***(EXCERPT - Full essay available via print only at Paul Calendrillo NY )***
I was not having an Eat. Pray. Love. moment when I decided to temporarily live in the “Middle East” this year. Rather, my travels were a conduit for deeper investigation. Altercations with landscape, the dead palm trees, running from the dust storms, etc. All of these depictions in the exhibition were ammunition for my inquiries, and ultimately, my spiritual conversations with ancestors. Bordering on ‘pathetically’ as the appropriate adverb to modify my investigating, the ultimate goal of these conversations with ancestors was to figure out how to be and feel more like them. Deep rooted questions about my background, and living in the “Middle East,” has allowed and urged me to investigate these things further, and preserve myself and my discoveries.
Solitude, Self-Preservation and the Self-Portrait
Self-preservation is an intrinsic part of our makeup – where the bustle of atomic activity, primal instinct, and emotional intelligence intersect to harvest elemental patterns of resistance, strength and frailty. My Arab roots has always been an elusive ship captained by pirates, every so often swooping in to abduct small parts of my reality - chipping away bits of my personal autonomy little by little, and leaving me flowing through a boundless artery of never-knowing-enough and preserving what little I had left after the ransack. I was alone a lot during my conversations, since I had only met most participants in photographs, and the conversations more frequently manifested in quiet, intense intuitive listening sessions, rather than exchange of actual words. Although, I did catch myself speaking to the air at times – maybe to Adib or Laila, or after the month of December 2017, Gin Gin – but usually only after experimenting with my homemade cider. I often found myself sitting in one place for hours at a time; reveling in idleness and isolation without the help of a television, music or even a book to inspire content. I would sit upright, staring at a wall or out a window, until my mind lived out the person that I wanted to be, questions I wanted answered, or a moment I hoped to experience. At times, they were just a sequence of scenes, like the best short film you’d ever see, and other times they were full projections of a whole new self. A real Arab self. I replayed the narratives over and over in my mind until they were so familiar I felt like I can pull them close to me, and for that moment, believe they’re real.
Throughout my living and traveling, I didn’t anticipate being so affected by the carnality of landscape. The land for me indicated an important place, a region, and setting for this project, but I had never been a landscape painter. But once I started interpreting the land, it all made much more sense. Aside from wanting to capture the alluring tactile qualities of the dusty mounds of rubble that rested comfortably alongside neighborhoods, and the sand that seemed to hover in your path creating an unceasing cloud of gray fog, I felt as though I needed to preserve its place in time and history, and paint it as a manifestation of my own self-preservation. I also recognized an important dual carnality of the landscape and mind as errant landscape – the land mimicking my insides – bustling of cellular movement trying to achieve self-preservation – the perfect setting to have these conversations with ancestors.
I spent a better portion of my time during the days and early evenings walking among dead palm trees that lined busy roads in the dusty outskirts of city streets at the edge of vast deserts. When I first stumbled upon a row of carcass palms, I was struck by their animalistic, vulnerable gestures. Some of them were seemingly crumbling up into fetal positions, while others rested dead in corpse pose. The negative space surrounding their dead bodies illustrated something otherworldly, or communicated an omen of what’s to come. They felt so grotesque, slowly deteriorating in the sand-filled air with layers of dust so towering, you could write your name in the sand on their frail trunks. But they also felt majestic, and even dignified – like dying beasts after a noble battle – and you could almost see them take their last breath out of the corner of your eye.The carcass palms accentuated this notion of self-preservation, and I constantly wondered what their cells were doing to stay alive, and if the palms had a mind, what they would be telling themselves to fight for life as they took their last breath. On my dusty walks to record them, my first instinct was always to save them, and I frequently brought them water to drink. But I never had enough to bring the beasts back to life.The paintings of carcass palms and the landscape lend insights in my own intrinsic survival - and a reminder about our physical and spiritual mortality. In fact, I couldn’t help but compare the palm trees to human life, turn myself into a palm tree, and wonder why one is deemed more important than the other in the grand scope of space and time. The dying palms, as my own conduit for self-preservation, also eerily reminded me about the social and political climate back home – our plight to preserve our own freedoms, colorful cultures, and ourselves under a heinous regime. So I also painted them with these ideas very much on the forefront, as our plight to self-preserve, and to add dialog to my conversations with strangers.
Growing up, I would hear whispers of a castle in Lebanon built by a family member. The information sat with me for the last 30 plus years, until I was ready to pursue it. Moussa Castle was built on a hill between Deir El Kamar and Beit ed-Dine in Lebanon, and by the time I began my travels, I was finally ready to visit. I started to plan my trip to Moussa Castle while I was drinking Almaza and smoking lemon mint shisha in the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. I was feeling content, and comfortable, surrounded by an eclectic mix of Arabs from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Lebanon, and trying to pick up as much Arabic as I could by listening to their conversations. An elegant couple sitting across the bar began to waive their hands at me. Their little girl had just been let loose to chase the birds, and their urge to socialize was evident. They were smoking cigarettes and drinking Caribbean-inspired cocktails, and their warm smiles were captivating. “Hey! Hey you! Can we ask you something?” I recognized their accents. “Of course, tell me,” I said, trying to play it cool, because they seemed really really cool. “Where is your family from? We know you’re Amriki.” I laughed. “That obvious?” I skittishly glanced at my outfit. “My mother’s family is from Lebanon and Syria,” I said, trying to make sure I remained cautious about political implications when discussing other Arab nations. It can be tricky, and again, I am not qualified. “We knew it! You are our cousin. We can see it in your eyes. We are from Beirut. Please, come sit with us.” They motioned to the bartender. It was really nice, and they generously gave me a laundry list of places to go (and not to go) in Beirut, and warned me that it’s not a good time for me to visit Syria, which I knew. The crisis in Syria has kept me awake at night for years. As I was keenly eying the list, like a pet dog staring at their food bowl at dinner time, I noticed that Moussa Castle was near the top. I jumped out of my seat, my beer dripping down onto my American-inspired shoes, “Moussa Castle! I was just planning a trip moments ago sitting right over there.” I pointed to my old seat as if they didn’t know where I had been sitting, and showed them Safari on my phone. “You must go, it’s a very wonderful place.”“I am related to Moussa, and I have always wanted to visit his castle and meet him. What a incredible story.” “Oh, I am so sorry, you didn’t hear. Moussa died about a week ago.” The news felt like a bullet to my chest. I was saddened, and almost felt as if I had failed Moussa and myself, and I began to turn inward again, and eventually headed back towards my Egyptian hideaway where I could be in peace.
I have learned that solitude is only dangerous if I allow it to be. Otherwise, it’s become a very important tool in self-actualizing, and after several months, I was eventually able to comfortably walk around outside in many countries feeling like I belonged. And, especially, when they recognized me as one of their own, just as the Lebanese couple did. The psychology of isolation, from an experiential standpoint, its impact on the human mind’s ability to adapt to deep states of vulnerability, and how it triggers a self-preserving mode of survival, has been the major artistic byproduct of pursuing the Conversations project, manifested in the exhibited work. Before I left, I thanked the living strangers for their affection. I also thanked Moussa for graciously participating in my project, and promised him that I would one day visit his castle, to ask him many questions. But he’s already given so much.
Edited by Amanda Richards @amandakater
Nicholas Rispoli, Portrait as a Palm Tree Disguised as an Arab, Gouache, collaged drawings on panel 48 x 36 inches 2018