The first time I saw Nabil Kanso’s work was in his studio. "Startled" is a weak word to describe my reaction. Every wall was covered with paintings that reached the ceilings. In some places the paintings were leaning against each other several deep. Others, lots, were rolled up on the floor. A long table was littered with empty and partially empty tubes of oils paint. It was hard to believe one man had done all of this. It wasn’t just that the paintings were large but their content was brilliantly focused, it came from a seeming struggle going on in a landscape that appeared biblical. Although they were silent, one could almost hear the voices of calamity and striving.
In the show at Nexus, the painting once more reached the ceiling. One painting went the entire length of the room, maybe 30 feet. I felt like a coward. It was almost impossible to look at the power and extravagance of these scenes, so I turned instead and looked at the faces of the other onlookers. In their faces were the reflections of the painted holocaust around us. I turned again to the painting which now entrapped is in a cage of feeling. Everywhere were naked bodies, more naked than I had seen before. Clothes no longer being of any account… I struggled toward the painted surface and as I did the painting began to open up. The space enlarged, the flesh and flames became fused… I thought of Kanso’s art thus:
…a tapestry of souls, struggling, reaching… for one another… painted jazz rhythms of naked spirits climbing an interminable Jacob’s ladder in a metaphorical conflagration which repulses and sucks us all in…
NABIL KANS0: A LIFE WORK
Between 1968 and 1974, Nabil Kanso' studio in New York City was an active art center where artists, musicians, writers and peace activists met, exhibited, performed and questioned society openly, particularly the war in Vietnam. When the studio was closed down in 1975, Kanso's entire art production was seized and placed in storage. Among the works destroyed were the suites “Vietnam,” “The Wanderer,” “Man and Woman,” “Danse Macabre,” and others.
Disappointed from the devastating loss, Kanso returned to London where he met his wife Rhonda. After a period of exhibitions and travels the couple settled in Atlanta where Kanso acquired a studio. In order to bring his work directly to the people, he took his large paintings to art centers in various states, and travel exhibitions touring through Latin America.
Kanso's enormous canvases are filled with politically loaded scenes filled with human figures, often seen in catastrophic situations. The range of colors is yellow, orange, red, brown and black with rare inserts of blue and green, often in eyes and in the sky. His childhood land is described in the bible. Earthquakes, floods, war, fire and ice strike history, myth and life. The present appears to coincide with the time of the Apocalypse, the borderline between the prophecies and history was blurred.
His suites “Lebanon” and “El Salvador” were about the ongoing wars. Other suites were named “Jazz,” “Faust,” “South Africa,” and “One Minute.” The last referred to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the 1980's “Apocalyptic Riders,” “Reign of Specters,” “The Split of Life” and “Othello” followed.
The Faust series consists of over 150 paintings evoked by Goethe's poem. The works deal with Faust as a subject for painting and bring forth various aspects of the drama as in the encounter with the angels and the orgies in Walpurgis Night. Some of Goethe's poems of those scenes have traditionally been cut or removed from most editions because the censors considered them obscene. Uncensored editions were hard to get hold of. Kanso's own Faust paintings have mostly been shown in reproductions and books. The tale about Faust, Kanso explains in his preface, is about the individual struggle between existence and non-existence. The limitation of life curtails human longing for knowledge, adventure, youth and love. In order to get them all, Faust makes a deal with the representative of the power of darkness and sells his soul to the devil. The paintings created in 1976-79 describe unreined lust. Humans exist in a split between good and evil. Light seems to emerge from fires or through broken and unpenetrable bars.
The “Othello” paintings were shown in Atlanta in 1985 in conjunction with a performance of Shakespeare's tragedy. After having hung the show, Kanso returned the next day to view it, and to his surprise all the paintings were taken down without anybody notifying him about it. In the South, Othello is considered a daring play because of the love between a black man and a white woman. The paintings were said to be “too much” and too provocative. The fact that the paintings were about jealousy, slander, and color as symbols was never discussed. A tense beam goes through Kanso's art: the sky turns red like blood as light comes forth through the fire that burns.
“Othello” signified yet another turn in Kanso's life. He withdrew his art from further exhibitions in Atlanta and turned abroad to Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Switzerland, Sweden and other places. After the Gulf War in 1991 Kanso was the first artist to hold an art exhibition in Kuwait. He said the environment was so poisoned his hair fell during his stay there. “Nabil Kanso Declares War against War” read one article about his work. As depicted in his art, everyone's face reflects terror and pain. Few artists have described wrath and terror so directly.
Fire, ice, floods, swords, barbs, thorns, wild animals, earthquakes and prison bars are mixed with destruction and lust. Humans with animals like bodies and animals with human faces perish together on the day of wrath, maybe by nuclear weapons. Noah's flood and the horses of the Apocalypse appear in the consciousness of the viewer. It was not coincidental that the 1986 exhibition at the Malmö Kunsthall was named “Inside Out.” The combined interest in the outer world as it is often filled with horrors, and an inner world appearing as symbols and myths of the outer world is prominent in Kanso's art. However, one should abstain from seeing his work mainly as an expression of a certain generation or trend. Kanso's grasp of religion, art history and myth are evident in his work. He uses all his knowledge as a starting point from which his art develops and springs out; it expands through his paintings. It is hard not to point out that the Chernobyl accident occurred at about the same time as the Malmö exhibition. The apocalyptic paintings were indeed relevant.
After Kuwait Kanso went to Asia and exhibited among other places in Korea The situation in Lebanon had calmed down, but the wars went on in Africa, in the former Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union
“The Split of Life” deals very much with human suffering and war. The victims are the newborn torn out of wombs or clinging to mothers fleeing natural catastrophes or political disasters. The noted lack of greens in Kanso's art marks his criticism of destruction of the environment. Nothing can grow during war. Flesh and blood appears to be everywhere. Water is for drowning, or for freezing. Icicles look like hairy insect legs or barbed wire. The rarely discerned sky sometimes reveals a glimpse of the forefathers like pale blue ghosts look down at their descendants.
Kanso's work is represented in collections scattered here and there and on various continents, but has not been included in the museum industry. The canvasses are rolled up in great numbers in his studio, like mummies, the artist says. He is well aware of the connection between the linen cloth in Egyptian wraps as well as in his own life. His father founded a linen cloth business in Mexico.
The problem of providing access to these virtually unseen works of art has been partially solved by Kanso through reproducing them in books. Assisted by his teenage daughter he photographed the unrolled canvases and composed the pictures into books. He has turned out six volumes, three of which are now published: 'The Split of Life,” “Faust” and “Othello.” Of three as yet unpublished, one is about Salome (Mark 6: 17-28,) the other two are “Apocalypse” and “Dreamvision.” The pictures are not strictly evolving around these subjects, one picture may belong in more than one suite.
As far as I know there isn't a single painting by Kanso that doesn't depict human figures. Most are naked, but in “Faust” for examples the figures appear dressed, including the devil. Women are depicted as tempting, beautiful and full of life. Motherhood is important with Kanso's women; you see mothers at the moment of birth and in death holding children in their arms. The bars that recur from one work to another are sometimes placed at the opening of the woman's womb. It is not clear if freedom is placed inside the woman's body or in the outer world. The children suffer with their mothers as fire, storms, or ice intensifies the human situation. People of different religions are united in suffering and passion in these works of art.
A visit with Kanso in Atlanta during the summer of 1997 reveals an American family scene. The youngest son runs around catching butterflies. Teenage Melhem plays the piano, evidently with a talent. Rhonda fosters her four children with practical tenderness. Nabil cooks the food. How is he able to see so much and “orks”* as they say in Swedish? The answer appears in the pictures. When you have looked so deeply into matters “orkar” you will not be quiet either and when so much has been said you “orkar” to live. You may bring out what people have in common rather than staking out borders that no one “orkar” get across.
Established religions like to concern themselves with these questions, but they don't always see visual answers as a painter does. What kind of a future do we have? What were our origins and history like? Do we differ from the animals and how? Do we forget? How do the strong and the weak differ in feelings? A painter who appears to be at home in so many places in the world gives us urgent answers.
Seaberg, Ronnog: "Nabil Kanso's Art" Vår L
osen, September, 1997, Stockholm, Sweden. Translated by the author.