Meet the Artist: Liliane Karnouk

Artist Liliane Karnouk

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.

Meet the Artist: Renato Chacón

Sometimes what appears to be a wall is actually a way in. When difficulties with aging and illness left Matisse unable to work with paint and canvass, he turned to scissors and paper, creating in the last decade of his life some of his best known works. When Frida Kahlo was confined to her bed for months on end, she asked her parents to mount a mirror to the canopy above her, painting a series of self-portraits that would come to define her as an artist. And when Renato Chacón temporarily lost the use of his painting hand, he discovered his will to paint transcended the pain, and he too found a way in.

Flamboyan ©Renato Chacón

Flamboyan ©Renato Chacón

Renato Chacón carries himself like one who’s been to the mountain and, unlike that U2 song, found what he’s looking for. Tall and lean and seeming younger than his 51 years, his self-professed search for a peaceful life seems to have been fruitful. His studio and home are a study in serenity, flowing together like his passions for architecture and painting. Renato has been drawing and painting since he was a child and even though he works as an architect, painting has become his life. As he tours me through his house and garden in Merida’s Centro Historico, we talk about this life, and his re-dedication to painting.

Where are you from and how did you find yourself in Merida?

I come from Mexico City, having lived there most of my life. It’s where I studied architecture, fell in love, got married, and built my career as an architect. When my marriage ended, I spent a lot of time reflecting on what to do next and began remembering the dreams I had when I was younger. Living in Merida was one of those dreams—I came here for a visit right after I graduated as an architect and liked the city very much. Change is often a catalyst for more change, so I moved to Merida, bought this house and started making it my own refugio, my refuge. It was here I began to paint seriously again. I fell in love, but this time with painting, with colour, with how colour makes me feel.

Color was not given to us in order that we should imitate Nature. It was given to us so that we can express our emotions.” HENRI MATISSE

So you stopped painting for a time?

Danza ©Renato Chacón

Danza ©Renato Chacón

Before I became an architect I lived for a while in New York City and had a gallery in Washington that sold all of my paintings. Unfortunately, they forgot to pay me for those paintings so I became a bit disillusioned about being an artist. I moved back to Mexico City and for the most part, stopped painting for 15 years…my focus was on other things. Moving to Merida allowed me to simplify my life and to find my voice again as a painter.

Do you think many architects become artists?

Playa ©Renato Chacón

Playa ©Renato Chacón

I’m not sure, but it seems to run in our family. My grandfather was both an architect and a painter; he loved watercolour and took it so seriously that he neglected his family. My father was also an architect and a painter but perhaps because of his upbringing, he chose to focus on the former. I’m trying to live a more balanced life—although I love the discipline of architecture, I need the freedom that painting gives me. Architecture has a very strict way of looking at the world, with many parameters, and my painting is the antithesis of that.

I am not sick. I am broken. But I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint.” FRIDA KAHLO

And so…we come to the mountain. You had an accident that left you unable to paint for a time. How have you found your way back from that?

Of course I felt badly in the beginning, but then I was grateful I’d been given another chance at this thing called life. Painting comes as much from the heart as it does from the hand, and my heart is strong. I guess in some ways it’s like a new beginning but I think I’m getting good at that.

Once again, the Merida English Library will host a one day open studio tour of over 25 national and international artists with studios in Merida. This self-guided Artist Studio Tour takes place on Saturday, February 18th, 2017 and is a unique opportunity to meet and talk to artists like Renato. Visit the Merida English Library  for more information on the artists and details on the tour.