Nadia Kaabi-Linke has strict criteria for the art she constructs. She recites the rules like a manifesto: “If you compared my work to cuisine, it would be slow food. My work is layered. I want it to resist time and always have meaning to the viewer. It needs a certain kind of radicality. It can’t be kind.” She feels frustration with the art world’s collective urge to force feed audiences an easy to swallow context within which to understand artwork, label it, digest it, and toss it aside in order to binge-consume more.
Impossible Ordinary, Kaabi-Linke’s third solo show at Lawrie Shabibi, doesn’t volunteer an entry point, requiring some heavy lifting on the part of viewers beyond the casual buzz of a crowded opening night. Citing a PhD in Aesthetics and multiple published monographs as proof that she is not against words, the artist believes that printed texts are vital only in the absence of the artwork they describe. Texts—whether plastered on gallery walls in fancy grayscale font or forcefully distributed in leaflet form the moment someone enters an exhibition space—are what she considers the main thief of independent interpretation.
Kaabi-Linke wants the viewer to take in her work without the crutch of an accompanying text or prescriptive explanation from the artist. ”I don’t like to speak about the work once it’s installed. I don’t want to be in control. I want to be egotistical and hear what other people think about it.” In that sense, the greatest compliment she received at the opening of Impossible Ordinary during Galleries Night on November 12 was when a collector remarked that he likes the work because it defies being easily photographed for Instagram.
Caution is required. Kaabi-Linke has set some deliberate traps along the way to emphasise that things are not as they appear, and this element of deliberate disorientation is arguably what unites the pieces shown for the first time here.
Despite its leading title, Negative of Black Hair on White Ground doesn’t involve hair at all. In fact, “it’s just a white line on black paper.” The work plays off Black Square, a pivotal 1913 abstract painting by Kazimir Malevich which marked the dawn of what the artist envisioned as a radical age in which a work of art would no longer represent anything in the outside world and would only exist in the framework of its own artist-given geometry and color.
A gleaming arsenal of nail clippers have been assembled in the Kufic style of Arabic typography to read, “Jins Al Latif,” translated as “The Gentle Sex.” But, the severity of the tiny weapons implies that women are anything but meek, and the elaborate grooming ritual of a spa manicure is seen for what it truly is—the sharpening of one’s claws before battle. Kaabi-Linke, who is Tunisian and Ukranian in origin, says she set out to make a work to express her tremendous respect for the power of Arab women. “Arab men know their wives are very strong. But the image we still keep is otherwise. What is weak?” she asks. The gentle sex is in fact capable of inflicting damage at a moment’s notice, and the neighbourhood nail parlor is a kind of military training camp.
Nadia Kaabi-Linke, Jins Al Latif, 2018, Variation 1, Steel, plywood, acrylic, 60 x 54 cm, Courtesy Lawrie Shabibi and the artist, Photography by Ismail Noor
Kaabi-Linke refers to herself as “a brand,” and cites her husband as a secret partner in everything she produces. The two share a studio in the same Berlin apartment building where they live with their two young sons. “We are full time parents and full time artists,” she explains. In many ways, Impossible Ordinary is a family affair, with several works resulting from “a burst of energy” she attributes to the arrival of her second child last year.
Although it looks like a rigorous examination of Abstract Expressionism, Pale Geranium Lake and Scarlet (remastered), is a clever collaboration with the artist’s eldest son, who was two years old at the time she began the piece. Watching her son curl his fingers around a red pencil and start to draw, Kaabi-Linke was enthralled by the sense of freedom involved. “What was fascinating was seeing that this human being is just creating without asking a question or wondering where to begin.”
Nadia Kaabi-Linke, Pale Geranium Lake and Scarlet (remastered), 2018, Mixed media on paper on canvas, 275 x 195 x 4 cm, Courtesy Lawrie Shabibi and the artist, Photography by Ismail Noor
Over the next year, she watched with astonishment (and perhaps a little jealousy) as he executed a dozen exquisite examples of Abstract Expressionism—compositions artists like Cy Twombly might have laboured over in the studio. Kaabi-Linke herself laboured for two months in her Berlin studio attempting to consciously reproduce her son’s drawing on a much larger canvas using red coloured pencil and scratches of black pen. The resulting work has what she describes to as a “certain strangeness” to it that cannot be pinpointed by the viewer.
How do these pieces go together? Kaabi-Linke retorts that they aren’t supposed to be viewed as one seamless body of work. ‘Stop trying to guess what I wanted these works to be about and be brave enough to say what they mean to you now’, she seems to be demanding of us, her capable audience.
Nadia Kaabi-Linke's Impossible Ordinary runs at Lawrie Shabibi until 9 January 2019.
Nadia Kaabi-Linke, 2018, Diptych, Part 1-Acrylic and ink on paper on canvas, 99.5 x 149.5 cm, Part 2-Potato skin on cardboard, wooden frame, 62 x 52 cm Courtesy Lawrie Shabibi and the artist, Photography by Ismail Noor.
Nadia Kaabi-Linke, Scorched Earth (Detail), 2018, Terra cotta, 1040 x 1.8 x 2 cm, Courtesy Lawrie Shabibi and the artist, Photography by Ismail Noor.
Nadia Kaabi-Linke, Mistake-Out Friedrichstadt (Detail), 2018, Correction fluid on serigraphy board, 430 x 640 cm, Edition 1 of 2, Courtesy Lawrie Shabibi and the artist, Photography by Ismail Noor