LONDON - As Sotheby’s London hosts a series of important talks and exhibitions on Middle Eastern art, my colleague Ashkan Baghestani took the opportunity to converse with Lebanese artist John Jurayj. Here, they discuss family, identity and conflict in his artistic practice. 

John Jurayj, Untitled (Cedars of Lebanon Series, 17), 2013, $30,000–40,000.

Ashkan Baghestani: What does your body of work describe or represent? 

John Jurayj: This body of work – my cedar paintings – uses family snapshots of the iconic cedars of Lebanon, which are simultaneously nationalist symbols and romantic, nostalgic motifs. These snapshots were taken by my parents and extended family during the pre-civil war years of the 1960s, long before I was born. In this work, elements from 20th century Cold War American painting – Abstract Expressionism, stain painting and the acid colours of Pop Art – are used to destabilize the romantic notion of landscape. Conversely, the supposed universality of these American movements is challenged through the inclusion of non-western, romantic and familial imagery. 

AB: What about the political and social frame of your work? 

JJ: People like to believe they are from a “place” – that our passports represent the safety or stability of identity, yet these ideas collapse when we hold on to them too strongly. The fiction of East versus West, “us vs. them”, Arab art versus non-Arab art fundamentally disintegrates upon any real introspection.

AB: Having never lived in Lebanon, how deeply can you relate to the past and present conflicts in Lebanon? 

JJ: I have just buried my father in Kosba, so my ability to relate to the past and present conflicts is as strong as any other Lebanese citizen.

AB: Have you ever worked or hope to work with a rooted Lebanese artist? Do you interact with the local art scene?  

JJ: Homeworks, Ashkal Alwan and the Beirut Art Centre have all been important for my artistic development.