In the Artist's Words

Kanso stands between two works from his Kuwait series on the Gulf War in the early 1990s

Nabil Kanso's work is immortalized by his unwavering commitment to the cause of social progress throughout his 50+ year career and his ability to transcend culture, race, nationality, and virtually all boundaries to advocate for peace, human rights, and free expression through art, while also contributing to uncovering a deeper shared understanding of human emotion, behavior, and history.

 

Kanso often spoke about “the Split of Life,” a term he employed to describe the divisions that have plagued civilization from antiquity to apartheid, from the global slave trade to the U.S. Civil War, throughout the history of the Middle East, and across other major flash points that Kanso depicts in his work to demonstrate how opposing forces have regularly confronted one-another to determine the course of history. Kanso also frequently wrote about and made reference to the work of numerous artists who preceded him, including Francisco Goya, Pablo Picasso, Gibran Kahlil Gibran, Frida Kahlo, José Clemente Orozco, among others. Moreover, Kanso was strongly influenced by his engagement with literary works and writers, from William Shakespeare to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to Oscar Wilde. 

 

Kanso’s estate maintains a vast archive that includes over five decades of Kanso’s writings and reflections, his library, correspondences, sketchbooks, digital materials, and an extensive repository of resources that provide additional background and materials on Kanso’s life and works. The quotes below are excerpted to help provide a window into the life of Nabil Kanso and important themes expressed in his work—in his own words.

On his early life in Lebanon and first exposure to art:

 

"My first contact with art came early and naturally looking up at the images of angels painted on high ceilings supported by marble aches adorned with arabesque and lattice wood work. Over the years, I discovered various pictures from the art works that my parents brought from Mexico. My mother taught me basic elements of art and design and acquainted me with the work of various artists from the East and West.  As there were no art museums around, the country's remnants of ancient civilizations provided splendid sites to admire, enjoy and study.

The schools that I attended offered courses that emphasized the country's rich heritage. They followed a balanced curriculum of French and Arabic with some elementary art classes. When the schools were forced to shut down for more than a year during the 1958 Civil War, there was little to do and no place to go. But there were many gatherings among family and friends, and I occupied some of my

Nabil Kanso stands in front of his childhood home, a two-story structure, with cars and tree behind him; Beirut in 2007.

time making sketches of characters and scenes that captured my curiosity and interest. The atmosphere was gloomy and the view obfuscated by thick smoke from burned buildings. There was shooting from all directions and on one occasion flying bullets grazed my side and wrist while standing at the entrance door. It was around this time that I began to develop a desire to leave the country and travel to America, where my father came when he was about the age of fourteen.”

 

(Excerpted from Kanso autobiography, undated)

Nabil Kanso stands in front of his childhood home in Beirut in 2007

On Leaving Lebanon for London and New York:

 

"The opportunity came [to leave Lebanon] in 1961 when I went to London to continue my studies. I enrolled at the Polytechnic with the idea of becoming an architect. But the venture to explore my interest in art and various subjects was overwhelming. With so many museums in London and across the Channel, I took time to closely look and study masterpieces that I had never seen before. After a five-year period of study and travel in various countries in Europe, I made the journey across the Atlantic and moved to New York in 1966.

I enrolled at NYU where I studied art, philosophy and politics and began intensive art courses of self-training. I established a studio in New York in 1968 and immersed myself on the art scene attending shows and meeting many known and unknown artists of various backgrounds, fields, and styles. In 1971, I held my first solo at the 76th Street Gallery.

 

The exhibition attracted many art lovers and was attended by a number of prominent representatives from New York's leading art galleries and museums including the first director of the Museum of Modern Art, Alfred Barr whom I [first] met in front of Guernica. The positive response from viewers provided the encouragement and support to expand the studio and turn its space into a continuum of conferences, performances and shows that brought me in contact with a wide range of artists and activists on the New York art scene.”

 

(Excerpted from Kanso autobiography, undated.)

Kanso in Beirut in 1978

On becoming an artist:

 

"[In 1966, as a student at NYU,] I started to paint seriously on the side. I began to realize what painting is all about, and I realized that I’d have to abandon everything else that had been important to me – the idea of a profession like law or business and so on. But art brought out more in me than anything else I’d ever experienced. I never dreamed I could go so deep in my soul.”

 

(Atlanta Journal-Constitution, July 8, 1984).

The Fall of Phaethon, 1968, oil on canvas, 60 in x 48 in

On his New York studio and founding the 76th Street Gallery:

 

"For a period extending between 1968 and 1974, my studio in New York City, which consisted of a five-story townhouse, provided the space to produce and hold regular exhibitions, conferences and discussions, which brought together a group of friends who included artists, poets, musicians, academics and critics.

The contemporary art scene in New York was unrivaled by its scope and breadth and by its accessibility to some of the most original and inspiring arts and artists of the century. The shadows of the Vietnam War were still looming and spreading dreadful images of calamity and despair. Art as a ‘raison d’être’ appealed to the conscious and subconscious impulse of conception."

(Excerpted from The Split of Life by Nabil Kanso, 1996)

Kanso in Kuwait in 1991 in the aftermath of the Gulf War, ahead of his landmark exhibition at the Free Atelier in 1992

On art work and the viewer:

“Some people think that war is maybe something that only occurs in fiction, or that it only exists somewhere else because it does not have this [same] direct effect on people who are not feeling the turmoil of it […] so one important aspect of doing mural work, and taking them on tour through exhibitions, is to get as much direct involvement as possible with the viewer and to create that kind of dialogue between the work and the viewer. Then the viewer [will] respond through the image […] or there will be some kind of an impact. […]

Traditionally, a work of art rendered the viewer passive. So, you look at it in a way [that allows you] to enjoy it, to enjoy looking at a landscape, or a still life, or something that is not disturbing. But this passivity evaporates later on. When I started this type of work early in the 1970s, this was an extremely important aspect, to reverse this passivity. Therefore, I started doing this scale of work, so that this passivity would be eliminated and the viewer would be directly engaged into the expression of the art.”

 

(Excerpted from an interview with Kanso and filmmaker Andrew Robertson, May 2012)

On war and art:

 

“The subject of war has been strongly present and central in my work throughout my career spanning [five] decades. Wars are major events that have surrounded my life.

 

I set up my first studio in New York in 1968 less than a year after the 1967 Arab Israeli War and under the atmosphere of the Vietnam War. There were so many chaotic and catastrophic events during that year with the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.

Early in the 1980s, I was taking my work on a travel tour of South America, [during a period when] there were upheavals and wars in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and later U.S. invasions of Granada and Panama.

An all over composition abstracted in hot reds and oranges and cool purples. A bombed out image with monsters, cowering figures, and burning houses and pools. The horror of war.

Scorching Sparks, 1983, oil on canvas

We have ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and they are spilling over to Pakistan and other places. We have a state of turmoil and instability between Palestinians and Israelis that is causing a terrible state of war and violence that affects not only the entire Middle East, but Europe, the U.S., and the entire world.

 

All of these wars have had a profound impact on my life. By responding to war and violence through my work, I have the opportunity to bring before the public a visual transmission of personal emotions, experiences, and visions to engage the viewer and establish a dialogue about art and the important issues affecting humanity.”

 

(Excerpted from Kanso’s written responses to interview questions, April 2009)

On painting his Lebanon Series:

 

“I began the Lebanon series when the civil war broke out in Lebanon in 1975. Earlier in the 1970s, I painted a series on the Vietnam War, which was charging the atmosphere in New York and elsewhere with anger and a state of constant anti-war demonstrations disrupting my life, study, and work.

Wearing a smock Nabil Kanso leans against a chair in the middle of the expansive industrial space that served as his studio. (1983)

 

When I started the Lebanon series, it was like shifting war zones from Vietnam to Lebanon. But the actual subject only changed title or name. The depicted series reflected similarity of subject matter and technique, but the paintings have a heightening of intensity in their expressions on human brutality and suffering.”

 

 

(Excerpted from Kanso’s written responses to interview questions, April 2009.)

Kanso in his Atlanta studio in 1983

On feminist influence on his work:

 

“The depiction of female figures in my art is a natural and integral aspect of the figural imagery in my work. In my first large solo exhibition in 1971, more than 80 paintings and drawings on display depicted scenes presided over by female figures in a wide variety of subjects with mythological, literary, and contemporary settings.

Dance of Salomé, Untitled, 1995, mixed media on paper

The portrayal of female figures evolved to expressions of intensity and pathos in compositions depicting war and violence. The women represented in many of my paintings have an important presence that reflects their role in defending and protecting innocent children from man’s brutality and the horrors of war. These women also can also be seen pleading to make their voices heard with screams that come among a deafening bombardment of bullets and rockets.

 

On numerous occasions during the Lebanese Civil War, I stood awe-struck watching both my mother and grandmother, as well as so many other women, standing up against armed men of various militias to stop them from intruding to set up barricades around their homes and forcibly stopping snipers from climbing their roofs. The women of Lebanon fought terror day and night over a long, protracted 15-year war that caused terrible destruction and devastation.”

 

(Excerpted from Kanso’s written responses to interview questions, April 2009.)

On Place des Martyrs:

 

“The works in the Place des Martyrs series were done in New York and Beirut in the early seventies (1971-74). The subject matter is based on the red light district adjoining Beirut’s el Bourj (Al Burj), also known as Place des Canons named after the cannons placed there by the Ottoman, and renamed Martyrs Place, or Place des Martyrs, to commemorate the hanging of a number of Arab nationalists who sought independence and spoke out against Ottoman tyranny.

Place des Martyrs, Untitled, 1974, Ink on Paper

The works in this series depict life in and around el Bourj, where men from all walks of life came for entertainment, sex, and pleasure. The works consist mostly of watercolors and drawings and offer an intimate view of street scenes and encounters between men and women. When they were exhibited in New York in 1972-73, they attracted quite a bit of interest. The subject matter, technique, medium, and size unite to project a sense of intimacy between the work and the viewer.”

 

(Excerpted from Kanso’s written responses to interview questions, April 2009.)

On the Othello paintings and censorship in the arts:

 

"When the Othello paintings were put up for exhibition in Atlanta during the summer of 1985, they revealed a certain transparency and meaning in which the entwined figures of a black man and a white woman emerged from the canvases to face a world infinitely more complex, more intense and more baffling than the one they suspected to know some four centuries ago. […]

I went, per chance, to take a look at the installation of the show. Straining my seeking eyes through the obscure glass of the closed door, I was astounded by the bareness of the wall. The pictures that were installed the previous day were gone. The reaction brought numerous conjectures to my state of mind, except the one that was communicated to me the following day. Namely, that the stark portrayal of the subject was considered too provocative for the patrons. The exhibition became unavoidable. To remedy the situation and calm the tension that ensued, a private reception was rescheduled with the paintings reinstalled.

Kanso stands atop a scaffold with two large paintings, black-and-white photograph.

Kanso stands in front of his Othello installation in 1985 at an exhibit hosted by Nexus (Atlanta) Contemporary Art Center and the Theatrical Outfit in Atlanta, Ga.

Any detailed account of what happened and why would only reveal a recapitulation of the perennial issues that continue to plague artists and the environment surrounding the arts… The trend towards fiercer censorship and further estrangement of artistic values has made the artist’s vocation rather dangerous. By creating and communicating to the viewers works considered hazardous to the enjoyment of life, the artist is alienated and looked upon as the usual suspect. […]


The aesthetic communication of visual works, however, can only be brought to realization through the display of art work. Without appearances, the work would debilitate and dissipate into the abyss of nothingness.”