Lara Mekkawi, Ghinwa Moujaes and Linda Bechnak
Tanja Van Deer is a Lebanese-American surrealist whose work was recently featured on a large mural in Brooklyn, New York. In her work, the AUB student creates abstract images depicting some psychological truths of our lives.
One of her pieces is a self-portrait revealing many paradoxes of the human mind. Through some digital edits, it tries to express the pleasures and pains of existence. For instance, the bloodied face conveys pain while the open skull showing a tree and birds flying away represents the full potential of the mind when it breaks free of its shackles.
Another artwork of hers is a piece showing slithering legs running in all directions. While it may seem meaningless at first glance, the seasoned observer understands that it portrays how people in the fast-paced city life are perpetually running, going nowhere.
The piece that was projected on the mural is called “I’ve got love handles (but I can’t handle love)” and shows the female body at the background, midground and foreground. According to Van Deer, the piece is meant to portray the two opposing views regarding women and female bodies.
This creation was selected to be shown on one of the largest platforms of busy New York city by an initiative called “World’s Biggest Student Art Show”. The initiative was undertaken by Adobe and Colossal Media.
The summer competition had artists with different professional backgrounds and of different locations send pieces that they believed would add beauty to the Brooklyn landscape once they got exhibited on a large wall in the city. The competition was restricted to female students, and selected ten of the applicants as winners. In addition to a cash payment, these winners would be granted the chance to travel to Brooklyn to see their art once it got displayed.
Colossal Media has successfully produced 400 mural paintings annually for some of the world’s most influential brands. They covered areas ranging from large walls in New York to some in LA and others in Chicago, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle.
A Lebanese student from AUB winning this award is very important both for the artist and the University. With this award, Tanja Van Deer can say she has helped embellish Brooklyn’s public spaces. What’s striking about this competition is that the artist’s work will not be displayed in an exhibition for visitors to see. The artist’s work is visible to anyone. Brooklyn’s citizens will even see it every single day.
On her Facebook page, the graduate student in Media Studies uploaded pictures of what the masterpiece is starting to look like in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Under the painting, the artist’s name along with “American University of Beirut” is written. This depicts how the personal success of AUB students puts the University on the international playing field.
Outlook got the chance to sit down with the artist to ask her a few questions.
Tell us about yourself and the competition that you won.
Thank you, yeah I’m so excited. So my name is Tanya Abu Gazaly, but my artist name is Tanja Van Deer, and what I specialize in is usually like digital art, anything to do with Photoshop, and my slot does usually like surrealist type of art that uses different types of dreamscape very much inspired by Freudian ideas of the unconscious and what we have hidden. So the piece that I created was basically a fusion of my body overlapped in various ways that actually creates mountains and valleys.
It’s your body?
Yeah (Laughing). It has very strong feminist undertones; a lot of my work is quite blunt. I usually use myself in my art pieces, so they are usually self-portrait, kind of distorted in ways that you can’t really tell that it is me, it doesn’t even look real in so many instants. It’s surrealist and that’s what it’s all about. So, in this case, I created this piece and I called it “I’ve got love handles, but I can’t handle love”.
The whole point was that women don’t get enough attention and exposure in the art world, especially as directors or accomplished artists. So they were intentionally choosing female student artists from anywhere in the world and, from the pool of two thousand people, they chose originally 30 and then they narrowed that to 10 students and my piece was among the ones they chose. So that was really exciting. What they did was they took the digital format, and we worked on it together so we can actually make it fit the mural’s size. It’s now up in Brooklyn, and everybody is welcome to pass by as it is going to be there for years and years to come.
How amazing is it to have your own work there?
I mean, that’s the thing, as a digital artist I was frustrated that my medium is kind of limited to a screen and I could only put my work on social media or my website. This is the first time I was able to reach that large of an audience for an extended period of time. Also, Adobe Photoshop, that’s like the holy grail of digital art. So that was pretty amazing.
Who inspires you as an artist?
I’m inspired by a lot of things. I mean, I wouldn’t necessarily say any classical painters like Van Gogh or Picasso. I watch a lot of Indie films. I get inspired by fruits and vegetables at the supermarket and sometimes make art out of them. My inspirations don’t usually come from the traditional classical avenues of art. That being said, I have a lot of friends who are artists as well in different mediums, so we bounce ideas off each other and get inspired by each other. I feel very much inspired within surrealism. I find Dali very inspiring; there’s also Rene Magritte, who is one of the founders of surrealism, and you can see a lot of traces of him in my work. My sources of inspiration are much more spontaneous, and they are not necessarily derived from art fields.
Do you have a specific method when you work?
Not so much actually, I kind of reflect on who I am, as a person; I’m quite chaotic, and kind of scatterbrained. I [begin] with a maze image of myself, layering and layering. So usually I don’t start off with an end objective or a final edition at all. I would start with an original image that I painted and start layering and experimenting with it. Eventually, when it’s due, I make sure to add the right amount of weirdness, but also still have the right message behind it. I usually try to put in topics like identity and loss of identity, ideas of chaos, raising awareness about mental health issues, and feminism.
What was the idea behind the mural?
The competition was about highlighting female artists, so this piece was definitely feminist-inspired. The philosophy behind it was that women in society are viewed in a dichotomous way. On one hand, women are depicted as strong individuals that are self-sufficient; and then you have mainstream culture, on the other hand, that is very much against that, and women are seen as frail creatures that need to be protected by the superior sex, the male. In this piece, you have on the forefront bodies that are formulated like mountains and valleys, which represent the foundation of life and are very sturdy entities. Whereas the female in the background, with her legs crossed, and having a bowling ball instead of a face, represents the mainstream idea of what femininity is about: that women can be played with and, like bowling balls, thrown around, and that they don’t have that much faith in themselves. Basically, it represents a battle between these two ideologies.
It is talents like Tanja Van Deer that have made – and will continue to make – our small country a worldwide renown in the fields of arts and sciences, despite the adverse situations it is always submerged in. Her work will, in the end, indefinitely mark her name and that of AUB in the busy streets of Brooklyn.