Art of Plant Sculpture: Danya Ahmed and Abdallah Kassem

Nélida Nassar   04.10.2016

A sense of rebirth surrounds the city of Beirut as the Spring season awakens. Danya Ahmed and Abdallah Kassem both plant artists experiment with the plants and flowers’ beauty and aesthetics while observing their changing life almost daily. The duo met in Lebanon few years back and launched their company “Gray Gardens Plant Studio.” Their arrangements are composed by the dynamic and pairing of different plants. The assortments display unique expressions that are not visible in everyday’s greenery combinations, but are when placed under different environments such as this case dangling up in space. Their plants make a vivid contrast with the beautiful, suspended position they are presented in and combine contemporary aesthetics and traditional techniques with the aim of rediscovering the essence and universality of plant arrangements. Their selection of new plants, rather than symbolizing certain virtues are chosen because of their unusual shape and beauty. Art and Culture Today invited the partners for a conversation about their projects’ concepts and creativity.

Nélida Nassar: What got you interested in plant sculpture? 
Danya Ahmed: It is in Savannah during my graduate studies that I fell in awe of palm trees leading to my interest in plant sculpture. For two years, I was completely immersed in the process of collecting, observing, digesting, processing, experimenting, and building. My thesis work was created from collected palm fronds. When completed, I felt like I had only just scratched the surface of the type of work I wished to do. Then last year, I chanced upon a collaboration between a sculptor and a plant artist exhibited at the Salone del Mobile Milano, the mention of the word “plant artist” turned me on.
Abdallah Kassel  My affinity towards plants developed while watching Danya place strange plants in clay pots transforming them into beautiful pieces. Followed a period of research and deliberation about various ways to grow green, that resulted into a whole new world opening before us.

NN: Are you able to experiment with new materials in Lebanon? 
DA: I’m finding it very difficult to find reliable quality materials, as well as persons with the knowledge of how to use them that are easily accessible. I’m certain they do exist, and I’m slowly finding solutions, but it’s definitely not as easy as going to Lowe’s for example where I could wander around its different sections then try things that looked interesting.
AK: It’s possible to experiment with new materials in Lebanon but it’s always hard to find a good source or exactly what you are looking for.

NN: Are you able to find all the material you need for your pieces locally? 
DA: Mostly yes, however I’m sure it will become more complicated once we try to tackle new projects and ideas. Right now, we have started with the basics. We have imported a few specific plants that usually aren’t found or sold in Lebanon. I hope to keep discovering new kind and new species to import and introduce to the public beyond the arrangemnsts of static aesthetics sold locally. It’s also nice to work with a slightly macabre and uncommon aesthetic for plants and witness customers appreciating it.
AK: Some plants are imported or we place orders to get specific things we need or desire.

NN: What are the most difficult challenges you face doing this work? 
DA: Currently, we work from home, so mostly we lack the proper space to grow our business.
AK: The main challenge is to be able to convince potential clients that growing a plant using a different direction, hanging from a piece of wood is easy to take care of and is not harmful for the plant. Breaking from the conventional rules and methods is always a challenge. It’s also rewarding to give to clients and to witness their satisfaction.

NN: What are the plants, succulent and others vernacular to Lebanon? 
DA: I am just beginning to have these conversations. We have started collecting our own moss for the kokedamas that we are designing. I also have a plant expert friend with whom I am arranging a field trip to be introduced to Lebanon’s succulents the ones that grow wild. I also love the eryngium bourgatii, aka mediterranean sea holly.

NN: What are the sources of creativity that nourish your own? 
DA: I love to see what others are doing around the world and across disciplines, but I think the biggest fuel to my creativity is the act of creating itself. This is where ideas percolate.
AK: My inspiration comes from watching Danya as she arouses in me new thoughts and opens my eyes to see beauty. Researching plants is a source of creativity, by that I mean looking at the colors, patterns, shape of some species is also a source of imagination.

NN: Who are the designers you admire? 
DA: Edward James for his  flamboyant and extraordinary life. His transformation of a declined coffee plantation to become the home he cherished Las Pozas, is one of the largest and least known artistic monuments of the 20th century. His ability to get carried away in reconfiguring fragments of his environment in order to create a new reality, a place of dreams. The garden he built in Xilitla, Mexico is like a grown child’s fantasy. I also admire Adrian Villar Rojas’s work and equally his words.
AK: I love Makoto Azuma’s arrangements, a Japanese artist and obviously Danya Ahmed’s who I consider my teacher as she considers me a good student but a bit slow.

NN: What does design means to you? 
DA: Something that is thought out and thoughtful.
AK: I enjoy the way we talk about plants and the way we describe the creative arrangements we compose. We describe differently the same plants or assortments which makes it quite entertaining and sometimes funny. After observing some of the plants’s characteristics, we play a game of attempting to match them with some of our friends’ taste.

NN: Are you interested to participate in shows? And where? 

DA: Yes definitely! Shows, exhibitions, events, empty spaces. We keep our eyes open to new venues and unusual areas that may inspire our work and vice versa.
AK: Of course, but I don’t know where they may be, Danya would know better. We favor abandoned, derelict territories that we seek to transform.

NN: Where do you see yourself going in five years? More mixing, More experimenting with less literal goals? 
DA: I would like to work in an established studio/showroom and host events and exhibitions. 
I’m still unsure as to where this will lead.
AK: I don’t have any idea right now, ask me in couple of days, I may know better then.

Born and raised in Ohio, Danya Ahmed completed her undergraduate degree in Fine Arts, then moved to Savannah, Georgia at 24 to prepare a Masters degree in fibers. She left the U.S. and came to Lebanon after completing her degree. She started working as the creative director for a furniture design company, a few years later she decided to experiment with not being employed and being her own boss, launching “Gray Gardens Plant Studio.”

Abdallah Kassem was born in Ivory Coast before moving to Lebanon at age 7. He lived in Nabatieh, South Lebanon where he studied at a French school before moving to Beirut to attend college and study dentistry. Besides being a plant artist, he still practices dentistry while treating low income patients.

Photography Credit: Roland Ragi Photography and Danya Ahmed

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