One project, 86 artists, countless ideas

'Daftar Asfar', a set of large books full of sketches by emerging artists exhibited at Art Dubai recently, provokes conversations and collaborations between artists while forcing them to break out of their silos, writes Keith J Fernandez.

An excerpt from the great Middle Eastern graphic novel. A particularly notorious newspaper letters page. Nostalgic pops of distinct yet shared childhood moments, from the UAE, Jordan and elsewhere in the Arab world. An exasperated plea to begin again – delivered in first one, then a series of tiny notebooks for someone else to fill. Screen-printed girih patterns overlaid with angsty youth, and with wry comments on the meaning of beauty in the age of curated, smartphone-stoked imagery. Cats, the Marlboro Man, Venus de Milo, Hello Kitty, impressions, expressions, eyes.

These collisions of icons, ideas and images stream into being at the hands of 86 artists in 'Daftar Asfar', a set of travelling books jointly created by artists from the Middle East and elsewhere. The project, presented at Art Dubai recently, was set up as a one-off experiment to stoke artistic conversation away from commercial constraints, but has since led to collaborations between individuals on the project, while serving as a soil sample of the thoughts and ideas of the day.

“An artist’s practice can encounter very isolating moments. The same applies for creative practitioners who are fully engaged in their lives, full-time jobs and other commitments. The need to collaborate and support each other really comes down from the fact that we share collective thoughts and feelings on the changes we would like to see, and how we would like to evolve,” says Nahla Tabbaa, a Jordanian-Bangladeshi contemporary art educator, artist and culinary urban experience curator. She is one of the three women behind 'Daftar Asfar', along with Lena Kassicieh, a Palestinian-American ceramicist, anthropologist and communications professional, and Sarah Hatahet, a Jordanian printmaker and art curator.

They were inspired by the Brooklyn Sketchbook Library in New York, which houses completed sketchbooks by individual artists from around the world.

“Collecting sketchbooks became our departure point, but we wanted to build a project that was more collaborative in its spirit, and thus 'Daftar Asfar' was born,” Lena adds.

Thirty-eight artists contributed to that first book, each given a maximum of five days and as many pages to respond to instructions from the artists preceding them and move the ‘conversation’ on, while leaving their own directives for the next person.

“Through these collaborations, artists have been challenged to think about and approach the very beginning of the artistic process through a continuation of work from another artist. That within itself allows for so many playful surprises, but furthermore, encourages growth and change within an artist’s own practice,” Lena explains.

In contrast to the teamwork-focused performing arts, the fine arts are usually solo endeavours. Though there have been team projects – such as when Andy Warhol’s celebrity helped Jean-Michel Basquiat’s breakthrough – these are often dismissed as gimmicky or commercial. But the 'Daftar Asfar' rangers, as the three women call themselves, believe collaborations can push artistic boundaries.

I think our project points to a theoretical re-thinking of what ‘art’ can mean,” Lena says, explaining how 'Daftar Asfar' has inspired the artists involved to feed off each other, and off the shared experience. She herself has since gone on to collaborate on projects with some of the artists in 'Daftar Asfar' in new and different ways.

For the viewer, many of the collaborative spreads are greater than the sum of their parts, as when one artist’s obese subject has his stomach knifed open to disgorge a succession of perfectly detailed hotdogs – with a knife through one summing up our love-hate relationship with fast food. Cause and effect? Which came first? Does it matter?

Together, the spreads in each book offer a condensed, almost filmic reflection of where humanity is right now. Cross-generational ideas, cultural collisions, gender issues, Arab identity, global perspectives – each of these themes are confronted and analysed on the journey through the volumes. In that sense, 'Daftar Asfar' has vaulted past its objective of artistic collaboration and built a new kind of social media feed that the world can look in on.

Two more books have since followed, as new artists have clamoured to be part of the project. Although the first emphasised physical interactions, the second bowed to the ease and flexibility afforded by online apps. Co-curated by the journalist Dara Ghanem, it brought in an entirely new set of artists who would not have been involved given the physical costs associated with an offline project. A third volume, the New Mexico Daftar, is currently underway, hosted out of the US city of Albuquerque and funded by the Warhol Foundation. When finished, the team will mount an exhibition of all the spreads, Lena says, but until then, the project’s Instagram feed continues to amuse and motivate.

For now, the project remains decidedly non-commercial, the intellectual property rights held by all the artist involved.

The pages belong to the sketchbooks, and the sketchbooks belong to the 86 artists who contributed. We see ourselves as keepers and distributors of the books and we have never felt at ease with the idea of profiting, but rather, finding ways to make the books as accessible as possible,” Lena explains.

What is certain, she asserts, is that 'Daftar Asfar' will continue to evolve.

“The book is constantly on the move – the same applies with us – and we have always been comfortable with its transient state of flux.”

Perhaps that’s as it should be. The only constant in art, as in life, is change.