Visual arts

Nasri N. Sayegh

There is something full of fun and childish in the way I work. An ongoing game that can be joyful and sometimes more serious.

Winner of the Institut français residency programme at the Cité internationale des arts, Nasri Sayegh is in Paris at the moment. Born in Beirut in 1978, he is working on a personal archive project, Violets for my Furs and/or Where no one else can see

Updated on 16/04/2021

5 min

Nasri N. Sayegh
© Nasri N. Sayegh

At the heart of this year 2020 is your residency at the Cité internationale des arts. How is your residency and your project going? 

I am here through a tragic coincidence. Following the unspeakable 4 August and everything that tragedy entailed – and still does – running around, haste, fear and on top of it all, vital choices – leave or stay? —it is both an immense joy to be here, in what seems to me to be another space-time and also a very strange stay, in the noble and sometimes painful sense of the word. Strangeness is beautiful. This Paris that is no longer quite Paris. Beirut, which for the time being is no longer Beirut. But it is also in everything we experience, this new, powerful moment. This beautiful silence that invites a form of introspection. A studious silence. This is my very first artistic residency. And I am happy to be in an environment where I can be alone facing words. For a long time, I was writing for other people. Writing for/about me was something I never really allowed myself to do. A radio journalist and then a newspaper journalist, my words were always everyday words, borrowed words. Today in a gaping Lebanon I see myself finally freed from noise, rid of the word for the Other; I feel the urgency, the insolence of writing that is void of any excuse, subterfuge. Stark writing. Read, write, re-read, write to be able at last to take it back better. 

Your residency work is centred around the photo of a child. Is archive work important for you?  

I started from a photo found in the family archives. Is it me in this old photo of a fête, I can’t remember. What I do know is that this photo operates in me in an obscure, subconscious way. Image, pretext to writing. It takes place right in the 1980s. Those years were almost carefree and unrestrained. Despite the fire. Despite the glowing embers. Despite Beirut. I grew up, or sometimes I have fun saying I grew up in this Paris of the 80s. This Paris of Elli Medeiros, Jacno, Brigitte Fontaine, Etienne Daho, Full Moon in Paris (Nuits de la Pleine Lune), a time of the "Touche pas à mon pote" SOS Racisme movement. These 1980 Madonna years and her legendary “Into the Groove”, a title I have appropriated for my project. “Where No One Else Can See”. But what exactly is there to see? What is there to look at? What is there to read in this outdated image? Archives are primarily for their seductive appeal. Photo albums, old documents, newspaper cuttings – cataloguing and collections are two obsessions that have stayed with me since my childhood. In my work, there may often be autobiographical traces and remnants, but these intuitions are very prone to many lovely accidents; it goes off in all directions. Images enable me to progress in my research.

Is working from old photographs a way of questioning the past?

What I discover in archives, sounds or photos is always random. For me, it's about wandering, walking. While the archivist looks precisely for a document in a certain form of science, I can be won over by a photo album in a flea market.... It is often from an image that everything starts to move. There is something full of fun and childish in the way I work. A sort of ongoing game that can be joyful and sometimes more serious. The archive is a pretext. It is a word tease. The imagination, caught between trembling and fear, is set in motion in a posture of perpetual wonder.

Your experience covers cinema, theatre, embroidery, radio and photography. Why this desire to try your hand at different art forms?

“It’s beyond my control!” as the Vicomte de Valmont answers Madame de Merteuil – in Frears' film (Dangerous Liaisons) and not in Laclos' book, where it's written "Ce n’est pas ma faute !” (“It's not my fault!"). I can never write a text without surrounding myself with images, without listening to music, without going back to my sources, cross-referencing, mixing, contradicting them. There is always a journey that is made. I need to go and see elsewhere. Once a medium stops giving me answers, I move onto another one. I move from texts to images, but the sounds are always present. Music accompanies me always, even at night. Radio is very present in my life, it’s organic. Embroidery too has always been with me; I love fabrics and their sensuality. The fact that it is palpable. I sometimes need to go off in another direction, look around, dig deep and produce elsewhere. Battling for and against boredom…

Your biography talks about you as a “watcher of words, images and sounds”. Is this idea of “watcher” something you recognise in yourself?

As well as “watcher” I would add the word “voyeur”. I’d also quite happily state that I’m a text, visual and sound maniac. I need these stimuli. In the residency workshop at the Cité internationale des arts, even when I am writing I am surrounded by images, there must be a thousand images stuck on the wall. These images are in a total disorder and then one day they suddenly make sense. They live with me; I’m watching for them. They too. I need my eyes to be teased and flirted with, it is in that respect that I am a watcher, a voyeur. I need this unsettling curiosity in order to create.

I can never write a text without surrounding myself with images, without listening to music, without going back to my sources, cross-referencing, mixing, contradicting them.

Your first exhibition was held in June 2016 at the Institut français in Beirut and was followed by other events, notably at the Beirut Art Center. How does photography fit into your creative path?  

When I changed from an ordinary phone to a smartphone, I started playing around and taking photos. It was the wonderful Eric Lebas, at that time the chargé culturel at the Institut français in Beirut, who invited me to show these images. At that period, I had no desire to do so but in the end I played along and imagined the Beyrouth, peut-être exhibition. My work took a new turn with that project, I worked on new shows such as Unravelled at the Beirut Art Center. I began producing myself, taking control. 

In 2020, you directed 320 / 38 Maison Rabih Kayrouz. It was your first time behind the camera, how did the project come about? 

Rabih Kayrouz contacted me and proposed that I make a film between Paris and Beirut. I filmed in close up the small hands that work and dance in Rue Gemmayzé in the creator’s Beirut workshop on a dress that doesn’t exist. There is an imaginary thread between the two cities, then this dress comes to life in Boulevard Raspail in Paris. It is all the more moving as the workshop was destroyed in the explosion. Today this little film is like a vestige, a record of our lives before.

The film builds a link between Beirut and Paris, is that an important link for you?

I have a deep-rooted relationship that joins or sometimes suspends me between Paris and Beirut. My mother tongue is Arabic but Paris is my other mother tongue. I live this dual belonging both as a pleasant affliction and something that is magnificent. My multiple comings and goings between Paris and Beirut are often associated with small, average and major tragedies. 

In March 2020 in the midst of the pandemic, you launched the Radiokarantina platform. What lay behind your desire to create it?

On 15 March Lebanon was quarantined. It was very spectacular. For fun and to pass the time I did an initial mix that evening that I called Radiokarantina, for the quarantine aspect of course but also with humour and love for Karantina, a district of Beirut, today devastated. The very next day I received messages from artists, musicians and film makers who wanted to participate by offering audio mixes and even plays for the radio. It was also a chance to revive dedications, people dedicated songs, from Mogadishu to Melbourne, from Melbourne to Tunis. This therefore is not a radio station (!) but rather a humble bedroom that was relaying what was happening – and is still happening in our world. 

How has Radiokarantina changed since the end of the first lockdown?

With the end of the lockdown, the economic crisis – which had been announced way before the pandemic – hit Lebanon very hard. There was a wave of suicides, including that of a father, last May in the very heart of Beirut. After that I found it difficult to pick up again, to listen to music and to dance. It was as if we were in mourning. Subsequently Radiokarantina (my home-studio) survived the blast. It is still there and, after a long silence, I have started up again. The new programme is called Lettres à Beyrouth (Letters to Beirut). 

At the same time Radiokarantina was invited by the major radio stations to participate in fund raising to rebuild Beirut and more especially to help the most vulnerable victims. 

Your residency at the Cité internationale des arts will end in January 2021. What are your projects then? 

I have been invited for an artist residency at the Villa Arson in Nice next spring. I am trying to envisage what will happen but I am fully in this current creation. At this moment of respite and relief in the Cité internationale des arts. I can’t see into the future but I try every day to progress in what I write, in what I describe and in what I make a mess of. And it is precisely these crossing-outs that help me carry on. 

320 / 38 Maison Rabih Kayrouz - Un film de Nasri Sayegh
© karantina productions
The Institut français and the artist

Nasri N. Sayegh is in residency in Paris, at the Cité internationale des arts, to work on Where No One Else Can See.

Find out more about residencies at the Cité internationale des arts 

L'institut français, LAB