Dia Batal’s work: Every letter tells a story
London - Dia Batal has never been to Tiret Haifa where her parents were born. “I didn’t have the necessary permit,” she says in a matter-of-fact tone that reflects the harsh reality for Palestinians wanting to go back to their roots.
She said she has been to the Palestinian territories once and hopes to go back again. “It should be easier now that I have a British passport,” she said.
Palestine is a recurring theme in Batal’s art. “It is very much about belonging to a certain place and staying true to who you are and where you came from. Different pieces of my work talk about this,” she explained as she introduced her latest exhibition Tracing Landscapes, which opened in London’s Mosaic Rooms in September.
One of the pieces, a large display of calligraphy based on the saying of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish: “Be true to yourself wherever you are”, has attracted the interest of the organisers of the London Design Festival who sought Batal’s participation in the Mosaic Rooms exhibition, one of the venues mentioned in the festival’s catalogue as a destination promoting the city’s creativity.
Tracing Landscapes is an exhibition of letters and words, Batal said.
“The first piece I started working on for the show was a print based on the names of towns and villages in pre-1948 Palestine. As this work progressed, and I started working on other pieces, it became clear that what I was doing was literally tracing over landscapes that have been altered, including people, narratives and places,” she said
One of the main pieces is an installation entitled Playing on the Beach is a Dangerous Course. It is an attempt to create an ephemeral memorial for children killed in the Israeli military offensive against Gaza in 2104. Batal uses the names of 30 children, embroidered on sheer fabric, to create a “mourning space”.
“It was not just a matter of creating a memorial. I am hoping to educate and hopefully mobilise people to do something (about the Israeli aggression against the Palestinians),” the young artist explained.
Although not all her art is politicised, this particular showcase was meant to raise political awareness. “It is about making a statement,” Batal said.
“I do not live in Palestine because I am not allowed to. This in itself makes me want to make a statement about it.”
Batal wanted exhibition visitors to make a statement about places they hold dear and has a creative space on one of the walls with each letter from the Arabic alphabet. Pencils have been left on a small table next to the wall, which is slowly being filled with the names of towns and cities across the world corresponding to the letters: Asmara and Brighton and, interestingly, Lvov, Lviv and Lemberg, different spellings of a city that was once in Poland, then in the Soviet Union and is now part of Ukraine.
Ideas of home and belonging are looked at in two pieces made of metal.
Using text from Darwish’s poetry, Batal explores the meaning of place in an age of migration and immigration, “of moving from here but coming from there”.
One work draws inspiration from navigational tools, such as compasses. She rates an object that points to home, a device to determine a psycho-geographical direction, a bearing full of both intent and longing. Through the artworks, home is also denoted as an internal orientation — one that we guide to remain on our course of belonging.
The multimedia exhibition also features silk screen prints, with one depicting the common birds of the Arab world and those facing extinction. Others use Arabic calligraphy to transform text into objects.
Also, engraved into a metal bench coated with red powder are verses from the ninth-century Sufi poet Mansur al-Hallaj and in a separate room Batal’s grandmother tells the story of her exile on a video.
“I used to define myself more as a spatial designer,” Batal said, reflecting on the evolution of her work. “I did installation work and also objects but they were more content specific in relation to a certain space that they occupied.
Then I got into working on prints and drawings and collage.
“There is a kind of different fine lines across which I have been working. I use Arabic language and text to create artworks which echo cultural and contemporary concerns into our urban public and private spaces.”
Batal’s work has been greatly influenced by her parents: her mother, Mona Saudi, an artist and sculptor who used poetry in her work; and her father, Hasan al-Natal, a journalist who writes political columns; in addition to artists Kamal Boullata and Samir al-Sayegh, who use calligraphy in their work.
Dia Batal was born in Beirut in 1978 where she studied design before moving to London to complete her master’s of arts degree in design and critical practice at Goldsmiths College in London.
Her work has been shown in collective and solo exhibitions in Beirut, Manama, Amman, Paris, Liverpool and London.
Batal has also worked on a number of community outreach projects for institutions such as the British Museum, The Victoria and Albert Museum and The Mosaic Rooms, among others.
She has been invited to take part in the Sharjah Calligraphy Biennial in 2016.