“My nickname is Birdman. So, I use birds in all of my work. For me, birds can travel the world without thinking of borders, something I don’t have the luxury of.” Semaan Khawam.
Semaan Khawam is artist-in-residence at Alison Lochhead’s ‘Art for Peace’ exhibition, showing at the Astley Walk Newcastle Common space in Newcastle-under-Lyme and Keele University. He spoke with Appetite’s community reporter Jerome Whittingham.
Alison Lochhead’s artwork presents discarded shoes cast in iron, books burned, and columns of rubble stacked high, they tell a story of war and migration as well as the destruction of cultures and histories.
Born in Syria, Semaan tells me he’s seen a lot of death and destruction in his own country too. His family fled Syria in the 1980s, settling in Beirut, Lebanon.
“I’m a refugee in a sense,” said Semaan, “but not when I leave the Middle East. I feel I’m more of a refugee in the Middle East. Not in Europe, I feel like here it’s more like a home to me.”
Unable to return home to Syria, art is Semaan’s passport to places he’s found more welcoming.
“I work with garbage. I up-cycle and recycle, because also there’s a big garbage crisis around the world, garbage in the literal sense and in the philosophical sense. In every sense, there’s a lot of garbage we’re surrounded by, garbage ideas, garbage practice.
“The world is not a safe place right now. It feels like a dump. There’s a lot of hate and a lot of garbage! So I try to take it all, put it all together, and turn it into something peaceful, an art piece.”
Semaan said he finds the freedom of birds alluring and inspiring. Birds feature extensively in his artwork.
“When birds migrate, they don’t leave a country behind, they don’t leave home, they can always come back. I like that, that idea. Wherever I leave a sculpture around the world, I feel like it’s a nest for me, where I can come back and visit. I don’t want to stay. I don’t want to become rooted. I’d rather be free, like the birds.”
As we talked, Semaan was working on an elaborate sculpture made of wires and plaster, and yes, garbage too. The piece featured a human torso, arms raised high, and a branch full of birds, doves.
“This piece is called The Flying Instrument of the Mind,” said Semaan.
“Sometimes you feel so heavy, with your head, and the restrictions, and the way life has been treating you. So maybe this instrument can help you fly. You know, if I can harness the power of these birds.”
We agreed, many people need wings to lift them higher.
Listen to Semaan and Jerome chatting in this PODCAST, 11 minutes. The chat does contain some adult content: