Sanam Khatibi’s painstakingly detailed paintings come in many forms, from small-scale still lifes that reflect Dutch Golden Age styles to larger canvases with nude figures in forestial settings. Binding them all is an interest in rituals and mysteries of the natural world. The Brussels-based artist, who also creates sculptures, embroideries, and tapestries, is showing new paintings, ceramics, and other objects in a solo exhibition at the city’s Rodolphe Janssen gallery through January 30. ARTnews spoke with the artist about her latest presentation, the collection of curiosities she’s built over the years, how she represents the relationship between humans and nature in paintings, and more.
ARTnews: What are some of the influences—art historical and otherwise—that have informed your paintings, both your still lifes and figurative works?
Khatibi: My earliest influence was perhaps when I first discovered Bosch when I was 5 or 6 years old. I was told by someone who was trying to scare me that the images depicted in his paintings were a portrayal of what would happen to us if we were sent to hell. I was mesmerized and often flicked through the pages of [a book of Bosch’s works] imagining every single scene. That encounter stayed with me. Later on some of my biggest crushes were artists such as Henry Darger, Séphane Mandelbaum, Carol Rama, Leon Golub, Nancy Spero, Kahlo, Bacon and so many others. And, of course, the Renaissance period—Cranach, particularly.
How do elements of 17th-century vanitas paintings—which feature symbols of decay as a reminder of death’s inevitability—figure in your artworks and, more specifically, in your current exhibition at Rodolphe Janssen?
For me, my still lifes are both extensions and close-ups of the pagan offerings and sacrifices I paint in the larger paintings—at least that’s how the series started. And yet, at the same time, they have developed into a series of their own. I was attracted more and more to the vanitas through my love of collecting objects, such as miniature skulls, Japanese netsukes, and Chinese and Japanese porcelain. One thing led to another and the series developed into what it is today.
What is the significance of the show’s title, “Cyanide?”
I chose “Cyanide” as the title of my show because I am fascinated by stories that deal with poisons used to kill, poisonous plants and animals, and the intricate powers of nature. It’s a short word that immediately triggers our senses and imagination with fascination.
Talk about the connections between your sculptures, tapestries, and paintings, and how those works relate to one another in your exhibitions.
I grew up with a mother who had a great eye and was a compulsive collector and lover of the arts. I was induced with this heritage very early on, and I realize that I tend to sacralize my objects and create an interaction with all things I collect and make. It’s like creating a language of my own, and I have always considered this inherent ability as part of my practice. I have so many diverse influences in my work, whether it be Flemish [works] and the Bayeux Tapestry, Pre-Columbian and Etruscan art, the Renaissance period, “primitive” and contemporary art… so I guess it comes naturally to diversify and bring it all together by creating a correlation and to use a variety of mediums, which in turn have influenced the paintings.
Your paintings have a fascinating narrative quality to them. Can you tell me about any mythologies, histories, and other stories that have inspired you?
I paint in an unconscious state. And I do not use existing myths to create a narrative. By this I mean that the outcome is sort of random. First a landscape is formed, then the elements are added, and at a certain point things start to happen. I never know where it will all lead when I first start to paint. But, naturally, there are recurring subjects of interest that are always present in the DNA of the works.
Many of your works also explore the relationship between humans and the natural world. Can you discuss some of the ways you’ve represented that relationship in your paintings?
I think the core of my practice deals with our primal impulses, bestiality, and our relationship to power structures. I question our ambiguous relation to power, violence, and sensuality, and how closely they can be related. So, everything revolves around these inherent subject matters.