometimes I use water in my work; it is a “passive material”, which fills any shape and space that welcomes it. I like to think that it is a passive way of sculpting, of carrying out a gesture.
Besides, in my last solo show, I used furniture elements to support my sculptures, to hang or stand the pieces. I live in a home-studio; sometimes I do not have enough space for my work-in-progress pieces, so I put them on pieces of furniture, on sofas… I tried to bring these moments into the show. I think this is important for me to recreate my daily landscape, the environment that accompanies and nourishes my work. It seemed to me like an important gesture, an ethical gesture.
However, I do not think I have concluded this transition from artificial to organic yet, I am not excluding the possibility of returning from one side to the other, shall the work need it.
I see it as a very natural movement, like a wave that flees and returns.
In the sculpting practice, you are nullifying the world of objects’ meanings in order to reach a new symbolism. Is it happening more due to the power of Logos (in its traditional, theological meaning), or because of your personal feelings?
I am not a believer, but these precise behavioral patterns have formed me, and they are a part of the family’s legacy. It is my culture, my identity.
My surname, as well as many other Arabic surnames, is composed of the prefix “Ben” (بن), literally “Son of”, a further confirmation of belonging and descent.
Accessing a person’s problems means entering his family space, penetrating the psychological atmosphere of his private environment.
We are all marked and contaminated by the psycho-mental universe of our ancestors.
So many individuals make their up own personality that is, in fact, not their own, but in fact comes from one or more members of their emotional circle. Being born in a family is like being possessed. And this possession is passed on from generation to generation: the bewitched person turns into a sorcerer, projecting onto his children what had previously been projected onto him.
I feel strongly possessed by my family. I do not know if I want to create new symbolism, but surely this obsession with symbols is the environment in which I grew up.
“Extended protection, Allegoric defense”… The furniture is made according to the physical/corporal convenience of the human body, so we are not really comfortable with our bodies and the dimensions of their poses. To relax, we need the support of various objects… Does this describe the meaning of the ethical gesture you have mentioned above? Does the art also need support?
Surely, weakness, tiredness, fatigue and passivity represent a big part of my research. The gesture of giving a certain space to the piece, a place to let it cool down and recharge, was natural. A natural gesture is an ethical gesture, because it accepts and embraces the truth.
The months that I spent living and sleeping with my works led me to the decision of showing them as I had done it previously, in the months before the exhibition.
Art does not need support, but sometimes sublimation allows a work to show itself in all its strength, even if this strength lies in its weakness.
It feels as if there is some disturbance about bio-forms in your work. Is that true?
It has been told to me several times, apparently it is a feature that transpires from my work, even if it is not wanted or researched directly by me.
Your artistic practice also includes video art. Is it an interest in narratives?
I adore cinema and video; it has always attracted me uncontrollably. I believe in its intrinsically plastic and evocative power. I wish my sculptures could create that emotional transference that the cinema is so splendidly capable of.
Tarkovskij once said: ‘Unlike all the other forms, film is able to seize and render the passage of time, to stop it, almost to possess it in infinity. I’d say that film is the sculpting of time.’
Weakness, tiredness, fatigue and passivity… Is it about reflecting the common global attitude to life during the age of consumerism? Or are we talking about it as a shape of the sense of transition between two general states? You have previously mentioned Tarkovsky’s quote about time…
Susanne Langer said that the phenomena that fill time are tensions: physical, emotional, or intellectual tensions. Time exists for us because we suffer tensions and their resolutions.
Many artists suffer from tiredness, fear it and avoid it. But fatigue is a very unique, active physical and cognitive state; a time for pursuing research, a time for a thought. Embracing my own body in a moment of inertia has always been very productive for me.
it is not apathy; it is a precious possibility of reflection, the condition by which productivity occurs. It shows an urgency, the urgency of a subtract gesture.
Is your feeling of time more about physical, emotional, or intellectual tensions? And how could you describe your artistic path?
Art concerns everything. If I tried to focus on just one aspect among those you mentioned, the work would end up taking me where it wants. I trust my body a lot in front of a material; my way of working is divided into two moments: one is the time of physical relaxation, of tiredness; and the other is a moment of gestural explosion, which usually lasts for a short time and includes emotional, intellectual and physical tensions.
it is a strange way of working, but it is a way of creation that represents me a lot; it represents the urgency of art, urgency similar to that of some believers who, even if they are not in a place of worship, pause their lives to pray in the middle of the street.
The best ideas come when they are not wooed.
Do you set any specific goals while you are making sculptures? What is the general sense which you want to give shape to? Or is it about the process of creation per se?
Both. At the exact moment while I work, I feel that a whole series of factors have lined up inside and outside of me to allow me to carry out a series of gestures, which will lead to the creation of the work. I visualize myself as a shaman, capable of concentrating a series of powers within an object, just like during the assembly of an amulet. I have an initial idea of what I want, but then the gesture almost always prevails, and I try to implement an exorcism, a balance of forces between what I want to make and what the work wants to be.
The concept of failure, symbolization, and the meaning of time are fundamental to your art practice, therefore in some interview you mentioned the inspiration that you get from the Internet. What do you think about the world of post-truth?
it is exciting. The Internet helps us every day to define the world that we want, that we deserve. it is not directly a central theme in my practice, but it is certainly inspiring as part of my time and reality.
Among your works is there any, that emotionally resonates with you more than the others?
I struggle to choose among my sculptures, it is difficult for me to think of them as singular elements. My entire research has been developing for some years around themes that I feel I have not yet exhausted, and each piece helps me to discover a new measure of my work. They are very much bound to each other.
Also, you are a co-founder of Something Must Break. Could you tell more about this initiative?
Something Must Break represents the desire, mine and Michele Gabriele’s, to stage the most ‘melodramatic’ and romantic part of the art and artists of our generation, and it does so through the immediacy and the power of the images; in this, it is very similar to cinema. Starting from the title, the same as an independent queer Swedish movie, extremely full of yearning, we want to show the most emotional and immediate part of the artist’s work and the torments and joys that lead us to work every day on our obsessions.
What inspires us, drafting an exhibition project, is a precise feeling, the need for a narrative that is much more layered than the composition of the artworks in a room: we desire those pieces to be our actors, our characters, capable of staging a story, almost a screenplay. But, unlike cinema, we stage truth, the truth of art itself. We perceive the artworks as subjects, and not as objects. There is an endless love for the images and for the art language in this, in my opinion; it is like seeing the piece for the first time, recognizing it, listening to what it would have meant to say for a long time, but which it has never had the opportunity to tell.
What are your favourite writers, artists, musicians?
Often the main motivation that drives me to love one intellectual rather than another is their ability to tell me the right thing at the time when I need to hear it. it is a matter of timing.
Right now I am looking at the works of the Futurist avant-garde; I like listening to flamenco, Antonio Molina, but Rosalia too.
I read Julio Cortazar, Giorgio Vasta, Alejandro Jodorowsky, and some fairy tales of the Tuareg people.
Do you have any plans for the future?
To face my job with more courage and less distractions.