The Teaching Tree, 2022. Palm fronds, pigment, pneumatics, and metal structure, view of installation for The National Pavilion of Saudi Arabia, La Biennale di Venezia, 2022. Photo: Samuele Cherubini

From the Imagined World: A Conversation with Muhannad Shono

Story fuels Muhannad Shono’s work, a way to resist the real and its “truths,” starting with the dogmatic conservatism that dominated the Saudi Arabia of his childhood. From ink drawings and photomontages born of inventive frustration to multidisciplinary installations that bring his private stories into the lived world—most dramatically in The Teaching Tree (Saudi pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2022)—he has devoted himself to reclaiming the line and the word, transforming them from tools of censorship and authority into expressions of free will.

Shono infiltrates familiar narratives and spins them in new directions. He has conjured a post-oil future through a linear swell of 3,000 lengths of PVC pipe in Jeddah’s abandoned Khuzam Palace (Streams, Dreams, and Flow States, 2019); turned words into volumetric entities, with hand-carved charcoal bits embodying the brittle state of abused language (“The silence is still talking,” 2019); drawn a seductive line in the sand leading into the self (The Lost Path, 2020); and created a new Eden (After the Fall, 2020). His most recent installations—the ethereal I See You Brightest in the Dark (Noor Riyadh, 2022) and Letters in Light, Lines We Write (Islamic Arts Biennale, Jeddah, 2023)—continue to celebrate individual imagination while embracing uncertainty and the light and darkness of the mind.

Letters in Light, Lines We Write, 2023. Braided polyester thread, metal structures, light boxes, and audiovisual, dimensions variable. Photo: Mohammed Askandrani

Rajesh Punj: Like your drawings, your installations, including The Teaching Tree, I See You Brightest in the Dark, and Letters in Light, Lines We Write, rely on the contrast of black and white to create a moving, emotional monumentality. What is the connection?
Muhannad Shono: I started by responding to censorship and attempts to redact or even decapitate the human imagination. The line was being used against the imagination. I felt that there was a fear of the imagined world, and of narrative, because it could change the lived world.

RP: Are you referring to Saudi Arabia?
Yes, “old Saudi,” the establishment. There was a battle to maintain the lived world as it had been. In the case of comics and illustrated books, the images would often be redacted, and any book that I read would appear as a weird confrontation, or collaboration, between the censor and the original creator. For me, the ink used to obscure image and word acted as a highlight, drawing my attention to everything that was missing. It trained my imagination because I would often intervene in what I couldn’t see, creating more fluid readings, which stretched my imagination further. The black, the void, in that sense, isn’t nothing—it is an endless source of the imagined world. My younger self made the choice not to feel guilted into creating what wasn’t challenging the creator; I also had the right to create for myself.

That was the early impetus, the moment when I recognized the power of narrative, and the battle over narrative—how narrative, once considered whimsical and child’s play, becomes essential in transforming the lived world and in manifesting different worlds within your mind. I began to recognize that these things seep out and catch light in other people’s minds, and they can physically change everything around you.

The Nobodies, 2015. Ink on photographic print. Photo: Courtesy the artist

RP: What were your early works like?
Things started as pure illustration, drawings that I could do alone, for which I could develop stories in my mind, create books, and self-publish them. The idea of bringing that mental world to life and endeavoring to make it physical was an interesting development that arose from understanding the power of what you could formulate in your mind. Allowing those formulations to become objects could not only reshape, but also reform the lived world—how society thinks and behaves in mass. We naturally tend to assemble around narrative, and it becomes very important to fight for that.

I often usurp narrative in my work, taking engrained things like mythological or religious stories and remixing and reshaping them to reclaim them and strip them of their original power. You may have heard the story before, but here, the characters and the outcome are entirely different and unexpected. I use that to push my agenda and ideas, tapping into the programming that entrenched a particular narrative in your mind, then hacking the ideas forming that familiar narrative, so central to belief. It is a way to introduce your message surreptitiously.

RP: How has your work been received in Saudi Arabia?
The country has changed. I think people were ready for new stories, new imagined worlds. In
my sculptural work, it is important to disrupt your experience of the lived world. You stumble upon
a reality, an object or a situation, and become the hero in that experience. It is intended to disrupt your perception of reality, opening you up to the unexpected and other ways of thinking—that also plays a big part in the sense of the work being from another place, and not of this world.

Streams, Dreams, and Flow States, 2019. 3,000 black PVC pipes, site-specific installation in Khuzam Palace, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Photo: Mo Eskandrani

RP: So, you are critiquing the ideas behind societal rules, looking at what we accept, how it is presented, how words can belong to an idea or an event. Are you trying to introduce change?
MS: “They” have always responded to a black hole they have been trying to feed. It is to do with insecurity, loss, inadequacy. It can be a simple insecurity or something profound and transformative. It is all transformative, but the key to what I am doing is that I am taking something that was a trauma—the fear of the imagined world—and addressing it. We can slip back into fearfulness, or we can celebrate the imagination and act on it, not just drawing attention to the past and how it was obscured, hidden, and persecuted. Now you are able to manifest the imagined world in the work, and it becomes an essential part of the mind, which is an active rebellion in itself. It is a vindication, and that’s what The Teaching Tree in the Saudi pavilion was for me—an act of creative resistance.

RP: Can you talk about that work?
It was a manifestation of the “lived imagination,” despite attempts to cut it down. It was taking things that I had been taught as a child, when I was told to strike a line through characters that existed in my imagined world. This was an assault on my imagination, which was my refuge, and the younger me protected it; I became a little monster who rebelled, saying, “I am going to continue to create, and I am going to take that line and wield it.” I let it grow into a teaching tree, a lesson—a living, breathing, resilient manifestation of the imagined world. I made it stronger and undeniable. Thanks to them, it became more fertile. They made the ground for the imagination more resilient, deeper and stronger.

The Teaching Tree, 2022. Palm fronds, pigment, pneumatics, and metal structure, view of installation for The National Pavilion of Saudi Arabia, La Biennale di Venezia, 2022. Photo: Samuele Cherubini

RP: What are some of the references that you drew on?
The Green Man, representative of nature, is an interesting character in this context—a figure that exists in world mythology, covered with plant matter, decapitated, but always coming back to life. He appears in the story of Alexander the Great and the search for the fountain of youth and in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” In Islamic mythology, he is destined to have his head cut off at the end of time and be the final catalyst changing the course of mankind. This was all fiction to me; and interestingly, he was like a messenger from within the original text, telling me to stay the course, to go ahead and decapitate my characters because they could not be killed. So, I sabotaged their stories. My early comic book series was an extension of him, and The Teaching Tree continued that narrative line.

RP: Can you explain the emotional underpinnings of I See You Brightest in the Dark? This huge, site-specific work spanned several floors of a building, with illuminated threads climbing from the basement to the roof, changing along the way.
MS: It is about loss and experiencing visitations from those whom we’ve lost to the darkness—visitations that come as light—and realizing in the morning that the person had passed at the exact moment of that visitation. That’s what the title is about, and why people connected with the work. It’s a personal journey through loss—the tangible and the intangible.

I See You Brightest in the Dark, 2022. Braided polyester thread, metal structures, light boxes, and audiovisual, dimensions variable. Photo: Artur Weber

RP: How do you make an intangible moment physical?
MS: There is an interesting concept in Arabic that refers to the area between the here and the there, the living and the dead; it is also the dividing line between light and darkness, fresh and saltwaters, which never really intermingle. It’s about the line that exists between those spaces, and how it becomes a world again.

The work is about that moment when you are on the border between here and there. Are you seeing
the line or not? Is it a light or a thread? Physical or invisible? When I was thinking about the white thread, thinking about an attempt to weave somebody back into the physical by weaving them a garment—a very human thought—I thought of this character going through a dutiful, loving attempt and failing. But by going through a personal journey of welcoming the messages from the basement, allowing them to flow up into the library of memories, stories, and into the spools, they become the resource from which we, on the following floor, attempt to weave the loom, and the loom attempts to weave back a fabric, which then ends up on the roof, at this moment of standing under a cosmic sky—a tangible moment, finally, of something intangible, of new beginnings, much like a fresh sheet just washed and left out to dry.

RP: Is scale something that motivates you?
Scale has become easier than ink on paper. It is about my interest in the architectural (I studied architecture) and “world building.” You draw your whole world as a child; when you read comics, you are bringing worlds to life. You blur the line and allow the imagined world to seep out—it becomes your canvas, and you become the character; you are experiencing. So, I am able to impact society in a way that I once was doing for myself, thinking it would never be appreciated or impactful.

I See You Brightest in the Dark, 2022. Braided polyester thread, metal structures, light boxes, and audiovisual, dimensions variable. Photo: Eliot Blondet

RP: Do you think it is unnerving for viewers to let go of the real?
I don’t know, but I am at peace with it. I see it as a very peaceful message. I returned to the ideas of I See You Brightest in the Dark for Letters in Light, Lines We Write. I tried to maintain people’s journey with the spiritual, allowing for the idea of doubt. It is important to cycle back into the darkness, as you decide what you believe or don’t believe in.

RP: That asks a great deal—we tend to want to leave the darkness for the light.
That’s why change and new ideas are overwhelming. They can start from a dim place, so you need to brighten them and give them shape and space, but it is necessary to embrace the cycle, so it is not the old spiritual narrative of perpetual brightness and light. It’s ok to re-evaluate what you thought was untouchable.

Letters in Light, Lines We Write, 2023. Braided polyester thread, metal structures, light boxes, and audiovisual, dimensions variable. Photo: Mohammed Askandrani

RP: What are your thoughts about Riyadh’s “Vision 2030,” with its interlinked financial, sustainability, and cultural goals?
What our culture is, what our rituals are, what we believe in—I feel like the whole country has taken that on board as a reclaiming of mythology. Expanding on old narratives, shedding new light on ideas, and allowing for more fluid readings of who we are versus a rigid, entrenched, concrete understanding of language, meaning, and narrative: all of this can be dangerous. It is important to continue the change and to embrace the idea of fluid rewritings and rereadings of narrative.

RP: What about nostalgia?
That comes back to the fear of change. Fear, change, and excitement have to coexist. Sitting in front of a blank page when you are about to start a story or draw the first line, you accept that once that line is on the page, it is not a mistake; you have a vision but not a script, an idea but not a blueprint, a method but not a doctrine. That becomes very important in embracing and having confidence in the unknown.

The Lost Path, 2020. 65,000 recyclable PVC pipes, view of installation at Desert X Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia. Photo: Lance Gerber

RP: With so many possibilities, ideas might cancel each other out. Do you record unrealized ideas?
They become part of the story—what it might have been. We had hopes for The Teaching Tree, for instance, that didn’t materialize. It was supposed to shudder and kick off its black pigment to become a blank white page, a new beginning, but it didn’t work. When we activated it for the first time, the movement looked and sounded like breathing—it came to life—and then the idea came of a misunderstood monster begot from monsters that tried to silence it, that exists to defend the imagination against those monsters, a living imagination. All of that made sense. If you are too rigid, then you miss the plot.

RP: How do you take these very fluid ideas, make them physical, and make the works resonate?
I don’t know, perhaps experience masquerading as faith. I am always gravitating toward certain things. I have things lying around in the studio that don’t have a purpose yet, but I know they will. They speak to you, and wait. I could come up with many crazy ideas that don’t mean anything to me, but you become more aware of why you are doing what you are doing, breathing the “why” into the material you keep learning. You keep adding to a library of stories you are creating.

The Teaching Tree, 2022. Palm fronds, pigment, pneumatics, and metal structure, view of installation for The National Pavilion of Saudi Arabia, La Biennale di Venezia, 2022. Photo: Samuele Cherubini

RP: Are you constantly writing new stories?
I spent a long time in my teens, 20s, and 30s, writing, telling stories, and manifesting worlds, coming to grips with what the line means, and what ink means, which is why I am so attracted to that medium. It’s not because I am moody, but because I am dealing with an attempt to hide the narrative. So, I think about all of that, of the past being essential to the future. I have spent a great deal of time filling that well with narrative to manifest a future. I think it comes in cycles, and at some point, I will deplete that world and will need to stop and go back to the farm and replenish the well.

RP: What motivated you, when you had no audience?
MS: A black hole is not something you can negotiate, unless, of course, you are willing to let it obliterate
you, destroy your atoms, and completely consume you until you are nothing—and I wasn’t willing to accept defeat. Then the change started to happen, and the opportunities started to take shape, and it paid off. The younger me was ready.

The Silent Press, 2019. Paper and metal structure, 120 x 8000 cm. Photo: Mo Eskandrani

RP: What happened when the ideas transformed into physical works?
MS: It opened the floodgates. It was vindication finally, and there was a lot of pent-up energy. Possibly I am going through a phase of everything needing to be big and loud, forceful and undeniable and unapologetic. But that will start to dissipate; it will become more nuanced, more detailed, more particle-like, and more specific—we will see.

RP: Will you continue to make outdoor and site-specific works?
Yes, wherever I can disrupt the lived world and reality with the imagined world. I’m interested in things outside of expected spaces. When you enter a museum, gallery, or biennial, you are expecting art—I want to catch you before you switch to “art.” If you know what is coming, you won’t be excited, you won’t be surprised.

On This Sacred Day, 2022. Reclaimed foundry sand and burning palm matter, view of installation at AlUla, Saudi Arabia. Photo: Artur Weber

RP: I believe that every one of us has the potential to transform the ordinary.
Everything comes from the imagined world, from stories. But often these stories aren’t thought of as serious anymore—it isn’t engineering, it’s architecture. Categorization is a huge problem, and a limitation of the human mind. If I want to create something without a category, I can’t make it because it is invisible. When I was drawing, I would take something to a comic shop, and they would say, “It’s an art book”; then I would take it to a gallery, and they would say, “It’s a comic book.” So, where do I exist?

RP: But you celebrate that now.
MS: Exactly. You embrace the hardest thing in the brief, and that’s where the ideas come to you, always.

An exhibition of Muhannad Shono’s new work will open at Athr Gallery’s Riyadh space later this year.