EDUCULT Talks: with Osama Zatar
Osama Zatar was born in Ramallah/ Palestine in 1980. Insurmountable obstacles in the conflict between Israel and Palestine made a life with his Israeli wife Jasmin Avissar impossible in his home country. After a brief time in Germany, they made their way to Austria, where Osama Zatar was invited to the exhibition ‘’Overlapping Voices: Israeli and Palestinian artists’’ at the ESSL Museum. He studied sculpture under Paul Taylor and completed his studies at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna in 2014 in Heimo Zobernig’s class. Most recently his work could be seen in the exhibit ‘’Borders Adel Dauood/ Osama Zatar’’ in the ARTEMONS Contemporary Galerie in Linz. He is active as a curator at Café Prosa in Vienna and in the networking of a community of refugee artists.
Beginning on September 25th, Osama Zatar appears on stage with his wife in Yael Ronens’ play ‘’Niemandsland’’ (No man’s land), which is based on the married couple’s story of handling issues like war, trauma, and the power of border regimes.
EDUCULT: What brought you and your wife to Austria?
Osama Zatar: My wife is Israeli and after our wedding we lived in Palestine for two years. It was very difficult for us, so we contemplated leaving. We then had the idea of fleeing to Germany, because my wife’s mother came from Germany. In Germany we faced bureaucratic obstacles, which changed our plans. A year earlier an artist visited my studio in Palestine and took a few photos. When we were in Berlin, he invited me to an exhibit about Israel and Palestine in the ESSL Museum in Klosterneuburg. This was fortunate, because I could not work in Germany at the time. The idleness was depressing for me. We came to Vienna for this exhibit with just 200 Euro in our pockets, and then the ESSL Museum was also interested in selling my work. At the same time, I applied to study at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna and was accepted in Heimo Zobernig’s class.
EDUCULT: How do you experience Austria?
Osama Zatar: Vienna opened a huge door for me, especially through my studies at the academy and the exhibitions. Vienna is my home now, and I try to actively engage in life here. It is my city. I took the time to integrate myself, to learn the language, and to get to know the culture. I never imagined that I would have to leave my homeland. I lived there for 27 years and had many project ideas and dreams. It was never a plan, to come to Europe someday. Now I have my family, my wife and my daughter, and they are happy here.
EDUCULT: Have you determined if Vienna is going to be the city you build your life around, or do you hope to return to your home country at some point?
Osama Zatar: I am not exactly sure. I would still like to work on a project in Palestine, and there are many places where you can do so. I really miss the nature too. Perhaps I miss the people less, but the nature very much so. I always used to work with natural materials, and that is not something that I can find here unfortunately.
EDUCULT: You allow much of your personal, and also difficult experiences enter into your artistic work. There is material that you continue to use artistically, life experiences, concrete things, things that happened to you, like when you stand on stage alongside your wife and share your stories in the play ‘’Niemandsland.’’
Osama Zatar: Yes, we are trying. There are so many couples that have a history like ours, but they do not want to make it public. Given that we are both artists, we were potentially more open and explain our story acting as representatives of all of the others.
EDUCULT: Your experiences are in certain ways quite unique—borders, war, confrontation. In the relationship with your wife, you were also able to overcome personal boundaries. Is there something that you would like to give to us, the Austrians who have already been living here for a long time? Are there experiences that are also relevant for us?
Osama Zatar: Perhaps. In the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, I was also politically active and did many things that were not ultimately a solution. At the moment, the only solution I can see is my daughter. She is the future. My problem in Austria or in Europe is that the people are divided, either pro-Palestine or pro-Israel. Often, there is no middle ground. I also understand that many get information about the conflict only through the media. But the situation in Palestine and Israel is very different. The people there just want to live and be in control of their daily lives. They have so many problems and no time, to think about the conflict. When I meet someone here, the question, ‘’Where are you from?’’ comes right away. And then I have to say, ‘’I’m from Palestine.’’ Then the discussion often begins and mostly focuses on referring to pro-Israel or pro-Palestine positions.
EDUCULT: There are also initiatives, that try to allow for encounters, for example the West-Eastern Divans Orchestra from Daniel Barenboim or the Bruno Kreisky Forum in Vienna; they try to establish togetherness through, for example the production of collaborative music or entering into dialogue.
Osama Zatar: Yes, I think that there are many people who attend with an agenda in mind. They want to discuss the conflict and who has more of a right, but not the solutions. In general there are too few joint initiatives.
EDUCULT: In your situation to what extent can politics and art be separated? Can one deny this mixture of political context and artistic expectation?
Osama Zatar: I continually try to do this, but it isn’t always that simple. As an artist, you are dependent upon getting invited. In my first four years I would always get invited to exhibits because of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. During my diploma project I did something completely different. It was only about me personally. I naturally want to develop myself as an artist, and would like to be invited based on the quality of my work not because of political reasons or on account of what country I am from. At the same time, of course I am happy when I am invited to exhibitions and can present my artwork.
EDUCULT: In the meantime, have you developed a strategy of how you can counteract this, so that you and your work are not always reduced to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict or your country of origin?
Osama Zatar: In my diploma project I played with the questions about my nationality and my name. With Osama many people automatically think of Bin Laden and that is how I came up with the Austrian expression ‘’Wosama.’’ With one work, I always answered the question ‘’Where are you from?’’ with ‘’I come from my mother’’ written in Nazi-font. During personal conversations when someone asks this question, I like to give this answer too. That enables a much different basis for discussion, without being carried back into a discussion about the conflict between Israel and Palestine. For nearly ten years now, I have not lived in Palestine, and I’d like to know, what moves the people here, what their problems are. I try to be active.
EDUCULT: It seems as if someone’s country of origin always provides a wealth of experience but also at the same time a burden. You have many diverse experiences at your disposal and have already had to go through so much in your life. You always carry these experiences and your country of origin, even if you decide for a new life. How do you handle these circumstances?
Osama Zatar: I do not want to be reduced to one specific cultural background, it constricts me. I would like to be open and think of my art as international. I would also like to not be reduced to one kind of artistic movement. I also hope to be able to contribute something new artistically. I can’t discard where I come from or my experiences, but I can expand them and let something new enter into them. I also do not believe that there is one culture. Every person has their own culture, just like every member of a family has their own character, even when they each share the same familiar background. Culture is personal, everyone is culture. There are qualities that we share, and everyone sees things from their own perspective. We are each sitting in this room right now, but we perceive different aspects of these moments.
EDUCULT: Do you feel like there are aspects in force here in Austria that want to reduce a diverse understanding of culture, in terms of renationalization, for example, or through calling for closed borders?
Osama Zatar: Yes, this is partially something I’ve noticed at this time through my work with refugees. I spend a lot of time with them, teach them, and speak with them. Always when you meet someone with a new culture or with a different cultural background, it is a shock for both sides. It certainly raises questions about the understanding of one’s own culture and you try to determine rules for coexistence from these encounters. I hope that Austria can profit from these experiences. The Austrian culture has been historically shaped by different cultural influences, such as from Hungary or Turkey.
EDUCULT: Simultaneously there are also a number of political arguments that suggest that cultural diversity and a wealth of new experiences also involve new conflicts.
Osama Zatar: Yes, but every person leaves their mark no matter where they are. You can learn and experience many new things, but of course problems come as well. We just need to know how we can deal with them, and initially it simply requires time. I was in this situation personally. It was a culture shock for me when I went to Germany. I isolated myself. I also understand people, especially those who were not really welcomed and do not know how things will proceed. But you always need to try to see things from both sides, that for both these is a culture shock, although it is more difficult for those arriving with the completely new impressions, new living situation, new cultural technicalities, and to find one’s way in the new society of the country they are in. This requires support and solidarity.
EDUCULT: I would like to come back to your individual, artistic work again, that is naturally also situated in an international art scene. Also when art is a personal expression, it is also always impacted from cultural background, the language, the home country, personal experiences, and contacts. This cultural context that results in a work of art is also transformed in certain ways through international understanding, which elevates the work beyond this cultural background. If I understand this correctly, then it rests in your hands as an artist to carry out this transformation?
Osama Zatar: When I work on a piece of art, I always think of the many different observers that will come in contact with it. I think about how someone in Austria, but also in Israel and Palestine can and would understand. I also always consider the recipients of the art when I work artistically, and I also think about the expert audience. For my last exhibit, I dealt thematically with ISIS a lot, and the question where all of these murders and pain come from. In this sense, I tried to play a diplomatic role with my work.
EDUCULT: Is there also a new network of artists for you here, where you can support one another and also discuss the conflicts in new ways? Do you also have the feeling that you are part of a new movement here?
Osama Zatar: This is what we are trying to do at the moment in Café Prosa. Here we are giving people a place, where they can work and exhibit. There is a large number of refugees and volunteers that work together. It has really developed itself, but given our limited financial resources, it is not a complete success. At the beginning of the project I collaborated with three other artists, and we met each week and discussed how we could use our work outside of the forum to contribute something to society. We continue to successfully carry out this project.
EDUCULT: There are several cultural institutions that are doing something for refugees, but refugees are rarely actively incorporated themselves. It is very interesting that there is an active self-organized platform here.
Osama Zatar: The are some, especially in Germany, were everyone is very engaged. I have to admit that I am also tired of always writing new project proposals only to receive no funding. It takes a lot of energy and time to compose these concepts and not be able to turn them into a reality.
EDUCULT: The competition right now in the free art and culture scene is quite high right now around here. Do you other experiences in Israel or Pakistan? Was it easier for you there?
Osama Zatar: No, in Israel for instance, I had no opportunities. In Palestine there was no art academy. First after I left Palestine, one was founded with the support of the Oslo National Academy of Fine Arts. In Palestine I could not live from my art, but thanks to my trade I had a good life. In the school I actually learned to be a carpenter, and it was just a coincidence that I discovered sculpture for myself. The first time I worked with plaster, I thought afterwards that I had invented something new. In Islamic culture sculpture is actually forbidden. You are not allowed to construct any sculptures. However, I always worked on my technique and continued to develop myself artistically.
EDUCULT: How were your initial experiences learning with Heimo Zobering and your understanding of art at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna?
Osama Zatar: It was a breakthrough form e. I was allowed to work on my craft and my ideas here. As I came to Austria I could not speak German or English, and at the beginning it was very difficult for me. Heimo Zobernig and his assistant really supported me, even though Heimo was very skeptical during the review of my portfolio. His approaches were also quite abstract to me initially, but I wanted to study and understand them. I learned a lot from him and my fellow students, even if this time was generally hard for me. My art developed significantly during this time and afterwards. Right now I am also working in other fields of video art and on additional projects with refugees.
EDUCULT: What outlook do you have yourself and your family in the future?
Osama Zatar: I try to think ahead and make plans, but that has never really worked. I would like to stay optimistic, and master our lives here, and contribute something to society. I believe in art and that it can be a solution. When I came to Austria, I did not really want to change myself, but now I see things differently and have learned a lot. When I try to improve my own life, I can also positively influence the lives of other people.
EDUCULT: Many thanks for sharing your experiences with us! We wish you all the best for your future and coming projects!
Note: Exhibit in October in Café Prosa, curated by Osama Zatar