Interview with Daftar Asfar: The Sketchbook Travelling the Arab World

Interview with Daftar Asfar: The Sketchbook Travelling the Arab World

Interview cover image is work by Samer Tabbaa. Photo by Darah Ghanem

"Daftar Asfar" is the transliteration for "Yellow Notebook" (or Sketchbook - in Arabic "daftar" is any book used for writing, scribbling or otherwise). And that's exactly what this project is: it's a large yellow book full of sketches, scribbles, collages, and other works made by the region's emerging artists. The book travels around the world, collecting the works of MENASA artists who have - intentionally and unintentionally - left their mark in an effort to create a collaborative project that celebrates the region. 

The book was created by Nahla, Lena and Sarah, three artists from Jordan who now live in Dubai, New Mexico, Amman and London. The three girls decided to start the project after being inspired by Brooklyn Sketchbook Library and also sensing that the region's art scene needed a collaborative project - one that is liberating and far from the worries that consume aspiring and practicing artists. So without further ado, below is our interview with the thoughtful crew that created the Middle East's first traveling sketchbook.

follow the halo: How did the idea of Daftar Asfar come about? What was your inspiration?

Daftar Asfar: Nahla shared a story on social media about a library in Brooklyn, New York filled with artists sketchbooks from around the world; we then took this idea as a starting point, and decided to start a series of sketchbooks that would feature the collective, collaborative work of tens of hundreds (eventually…!) artists from around the region. Our hope was that one day we could build a library or archive for these pieces, along with cataloging the process and story of each sketchbook. 

The work of Yazan Setabouha intersects with Reem Marji. Photographed by Darah Ghanem for Daftar Asfar.

The work of Yazan Setabouha intersects with Reem Marji. Photographed by Darah Ghanem for Daftar Asfar.

FTH: Collaboration seems to be a big part of the ethos of the project, can you guys elaborate on why that is? Is this something you did on purpose?

Lena: I think we really wanted to start a project that was accessible and inclusive –– something the whole community could get involved with, that would actually bridge little clicks of artists and connect artists who are either new to the art scene, who don’t feel encouraged, who struggle with inspiration, or who want to interact with others they may not have had the chance to work with or meet before. We saw it as a platform for creativity for the pure sake of creating, without the worries that sometimes plague artists, like ‘will anyone like this? Will it sell?’

Nahla: I have very fond memories of playing sketching games with artists I shared student accommodation with when we were pursuing our undergraduate degrees. We would introduce each other to new exercises, such as drawing as part of a theme, or a word, or simply allowing each to start and then the other continue. Although we had completely different styles and skill sets, the results were not only magical, but they inspired us to see practice as something that can be playful, liberating but that we can also move on to make serious works together- which we did. Daftar Asfar has brought together some unlikely, exciting and sometimes challenging collaborations and intersections- some artists enjoyed that process and conversations, others found it to be difficult and that was the point.

Sarah: Collaboration is one of the most liberating art practices I believe. Through collaborating in Daftar Asfar, artists have the chance to work on new ideas, and create artwork inspired by all the artists in the sketchbook, and specifically the artist they are picking up from. It is a playful challenge, as when one artist picks up, they do not know what to expect or what the previous artist has left them with. The process itself is very selfless and purely visual based. It is also worth mentioning that we try to limit the artists to keeping Daftar with them no longer than 5 days, this always the process to stay intuitive and fluid. 

FTH: What do you aim to achieve with the project?

DA: We would like it to be a project the lives on beyond us, both digitally, but for audiences to be able to access these books, which have now become delicate works of art. We want artists and designers, particularly those who are not in the practice of keeping a sketchbook to remember it as a sacred space, and finally, to keep producing more sketchbooks! 

Work of Saher Nassar. Photo by Darah Ghanem.

Work of Saher Nassar. Photo by Darah Ghanem.

FTH: You’re all Arab women from the region. How do your identities influence your work and this project in particular (if at all)?

Lena: When we first started Daftar Asfar, we had a conversation about what regions and artists we wanted to work with. We wanted to be accessible and open, but at the same time, really felt a pull to keeping it within the West Asia-North Africa context – partially for logistic reasons, partially because there are not many similar platforms regionally. It’s been so wonderful seeing how different artists choose to experiment in the book, and I don’t believe that identity is an isolated experience...where you grow up doesn’t necessarily define so much about your identity. It’s an exploratory process that is constantly molding, changing; identity is not stagnant, nor is it necessarily defined by where you live or what nationality you are.

Nahla: Identity and inviting artists strictly from our region (the Arab World) was a back and forth discussion between us, which I often roll my eyes at because it is incredibly challenging these days as Lena said, to see our identity as one isolated experience. We have two artists from Pakistan who contributed, another from Armenia, another from India and whilst we hoped for the book to be contained within the MENASA region I don’t think it would do the book justice to explicitly make decisions based on national identity. I see Lena and Sarah as friends, professionals and collaborators, far before I see them as Arab women from the region, and my choice to work with them was based on our shared passion and dedication to the project.

Sarah: I think my identity as an Arabic speaking, Arab woman artist who lives and works from Amman, highly influences my work and my contribution to Daftar Asfar. As Lena and Nahla said, we did have many discussions on where this books should be focused, but our decision to keep the first edition local to a region, came mainly as a celebration for the art scene we are embedded in. We said in the beginning that the idea came from a NY based sketchbook library and we felt that there is a gap in our region that needed to be filled. There are so many artists we watched grow and blossom in Amman for example, that did not get the chance to exhibit or show their work outside their city, these artists create work weaved directly from the city which they call home. 

FTH: Logistically the project is not easy to pull off! How did you manage to get the book to travel so far?

DA: We have been very lucky in that we are all very committed to this project. Without that commitment from each member, this would not have been possible. That being said, the logistics do get very challenging sometimes! We once had to have a voice note meeting on WhatsApp because Lena was in Qatar and Nahla and Sarah were together in Dubai, but the internet wasn’t working well enough for a video meeting! Otherwise the Daftar has experienced other adventures in the backs of Ubers, Careems, airports and suitcases, with a few trusted messengers carrying it for us. 

Work by Rama Duwaji. Photo by Darah Ghanem.

Work by Rama Duwaji. Photo by Darah Ghanem.

FTH: How did you come up with the name “daftar asfar”?

DA: As soon as the three of us decided to launch this project, which was an instantaneous decision, Nahla excitedly went to a colleague of hers to tell him about the project; Nasir Nasrallah, an active artist and participant in the book based in Sharjah. He generously handed to her a blank sketchbook in his possession with a yellow cover, and it became the obvious choice for a name.

FTH: As artists, what are your views on the current art scene in the region?

Nahla: Although this needs a long drawn discussion, I will try to keep it short! I hope that artists continue to find ways to collaborate, but most importantly make mistakes, not be too precious about their work and not be too concerned with fine-tuning it for an exhibition, deadline or event. We definitely need more critical platforms, discussions and ways to engage each other and give each other healthy feedback and support. And finally, I would like to see more process based works, more studios being open to visitors and more ephemeral, socially engaged and public works that can have lasting impacts on audiences. I also have major concerns with the themes that are often churned out of the Middle East, and it makes me think, surely we are more than our national identities, gender and politics – I hope we can break away a little, get out of our comfort zones and be comfortable with making works that don’t need to oblige to a ‘sexy’ theme.

Lena: I feel inspired by how things are developing in the art scenes across the region; I regularly come across impressive, thoughtful, and provoking work in myriad mediums that convey meaning and tell stories. I unfortunately think many artists still lack a platform, and I think the region needs to develop more accessible spaces for artists. I also think we lack critical debates, workshops, and collaboration opportunities (and of course, much of this has to do with funding obstacles). I do however feel hopeful for the collaborative and interdisciplinary nature of some of the initiatives and projects happening across the region, and am eager to see more spaces, like Amman’s MMAG Foundation for example, pop up across the region.

Sarah: I like to believe that we are still growing and learning as a community; however, we are in critical need of more art publications and written texts on the art scene. I think we lack critics and art publications that cover and critique the art scene, and I strongly believe that a healthy conversation between critics and artists will allow for more fruitful exhibitions, fairs and initiatives. Proper criticism will encourage artists to create, produce and engage with the society.

Work of Hazem Harb intersecting with Ibrahim Khamayseh. Photo by Darah Ghanem.

Work of Hazem Harb intersecting with Ibrahim Khamayseh. Photo by Darah Ghanem.

FTH: Do you have any advice or thoughts to share with aspiring artists in the region?

Nahla: Keep working, practicing and pushing yourself. Be open to the works of others, learn how to write about your work and how to represent it, read as many books as possible on all kinds of subjects, and if you are every in a creative block or recession, take up new hobbies or creative exercises to keep yourself stimulated. Appreciate criticism and pat yourself on the back for being brave enough to learn and grow from it. When in the middle of producing work, enjoy the sublime, intrinsic and meditative emotions that come with simply making, and don’t worry too much about the content, or context.

Lena: I really want to echo Nahla’s sentiment. As someone who grew up in a family of doctors – who seriously didn’t understand art, its’ value, or why I would want to do it – I really had to fight hard to be taken seriously. Until now, I am not sure I really am! But those things need to not become obstacles; I would advise aspiring artists to create for the sake of creating, and then let everything else happen and fall into place. Don’t make art because you want to make a lot of money, don’t make it to please others, and don’t be discouraged by rejection or a lack of understanding. Art is important. Making it is important.

Sarah: I would give them the same advice I give myself. Never stop sketching, always try to carry a sketchbook with you. Never say you are not good enough, and always aspire to become the artist that inspires you. Making art is a purely personal practice, that is shared with the mass, be open to criticism, and don’t shy away from sharing your work with people.  

FTH: Where do you see this project going in the future? What do you hope for it?

DA: We have a lot cooking up, from various collaborations, to digitising the first book. We’re also looking forward to the Halo Zine edition of Daftar Asfar!

follow the halo is currently working with Daftar Asfar on a digital travelling sketchbook to include artists from the halo community as well as digital artists from the region. We look forward to unveiling this digital book once we’ve filled it.

To know more about Daftar Asfar you can follow the on instagram @daftar.asfar

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