When visitors first come to Merida, they often muse about what lies behind the ancient doorways and grand facades of this historic city. And yet—it is sometimes the most humble of facades that contain her greatest treasure—artists and their studios.
Behind one such façade, I discovered Egyptian artist Liliane Karnouk. Born in Cairo and further educated in Rome, Montreal and Vancouver, Liliane is herself discovering what it means to be an artist in the 4th quadrant of her life.
How did you come to be in Merida?
The first time I visited, I was driving by myself in the Yucatan. I loved it as it felt very close to my homeland in Egypt—the water, the sunshine, the pyramids; the dark-skinned, brown-haired people. So when I thought of moving from Vancouver to a warmer country in the winter, I looked to Merida as my new home. I saw this house on the internet and knew I had to buy it because the tile floor in the bedroom is the exact same tile that was in my grandparents house on their cotton plantation in Egypt.
Wow, I’m getting goosebumps! And what about the walls? It appears they have become a living canvas for you.
I come from an ancient land where everything has layers, so the first day I arrived to this house, I began to uncover the stories hidden in the walls. The original colours of turquoise, ochre and crimson were there, and in some places I found stencils and patterns that I enhanced. It’s been a privilege to have huge walls to play with instead of drawing on little pieces of paper.
Which brings me to your favored medium…paper.
I’m trained in the art of papermaking and have had several exhibitions of art created on handmade paper, some up to 2 metres wide. I brought my cotton pulp with me from Vancouver and make my paper in the garden, in the pool. It’s very physical as I have to beat, prepare, and stretch it, so I make paper when I’m feeling strong. This technique of papermaking is quite primitive because I don’t have a press, consequently, it’s very textural and sculptural, much like the walls.
Tell me about the sculptural books you’re making.
Making paper is compatible with countries that have forests. I had a studio on the Nile in a houseboat where I made papyrus paper; I taught the art of papermaking in Germany where I lived for a time, and I love walking the forests close to my home in Vancouver. I wanted to honor these forests and trees by re-using them in artworks where I incorporate a variety of materials and techniques. I’m particularly fascinated with the dark side of the forest—the bark, the foliage, the monochromatic nature of light in shadow. I call them Forest Books, a restitution of a sort of dignity and pride to trees that’s in opposition to the rendering of trees as cones and geometric shapes.
When I’m feeling strong I make art, when I’m feeling vulnerable, I write.
What influenced you in your development as an artist?
I was a sick child and spent a lot of time in bed drawing so the tactile side of my art comes from that. At the age of 11, I travelled with my parents to Europe for the first time, to see a doctor. While there, we went to all the museums and my world just exploded. When it was time to decide what to be when I grew up, there was no question I wanted to study art. That said, I never had a gallery nor made money as an artist. I taught art and art history to earn a living and was invited to make art for public spaces and museums.
I never looked at art as something for sale; I looked at art as something for me.
You’ve had almost 40 solo and group exhibitions in Europe, Canada and the US. Tell me about one that stands out the most.
I’m very content-oriented in my work and often used my art for political statement, such as the fires of Kuwait, the massacre of Sabra and Shatila, as well as many environmental issues. But, it was my installation at the British Museum Hall of Egyptian Antiquities called Time Machine that for me, was the pinnacle of that expression of my work. It was an exhibition of contemporary artists and our response to the Hall of Egyptian Antiquities, and I felt the pieces needed to be in their original burial grounds. Instead, I brought Egypt to the British Museum. Working for two months with a molecular biologist from the University of London, I learned how to clone palm trees from cells, and resurrected a palm grove inside test tubes I installed around the Egyptian sarcophagus. That experience led to an ongoing fascination with the interface between art and science.
You’ve explored your creativity as an artist, theatre designer, educator, journalist and author. What brought you back to the drawing table, so to speak?
In Modern Egyptian Art: 1910-2003, which took 10 years to write, artist and author Liliane Karnouk examines the work of over 70 artists from 1910 until the present day, tracing the parallel steps of modern Egyptian art and the social and political environment in which that art was and continues to be created.
Last year I got sick again, and after I recovered my strength, I went back to the studio to let it all out.
It’s fascinating to me that, as a young girl, you found your creative voice when you were ill, and at this point in your life, found a new voice after an extended illness.
Painting after my illness was a very cathartic experience, as well as a new form of expression for me. That said, there has always been the issue of the body in my work. Life has texture, a nervous system, an inner and an outer, so to explore the body more literally in this work seems a natural extension.
Liliane Karnouk is one of 41 intriguing artists opening their studios February 16 & 17 in Merida. Details and participating artists for the 2019 Merida English Library Artist Studio tour will be posted and profiled soon! Visit us on Facebook at MEL Artist Studio Tour 2019, on Instagram at meridaenglishlibrary and at www.meridaenglishlibrary.com.