Nour Ballout is a Detroit-based interdisciplinary artist and curator. After immigrating to the United States at the age of nine they spent their adolescence in Dearborn, Michigan, home to the largest concentration of Arabs outside of the Middle East. They received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Wayne State University. Nour is the founder of Habibi House, a neighborhood-based community art space and social engagement residency in Detroit, as well as the annual Book + Print Fest at The Arab American National Museum (AANM). They are the recipient of the 2019 Knight Arts Challenge Award, the 2019 Kresge Arts in Detroit Gilda Award, and the 2019 Applebaum Photography Fellowship. Nour has exhibited their work across the United States and participated in several artist residencies including the Ghana Think Tank in Detroit and Flux Factory in New York.
How did you come to work with your specific collaborator? Did you know them before this? Were you familiar with their work?
Cyrah and I have done a lot of things together, not necessarily made work together, but we’re in community and we’re good friends. We’ve supported each other for a really long time.
Before the actual process of making, what was the process of deciding on what to make like? What was the making process itself like?
That was really tedious. I think Cyrah and I have similar approaches, similar ethics around our practice, and I think that’s what connects our work. But how we make work is completely different, the actual process of making. I think it took us a really long time to figure out how and what tied our work together and how we were going to present this work. It was definitely quite the process to figure this out. I think people often think that two artists of similar descent making work around identity and community, that it would make sense immediately right, but the actual context in which how and what we’re making work is actually completely different. It was interesting thing to navigate for both of us. Also we have a very personal relationship, we’re really good friends. It was an interesting process.
What new possibilities were offered through collaboration that would not have been possible working alone? Did you feel any disadvantages compared to working alone?
I think working with Cyrah I was able to understand her work a lot more. We’re both curators and makers, and so it was a beautiful process. The process of working with her helped me understand Cyrah in a way that I never would have within a studio visit with her, which was really beautiful and powerful for me. It just gave me a lot of depth into her process and what she makes work about, and how she makes work, and what motivates her, what her stakes are, where does her intervention lay, it became a little more clear in working in an intimate way with her. We’re trying to birth an idea together, which is incredible hard, and what we landed on was not birthing an idea together.
What we both recognized in this process was that we both collect. This process of collecting things, there’s a lot of research that goes into both of our work. Those similarities became really clear in the process of trying to make something together, like a singular piece, when in reality actually our practice is in conversation, not necessarily the objects that we’re making, but the ways that we make is actually what’s in conversation. I think that was a thing that was really great to understand, and then to also note that art making isn’t always about what is created.
But about the process itself?
Yeah, it’s about the process. And I think a disadvantage is just that we’re making really different work. We’re making work from different perspectives, and I think that was a huge disadvantage to us, this presumption that two artists from a similar background making work about identity— but we approach it a little differently in how we go about making that work, as far as medium— I think that was a disadvantage, but it was also a benefit because we got to understand each other’s practice a lot more deeply.
I think the thing that shifted from this work was seeing how another artist works, when you’re having conversations with a human being on a regular basis about making, what you’re making naturally becomes impacted by it. And I think what the exhibition does, and what the process did was just—Cyrah and I don’t make together, and the exhibition was like, “how about y’all make together,” and we were like, “what.” It was interesting, and so it definitely taught us something. It was like, “this is difficult because you primarily work in installation and painting and I primarily work in photography and I do installation and performance but in the current moment I’m working with a photo. It was interesting to be like, “this is hard,” but it was good, and I think that was sort of one of the things, whether the artists in the show were working towards understanding each other’s practice and pushing their own or building relationships with artists they’ve never worked with before to get a better understanding of someone else’s work, it also pushed artists to see a way of making that’s different. Spending time with another artist does that. The process of making work and making an idea, birthing an idea and then making it with another human being is a very intimate process. I think it allowed all these artists to sit there with that. Whether they were as conscious about it as Cyrah and I were or not, it still was happening. That’s the beauty of pairing two artists together and being like: “make something.”
Did working collaboratively provide you with any insights that could be extrapolated and used outside of art in either a personal or political context? Were there lessons learned that could be used in other aspects of life? What did it teach you about democracy?
I think where Cyrah and I landed was about a relationship, where we landed was not about work. We’re very different makers, we have many things in common which is why we are very good friends, but we make differently. We have similar interests but we go about it differently. I think what it did was make us understand our relationship better.
Going off of the title of the exhibition, how do you and your collaborator see your specific work differently?
I mean yeah probably, you’re the one talking to both of us (laughs). I’m sure Cyrah has a very different perspective as to how it felt for her. She has a different idea because she is a different human and had a whole other experience, we experience the world and our relationship differently. We wrote each other letters about why we work together, “what does this process do for us? who are you to me? why am I invested in your practice?” Because I am. I’m invested in the things that she makes, but in reality I’m not just like—what the show really did is was just show me that I’m invested in who you are as a person, that brings me to the table and I’m constantly learning from you. I’m interested not just in supporting an exhibition that you put on or that you are in, I’m not just here to like sit in your studio and listen to you process an idea. I’m interested in the entire human. And so I don’t know if the exhibition sought to do that, it’s titled Dual Visions we’re not supposed to have the same idea. I think some artists took it and were like, “we’re making one thing,” and I’m like, “we’re making what we make and we’re understanding each other’s positionally on an idea, because we’re different people and we’re going to have different ideas, and we can make an object together that reflects that, whether it’s two objects that are in conversation which is what Cyrah and I made where we each made an object that sat with each other to highlight our differences, and also highlight a conversation between us.