Pamela Chrabieh is a Lebanese-Canadian visual artist, researcher, activist, writer, and consultant with 20+ years of international experience. She holds a Higher Diploma in Fine Arts and Restoration of Icons, a MA in Theology, Religions, and Cultures, and a Ph.D. in Theology-Sciences of Religions. As a visual artist, she exhibited her work in Canada, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, Italy, Hong Kong, China, and the USA. She is the author of numerous publications. Selected as one of the 100 most influential women in Lebanon, she won several prizes in Canada and Southwestern Asia.
At the crossroads of Western Asian iconography, calligraphy, and digital arts, Chrabieh’s artworks express pieces of wounded memories by sublimating reality. Each icon depicts scattered elements of people torn by the vicious cycle of war and gives shape to the absence, the missing, the unspoken, to the afterlives of war survivors in their grief, nostalgia, and remorse co-mingling with hope for a future in which they reclaim the past from ossification, fixed boundaries, and amnesia. Each icon is an experience of the sublime that lurks within and beyond the ambiguity of traumas in a quest for the healing of life.
You are a visual artist but also a Theology researcher. Tell us something about your background. How did you start making art?
I used to wear and still wear many hats: visual artist, multidisciplinary researcher, activist, writer, consultant, program manager, mother, wife, sister, daughter, friend, etc., and I was a university professor for 17 years. For as long as I remember, my first passion was (and still is) for arts. My art journey started in my childhood in the 1980s in Lebanon, in shelters, drawing with rudimentary tools and singing with other children so that our voices cover the horrific sounds of the bombing. I used to take piano lessons and compose my own music during ceasefires. Music, drama, and visual arts were my escape from a harsh reality.
The 1990s opened the doors to a so-called post-war era and my quest to heal the wounds of memory and connect people beyond borders of hate and ignorance through the arts and culture. I had the opportunity to pursue studies in iconography, which combines history, visual arts, theology, archeology, and philology (Syriac and ancient Greek) at the Holy Spirit University in Kaslik (it was at that time a new academic/experiential program), then a Higher Diploma in Fine Arts and Restoration of Icons from the Académie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts (ALBA – University of Balamand), under the guidance of the late F. Antoine Lammens. In a way, painting/writing and restoring icons that have suffered paint loss, tears, water or fire damage, and insect damage, helped me to heal my own war scars — to heal my soul.
So, traditional iconography and restoration of icons were the first milestones in my quest, followed by Kufic calligraphy when I experienced and studied interreligious/intercultural dialogue. Later on, as I pursued an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Theology and Sciences of Religions at the University of Montreal in Canada, I continued to paint/” write” icons and produce calligraphy but progressively developed my own style by using acrylic, oil, and ink, by incorporating the digital into the physical and vice-versa, and by diversifying my icons’ themes and concepts.
How would you define yourself as an artist?
I was born and raised in the 1970s-1980s war in Lebanon, which has definitely marked my identity, world vision, and visual expression and has fueled my pursuit as an artist but more, as a human being, for connections between cultures and religions; the contemporary and traditional; the physical and digital; the logos (“word”), and the eikon (“image”)… My pursuit for peace… Contrary to war, peace is the art of connecting. It is a continuous process encompassing historical subjectivities and energies in interpenetrative modes, a process of interacting dynamics, fragmented and common truths, voices, paths, and pathos. As an artivist (artist and activist), I have the responsibility of visualizing and communicating this pursuit of peace, and somehow an obligation to convey feelings of being on the edge in the complicated times we inhabit, and the va-et-vient between margins and centers, homeland and diaspora. I see myself (and the artist in me) as a cultural amphibian trying to harness creativity for change, challenge guarded territories, and deconstruct concepts of unitary, essentialized, and monolithic identities. As Edward Said writes, I try to be “responsive to the traveler rather than to the potentate, to the provisional and risky rather than the habitual, innovation and experiment rather than the authoritatively given status quo.”
What is your creative process like? Can you walk us through a day in your studio?
I don’t have a fixed creative process. It is rather fluid, ever-evolving, just like my “studio”. I am currently working both on sketches on paper and on my tablet, at home, out in nature, or a crowded coffee shop. I don’t like to be trapped in a specific routine, and this is why I could not keep up with the traditional iconography art for more than a few years, as it required a rigorous discipline and a physical studio in which the icon would stand on the easel for months, which does not allow flexibility of mind and movement. Furthermore, the steps of my creative process are not predetermined or permanent. I could jump from inspiration to the creation stage, then go back to percolation and self-reflection, or have all these stages interconnected. Sometimes I have a clear theme and concept in mind and try to visualize it, and other times the pencils, brushes, or smartpen lead the way. There is no timeframe for starting and ending, nor deadlines. Too many factors are involved in my creative process: the medium, my focus, available time, temperament, engagement, and procrastination – but one thing for sure: I enjoy this kaleidoscopic process.
Theology and Religions are present in your work in the form of iconography. How do you work on such themes? And what messages do you want to convey?
During my 20s and early 30s, yes. My work was still focusing on theology and sciences of religions, thus the main themes of my icons were, for instance, “intercultural and interreligious dialogue” and especially Muslim-Christian dialogue; spiritual awakening; history of local religious visual productions; etc. I thought at that time that deconstructing the war culture had to go through revisiting the “peaceful face” of religious/interreligious heritage (including the visual heritage), preserving it, and learning lessons from it for a convivial future. However, while I progressively realized that the war in Lebanon (and wars everywhere) was not only due to religious/sectarian causes, both my activism and art started to become more secularized and diversified.
What other themes do you incorporate in your work?
Women’s rights and empowerment, war memory and peacebuilding, revolution, and migration, I am no longer using egg tempera but experimenting with mixed media and digital arts while connecting traditional Byzantine and Syriac’ writing’ of iconographic faces — using stylized forms, specific light and shading effects linked to the possibility of human divinization (theosis), and inverse perspective — with contemporary visualizations of the margins, the invisible/visible channeling, “what is already and not yet”, and the socio-political function of arts towards inclusive societies. My art is a multiform expression of my experiences at the crossroads of identities (beyond the religious/sectarian, but without obliterating it) and follows my glocal (local/global) footprints and dialogic connections in Canada, Europe, and Southwestern Asia. Each artwork’s role is either to “make present” here and now the “invisible” gazes or to express pieces of wounded memories and interpenetrating cultural narratives, and more, to sublimate reality without making it appear ontologically superior or ‘hyper real’, but simply different”. Each artwork is a story of transformation, from a shattered and disconnected situation, event, emotion, or experience, to a connected realm.
What aspect of your work do you pay particular attention to?
Sometimes the process per se, other times the aesthetic aspect to a certain point, but most of the time, the emotions and the messages that I want to convey through my work. What inspires our souls to re-emerge, and what calls for remembrance, acknowledgment, and transcendence. What makes me and hopefully my audience move forward. What keeps memories alive — memories that sweep through transitions and are ever-changing.
Is there a piece you consider a “breakthrough” in your career?
No, as every icon that I painted/‘wrote’ in the past and am painting/’writing’ now is an embodiment of a thought, practice, experience, vision, or emotion … Sometimes, I feel it is cumulative or a snowball effect rather than a breakthrough at some point in time. But I also feel that the digital world has helped me transcend the physical/digital borders by allowing me to gain more flexibility — my journey in the “phygital” started only a decade ago, and recently with NFTs. There is still a lot to discover and experiment with, and the possibilities to enhance creations and methods of delivery are endless with the phygital compared to traditional mediums and creative processes.
Where do you draw inspiration from? Is there any genre of music, composer, performer, or artist in general that you look up to to get inspired?
Not a particular artist nor an artistic current, although ancient iconography schools in Southwestern Asia still mark the stylization of faces. In terms of content, I am usually inspired by people’s faces as the focus of iconography is the face and by events such as wars, conflicts, tragic deaths, stories and praxis of migration, and empowerment narratives. I have also accumulated experiences and know-how over the years at the crossroad of academia, intercultural realms, and personal ordeals such as war that have shaped my art, both on the concept and format levels. And since the early 2010s, I have been experimenting with digital tools and techniques and pushing my own boundaries from the physical to the digital or by combining both in a journey in which borders become blurred.
Let’s talk about the future, what are you working on now? Any upcoming project or series you would like to present to our readers?
I am currently working on further developing my “integrated iconography” which I sort of invented (both the concept and technique). New works will be exhibited in Beirut as unique prints and in their hybrid form in August with the same themes I have been working on in the last few months – even years. These works are about expressing pieces of wounded memories of war by sublimating reality. Each integrated icon depicts scattered elements of people torn by the vicious cycle of war and gives shape to the absence, the missing, the unspoken, to the afterlives of war survivors in their grief, nostalgia, and remorse co-mingling with hope for a future in which they reclaim the past from ossification, fixed boundaries, and amnesia. Each icon is also an attempt to beautify life, transcend the limitations set by tragedy, and is an experience of the sublime that lurks within and beyond the ambiguity of traumas in a quest for the healing of life.
And lastly, where can we see your works? Do you have any exhibition or show opening in the near future?
A selection of my current integrated iconography works can be seen on different platforms (mainly my personal website/blog, my Instagram account, and my OpenSea account for my NFTs), and until June 2022 in the following physical/digital venues: “Liquid Arsenal” International Contemporary Art Exhibition curated by M.A.D.S. Art Gallery in Milan-Italy and Fuerteventura-Spain (May 28 to June 3); “Images of Women”, a virtual group exhibition curated by Independent & Image Art Space, Chongqing-China (May 1 to June 5); and “The Healing Power of Color” Group Exhibition, curated by Manhattan Arts International with The Healing Power of Art & Artists (HPAA) in New York-USA (April 4 to June 4). In addition, a joint exhibition entitled “Rise” will feature unique prints of some of my works in Beirut at Zico House in August 2022 – with Roula Salibi (ceramist and jewelry designer), and Nadia Wardeh (creative writer, poet).