Distant and Close

The interview with Natalia Ali was conducted by Angelika Stepken

Natalia, you completed your art studies at the University of Damascus in 2009 and then came to Berlin before the outbreak of war to continue your education there. What made you take this step?

I had always had the desire to move away. At that time, I could never have imagined that a war would break out in Syria! I didn’t feel like I belonged, and was looking for my identity. And of course I dreamed of growing artistically and learning new things. I imagined everything much easier and looked at it with pink glasses.

In early works you worked figuratively with drawings and clay. Then you switched to video. Did the change of medium have to do with the new environment, the circumstances of the war and your work as a translator for Syrian refugees?

My first video work was made in 2012 – 2013 during my first visit to Syria after the outbreak of war. It was not meant to be art at all, I was only interested in capturing certain moments. It was only months later that I looked at it and a narrative was created. Then I more or less discovered the medium for myself and noticed how much it helped me to process what was happening. The work Ich wäre nicht gekommen (I wouldn’t have come) started out like a diary, there you can also see my chaotic room. Only afterwards did I start to think about the background. I staged myself, and the stories of the women I told mixed with it.
In the work Damascus the situation was completely different, I was simply carried away by my helplessness, I had nothing left to do but observe and document, nothing is staged. The camera offered the only distance to what was happening. It partly gave me a feeling of security.
I believe that my work has changed not only because of the circumstances of the war, but also for family reasons. I was never really interested in capturing the war, but in the fact that my parents are/were there. Personal things have always been the moving force within me. By the way, I have not only translated for Syrian refugees, but also many things in Russian. In this respect my work as an interpreter covered a wide range of problems and life experiences.

On your homepage it looks like the last work was done in 2018 and you are still busy with your distant family. Can you continue to visit them? Have you created new works since 2018?

At the end of 2018, after the film Damascus there was only one picture, that was it… My mother became ill and died at the end of 2018, I was back in Syria in 2019 to visit her grave. After that I made an audio work with text, which I have not yet uploaded to my homepage. I need time, it is called Trauer Online (Grief Online).

In another work you dealt with your disappeared grandfather on your mother’s side, who was born in Moldova and lived in the Soviet Union, was in prison and then broke all ties to the family.
Is it this interface between personal biographies/disturbed relationships and the violence of political events that moves you?

The search for my grandfather only began because I found out that a lot had been kept from me. It was perhaps an attempt to come to terms with my mother after her death. I was moved by the question: Why had she lied? Why had so much been kept secret?