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In the Studio with Ayla Hibri

Lebanese visual artist Ayla Hibri has amassed an expansive archive of visual data on psychogeography and aspects of the human condition through her practice, often depicting images of creatures and beings of distant worlds. We met with Ayla to tell us more about her inspirations and her journey as an artist.

When did you first begin to see yourself as an artist? 
 

I knew it was my destiny since I was a young child with crayons. I don’t think of the word “artist” as an achievement or a point you ultimately reach, but a life choice and a way of being, seeing, thinking and doing. That has been with me my whole life and has been funnelled through different processes and outlets and the manoeuvring of situations that have allowed me to get away with living such a life. I find myself in the present moment calling myself an artist and feeling grateful to have spent my time working with my senses and hands, with the playfulness of a child. That being said, I also believe that part of being an artist is aboutsharing your work with others and though it hasn’t come naturally for me to do that, I try my best to do so by participating in the artistic communities both locally and abroad to reflect my being. The more I do that, the more others perceive me this way, the more opportunities I get to share my work and be the artist that I am. 

What’s your background? Has this impacted your work as an artist?
 

I grew up in Beirut, Lebanon in a home that encouraged creativity, self expression and always pushed for curiosity, exploration and the pursuit of new experiences, so that has impacted me deeply growing up and to this day. My father is a landscape designer and my mother is a furniture designer, working with textile. They had a flower shop together so I spent my childhood around flowers and plants. At some point my mother started going to auctions around the world collecting antiques and exhibiting them in the flower shop until she eventually expanded towards collecting ottoman and vintage textiles from across the silk road which she would then upholster on vintage furniture. I spent a lot of time travelling with her, sipping tea and looking at textiles in dusty attics of shops in Istanbul’s Bazaars and getting lost in a world of colours and delicate workmanship.

After finishing university, I was all about travelling and living in different places. I was focusing fully on photography (using a street photography documentary approach), walking and exploring. I was in the pursuit of adventure so all I did was find ways to travel to new places and spend time there as much as I could. Doing different jobs, I would gather enough money to go spend 6 months in Ecuador, 6 months in Brazil, and to visit special places like Yemen, Eritrea and China, taking photos and trying to understand the world by engaging with it photographically. I also lived in Istanbul for 3 years, a city close to my heart.  By now, I have collected an expansive archive of visual data on the psychogeography of places and aspects of the human condition. I carry my camera with me at all times and photographing is second nature to me and the way by which I interact with the world. 

4 years ago, by accident and with a strong desire to slow down a little, I started painting and I got lost in a world of colour and imagination. I went from the outside world to the inside of my being. 

Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. Have you gone through the traditional route of art school and what was your experience?

 

I wasn’t very good at school and spent my time in class drawing in my notebooks. Thankfully my family discovered my desires at a very young age and I ended up taking drawing lessons with different teachers around Beirut until university, where I studied interior architecture at the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts (thinking it encompassed all my interests at the time). Though I never pursued this after graduating, it was a great foundation that has helped me a lot – specifically with spacial awareness and work discipline. I also took a photography class my second year there and ended up taking every photography class my university offered. It was love at first click. As soon as I graduated I wanted to dig deeper and ended up pursuing my studies in photography at The School of The Art Institute of Chicago. 

Photography became my world for the next ten years until four years ago when I accidentally fell back into painting, my childhood hobby. After spending 6 amazing months in brazil, I had to return to Beirut for visa issues. I wanted to stay there but couldn’t due to my Lebanese passport’s limitations, all I had upon my return was my memories and what was ingrained in my imagination. Photos from my time there weren’t enough and I had more to say and process. So I picked up and pen and paper and started drawing the tropical flowers I had fallen in love with, the beach bodies of Rio de Janeiro, the colors, the samba flavour that I didn’t want to let go of and that’s how I pivoted towards the inner world, memories, dreams, the subconscious.. 

What’s the message of your work? Are there themes/narratives/purpose? Where do they come from?

 

Though it was a struggle for me at first to divide my time between both mediums, which I loved and enjoyed doing equally, I finally came to the realisation that for me to live fully, deeply and from all aspects, I need to alternate between the real world and the imaginary world. The conscious and the unconscious. Photography and painting complete each other for me. Photography informs me about the world we live in, painting helps me process it, and the balance of both keeps me in balance. Through drawing and painting, I try to move as far away as possible from the real world, driven by the matter of dreams and active imagination. As humans, we have become too absorbed by reality, too distracted and too busy, too self-centered, moving fast with no room for daydreaming and honouring what is most precious in our existence, like mother Nature. My paintings and drawings are a form of escape and exaggerated imagination that can be stretched in all directions, inspired by the organic forms that surround us. They come from my gut, my mind, my instinct and my experiences. They are a pause, a moment of dissection of instances of high intensity that feel like an eternity and are universal to the human condition. They  also act as an invitation to explore other worlds and a reconfiguration of elements of our reality, teleported from another dimension that exists in its own unique way in everyone’s psyche, but that tends to be put aside or repressed by the systems we live in. 

How would you describe your aesthetic?

colourful, bold, organic and brut. 

Who and what are your greatest influences?

I always go back to drawings and paintings from my early childhood, the ones that were naive and honest, free from conditioning and outside the boundaries of official culture. I think of them as my best work. I am inspired by children’s drawings and outsider art in general. 

I am also attracted to the golden age of Islamic art between the 8th and 14th BC, specifically Kalila wa Dimna as well as cave art and indigenous art from around the world. 

The trial of Dimna in Kalila wa-Dimna

Are your works planned? What do you want people to take from your work when they view it?

I fluctuate between two different processes, one that is intuitive, organic and goes with the flow and the other that is very mental and thought out, where I think of the painting and visualise it in my mind’s eye before I get to it. If the person is moved by what they see; if they are confused, if they relate, if they are triggered, if they are intrigued, if they try to guess the meaning behind it, I am happy. 

How has your art evolved? Do you experiment? Are there any mediums you steer clear of?

I will forever be in the process of exploration and experimentation. I consider myself lucky for not having formal training as an adult and I’d like to keep it this way and evolve at my own pace. It is what keeps it exciting for me, all the endless possibilities. Evolving is inevitable since I look at painting as a muscle that needs to be trained. It is like learning a new language, the more words you know, the better you express yourself, so I surrender to the element of time and work my way towards the future. Every painting for me is a new experiment but I take it very slowly by adding and subtracting rules and limitations. I am currently going through a phase where my paintings are devoid of the color black. My hand also moves differently depending on what I am using be it oil paint, pastels, charcoal, water color, ink, color pencils. 

What are your ideal conditions for creating a good piece of work? 

A good studio space, nice light, music in my ears and a joint to keep my juices flowing. 

 What are your plans for the future?

Keep doing what i’m doing consistently, with discipline and dedication and then get into sculpture. 

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