I caught up with Shadi Alzaqzouq, the charismatic Franco-Palestinian artist at the Ara-B-Less exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery in London this week. Wearing an “I’m Muslim, Don’t Panik” t-shirt with a beer in hand, he explained the concepts behind his work and just what happened at with the controversy around Banksy’s Dismaland. Thanks to Houssem Tefiani who was also part of all this.
I like your t-shirt, what’s the relevance of the message to you?
I invited my mum from Gaza, Palestine, to come and visit me in France, twice. The first time they gave her a visa with my father. When she was in Paris I could see tears in her eyes and I asked her why she was crying. She told me “I’ve just got something in my eye”. I pressed her on it and found out it was because she really found Paris so beautiful. But she wears the hijab, and she had to deal with people giving her funny looks.
The second time she applied for a visa it was denied.
I hear the media talking about Islam more and more and honestly, if I didn’t know my own mother, I would hate her after hearing all of the things they say, just because she’s a Muslim who wears hijab. It’s absurd that the media has reduced Islam down to the hijab. For me the hijab does not equal Islam and only God can judge what is good and bad.
How does this relate back to your work at this exhibition?
I used the concept of “punk” which symbolises rebellion and rejection of the judgmental society and state. It’s my way of saying “f**k the extremist right” and “f**k the fascist right”. The radicals and the racists. The ones who think women are worth less than men. My mother is a woman and I can’t imagine her as below than me.
For me, the hijab is something from our religion, but I mix it with this punk idea, the idea of freedom and liberty, “I do what I want”. It’s for the woman to decide what she does and how she does it, if she believes in God or not and how she practices her religion.
I wanted to do this piece on the “Punk Muslim”, to show the religion in another light. I’m Muslim, I believe in God, but not in traditional obligations. I don’t care about traditional obligations. There are certain things that men and women should do but in the end only God will judge us. My performance isn’t exactly about this, it’s more about what I see every day when the media speaks about Muslims, as they do in European/French media, with reference to terror and fear, to shock the people. I thought to myself, I’ll do something that will be more provocative, that will exaggerate and challenge the way we look at Islam.
I decided that to see a French woman wearing hijab, and not just a hijab, but a punk hijab, would provoke the reaction that I wanted. Not like those ones they want to show you on the TV, where they say “oh look she has something on her head like a bag of rice” no, it’s not a bag of rice, it’s a work of art, it’s imagination, it’s double cultured.
Double cultured? That’s an interesting concept. How else do you see that being manifested?
I have a son. He’s my first child and I called him Joseph. Joseph is not an Arabic name and Muslims people sometimes say to me, “you’ve called your son Joseph? Excuse me but what’s that about?”
So I explain that “Joseph” is a name that every culture can accept, and at home I explain to my son who the Christians and Jews are and how we can co-exist.
I prefer that my son be called Joseph and speak Arabic than for him to be called Youssef and not know a single word in Arabic.
It happens to me all the time that people say to me “Brother, you’re called Shadi, and your son is called Joseph and you speak to your son in Arabic, but I can’t understand why you don’t give him an Arab name”.
I say to them “Let me ask you, have you given your son an Arab name?”
They say “Yes, he’s called Ali”
I say, “Great, does he know any words in Arabic?”
They say “No, we live in France”.
Sorry, what does that mean, to call your son Karim, and he doesn’t even know the meaning behind that name because you don’t speak to him in Arabic?
I don’t think the name is important. What I want is that everyone practice their own religion. Everyone should be able to believe what they want so that we can live in harmony. This is what I am trying to do with my art, to show an Islam that is cool and can co-exist with other religions.
With my religion I think that if I make mistakes it concerns just me and God. So please, don’t give me advice on how I should live my life. We were not made in a factory to all speak the same, live the same and think the same.
How have Muslims responded to your work in this exhibition?
Islam gives you freedom of belief, but there are people who are fundamentalists. Muslims interpret Islam differently, just like in any other religion. There are some people who are fundamentalists with their beliefs, just like there are in Christianity or Judaism, there are some people who are on the side of extremism, and there are others who just live their lives normally who simply believe that there is some superior force above us all.
You should be able to practice your faith in anyway you like, but within limits, as long as you don’t change the fundamentals or impose your way of seeing things on others.
It’s a bit delicate, for example if we look at Charlie Hebdo, they spoke about the Prophet. It’s a bit complicated...
What do you think about Charlie Hebdo and their work?
I think all religion should be treated in the same way. That is freedom of speech, but not just attacking Muslims. All the time, on the TV they speak just about Islamic extremism . Do we speak about Christian extremism? No, never. Do we speak about Jewish extremists? No, never. Do we speak about other extremists? No! if you speak about Jews you’re anti-Semetic. So I don’t agree with this magazine. I am not Charlie. But I am against what happened to them. Each person should be allowed to express what they want without things ending in a tragedy.
There was a lot of controversy around your protest at Banksy’s Dismaland project. Could you explain to me what exactly happened there?
I was and still am very happy that I had the honour of being able to exhibit my work with Banksy because he’s my hero. All my life he has been an influence to me. You can even see references to his work in mine.
I love his work, he’s like my teacher.
When I went to his exhibition I was surprised to find two Israelis also exhibiting there. They were right in front of me. No one has told me that I would be exhibiting alongside Israelis who had fought for the IDF. I felt like this was a lack of respect, for me it was as if another building in Gaza had been brought down. It was crazy for me. He’s not one of these capitalist artists who say “oh, we will get Israeli and Palestinian artists working together” and have this false concept of that meaning peace. He’s from the underground scene. Why did he invite me as an artist from Palestine and also invite artists from Israel? One of them, Natala, was in the IDF. They even wrote in the program and that she had served in the army in Israel. I was like “What is this?”
I found this to be a p**s-take. I couldn’t understand. It was either that or it was some kind of strange humour from Banksy with an underlying message. I felt obliged to make a statement against what was going on so I covered my work with a white sheet and wrote “R.I.P. Gaza, Boycott Israel”. The manager of the exhibition came to me and told me, you can’t put this here, it’s so ugly. I laughed and said “What? It’s ugly? The exhibition is called Dismaland, everything about it is supposed to be ugly”.
You want to invite me from Palestine and you invite these people from Israel. What the f**k? I felt like Banksy was giving me a message and he was expecting me to do something.
I guess that’s surprising, considering the kind of work that he’s done in and around Palestine.
Yes, exactly, that’s what I couldn’t understand. For Palestinians he’s like a hero, like a God. The only really famous contemporary artist who speaks about Gaza, and then he goes and invites the same people who are f**king Gaza to his exhibition. It just didn’t make sense. I was so angry and upset that I decided to do a little peaceful show of activism, saying to boycott the army. I thought if he doesn’t like it then fine.
What did they do? Did they take your work out?
No, they didn’t remove it. The manager told me, “Look Shadi, this really doesn’t look good so we’re going to remove it” I was shocked but I said fine, if that’s what you want to do.
When I got back to Paris they called me from Dismaland and said they wouldn’t remove my work but asked me what I wanted. I told them to leave it but to pass a message onto Banksy to say that I didn’t agree with him inviting me to an event with Israeli artists without letting me know beforehand that they would be there.
I was happy that they understood my point and I told them to leave the sheet with a sign saying that I didn’t agree with having my work shown alongside the Israelis who were there. In the end everything was fine and my work sold to some art collectors, but that wasn’t the point.
[Shadi found out that Houssem and I are Algerian and said the following:]
If I wasn’t Palestinian I would be Algerian. If I could I would be Algerian-Palestinian. Nothing more.
Algerians are the people who bring Palestine into their football stadiums. Algerians are not afraid to carry a Palestinian flag as if it were their own. They love Palestine because they understand the suffering of occupation.
My second country isn’t France it’s Algeria.