“Unsettled and softened”: A Conversation with Nour Bishouty

From Issue 3.50: In(ter)ventions in the Archive (Summer 2023)

I’ve been speaking with interdisciplinary artist Nour Bishouty since early February, about archives, yes, but also about dissonance and opacity; poeticisms versus real material change; gaps in familial memory; the (Western) production of fantasy; landscape paintings as three-dimensional artifacts; “authentic” works of art versus “the very good fake”; artistic strategies against classification; and the trouble with ideas like “legacy” in narratives overwritten by dispossession and displacement . . . among many other things. When we first started these conversations, she was still on an artist residency in Amman, Jordan. By the end, she was back at her studio in Toronto. What follows is an excerpt of our extended conversation, drawn from video calls, emails, collaborative drafts, and notes, all of which has been invisibly rearranged and intervened upon, in that way of any archive readying itself to be seen.

—Jacquelyn Zong-Li Ross

Jacquelyn Zong-Li Ross

I was very struck by the way you described the shapeshifting properties of archival materials in our recent email exchange. You wrote: “Every time an object is revealed, borrowed, summoned, or extracted out of an archive, it automatically remolds, distorts itself into something else, and, in this way, is irreversibly changed.” Could you speak further about the kinds of changes you have observed?

Nour Bishouty

I’m interested in distortion as a poetic or rhetorical device. It is commonly visualized as a change in form, a pull or twist out of shape, an unexpected gap or glitch, and as such it lends itself to poetry. But perhaps I find a liberation, a release, in the act of extending an inanimate object beyond its known limits. I can think of Derrida’s concept of différance as a philosophical influence where meaning is never fully present or fixed, but deferred. I’ve also been deeply moved by Indigenous knowledge practices that acknowledge non-human agency.

In concrete terms, visual perception is dependent on distinctive personal and cultural conditioning. Looking at an image, I not only perceive it, but interpret it. I think of an archive as a moldable entity. Sure, we look to history for context, but we also pull from the archive as a way to repurpose or reinforce our historical and cultural biases.


I think ideas of distortion and deferral are very relevant to your practice, not only because you often draw from artworks by your late father Ghassan Bishouty in the making of your own work, but because you do so in such a way as to call attention to your reframing of it. I just flipped back to one of the early pages of your artist book 1—130: Selected works Ghassan Bishou b. 1941 Safad, Palestine–d. 2004 Amman, Jordan and found this handwritten memo that seems to allude nicely to your conceit: “A PHYSICAL OBJECT IS AN / IDENTIFIABLE COLLECTION / OF ATOMS CONSTRAINED / BY AN IDENTIFIABLE BOUNDARY / AND MAY MOVE IN SPACE / BY TRANSLATION OR / ROTATION.”1


I have been pulling from my father’s artworks consistently in my practice. It’s an act that is both tender and volatile—I think. I am not sentimental in my engagement with his work, although there is an intrinsic impulse to preserve it. In fact, in some cases, I do the opposite: I question it maybe a little bit too much, I unravel it too much; I think of it and exert it as my own raw material. In this process of questioning and unravelling and exerting, a lot of distortion happens.

In 1—130, this distortion takes many different forms. You might encounter it through the book’s extracted fragments (like ekphrastic texts and collages derived from my father’s original artworks), or through the insistent invitation to bounce back and forth between the book’s pages and the pseudo-index of artworks hidden in the flaps of its cover. It is essentially a constellation of objects, images, and texts which function as an archive for an artist whose life was uprooted twice: first by the Palestinian Nakba in 1948, and then again by the Lebanese Civil War in 1979–80. In my process of making this work, I was constantly switching my attention from the macro to the micro. This excerpt you mention is a macro moment, where I’ve recently been lingering in my practice, and from where this new work I have produced for the magazine stems.


Could you tell us more about the project you’ve developed for the Review and how it came about?


Recently I’ve been looking at landscape painting quite a bit, which—like other practices of recording, portraying, and imagining the earth (such as cartography and taxonomic classification)—is a deeply political form with a convoluted history. Landscapes have a way of contracting the macro, and at the same time pretending to contain it. In tall grasses, small bushes (2023) a nondescript expanse of land unfolds. It is never fully revealed, but rather, emerges as you leaf through the pages. The scene is rendered in expressive, if somewhat pixelated, painterly strokes with a dim colour palette that blends seamlessly, implying a murky sense of depth. Scrubby foliage, rocks, and water features dominate the foreground of the image, leading the eye towards an unspecified or uncomfortable distance marked by vague suggestions of palm trees on a tawny hillside. Irregularities interrupt the horizontal plane in instances resembling scan lines, mirrored shapes, or posterization and moiré patterns.

In some ways this intervention builds on (or extracts from) a body of work I produced last year for a solo exhibition at Gallery 44 in Toronto titled Nothing is lost except nothing at all except what is not had.2 The exhibition was centred around Al-Wadi, a single landscape painting made by my father in the early ’80s. I had been interested in this particular painting for a while, having found it a few years prior under a bed in my mother’s old house, rolled up, exposed, and badly damaged. It’s stunning—a 130-centimetre-wide oil painting of an expansive Jordanian landscape composed of desert ochres and dry greens and blues. The landscape is also punctuated with vignettes of “imagined” Bedouin activity: a couple dressed in gesturally traditional clothing encircling a fire pit and romancing over a pot of coffee, a woman feeding a brood of chickens before the quintessential caravan in the horizon, and so on.

In preparation for the show, I had shown the curators, Toleen Touq and Lillian O’Brien Davis, this painting and told them I was really interested in thinking about it and working with it but was not quite sure where to begin. In fact, it was Toleen who first helped me identify the structure in the top right corner of the painting as Qusayr Amra, the Umayyad desert castle in Jordan. She had done some research on this specific structure in the past, and so we all engaged in a wonderful conversation about land, landscape, identity, and Jordan that generated for me an instant possibility around this painting. So, less than four months before the exhibition was slated to open, my entire imagination around it had changed; that hazy depiction of the Qusayr became an anchor for the whole show.


In one of the works included in that exhibition, you present the original painting but with all of the human figures and animals cut out from it; in another, you reintroduce these characters as a page of stickers that can be used to playfully repopulate the landscape. Yet another work sees you redrawing all the flora found in the original painting, some of which, it turns out, is totally made-up, imagined. It’s a great illustration of how working with an archive is also an imaginative exercise.


Yes. Because the painting itself also has this quality of seeming almost entirely imagined. I was interested in the ambiguity contained in the picture: its elusive sense of place, its prescribed identity, its self- inflicted “orientalist” gaze, its conventional (and unconventional) uses of composition, margins, and mechanical perspective . . . All of this guided my research and work as I engaged in visual, material, and spatial expansions of the painting to reveal a myriad of other knowledge systems intrinsic to it.

In thinking about some of the directions I wanted to take with this painting, I was also imagining how it might have been, or is now, critiqued. You might find the work exceptional, as I do, but you might also dismiss it as a mimetic image or perhaps one that lacks artistic complexity . . . In my work, I set out to trouble these kinds of assumptions, and in so doing, transform it into an archival document.


What do you see to be the difference between a painting and an “archival document”?


A painting can be looked to as an archival document when it is considered part of an agreed-upon historical context. But because there isn’t a clear category or context for a painting like Al-Wadi, I use it as an opportunity for different forms of knowledge to emerge, and in particular those that might be considered peripheral, depoliticized, unofficial, trivialized. Al-Wadi can be left at just that—a painting—but when I work with it as raw material, it is as if I am erecting additional dimensions, raising it from its own flat surface.


It’s interesting what you say about the limitations of the art historical to fully account for objects like Al-Wadi. Does this limitation also have to do then with the basic problem of translation, transposition—cultural or otherwise? We’ve often spoken about how differently your father’s work is read today, presented through the lens of your own more conceptually driven art practice, than it likely was in its own time and place. “Contemporary art” has a way, too, of flattening complex material into, for lack of a better word, “ideas” . . .


I don’t know, perhaps I mesh the inadequacy of art history with the irrationality of the art market. But let’s not get into that. Yes, it’s a limitation that has to do with translation, but I think it also has to do with value as a social construct, and all sorts of systems of comparison, classification, and structure.

I think all of that can be flattening. Rather than position Ghassan’s work within a specific art historical context, I prefer to see it as an extraordinary archive, a specific and unrepeatable record. There’s this piece in Artforum by Mostafa Heddaya that speaks to the kind of comparison loop in art and art history that I’m thinking about. He says: “In principle, we cancel the distances that produce historical enclosures in order to broaden the historical and conceptual domain of art. In practice . . . if the new vectors of comparison are justified internally—with claims, for instance, to ‘decolonize’ art or exhibition history—they cannot help but point back at the discipline’s history, tracing the interior and exterior of its boundaries and capacities.”3 But I don’t find art in itself to be reductive, even when it removes, abstracts, or reduces.


It’s very interesting to think of art history in terms of these kinds of boundaries and enclosures. Of course it also relates back to that old idea of “insiders” and “outsiders” in the art world, which we’ve been discussing in regards to your father’s artistic career and the degree to which he may or may not have been recognized during his lifetime.


I often think about how artists are implicitly required to situate or position their work within a specific canon or discourse in order for their work to be “included” or considered serious. I also think about the choices I make to situate my own work and how these choices must be different, for example, from those of my father’s. I am curious about the reasons why his work was so little recognized during his lifetime, but my interest is not at all to do with producing some sort of posthumous claim to fame. Rather, I genuinely want to understand the conditions around the making of his work. Where, when, and for whom was he so diligently producing? Much of my past work with his collection has been the result of my looking for and imagining answers to these questions.


Your clever use of archival methods—documentation, identification, fragmentation, categorization—also turns this act of looking and memorializing on its head. I’m thinking here of 1—130 and your work with the Al-Wadi painting, but also of your 2018 video piece Adrāʾ Samar and your Permanent Collection installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art from 2021. It seems that you are just as interested in laying out the absences, emissions, and withholdings that mark an object’s unknowability as you are at arriving at any kind of stable definition of it. Can you speak about your choice to use archival approaches in your art practice?


You can say that I happened upon such approaches by way of the kinds of materials I’m interested in working with. I often use the “language” of the archive, the properness or firmness of archival procedures, to inch towards a degree of cohesion or order, granted that the cohesion and order can be at once unsettled and softened. I seem to gravitate towards materials and methodologies that lend themselves to uncertainty, irresolution, or even, polarity, and I think it’s because I find that most things cannot be simplified or distilled into orderly, intelligible compartments without losing much of their essence. In all of the works you mentioned I engage in some version of this firming and softening: In Adrāʾ Samar, it’s evident in the ephemeral, time-based materials I choose to work with, casting iconographic objects in ice and documenting their melting in a variety of culturally- specific settings; in Permanent Collection, it’s a more faithful rendering of these polarities embodied in a built-in and seemingly permanent museum display structure that houses a collection of ancient artifacts.


It seems that much of your work has to do with a kind of unsettling—of archives, histories, methodologies, narratives. A resistance to the project of “organizing” things that perhaps cannot, or should not, be organized. As you’ve pointed out, there’s a political dimension to all of this, and one that is also tied to the politics of being a Palestinian artist in the diaspora.


In my early research around my book, I found a digitized copy of a 1943 edition of The Palestine Gazette, a newspaper which was published between 1932–1948 during the time of the British Mandate. The document contains government ordinances, official statements, and notices, and in it, I found a public notice of “people changing their names” registered at the Office of the Commissioner for Migration and Statistics. The names of my grandfather, my grandmother, my uncle, my father, and my aunt appear on this list, registering their change of surname from Simon to Bishouty. Prior to this, I’d had no idea that there was a different name for the family, and I still don’t know why the change was made or where the surname originates from, but I see this kind of record-making as an imperial enterprise: a need to have everything put in order, straightened, in order to be controlled. So I’m interested in thinking about the archive as a structure that’s potentially useful, but also one that is left open to my own disruption of it.

Not long ago, I looked up the words “Safad, Palestine” on Google Images, and saw that an image of the cover of my book 1—130 shows up in the first or second results page. Safad is one of the historical cities of Palestine, located in the Galilee region, but is today recorded as “Safed” on maps and is under Israeli control. So, if we can think of Google Images as an archive in the traditional sense, this, to me, is a change in the archive—a small provocation in the face of a deceitful and hegemonic narrative. Though small, I find these kinds of alterations very meaningful.


Which relates back to the work you’ve developed for the Review. This work, too, functions as a kind of remaking of the archive: reflecting back to the viewer their own generic, low-res vision of a geography imbued with all the vague textures of “authenticity” and yet suspiciously lacking in the specificities of the real. In so doing, the work seems to call into question the whole conception of place and the politics of its imagining . . .


I really love your reading of this work! I have been leaning lately towards the use of more traditional materials in my practice, like paper, paint, and wood. But paradoxically, I find the digital, as I’ve used it here, to be very effective in producing the kind of softening I have been speaking about. In the context of land and landscape, there is something very compelling to me about the possibility of distorting, softening, or confusing one’s relationship with the real. The work I have produced for the Review speaks directly to this contradiction.

Notes on the Artist Project

This interview is accompanied in Issue 3.50: In(ter)ventions in the Archive by a feature artist project by Nour Bishouty. Reflecting the archive as a site of ongoing construction and speculation, Nour Bishouty’s tall grasses, small bushes (2023) unfolds as a miniature landscape in formation. Created by manually stitching together a series of AI-generated thumbnail images based on an original oil painting, the work invites the reader to reconsider their own relationship to land, landscape, and its imagining by also cutting out and assembling their own double-sided version of the work.

Further work by the artist can be found on her website here.

  1. Nour Bishouty, 1—130: Selected works Ghassan Bishouty b. 1941 Safad, Palestine–d. 2004 Amman, Jordan, edited by Jacob Korczynski (Toronto/Berlin: Art Metropole/Motto Books, 2020).
  2. Nothing is lost except nothing at all except what is not had, curated by Toleen Touq and Lillian O’Brien Davis, Gallery 44, Toronto (February 2–March 5, 2022).
  3. Mostafa Heddaya, “Left, Right, Inside, Out: Art and Comparison,” in Artforum 60, no. 5 (January 2022), https://www.artforum.com/print/202201/mostafa-heddaya-on-the-comparative- complex-87446.

Nour Bishouty, Untitled (detail), 2022, carved wood, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Darren Rigo.

Nour Bishouty, 0:0 / Nothing is lost except nothing at all except what is not had (detail), 2022, map projections, oil on canvas, plywood, glass, 241 × 81 × 109 cm. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Darren

Nour Bishouty, 1–130: Selected works Ghassan Bishouty b. 1941 Safad, Palestine—d. 2004 Amman, Jordan, ed. Jacob Korczynski (Art Metropole/ Motto Books, 2020). Courtesy of the artist.

Nour Bishouty, Adrāʾ Samar (still), 2018, HD video (15 min). Image courtesy of the artist.

Nour Bishouty, tall grasses, small bushes (detail), 2023, digital landscape with gouache and watercolour on paper, 22.86 × 213.36 cm.

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