On a recent visit to a historic submarine base, Nuha Saad learnt about the Razzle Dazzle military technique used in World War I. Initially developed by artist Norman Wilkinson while he was serving in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve in 1917, Razzle Dazzle was a type of camouflage paint scheme that covered war ships in bright colours and bold geometric patterns. The idea was to make it difficult for enemies to decipher the size and speed of a ship, and the result yielded fleets of vessels that looked like floating Cubist paintings.
As an artist whose aesthetic is dominated by kaleidoscopic colour and sinuous patterns, this experience prompted Saad to base her latest exhibition at James Makin Gallery on a similar technique. “Through the use of colourful patterning, I see my works as types of decoys aimed at obscuring forms and confusing the viewer, to draw them into the work so they are able to better view and experience my sculptures up close.”
Along with colour and pattern, a defining feature of Saad’s work is her use of Victorian and Federation turned wood trims. Finials, cornices and ceiling roses are common visual elements in her sculptural forms and are often cut and glued together to create tall structures flushed with candy-like colour. An unusual and visually striking material to use, the Sydney-based artist was initially drawn to wooden trims while working towards her Master of Visual Arts at the Sydney College of the Arts. Nearby was a shop selling decorative pieces for Federation-style interiors. Saad purchased a few wooden items and painted them in colours similar to those she would see on cargo ships moored in Sydney Harbour during her morning commute. At the time, it was a homage to her migrant parents who came to Australia via boat, and also heralded the beginning of a visual language she still employs today.
“I regularly work with the turned wooden posts added to buildings for structural and decorative effect,” she explains. “Seen in both historic and contemporary architectural design, the post, totem or column is a universal architectural form used throughout Western, Eastern and Indigenous cultures. The post is typically a vertical element and is commonly used as a support, however, it can also be non-structural and viewed as a free-standing monument.”
While the wood trims are usually destined for English inspired interiors in Australian suburbs, for Saad, these forms are reminiscent of the Middle East. “With their arabesque references, these forms resonate with my Lebanese and Australian heritage,” she says. Referencing contemporary multicultural society, through the process of joining seemingly disparate pieces together, Saad brings out “the beauty and sensuality of these forms, and their hidden stories, to question whether decoration is simply an addition or an integral part of our built environment.”
In works like The Folly of Yellow, Red and Blue, 2022, a cacophony of rainbow colours are accentuated through swirling pattern and smoothly carved, totemic shapes. Similar to the architectural folly, a built structure often placed in gardens and fields for no other reason than to delight the viewer, Saad’s sculptures draw us in to celebrate the ornamental details of the suburbs. “It’s really important for humans to interact with something more than just
functional buildings in our environment.”
Inspired by the sculptural work of Eva Hesse, Louise Nevelson, Ruth Asawa, Louise Bourgeois and Anne Truitt, Saad has recently discovered an affinity with the abstract work of Lebanese artist Saloua Raouda Choucair. Working in the early 20th century, Choucair blended modern Western abstraction with traditional Islamic aesthetics and, like Saad, was known for using bold colour and interlocking modular forms throughout her multidisciplinary practice. “Colour is the site where the geometry of minimalism and the ornamental meet and intersect, both formally and intuitively,” says Saad. “I believe in its positive and transformative power. In this way, my explorations in colour, pattern and form become a means of making connections across cultures and histories.”
Exhibiting since 1996, in addition to her fine art practice Saad has a strong background in public art Collaborating with design firms like Tilt Industrial Design and Sturt Noble Landscape Architects, Saad has created colourful elements for playgrounds, murals and sculptures for over 10 projects throughout New South Wales. These include Fun Field, 2016, at Wulaba Park and Velvet Nostalgia, 2017, in Kensington, a public installation celebrating community and the neighbourhood’s architectural heritage.
Tying in with her longstanding interest in how architecture can be a symbol of cultural identity, Saad seeks to preserve the overlooked details of a place by highlighting them in her work. “The historic ornamental details found in our suburban, civic and industrial heritage architecture are what give our built environment its character, history and life, and its stories. I see this history as an essential layer of our architectural identity.
This article was originally published in the May/June 2022 print edition of Art Guide Australia.