“Things are going pretty well at the moment”, Tarek Lakhrissi tells me over the phone as he leaves his Paris studio. He’s getting ready for an upcoming solo show titled ‘I wear my wounds on my tongue’ which opens in two weeks at Kevin Space in Vienna. The installation draws from the work of queer Asian American writer Justin Chin and is about ‘tongues, desire, languages and youth culture’.
Lakhrissi is having a busy year. He currently has a solo show at MOSTYN Gallery in Llandudno and is one of the artists involved in Poet Slash Artist, an exhibition celebrating the intersection of poetry and art. Curated by Lemn Sissay and Hans Ulrich Obrist, Poet Slash Artist is currently on display at HOME as part of Manchester International Festival.
“I was pretty moved by the invitation”, Lakhrissi says before reeling of some of the names he joins in the impressive line-up including Etel Adnan, Lubaina Himid, Xu Bing and spoken word poet Isaiah Hull who is from Old Trafford.
The artists and poets were asked to create new pieces of work which could be displayed as posters and pasted across Manchester.
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Exhibiting outside of the traditional gallery space was an important element of the show, curator Hans Ulrich Obrist tells me. “The places where exhibitions are usually encountered remain invisible to a large section of society – we can’t assume that all people visit museums”, he says.
Obrist is the director of the Serpentine Gallery in London and has curated a show for almost every edition of MIF. “I’ve always been very excited to work in Manchester”, he says when I ask what keeps drawing him back. “For me it’s a city which has such an amazing potential to bring different disciplines together”.
This fluidity of practice is specific to an “emerging generation of artists working in the poetry scene and in the art scene”, Obrist says. Lakhrissi’s practice, for instance, spans poetry, video, sculpture and performance art.
Lemn Sissay joins Obrist in curating the exhibition and emphasises the need to think beyond the binary of poet or artist. He speaks with passion on this point when we talk over the phone: “the point is to celebrate the rebel soul of the artists […] by blurring the line, slashing them, Poet Slash Artist”.
The exhibition isn’t about “artists who tinker with poetry or poets who tinker with art”, Sissay says. It addresses why these art forms are separated in the first place.
Part of Lakhrissi’ contribution to the exhibition is a series of six posters titled ‘PROBLEMS POEMS POWERS POSTERS’ made in collaboration with the visual artist Jehane Yazami. The imagery is inspired by tarot cards and the words are from poems Lakhrissi wrote during lockdown. His poetry comes from a very personal place, drawing on love, longing and queerness.
Whilst deeply intimate and drawing on his personal experience, Lakhrissi is keen for his words to connect to a universal audience.
“We all need poetry and we need more poetry”, he says. “My whole life, all the people I have met, either writers, poets or artists, have all been saved in some way by poetry”.
Lakhrissi’s work is interesting because he draws from so many different sources. Pop culture and queer theory, British Romanticism and video games are all given equal footing and channelled through words, images and sculpture. This is something which his artwork at HOME, contained within six posters, doesn’t necessarily give space for.
His solo show at MOSTYN, however, gives a real sense of the fluidity of his practice. The title, ‘My Immortal’, is taken from a 2003 song by American rock band Evanescence and the show explores queer resistance and community.
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The warmth and intimacy of his words are juxtaposed against the cold, flat metal plates on which they are etched: As part of the survival process, I tried to stay close to you / You were dressed in Nike sportswear and I came close to you to kiss your head and then your neck.
“The whole message [is] about queer, ephemeral counterculture becoming immortal”, Lakhrissi explains. Fleeting memories and accounts of queer love and kinship are engraved on the metal of the plates to memorialise them.
A contemplative soundtrack complements the tenderness of Lakhrissi’s words. The piece is by artist and close collaborator Ndayé Kouagou and it merges the theme tunes from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena: Warrior Princess.
I ask Lakhrissi about the importance of these strong female characters like Buffy and Xena. “When you grow up as gay or queer, you identify with strong female characters. I was so empowered by these visions of strong female leaders”, he says.
It’s no coincidence that the characters he focuses on are warriors and slayers. The themes of battlegrounds and conflict continue in the next two rooms where curved metal sculptures of warped spears are suspended from the ceiling and partially bathed in purple light.
The battleground is a microcosm for the times we find ourselves in. We discuss the ongoing pandemic and the bush fires ravaging Europe, and even as we speak the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan is still unfolding. Throughout, however, Lakhrissi remains optimistic, there is a determination in his voice.
Through community and sharing resources ‘we can [better] cope with the disaster of capitalism but also racism, heteronormativity and all these dominant systems which work to make us feel disempowered.’
I end by asking him whether wider society can learn from the ways in which queer communities operate. “I do think that queer communities are always in advance – observe the enemy and are at the bottom of the hierarchy which gives us more vision in terms of how things could go and how things can turn out”, he says.
Poet Slash Artist is being exhibited at HOME as part of Manchester International Festival.