Habib Hajallie: Facing History
Compassion is the basis of morality.Arthur Schopenhauer
Written by Gary Brewer
A face is like a map- it conveys the genetic lines of our forebears and the ethnic and geographical lines of the journeys that our ancestors traveled which have given shape to a person. The subtle nuances within one’s face reflect the experiences of that person’s life in the world in which they live, as well as the histories of migration and the complex synthesis of ethnic, cultural and language forms that give rise to a world in constant renewal.
As artists we seek to speak truth about our experience in the world: it is a form of philosophy embedded and conveyed through matter- transformed through the suppleness of mind, imagination and skill into visual expression. It can capture through metaphor and poetry, a record of our experiences and our responses to the forces that have formed who we are in the world. It can also be a catalyst that directs and helps shape the metamorphosis of society.
Habib Hajallie is an artist who uses portraiture as a vehicle to tell stories. His materials are black ballpoint pens on repurposed pages from books that he carefully chooses for the content and ideas that they contain. He said of this, “I find the works of philosophers and writers who are dealing with issues that are relevant to a specific concept. I pragmatically place an image onto the text- what words can be seen and which ones are covered up- are crucial to the composition. Or how the words may emerge through a gradient, from darkness to light, all contribute to the ideas behind my work. I create my drawings using the ballpoint pen as a point of entry, to break down the barriers that the world of art often imposes on people from working class/immigrant backgrounds. When a person who doesn’t usually engage with fine art, thinks of oil paintings- the cost of the materials and where one buys them- can put up a barrier to their ability to access the artwork. By using a ballpoint pen, I transcend that impasse. Everyone knows what a pen is, everyone has one. Its commonness gives access to my art for people who may otherwise feel it is outside of their universe.”
Habib is a young English artist whose parents immigrated to England from Sierra Leone and Lebanon. We met during my two-week long stay at NG Art Creative Residency in Provence, France. During this time, he was working on a portrait of Dame Jocelyn Barrow as part of a series of portraits of immigrants who came to England and had an important impact on social justice: specifically on the lives and rights of immigrants and people of color. Dame Jocelyn Barrow was a founding member of Campaign Against Racial Discrimination, (CARD), that between 1964 and 1967 lobbied for race relations legislation in Great Britain and was responsible for the Race Relations Act of 1968.
Habib has created many self-portraits to express a range of ideas and emotions: from having a conversation about ideas of masculinity, to psychologically deconstructing images of the alpha male that are often embedded within a boy’s fledgling identity from a young age- exploring feelings of self-doubt and insecurity and honestly facing his own vulnerabilities as a form of catharsis and emotional growth.
There is an honesty and sincerity to his approach that is in direct contrast to the often clever, emotionally remote, and irony-clad tone of much contemporary art. When we spoke about this, Habib said, “In both the art world and the world in general, people are reluctant to speak about emotionally sensitive subjects. Everyone likes the idea of being sensitive to challenging subjects, but conversations usually do not go very far before people become uncomfortable with it. In my art I am trying to express complex ideas and emotions and have a conversation about things that are hard to talk about openly.”
He also uses self-portraits to give a voice to marginalized people who share common experiences from a society that sees them as other. When I asked Habib what it was he was trying to do; what was the ethos of his practice, he said, “I am creating images that speak to people like myself that often feel marginalized by the Western European world. I want my work to resonate with people who will understand the experience of feeling that otherness, by constantly being asked, ‘where are you from, or can I touch your hair’. I did a series of self-portraits that were caricatures of myself as an African, Caucasian and Middle Eastern person. They were done with a sense of humor using sardonic wit and satire to comment on the bias behind these kinds of stereotypes and the perceptions that people like myself, being a mix of parents from Lebanon and Sierra Leone, often feel. My work is two-fold. I want it to resonate with people of color and immigrants who will understand these situations, but I also want to educate and enlighten people, using humor and wit, about how these forms of prejudice negatively effect people.”
Habib’s method of drawing with ballpoint pen is astonishingly nuanced and masterful. His capacity to achieve the most delicate and seamless transitions from light to dark, to render volume, space and light as it unfolds across the face of his subjects is a marvel to see. It was particularly impressive to share a studio with him and to watch the incremental progress day by day in the piece that he was working on for the two weeks that I was there. I asked him about his technique and what it means to him. “I have always been inspired by the High Renaissance. When I was young I used to make copies of Da Vinci’s drawings. The compositions and technique were something I admired. The craft that I use in my work is a hook to draw people in and then have them go deeper into the narrative content of my work. There is also a philosophical aspect to it. The images are composed of countless strokes of the pen. It is a kind of chaos, like the chaotic energy of the universe that is organized and focused into something. When I work I am very focused on the intent of my work- who my audience is and what the meaning of these marks are about. After an hour or so, I will stop drawing and step back, to look at what I am doing, to stay on point, and keep the content of the image in the forefront of my mind.”
When I first arrived at our residency, Habib had been at work on his drawing of Dame Jocelyn Barrow for almost a week. The left hand side of her face and hair were coming into view, rendered upon four pages that were glued together as the contextual backdrop from a book, My Confessional (1936), by Havelock Ellis, a somewhat forgotten English social reformer and progressive intellectual. Each day Habib would log long hours, leaning into the drawing with focused intensity, occasionally broken by conversations with me about philosophy, music, art and a wide range of subjects. Indeed, when we first met he had his headphones on and was listening to an audio book of Arthur Schopenhauer. His intellectual appetite is omnivorous and engaged. He is reading for pleasure as curious minds do, but it also seems to be an essential part of his practice as an artist: a search to understand more deeply the human condition and the assemblage of forces that shape human behavior.
It is a search that is reflected in the ideas that his drawings express and an ongoing dialogue of image making and story telling to help change perceptions and help form a better world, free from the ongoing histories of class and racial prejudice.
Artists can create iconic images whose power to reflect and convey complex ideas and emotions can help affect positive change. In the work of Habib Hajallie, his aspiration is to speak to people in his community with works that resonate with their own experiences; but also to reach across this artificial divide in society, with humor and wit, to awaken and enlighten all of us. We are all merely human, trying to find love and meaning in a universe seemingly filled with chaotic forces. Each of us leaves a mark and with each mark we hope to contribute toward a better world. It is like the thousands of marks that Habib makes to create an image that is the brilliant face of a meaningful life.