I was obsessed with the material while also feeling discontented with it, like someone who has fallen into a tar pit, without escape.
– Hani Zurob –
Paris, February 2019
Artzotic compiled Hani Zurob’s statements on his work with Zeft (tar) to offer a better understanding of how Zurob accomplished every artist’s dream which is to attain his own style and offer a new visual narrative that is specific to him/her. Of course, Artzotic is not suggesting a claim on the first use of tar, we merely wish to open the door for others to see what we see; and that is that Zurob understood, befriended and later took charge of this otherwise dull dark brown or black viscous liquid material. In his art practice Hani changed the infamous connotation that is widely held in his culture, enriching it with a new characteristic and visual value when he dignified it with pigments, branches, giving it a new function of it becoming a mirror to all who look at it, thus living up to his moto “The beauty within can change all that is ugly to beautiful”.
We chose to begin from his journey with tar in an ascending order starting from 2008 to this present time 2022 after the introduction written by Hani on his first encounter with zeft (tar)
The word zeft is used in Palestine specifically, and the Arab region in general, as a contemptuous term expressing a wide range of emotions—from a discouraged state of mind to one of repulsion, and sometimes it points to bad luck or a way to describe an awful situation. This suited the concept of my series Standby (2008), which expressed the condition of the Palestinian people, who seemed to be dissolving in their waiting, as the 60th anniversary of the Nakba passed.
– Hani Zurob –
Paris, February 2021
In the beginning of the First Intifada, in the years between 1988 and 1990, the occupying Israeli army enforced a curfew on the city that lasted more than 20 days. I was 10 years old then. We heard nothing during those days of imprisonment except for the loud rumbling of army vehicles. A repulsive smell seeped into our houses and we didn’t even have the right to look through the windows to see what was happening outside.
On the morning of the day that the curfew was lifted, I went out with my father, holding his hand, to see that everything over three meters high had been spray painted black, including all the walls and shop doors. Even the bottom third of the palm tree, which stood at the heart of our neighborhood, was black… so I asked my father, what is all this? He answered, zeft—tar—and I asked him why? He said, …in order to cover the graffiti on the walls and to prevent anyone from writing again, which they consider incitement. I was silent for a bit, my father was too, while that horrific scene captured our eyes. After a moment I asked my father, I wonder, have they sprayed the sea too? My father looked at me, smiling, and said possibly! And then stared at the palm tree again.
Standby & Low Quality Love (2008 – 2015)
The first time I started using zeft as a raw material in my work was in Standby. I started making it out of a passion for discovering new materials, sometimes mixing it with henna and dyes, and to explore the meaning of the word zeft. I can confess, the material defeated me. After Standby I felt I had no control of it, and further to that, it controlled the other materials with its singular color, its consistency and shape. But I continued using it in limited quantities, as the color black, attempting to control it through continuous research and the addition of other mediums.
Later when I was working on Low Quality Love (2015) I overused zeft, and I achieved new, exciting technical results. This enticed me to go back and obsessively interact with the material again, except this time the research led me in another direction, to understand it in its chemical form. I worked with a chemist friend of mine in a university lab in France to analyze all my tests since 2008 and we discovered the mistakes I had made in controlling the temperature and timing the mixing and application of it on the canvas. This helped me to achieve forms outside the laws of coincidence that had been governing me.
From that point on I set forth extensively researching and interacting with the material once again in Zeft (2016-2017), approaching the human form, and particularly the face, as I had in Standby. For the first time I worked at a smaller scale to better control the forms and got rid of traditional tools for painting, replacing them with iron, wood and plastic, using different gestures. I controlled the temperature, cutting and working with the material at specific time intervals to create the layers. Never before had I reused the zeft that had dripped onto the studio floor, but after it dried, I scraped it up and applied it, in new layers. From there I got the idea for my next series.
Everything in this material embodies zeft. How could I forget the sea of Gaza, which practically turned black, and the skies over our cities which grew dimmer day by day. How am I supposed to get rid of the zeft in which I have lived, if I have not tried to delve into it?
I was obsessed with the material while also feeling discontented with it, like someone who has fallen into a tar pit, without escape. This led to further research into its visual aesthetics. Now able to control it, I could express myself in a way I was unable to in the past. I was compelled towards abstraction again—the material was powerful enough. The Sea of Memories (2017) was the true beginning of ZeftLand when I shifted from the human to the earth, from the face to the landscape.
In ZeftLand I wanted to discover how to transform the character of the sacred space to that of zeft. I minimized the distance between the subject and the concept to focus on the continuous destruction of this land. And it was the land that pointed me towards using a living material, like tree branches, twigs, and dry flower petals.
These works are thus conceptual approaches to the scale of destruction, fire, and pain. I have been confronted by the sacred and the cursed, both on earth and in the work of art. I have found myself asking—is there any difference?
– Hani Zurob –
Paris, February 2019
And in his ZeftTime statement Zurob talks further about the evolvement of his journey with Zeft as he writes;
Art is a homogenous reflection of every moment in my life. In the fall of 2019, I began researching my latest project – ZeftTime*, only to discover that the whole world has entered into a collective ZeftTime, with the onset of the Covid19 pandemic.
The new reality made me reconsider my research when ventilators, masks, and the freedom to breathe, travel, and life became priorities. Then, a chemical explosion shook Beirut, destroying it. And the broken glass was the main cause of death.
I see time as a draft, and its reflections are the secret key to access ZeftTime. My artistic challenge expanded multifold, and glass became an integral part of painting with tar. This process added a structural dimension and paired the world of painting with sculpture. Time was no longer an abstract idea or a mere concept in my mind enticing me to perceive it in a three-dimensional way. This is the law of time: every passing moment is a new opportunity for a complete change.
I changed the work’s vision by covering the fresh tar, burying it between glass and wood boards, taking my time in the slow process. I then shattered the glass surface and allowed oxygen to penetrate in measured intakes that I controlled through cracking. As the tar was drying up, it gasped more and more oxygen, creating arbitrary colored forms. In practice, I painted Zefttime with Oxygen and time.
Pierre Soulages once said: “Whoever looks at my painting is in my painting,” so it is with me, but from a different perspective. The broken glass reflects the space that it contains, creating a mirror image projected from me to others and from others to the world. ZeftTime is a mirror of time within time where between its layers Palestine is still suspended in the same state.
I sought all my life to learn how to swim and float in water, but I failed. Today, I manage to float in Zeft and even walk on its surface.
From Ibn Arabi’s time till today and beyond, the conclusion remains when he said, “The face is but one; only by counting the mirrors it multiplies.”
– Hani Zurob –
Paris, February 2021
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