KARI ANNE HELLEBERG BAHRI
*Featured photo: “Sleep Tight” ,Three white shirts in a box. Photo Credit: Jens Hamran
Can you give us three keywords to help us start this journey to discover your art practice?
Life stories, constraint, imperfections
How much of your personal life story is woven into the fabric of your sculpture?
My story is woven into all of my work. I have used my own everyday clothes in some objects to put as much of myself as possible into them. All the other textiles I use in my work is carefully assembled from different places or are given to me by relatives and friends. They are almost without exception second-hand materials. I nearly get a loving relationship with the materials I use; they are dear to me.
Spending time with the materials – I believe I project my presence into them, my love, my time. In some way, I feel I get to know the persons who have worn the clothes/ used the textiles before.
All the works are so deeply and directly connected to me and my life that they can be called self-portraits.
How much of your upbringing and education comes through in your current way of making art?
I grew up with my mother striving to find cheaper solutions to give us, my brother and me, everything others had. She made us toys (a Barbie house of cardboard with furniture, wallpapered walls, curtains, everything), bought second hand or on sale items, sewed, carpentered, painted, and fixed most things. She is very creative and finds solutions to every concern. In my work, I do the same. I find cheap materials, and I try to do something with them. I want to highlight them so that everybody can discover their beauty and value. They have a significant story to tell.
My education consists of try getting me a job I can live off and live with. I have tried graphic design, make-up artist, costume designer, but they all needed me to be outgoing and sell myself – I could not do it. But I use all that I learned in my work today. It’s like expanding your vocabulary in a language. So today, I use the different skills I’ve learned to tell my story in my artwork. Making art for me is to confirm my existence. It is my voice.
Clothes are a big part of your aesthetic conceptually and as a material. What is their role in your practice, why do you choose specific items, why are they meaningful?
I use clothes because they are connected to people. I find people and people’s stories interesting and want to say something about being a human. But, on the other hand, people make me nervous. I try to figure out how to connect and be one of them.
My objects or installations are about me looking out on a world full of people or looking in on myself.
I usually assemble used, worn, discarded clothes and textiles that clearly had a long life. They have spent much time with human beings. Holes, wear, and marks become signs of the individual’s experiences. I am interested in the scars, the flaws and the experiences that make us who we are, and I am not interested in a glossy picture. Instead, I want to highlight the things we define as worthless and that we hide under a spotless exterior.
I also find myself wanting masculine textiles – like military clothes, military tents, working clothes, work gloves, etc. I think it has something to do with wanting to express something fundamental – life, and I don’t feel that it can be represented by lace and embroidered fabrics. I use many white materials, like bed linen, a textile close to the human body, and I imagine that the human has left some of its presence behind. I have used sheets from institutions, hospitals or mental hospitals in my work several times. I want the clothes /textiles to tell the truth – I have worn clothes as a mask, a costume, most of my life trying to be something that I am not. I know how we can “”design ourselves”” to be what we want through clothes, but I am trying to look for what we hide under the clothes in my work.
How much is the human body present in your works even when absent?
This question really made me think. I have often talked about my “bodyless clothes”, but you can see a “bodylike” shape under the clothes in many of my objects. The clothes are supposed to tell about humans, a human experience or state, so I guess that is what I am trying to visualise. It is not so much about the clothes but the person wearing them.
But, when I got your question, a why (?) entered my head. Have you experienced losing a person and then thinking about them all the time? I suddenly started to think maybe I also do this thing because my absent father always has been the most present human in my life. He died when I was one year old.
You work with both indoor and outdoor projects. How do you relate to the space that surrounds the human body? Is the cloth a membrane? Are they porose to the environment or armour for you? You sometimes place your textile objects in wooden frames and boxes – like in your solo show at Oppland Kunstsenter in 2016 – why do you do that?
I think we all have our own experience of where we end and where our surroundings start. At least, I think some people use more space than others. As for myself, I feel like I am trapped inside my body, and I look out on my surroundings; but I guess others may experience that I also extend into the space around me. I am very aware of the people that occupy the space I move in; my body and mind absorb them. I have used my clothes to protect myself; maybe I still do. I have “dressed people out”. On bad days, I have worn clothes that give an unapproachable look, along with a bit too confident walk it said: “don’t come too close”. Clothes can speak – but they seldom talk about the truth.
We dress in thin layers of fabric to protect us from others, society and other external challenges. Such a fragile material as a textile has a significant protective role; I find that interesting.
My clothes/objects/persons often must relate to a frame or a box; they are imprisoned. It can be so many things that make people feel unable to move freely. The boxes can be a metaphor for other people’s opinions on how you should live your life, the societies expectations, your own mind. There is something claustrophobic in most of my things.
But I am also aware that frames can be reassuring in some instances, and many people choose to live inside them.
Some of your sculptures present concretions of repeated elements; thus, the surfaces are organic and close to the aesthetics and development of natural forms. What is the reason behind this choice?
I often use elements in repetition, or clothes/body-like forms in repetitions, to give the impression of a bigger group of people. They become a homogenous mass, and apparently, all look the same. However, when you take a closer look, they all have their own minor differences; they are individuals with flaws and stains. The textiles I use are old and worn, and that, for me, gives the objects their personality. The organic, dissoluble, and stained represents the human for me; the white, clean and square- like the white shirt I use a lot – is a human construction.
The subject of mental health is dominant in your work. Can you speak of one project that best embodies and express this concept? Can you comment on the healing role of art?
I find it difficult to select one project that embodies the concept of mental health better than another one. All my projects do in one way or the other. It all started when I worked with clothes that visualised bipolar disorder back in 2008.
After that, my thoughts have turned more towards difficult and dark mindsets we all carry, diagnosis or not, which is part of being human. In the exhibition at Akershus Kunstsenter: “I dress/therefore I am?” I showed several objects expressing different feelings/mindsets that I believe are familiar to us, like insecurity, adversity, exclusion, and more. These mindsets determine the path you choose to take in life; if they overpower you, they can imprison you. All our experiences are involved in forming stands that compose who we are and become. With the project, I wanted to create different textile objects/elements. Adding them all together, you could picture the mind of a human being. In this case: me.
The healing process of art I choose to divide into two. The making of art and experiencing art. When making art, you process your thoughts. You express what is inside your head and body – in a way, you empty yourself. I think expressing oneself in one way or the other is essential. Not everybody can do it verbally or in writing. People who think and communicate through the use of their hands can easily become invisible.
I think many young people today need to express themselves visually; this is not a priority in schools.
Experiencing art can be healing in the way that you can understand yourself better; someone is showing you a way to understand what life is about. They can give you a wonderful experience of the world being beautiful for a while. This practice talks to you differently – directly or strangely and incomprehensibly. For me, it is mostly about recognition, I think, and the sense of belonging.
When it comes to the materials you use in your pieces, where do you get them? Are there specific rules steering your choices, e.g. type of material, colour, shape, whether they are new or recycled?
My most significant source of materials is my cousin’s second-hand shop. He also has a section with military surplus stock. Besides that, I regularly go to flea markets and visit various thrift stores. Although, as mentioned before, I seek textiles that are clearly marked by life, and mended textiles are treasures, the repair looks like the finest embroidery to me.
The piece “Handmade” is made of mostly new protecting gloves from a Hardwear store, which is quite unusual for me. Unfortunately, I can’t always get large quantities of one material in second-hand stores. So the gloves were the cheapest I could find, and at the same time, I loved the rough, strangely shaped, affordable look. I like that their purpose is to protect working hands. I also like that with that background, I can make something new that tells a story about hands and what they can be – protective or suffocating?
The materials are natural, cotton, wool, jute and so on. I like how it looks, feels and smells.
The colours I use are neutral; my works lack colour. I want the results to be stripped of any colour that could accommodate expectations. The artworks should describe a slightly heavier side of life, and colours are often associated with a happy state of mind. In some objects, I use stripes that can be linked to old prison uniforms or pyjamas, representing some kind of restricted or sedentary situation.
What is your favourite technique? Does it have a mere structural meaning or a conceptual one as well?
The technique I prefer is hand stitching sewing. I feel I am more in control, slowly stitching by hand, forming a relationship with the materials, and entering into a calm state. The stitches are simple; I don’t want them to be nicely done but be something direct and unskilled. The most important thing is that they express a love for the garment/ textile. The sewing shall represent the action of mending something – As anyone can do, just because they love or need the garment and want it to last longer.
Any upcoming exhibitions?
Currently, I don’t have any major exhibitions that I work on. However, I will make something for a church, and I find it a bit challenging since the church room is so full of history, expectations, and so on – I really have to think before I place a work inside this space.
What I am going to spend the most time doing this spring is welding. I have recently been on a course, and I look forward to practising it and making exoskeletons and frames for my textile work. I am so excited!!