Sometimes imagination is better than reality.
When Ayman Kaake came to Australia from Lebanon his mother believed he did so to study telecommunications engineering. But he hated engineering and when he arrived he enrolled in a visual arts course instead. It was six years before she found out… When he was a child, each time his mother returned from the Hajj pilgrimage, she would bring him a View-Master with images of the holy sites. To let his mother know he had become not an engineer but an artist, he sent her a View-Master disk containing his own photographs. These were, as he put it, his ‘inner landscapes’. It was an emotional moment, but happily his mother recognised his talent as an artist, proudly showing his work to her neighbours back home. And in Australia his reputation had already begun to grow…
Like his mother’s View-Master disks of holy places somewhere else, Ayman Kaake’s images are about distance more than location. In his work, this sense of distance is realised not so much geographically as psychologically and imaginatively, as the liminal space between waking and dreaming. In dreams, fragments of memory scintillate in the mind to be formed into narrativising constellations in the networks of the brain. The fragmentary nature of the memories and the organising imperatives of the mind create whatever hybrids of character and leaps of logic are necessary to maintain the dream’s sense of cohesion. Dreaming is a kind of performance by the unconscious presented through the proscenium arch of sleep on which the curtain slowly falls, just as the morning mist rises in the light of day. It is that moment when the dream is half remembered and wakefulness not yet in full command that Ayman Kaake evokes in his imagery. And through it he brings life and form to feelings of separation, longing and isolation.
These photographs are self-portraits to the extent that the artist is himself the figure portrayed. And in many cases it is his own sensibility that is the narrative source. But in others, he stands in for friends whose experiences, while they share some of the emotional concomitants, have involved different journeys, different ways to travel. This is the case, for example, in his work drawing on the experience of refugees whose voyage by boat was as hazardous as they were desperate. But personal or re-enacted, these images seek to suggest feelings and ideas that are beyond words, that must be felt rather than interpreted. Ripples in the emotional tides that ebb and flow in the thrall of memory on the brink of day.
What drew you to make photographs?
My head is always full of ideas and feelings. I used to illustrate my imaginary world on paper, but I wanted somehow to make them real… Then, in 2015, I bought my first camera and found that photography was the perfect medium in which to realise these ideas and express those feelings.
In your series ‘Let Them Stay’ you explore what it feels like to be a refugee. How did this work begin?
I was working in a café and was honoured to become friends with a number of the staff there who had travelled by boat to Australia. We built a close and open relationship in our little community. They trusted me and shared their stories of their personal journeys leaving home by boat, harbouring dreams of a better life for themselves. In this series I wanted to confront these stories of becoming a refugee. But my friends did not want to be labelled simply as ‘refugee’, they believe that there is more powerful meaning to their experiences than just this word. And so I focused not on their faces but on their feelings.
An immigrant is a person who chose the country to move to, had time to reconsider, had the option of what to pack and what to leave behind, the time to say goodbye to people and places. A refugee is denied all of that. One of my friends, a Syrian refugee, once told me, “we are not alive; we are just surviving”. Her words have always stayed with me. Just hearing the way my friends talked about home inspired me to create this series.
‘Sinking Boats’ was inspired by another friend Abdalla who is a refugee in Germany. He arrived by boat from Turkey, and during our conversation on WhatsApp he told me a little about his journey. He told me that there were sixty-two people in the boat, which was just nine meters long, two meters wide. They included twenty-six women and sixteen children. Everyone was young, no one knew how to swim. In Turkey they had been told that if there are more than forty-five people, don’t take the boat. But still they had to go…
[Left] © Ayman Kaake ‘Things Were Perfect. We Were Home’ 2018 from the series ‘Let Them Stay’
[Right] © Ayman Kaake ‘Childhood Home’ 2016 from the series ‘Let Them Stay’
The work is poetic, using visual metaphors and gesture to express ideas and feelings. How did this approach to artmaking begin?
I grew up listening to Arabic songs. The lyrics are filled with metaphors – they are not literal, but you know exactly what they represent. For me, I cannot see a jasmine tree without remembering my grandma and how she used to put jasmine in her bra, even the smell reminds me of her… Or when I see a single cloud in the sky and remember my father and how, when we faced a problem, he used to say to me, “it’s just a cloud in the sky and it will pass”. So, the metaphors I use are based on elements in my friends’ stories that have a strong meaning for them, or for me if it’s my story I am telling.
What ideas are you exploring in ‘Homesick’?
I come from a big family, from a country where I was intimately attached to its streets, its buildings, its people. Lebanon is quite different from Australia. I felt isolated and weighed down by feelings of homesickness. I became depressed. So I decided to face this dark emotion, to illustrate it and transform it into art. It was a kind of therapy.
In my imaginative world, anything is possible. Gravity does not exist, there are no rules or limits. There is something magical about the idea of being levitated, and in these images you feel that there is something trying to help me – to take away the heaviness of the real world, lifting my body and my spirit to a lighter, more peaceful place.
[Left] © Ayman Kaake ‘The Weight of Your Silence’ 2018 from the series ‘Homesick’
[Right] © Ayman Kaake ‘Shelter’ 2016 from the series ‘Homesick’
In many of your images you have a highly expressive way of using your body. Have you trained in dance or theatre, or does this flow naturally for you?
Actually, I feel very awkward about my body, especially when I am in public. But, being a photographer allows me the freedom to be silly and experimental, to try and push myself without being watched. I’m not trained as a dancer, but I have always loved to dance and to watch dancers perform. To see how they use their bodies expressively, especially contemporary dancers.
There is a dreamlike quality to many of your images, for example the one above…
This image represents my morning routine. I am simply not a morning person, I need to have my own private morning time, listen to music that doesn’t contain any lyrics, and sit in front of a window with my cup of a coffee watching the outside world go by. I need this time as I am waking up each morning, that transitional period between dreaming and wakefulness, to absorb the blurry melding of my reality and my dreams.
Why do you think this dreamlike quality is so present in your work?
I think is comes from starting a new life in a new country. This dreamlike world helps me explore and come to terms with the emotional turmoil and complex sense of isolation. Although I am dealing with serious sometimes dark emotions, my images are almost hopeful. In my imaginary world there is no gravity, no rules, no Einstein… I have travelled down the rabbit hole where everything is possible. Sometimes imagination is better than reality.
You spoke earlier about the way your father described problems as clouds that would, in time, pass. In your series called ‘Melancholy’, that cloud has become very real and very personal.
For me, my dad died twice. The first time was four years ago, when I received a call from my brother in Lebanon. He told me dad had passed away. I was so shocked that I stayed in my room for three days.
The second time was when I went back home to visit. I had been away for six years. I returned, but I did not find him waiting for me at the airport, not sitting at the table with us when we sat down to eat. His bed, his television, his books… even his shop were no longer there, where they used to be.
I realised then that I had no photo of us together. My dad had gone and all he left me was a cloud.
The final series I would like to discuss is ‘Exulansis’. First, what does exulansis mean?
Exulansis is when you have feelings that you cannot articulate, so you give up trying. It may be because of limited vocabulary, or may be because all the words in the world are not enough to say what you feel. In my case, I have no names for what I feel, only pictures.
I found out about this word out of boredom and frustration… I Googled ‘feelings I cannot explain’ and this word popped up. I fell in love with it!
Given these images seek to express that which words cannot, it is perhaps foolish of me to ask you to talk about them…. But, nothing ventured, nothing gained, so I will ask…
I made a small book in which I wrote little poems or stories inspired by each image. Here are three of them…
It’s very hard to breath
My lungs are full of seaweed and sand.
Panic isn’t an emotion,
Panic is my friend.
© Ayman Kaake ‘Seaweed’ 2017 from the series ‘Exulansis’
I have not felt a thing for weeks. Even the main streets, the ancient charmers, and the white flying little things that used to remind me of my father, could not inspire a reaction. Not my mum’s voice, my niece’s notes, or my sister’s jokes. I did what needed to be done. I got to work on time. And I felt nothing. Numbness is what it was. A ridiculous numbness.
© Ayman Kaake ‘Numbness’ 2016 from the series ‘Exulansis’
During the civil war in Lebanon, we had to flee our home and we lost our papers. When things returned to normal my mum went to replace our papers and, because we are twelve siblings, she couldn’t remember the exact date of birth for each of us. When we got our ID papers we were shocked to find she had put down all our birth dates as 1 January. So, every year on my actual biological date of birth, I make a photo with a birthday theme and send it to my mother to remind her today is my birthday!
© Ayman Kaake ‘A Letter to my Childhood Self’ 2019 from the series ‘Exulansis’
A number of your images feature origami boats and butterflies. What attracts you to this visual trope?
Yes, I use a lot of origami figures in my work. There is just something magical about transforming a thin sheet of paper into an object. It carries echoes of my childhood. It was wartime and we were many children, so we did not have toys. We used to make origami guns and play war games, or create boats to sail in a puddle.
‘The Red Butterflies’ was inspired by my experience of the war, the bloodshed. It was made and printed in a short intense burst of creative energy. We have seen too much blood – let’s spread butterflies instead.
What has making photographs taught you?
I have learned that if you have an idea, you don’t have to limit yourself to just one medium to realise it. The art world is limitless. My photographic surrealism taught me how to conceive and execute an idea. That gave me the confidence to expand my creative practice; to try other, different mediums through which to represent my thoughts and feelings to the audience.
Ayman Kaake was born in Tripoli, Lebanon, in 1987. He is a graduate in telecommunications engineering and cinematography from the Lebanese University, Beirut. He migrated to Australia in 2011 and studied visual art, receiving diplomas in photo-imaging and visual arts from Melbourne Polytechnic in 2016. Since 2014, he has developed a body of still and video digital art works that evoke a dreamlike world of personal experience, emotional turmoil, and the complexity of starting a new life in a new country. His work has been exhibited regularly in Australia and also in Greece, winning or being highly placed in a number of art awards. In 2018 he was named as one of the top twenty emerging artists in Australia by Capture magazine, and in 2020 he was studio artist in the Room to Create program at Collingwood Yards studio, Yarra City, Victoria. He lives and works in Melbourne.
This interview is a Talking Pictures original.