French artist Nathalie Beras was born in Martinique, an island in the French West Indies and spent her childhood on the French Polynesian island of Tahiti. She is a diplomat by profession and over the last two decades, she has worked at the French embassies in Russia and various Central Asian countries. She is currently the Cultural Councillor at the French Embassy in Kiev, Ukraine.
Beras understands the isolation of life on an island and loves the insular island culture; but she also appreciates the value of having an open mind, travelling to new places, meeting new people, learning about different cultures, and building good relationships with others.
Her first exhibition in Dubai titled, L’île Monde (The World Island) reflects her world view from the perspective of an islander who embraces new experiences and interactions with others and recognises their role in the building of her own identity.
The central motif in the oil on canvas paintings Beras is presenting in this show is a mountain-like island inspired by the typical conical shape of the volcanic islands she is familiar with since childhood.
She has used layers of pigment to create different textures on her canvasses to convey the movement, depth, turbulence and bubbling inner energy in and around her island; and she has used a palette of vibrant colours influenced by the bold, bright colours of Matisse and other Fauvists such as Vlaminck and Marquet to express different emotions, moods and ideas.
Through her evocative depictions of the island, Beras explores her own identity.
But she also explores existential questions about the human condition and highlights contemporary global issues such as climate change and its impact on islands and their inhabitants. Her paintings speak about loneliness, the need to connect with others, the desire to climb higher, and the struggle of facing the storms in life to reach our ‘final destination’.
We spoke to Beras about her artistic journey and the ideas and emotions she wants to express through her work. Excerpts:
What motivated you to revive your artistic career after many years of painting as a hobby?
“I have been interested in art since childhood and studied art in Paris but put that aside to focus on my diplomatic career. However, I always took great interest in learning about the art heritage of the countries I worked in.
A few years ago, I took a break from my job to work for Sotheby’s in Paris as the director of the auction house’s Russian Art Department. After being surrounded by great works of art and interacting with artists and art collectors for five years, I felt the strong urge to get back to painting and to exhibit my work in public.”
What is the meaning and significance of the island in this series of paintings?
“I was born and grew up on Caribbean and Polynesian islands, but after moving to mainland France at the age of 10, I lost touch with that cultural heritage. Later, as a diplomat, I immersed myself in Russian and Central Asian culture. But as an artist, when I delved deep within myself, I realised that I am an islander at heart and that is where I belong spiritually and emotionally. Two years ago, I was reading works by Edouard Glissant, the well-known French writer, poet and philosopher who was also born in Martinique, and the islander in me resurfaced like a deep history - subliminal but powerful and essential. This led me to create the L’île monde series featuring a volcanic island, which represents my own identity.”
Why do you call this series ‘The World Island’?
“These volcanic islands seem to be remote and isolated, but they are part of an archipelago. I have depicted this in the painting, Les iles papillons (Butterfly islands) where the main island is surrounded by many small, brightly coloured islands.
"These islands are totems inviting us to think of our identity not in terms of territorial or cultural roots but above all as a relationship – an identity forged by those we meet and connect with and with whom we build ourselves. They convey the idea that we are not alone and we are all part of the world island.”
Why did you include a painting of the Palm Jumeirah in this show?
“I feel the UAE is a perfect example of the ‘world island’ because people from every part of the world live here harmoniously, interacting with each other, learning from each other, and helping each other to build an identity that goes beyond geographic and cultural boundaries.
I am also amazed to see that in a world where many islands are threatened by rising sea levels caused by climate change, the UAE is reversing the process by creating new islands, including one that represent the whole world. This painting is a homage to a country that imagined and created an archipelago of islands, symbolising the regeneration of the world.”
What is the idea behind incorporating texts in some of the paintings?
“I was inspired by Glissant who often mixed poetry and prose in his work. By blending my island motif with the words of Sufi philosopher Abu Bakr Ibn al-Arabi, I have tried to link imagination with mysticism to create paintings that represent the unity of being. The text speaks about al-Arabi’s belief in the religion of love and keeping his heart and mind open. In other paintings such as Summer Island, I have used fiery colours to depict the energy inside us that propels us to climb higher and higher towards the peak. But in these spiritual meditative works, the palette is softer, and you can clearly see a path running up the mountain side.”
L’île Monde will run at La Galerie, Alliance Française Dubai, Oud Metha Road until September 12.