Noma Bar has dusted off his die-cutting machine for a new exhibition exploring conflict between warring nations. We visited the show ahead of Thursday’s opening to ask Bar about the concept.
When Noma Bar asked the public to donate materials for his latest solo project, he didn’t expect such an overwhelming response. The graphic artist put out a call on Facebook a few months ago, asking people from countries engaged in conflict to post items less than a centimetre thick to his home in London.
Bar hoped he would receive some letters, newspapers and stray pages from books and magazines. He did not expect money, children’s books, album covers, carpets and even underwear, some of which had to be smuggled through three countries just to reach him.
The exhibition, which opens this week at London’s Rook & Raven gallery, combines material from two countries at war in a single, unified image. Materials have been cut using his dog-shaped die-cutting machine into shapes symbolising war and peace, such as a dove, a gun and a crouching sniper.
Countries featured include the US and Syria, Ethiopia and Eritrea, Israel and Palestine and Greece and Turkey. In Bar’s trademark style, each artwork uses positive and negative space to create a bold and playful image. But it’s also a provocative statement, comparing the visual culture of enemy states and showcasing collaboration between people who, in their own countries, would perhaps be forbidden from even conversing with each other.
“The idea came from a conversation I had with someone from Iran,” says Bar. “We were having a great conversation, one that never could have happened if we were in our home countries, and it got me thinking, ‘it’s easy when you’re not there, so why not start a project getting people from these places to collaborate?’”
Bar has been overwhelmed by the support he has received and the lengths people have gone to to take part. In North Korea, for example, it is illegal to send currency abroad, so money was taken to Lebanon and then to Italy to be posted. Other packages sent from the Middle East had to be addressed to Bar’s neighbour, as post to someone with an Israeli name would likely have been intercepted.
“It was like trafficking – the trafficking of materials,” jokes Bar. “It sounds clichéd, but it really has been a global collaboration. People who sent materials knew they would be used alongside someone else’s from a warring country, so in a way, it’s also like a handshake between them,” he says.
What becomes apparent in many of Bar’s couplings – an unsettling suggestion for some, no doubt – are the similarities in visual culture between many nations at war. In one picture, an Israeli newspaper sits alongside one from Lebanon. Taken from the same page on the same day, they look at first glance like they are from the same publication.
Each of the images featured in Cut the Conflict demand a second glance, revealing another picture altogether. In a series of large laser cut artworks on one wall, a question mark also contains the shape of a chicken and an egg: not an immediately obvious connection, but a reference to the wider philosophical questions around wars and how they begin. In other images, the space under a sniper’s arm forms a heart, and a gun from one angle looks like a dove from another.
This duality is central to Bar’s work – his editorial illustrations and commissions often feature visual double entendres and hidden jokes. “I don’t think I could produce anything that doesn’t have duality,” he says. “I have been playing with it since I was eight or nine, when I would draw people with a set of teeth that looked like stairs or noses that looked like bicycles,” he says.
Military iconography is also a recurring theme – unsurprising considering Bar spent three years in the Israeli navy sleeping with an M16 under his pillow. In Cut the Conflict, however, this imagery is used with a more serious and provocative intention.
“Often I use it for comedic effect, as a cynical statement about governments or powers in control, but there is no cynicism in this project. There’s a bigger statement than making a fun or witty print and a slightly different story I guess, as this is dealing with the propaganda of war,” he adds.
Bar has been experimenting with die cutting since 2011, when he launched an exhibition at London’s Design Festival showcasing work cut from rubber, plywood and vinyl, and invited members of the public to create their own artworks using the technique. Cut the Conflict will involve less public interaction but Bar is planning to deliver talks and demonstrations.
Bar has no plans to launch another exhibition of die cut works just yet, but he would like to continue exploring politics. As well as being surprised and delighted by his work, he hopes visitors to Cut the Conflict will be encouraged to think about the issues that the artworks represent. “I want people to discover the story behind each image. Yes, I hope they think they look beautiful and creative, but I hope they will discover something else, too” he adds.
Cut the Conflict opens at Rook & Raven Gallery, London W1T 1HN on November 22 until December 21. For details, see rookandraven.co.uk