SPILL YOUR GUTS: Curator Jen O'Farrell In Conversation With Shadi Al-Atallah

Jen O'Farrell, Curator at Guts Gallery , 13 Dec 2021

Shadi Al-Atallah, is a Guts Gallery championed artist. Curator Jen O'Farrell talks to Shadi about their latest body of work and recent solo exhibition 'I LOST THE TITLE ON THE PLANE'. Talking swamps, Coca-Cola, witchcraft and queerness.



JO: The paintings in 'I LOST THE TITLE ON THE PLANE' explore the idea of stagnation, an important theme for this show, using swamps as a reference for this state of being. Swamps contain both land and water unable to be cultivated and so are considered an area or zone of transition. How does this translate to the works in this show? 


SA: I was looking at swamps while I was out there -I actually spoke to Queer Circle about this topic- how I use nature to calm my brain down. Bahrain doesn't really have much nature to go to, the only source of nature I had when I was there was the swamp outside of Sam's (partner's) house and it's this huge swamp that's really untaken care of. When you're looking out of the window you can see wildlife and birds feeding from the water there, it was really tranquil and it was my only source of calmness whilst I was there. I was contemplating what the swamp means right now, at that moment and the more I was looking at it I related it to my own state of mind at that time. I felt stagnant. I didn't feel like I had much energy to create anything or think of anything at that time, also the not knowing of when I'm going to come back to the UK, not having an exact travel date, not knowing if I have a studio when I get here, contemplating all these things that I have to do but couldn't do because I felt stuck. I kinda felt like a swamp, just stuck there untaken care of, nowhere to go so I guess I took that as my starting point for the show because I had nothing else to draw inspiration from - that stagnant state of mind was all I had and I couldn't get out of it. So I was actually looking at imagery of swamps, the murkiness of water and I tried to use that in some of my paintings too, that kind of murky feeling. The colours that I used felt swamp like and kind of dull compared to my previous paintings. I think that I was mainly trying to convey that stagnant mental state and how swamps relate to that.


JO: In the lead up to the exhibition we talked about periods of incubation especially during the pandemic, being unable to travel and making works in confinement. Are these works a release or disruption from that period?


SA: Both, because obviously when I was there I had no space, literally no space to work. My family were moving house at the time, they moved to a flat so there was no way for me to work because when I was there I was in a bedroom. I didn't have my old bedroom when I moved so I was like fuck I can't work. I tried to work on my partner's bedroom floor but couldn't work there and then I got here to this tiny studio space and I felt so confined when I was painting. So constantly working with the little resources I had -in confinement- but it also felt freeing because I finally got here. I was anticipating that whole time, it was a mixture of both release and disruption I'd say.  


JO: We also spoke about being in transit, in both spiritual and physical senses - but also quite literally with the conception of the exhibition title being 'lost' on the plane from Bahrain to London. How does this affect or accelerate your practice?


SA: I think I've noticed there's this pattern in how I work but I'm always working in these moments of transition in my life. So a lot of my work reflects that period of transition and I think that I'm used to it. I'm used to working in short time periods and of just not giving myself a lot of time to think, because I think that my work just doesn't feel right if I have too much time to think. My works have to be created in a moment of some sort of stress, of being at like a boiling point. A reaction. If I just want to paint it might not happen but if it's reaching a boiling point then that's when I can pour out the paintings. So I think these transitional moments are important parts of my work. I cannot remember the last time I made a show where it wasn't made in a moment of transition, or a painting even, sometimes I just go to the studio when I feel shitty or when I feel like it's my only outlet.


Shadi Al-Atallah

Cabin Pressure, 2021

Mixed media on un stretched canvas

181.5 x 163 cm


JO: Your paintings are said to 'examine the space between the mundane and the spiritual', what do you feel most connected to spiritually? 


SA: I feel spiritually connected to mundane things so I have points in my life where I practice spirituality like actively. I'm actually researching pre Islamic pagan rituals in Arabia at the moment so I've been reading up on the gods and goddesses that people worshiped at the time. I'm interested in these rituals that are performed that have a pagan basis, because I think that people know the relationship between Paganism and Christianity but the relationship between Paganism and Islam is not really written about. It's a taboo subject, people don't like to make the connections. The Hajj ritual, which is a yearly ritual that used to be a pagan ritual, in which women would mostly participate in naked, walking around a black stone and welcoming the female goddesses. I've been thinking about this a lot because I used to practice Wicca. I was practising Western Paganism because I had no other route towards Paganism, but now I'm trying to connect with things that might be more true to my culture but it feels inauthentic because I don't have a real connection to it. So I practice witchcraft. That's my main spiritual practice. I try to fit it into mundane everyday activities, like just walking my dog to the park can be a spiritual activity, thinking, meditating, contemplating. I think that's what my practice looks like, a lot of my paintings are in mundane living spaces, that's where the majority of my spirituality feels like it occurs to me. When I was ten I used to practice in my bedroom, light up candles and my dad would walk in and be like "what the fuck are you doing? Are you calling demons into our house?" and I'm like "there's already demons in our house" (laughs). Rooms have always felt spiritual to me so I think a bedroom or a domestic space is a spiritual base.


JO: And access to a forest or any wilderness, you can't exactly find that in Bahrain easily?


SA: Exactly.


JO: In terms of spiritually or witchcraft you can cultivate energy from within, with the aid of certain objects so that's where you can harness or summon the energy.


SA: Spirituality comes from the body and painting is a spiritual act. When I place certain objects in the works, I'm grounding it in the mundane reality of where it happens.


JO: Which work/s in this exhibition gave you the most satisfaction?


SA: Definitely, 'Group Therapy', it was the one I was thinking the least about. It was lying on the floor and I had finished everything else and it was still there. I finished it the quickest. I think because I was painting the others I had got the hang of it, because sometimes I lose my direction. So my first painting is always my worst because it's like making pancakes. You know, you always ruin the first pancake, throw it in the bin. It's like that, so that's why when I reached 'Group Therapy' it felt like I got my groove back. My thoughts were a bit more clear - though I was sleep deprived when I made that.


JO: Sometimes that's when you / the work, especially while working on multiple works at once reaches a crescendo?


SA: Yeah and I felt like I built up to it and the smaller ones too. I was working on them at the same time, I just picked up the brushes and I think with the technique I'd never actually painted with canvas that size. All my small works are on paper usually. It felt kinda free because the idea of dipping a large canvas in black paint was something I had been wanting to do for a while but didn't have the space to do. So I did everything that I wanted to do, on those smaller paintings and I think that they had the most energy.  


Shadi Al-Atallah

Group Therapy At 8 , 2021

Mixed media on un stretched canvas

180 x 138 cm


JO: What is your favourite part of the creative process?


SA: Definitely drawing on top of the canvas. When I'm painting it usually looks kinda abstract, like you can't tell what's going on, shapes and colors and blocks but when I get the charcoal - I use a chinagraph pencil on top - that's when it feels like the paintings are real, that it's coming to life. All the little details are there, that's when my paintings feel real. 


JO: It's almost like before then it's floating in that space we spoke of, the swamp.


SA: Yeah.


JO: Can you talk about your choice of materials and how you respond to them, for example working on multiple paintings at once?


SA: Sure, I can talk about my process. What I do is I mix the colours and once they'll feel right I'll just stick to them, usually I mix different consistencies to an almost liquid consistency and thin it out as much as I can so I can pour it onto the canvas. Some of them are on the floor, some of them are on the wall so the way the paint trickles down when it's on the wall versus how it dries on the floor is really interesting. I spend a lot of time just staring at my canvases drying because there's like a lot of wet liquid on them. I use things to carbonate the paint -I use coke to make it have a matte texture.


Shadi Al-Atallah

 Shadi Al-Atallah studio


JO: How did you discover that technique? 


SA: I ran out of water and I was too lazy to get any. I ran out of medium and medium is so expensive that I was like I don't need matte medium. So I just poured some coke into it and it made it matte. I first used it in my show at Cob Gallery on two paintings called Jack and Rose - they were huge, I was trying to cover as much surface area as possible. So I added coke to it, I was moving the water with a huge metal tool, it dried matte and I've been using that ever since to make the background look liquid.


JO: It's quite ironic because in Bahrain, which is such a hot and dry climate you would assume a lack of water would be the most prominent thing but then you have an internationally accessible, capitalist hallmark that is available anywhere in the world. It reminds me of when we spoke about being in Dubai airport and getting this ultra-orange Fanta. You can get coke literally anywhere in the world, maybe easier than you can access water in some countries. It's a more accessible medium. 


SA: And I had a coke dependency at the time, coca cola not cocaine (laughs).


JO: Regular or Diet? 


SA: Diet. Oh I was never going to put sugar into it, on the paintings! Sugar goes mouldy.  


Coca Cola Diet Coke (Can) 330ml - Newens | The Original Maids of Honour

Courtesy of Coca Cola


JO: So moving more onto your background, as a queer artist how important is it to communicate your lived experiences? 


SA: So as a queer artist talking about the relationship to queerness and my work, I don't think my work is about identity. I mean I don't actively think about identity when I'm making the work. I'm thinking more about emotional states or states of being but considering my personal identity that's never going to be separated from the figures that are in my work because they are I guess self portraits, even though the process of creating those portraits is relying on finding images of other people. I don't look for images that particularly look like me, it's more about the vibe I get from them. I'll screenshot TikToks, Youtube videos or whatever and someone will be making a facial expression and I'll just mash it up together. So it is about queerness in the sense that I am taking these people that don't know who I am and I'm placing them in my paintings. I make them purposefully androgynous at times, I think it's interesting because sometimes I'll use a male face, my body, someone else's leg. It's purposefully ambiguois so that's related to the queerness. Is it important? I don't know. I think I'm more interested in the emotional part of it, I hope that everyone can connect with my work and not see it as 'queer art' or anything about my queerness because my experiences - it depends on the painting- some of them will be about relationships and others will be just about feeling like absolute shit or suffering so I think they're more universal themes than it appears. A lot of times my work is just categorised under queer art because I'm queer but it's not something that I intentionally put out there. 


JO: I can fully relate to that. People always want to categorise artmaking from the artist's personal identity, what people don't realise is that all of that comes out in the work anyway. To be labelled already by society then through your work falls into the same troublesome area. 


SA: Completely, and I like when people approach me to be in group shows that are not about identity, that are just exploring a theme or an aspect of my work. I was actually talking to Elsa (Rouy) about it, she feels like she is always categorised under feminist art and I think like she's just painting her own personal experiences and her own relationship with being a woman and sexuality. I don't think a lot of female artists, non-binary artists are given that opportunity to just explore beyond their identities.



Shadi Al-Atallah

Adam's Crooked Rib, 2021

Mixed media on un stretched canvas

181 x 164 cm


JO: So when talking about these emotional states and lived experiences, do you feel challenged in communicating your own experiences and mental health and then putting that into your paintings? Because a lot of people possibly shy away from exploring these parts of the psyche in their work. Whereas you completely insert yourself into that raw, open space.


SA: Yeah, one of the first paintings I ever did was in a group therapy session. I was an inpatient at one of the hospitals in London and we had an art therapy session and they were like just paint how you feel. I've never had that before because I was doing illustration before and all the briefs we would get would be in response to a commercial idea, like surfing, it was really specific and I never considered… I mean I was already doing it at A-level so when I did A-level art I was thinking a little bit more about gender, my main focus was gender so I was kinda looking inwards but I never thought of painting how I feel. It's kind of cliché right, to paint how you feel but when you actually do it, it can be challenging to know what to point out. My first instinct was to paint myself because I'm very literal thinking, so if someone says paint how you feel, I'm just going to paint my facial expression. And that's how my paintings come out, I guess it's reflective of my literal thinking. For me emotions are just what your body is doing at that moment, so I guess the beginning stages of me starting to paint self-portraits was in some group therapy sessions. They made me feel more introspective and more aware of how I'm thinking. I really don't know how I'm thinking until I paint it sometimes.


JO: So it's all embedded because your emotional, physical reactions are linked to stress or things that are happening in your mind.

SA: Yeah.


JO: Lighthearted questions next, we're easing out. If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would it be? 


SA: Not here, cause it's fucking cold! Somewhere hot, maybe Costa Rica because in my head it's kind of romanticised? I don't know if it's like that in real life but I follow some people on Instagram and they are always posting photos of being in Costa Rica and it looks amazing. 


Costa Rica Gardens Tour | Brightwater Holidays

Costa Rica. Courtesy of Bright Water Holidays


JO: What is your vision for the future in the art world? 


SA: I wish I had a vision to be honest (laughs). I kind of live in the moment so I don't really think about the future that much. 


JO: What would you hope would change? 


SA: Something better, I don't know what. I guess more opportunities that aren't grouping you based on your background, like genuine fair opportunities. Not like 'oh this is a show for you guys'.


JO: Free of labels, ticking boxes… because those labels or boxes are only there for the mainstream to make sense of what is the 'otherness' or the 'queerness' and to justify their actions.


SA: Right. You're just tokenised. A token free art world would be interesting. 


JO: Final question. What artists or authors are most important to you lately?


SA: Honestly I haven't read in like two years so… I read articles most of the time, so I forget who the author is. I don't really have favourite authors. I mean it's nothing to do with my work but I like history books. I guess I have been reading mythology, history, theology stuff. So that kind of informs my practice, loosely, because my practice is about my thoughts or whatever I'm feeling. 


JO: Ok, so it's the end of the world, life as we know is in decline and you've been chosen as one of the few people who can survive in a bunker. You have three things you can take with you and one piece of artwork - in history - what would you take with you?


SA: Is Freddie a thing? (Shadi's dog)


 Freddie, courtesy of Shadi Al-Atallah 


JO: Yeah, sure. 


SA: OK, so Freddie. I don't place any sentimental value on things. 


JO: Baked beans?


SA: Definitely not baked beans. Maybe rice. Microwave rice? No! I won't have a microwave. Ok, a microwave, packet of microwave rice and Freddie. Will I have electricity?


JO: We can make that happen.


SA: Okay done.


JO: One piece of artwork? Doesn't matter if it's been stolen or whatever. 


SA: Francis Bacon. The one at the Tate. 


Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion', Francis Bacon, 1944 | Tate

 Three Studies For Figures At the Base of a Crucifixion, 1994, courtesy of Tate


JO: The orange background? 


SA: Yeah, all of them. 


JO: OK we'll give you all three. 



















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