Artist interview: Raafat Ishak - Art Collector

4 May 2010

Painter Raafat Ishak has spent the past three years asking every country in the world for citizenship. He's turned the responses into a series of 194 paintings, each depicting a country’s flag in a mutation of its true colours along with an abbreviated snippet from that country’s response.

Raafat Ishak, Responses to an immigration request from one hundred and ninety four governments, 2006-9, installation view, oil and gesso on MDF, 194 panels, each 30 x 21cm. Courtesy: the artist and Sutton Gallery, Melbourne

Can you tell us what some of the government responses were to your request for citizenship? And did anyone say yes?

The only outright yes was from New Zealand. A lot of the other yes's were very ambiguous. In some cases they depended on what financial contribution I would be making.

I didn’t establish an ongoing discussion with any of the governments; I was only after their first response. So I didn’t follow up on any of the initial responses.

There are traditional migrant taking countries that have processes in place, so they didn’t say yes or no but expected me to fill out the forms and go through the process.

Others had very simple established processes, one form to fill out. In the case of Russia for example, it had to be written in Russian, as fluency in the language was one of the prerequisites for immigration.

Countries such as Cameroon and El Salvador congratulated me on making such a fine decision while maintaining that their security forces would be keeping an eye on me.

Yemen sent me their entire immigration law document which stipulated clear prerequisites, none of which I can fulfil. While Luxembourg questioned my motivations and whether I had any ideas what the country and its culture was like. Japan politely indicated that the government has no concept of immigration as we know it while Israel redirected me to the Aliyah centre in New York which deals with Jews wishing to return to Israel.

You already have first hand experience of emigration, having been born in Cairo and moving to Melbourne in the early 1980s. How has this experience changed your own attitudes to the notion of citizenship and, by extension, statehood?

It did make me question and consequently reject notions of citizenship and statehood.

As I researched each country I was approaching, I realised the significance of an armed force as a prerequisite for a state.

In turn, I realised that governments are not necessarily protective of their race, religion and culture but of their economic independence and wellbeing.

It makes one ponder whether nationalism and patriotism are inherently superficial to begin with.

You say nothing in your letter to these governments about why you are requesting citizenship, or why you have chosen to approach their country. Yet many governments use motivation (economic, refugee etc) as a filtering tool for applications. Why did you decide to leave this out?

I left this out because I didn’t want to tailor my request to specific countries. I wanted a standard letter sent to all countries, so I chose not to go into many specifics.

I did make it clear though what my attributes, if any, were, in terms of what languages I spoke, what little money I had, my desire to set up a small business and my profession being an artist. I also provided a brief background and my current status as an Australian citizen.

(Read Raafat Ishak’s letter

You identified 194 governments to approach for this project, which is more or less every possible government. This in itself must have been an interesting process. How did you decide what to do with the “grey areas”? (I’m thinking here of places that are not always formally recognised as independent states.)

It was more or less every possible state with the exception of Egypt and Australia which I already have citizenship from.

I started with states officially recognised by and [that] are members of the United Nations. The exceptions were North Korea, Taiwan and the Vatican who I regarded as states in their own right but were barred from the United Nations either by choice or as a result of specific circumstances.

There were not many grey areas. Kosovo was not recognised as a country when my research was taking place, technically it remains a non-country as it only has recognition from 60 other states. Greenland is part of Denmark, Palestine does not exist, and so on.

In a sense, I narrowed down my selection to conventionally recognised states, assuming, for example, that if I was granted citizenship of Denmark I can live in Greenland. That’s of course not necessarily true with every country.

Raafat Ishak, Responses to an immigration request from one hundred and ninety four governments, 2006-9, installation view, oil and gesso on MDF, 194 panels, each 30 x 21cm. Courtesy: the artist and Sutton Gallery, Melbourne

I’d also like to ask you about the use of Arabic text in your work. Firstly, why use text at all as part of the grammar of your work? And secondly, why represent this text in Arabic?

I am interested in the potential of text to imply an image. I use both Latin and Arabic texts to convey and hide images, respectively.

Arabic text is fluent and organic enough to be seen as pattern, rather than set and definitive words. The Arabic alphabet is traditionally employed as a pictorial abstract mechanism which allows [me] to convey a sense of lucidity while making meanings slightly covert.

In the immigration project, as a specific example, this lucidity allows all the different responses to appear the same, and in turn, detract from any specifics attached to a particular country.

My interest was not to compare, contrast and differentiate between the various governments’ attitudes to immigration. My aim was always to speculate and to suggest the absurdity of the mechanisms that contrive immigration.

And finally, throughout your career you’ve been involved with artist-run initiatives and have been a member of Melbourne’s Ocular Lab for some time now. Many artists choose to leave these sorts of networks behind when they start gaining wider critical and commercial success. Why have you chosen to stay involved?

I have always participated in shows at artist-run initiatives and collaborations with other artists are an informative part of my practice.

I think art is primarily a social and political activity and don’t believe critical acclaim or commercial success are prerequisites for a significant contribution to art.

Involvement in an initiative such as Ocular Lab allows for experimentation and dialogue. It’s mostly driven by strong friendships and mutual concerns.

I am generally humbled by art and artists and don’t consider isolation or indifference of any kind as potential healthy attributes to my practice.

Above: Raafat Ishak, Emergencies, Accidents and Congratulations, 2009. Oil and gesso on MDF. Courtesy: the artist and Sutton Gallery, Melbourne

Jane O’Sullivan

Raafat Ishak’s work Responses to an immigration request from one hundred and ninety four governments will be exhibited by Sutton Gallery at ArtHK10 in Hong Kong, 14-17 May 2010. Melbourne’s Ian Potter Museum of Art will also be staging a mid-career survey of Ishak’s work, Raafat Ishak: Recipes for aversion and strategy, Work in progress #6, from 26 May to 25 July 2010.

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