In this episode of the Gallery Girl podcast we speak to Lena Kassicieh, a Palestinian-American artist and cultural practitioner currently based in Dubai. Lena is also co-founder of Daftar Asfar, a travelling sketchbook built on the spirit of collaboration. We speak about Lena’s background, her own art and what she’s been up to in quarantine.
Raised by a family of doctors, Lena initially studied anthropology, and despite an artistic side, only started calling herself an artist in recent years, describing a “Palestinian need to do something useful. “My mother started noticing that i was always drawing”, she says, “I felt maybe you had to go to art school to call yourself an artist…but I thought I have to own it at some point. Only in the last three or four years i decided to put myself out there.”
Having grown up in New Mexico, Lena spent summers in Amman. She moved to Jordan at 21 during a study abroad program for six months and decided to stay. “I thought it would be a year or two, but it ended up being more like eight”, she says. She started teaching English, before going on to work as an editor at a magazine. “Through that a whole new world opened up to me”, she explains, “I had no idea you could make a career writing.”
Working as an editor allowed Lena to meet many artists. “Amman is a very small art scene”, she says, “I started learning who the key artists were.” While there she started Daftar Asfar with two friends – Sarah Hatahet and Nahla Tabbaa – a collaborative project in the form of a travelling sketchbook that connect artists together.” Daftar Asfar has been exhibited at Amman Design Week and Art Dubai, and there have been editions in Jordan, New Mexico and the UAE. “It bridges worlds”, says Lena of the project that takes the sketchbook directly to artists, “It feels like a social project not just an art project.” In fact, the sketchbook is a completely tactile experience, although there was a digital edition with Halo Zine.
Currently, the book is in quarantine in the UAE with an artist who has had the sketchbook for two months. “It’ll be like a time capsule of this moment”, explains Lena, “Obviously even after quarantine ends there’ll be a different way of moving about. So it will be interesting to see how this section of the book turns out.” And what about Lena in quarantine? She says she’s been drawing like crazy. “It’s really refreshing for me”, she says, “I wasn’t drawing that much before.” But Lena doesn’t just draw, she also makes collages and ceramics. “I’ve never been able to commit to just one thing”, she explains, “It’s nice to have a diversity of interests.”
So, what’s next? Daftar Asfar is teaming up with Al Yamaniah, a collective of Yemeni women artists on a digital edition. “It will be a really interesting experience in education”, says Lena, “It can be a learning process for people who don’t know much about Yemen.” And on a Personal note? Lena is just going to keep making collages and seeing where the journey takes her. “I’m just going to let it happen”, she says.