At the Crossroads of Painting and Architecture: WeTalk with Swiss Visual Artist Karim Noureldin

WeTalk. Pop Culture. Swiss-Made is a social media campaign of the Embassy of Switzerland in the United States. WeTalk promotes the diversity of Swiss culture and innovation by featuring prominent Swiss stakeholders from these fields. Sharing perspectives from artists, athletes and entrepreneurs, WeTalk provides its audience with fascinating insights into the diversity of contemporary Swiss culture. Watch Karim’s 1-min WeTalk interview here!

Did you know that Switzerland is the home of Art Basel, one of the world’s top art fairs connecting collectors, galleries, and artists? With over 250 globally renowned galleries showing the works of more than 4,000 international artists, Art Basel is just one testament to the vibrancy of Switzerland’s visual arts scene, which is both a key destination for the global art market and a place that offers teaching and learning opportunities in the academic field. Despite the country’s relatively small population of just eight-and-a-half million people, Switzerland has a particularly dense contemporary art landscape. To learn more, we spoke with Swiss visual artist Karim Noureldin.

Karim, whose work has been shown at Art Basel since 1998, describes his art as “experimenting with the possibilities of spatial perception in two-dimensional surface”. He uses several artistic media, from paper to ceramics to textiles. His art can be object-based or site-specific, notably at public institutions or private sites. Karim, who has both Swiss and Egyptian roots, is a native of Zurich. The German-speaking city is not only Switzerland’s most populous (with more than one million inhabitants in its urban area) but is also a hub for Swiss contemporary art and architecture. Karim has moved around Switzerland: he studied fine arts in Basel, has served as a visiting senior lecturer at the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology in Zurich and Lausanne (ETHZ and EPFL, respectively), and is currently an associate professor for visual arts at the University of Arts and Design in Lausanne (ECAL), in the French-speaking area of the country, where he works and lives with his family.

Karim’s career has also taken him around the world. After calling New York his home from 1994 to 2000, he lived in Rome, London, and Cairo, before settling back in Switzerland. He credits his many travels and varied artistic experiences with shaping his professional identity and helping him become the artist he is today. As he put it during our discussion: “There’s no straightforward way of becoming an artist. Rather, people who want to pursue an artistic career often get a broader cultural education, then go on to create their own experiences in the world.” Karim notes that the beginning of his career was probably the moment he created some of his most personal artwork, though he did not know if it would resonate with the public. Though he values and enjoys teaching, his primary focus remains working in the studio on his own projects. The Embassy recently sat down with Karim over video chat to talk about the Swiss contemporary art scene, why he decided to move to New York, and how he balances his time between teaching and creating art.

Swiss Embassy: Take us through a day in the life of Karim Noureldin.
Karim Noureldin: My days are never the same since I often travel and go to openings or project meetings, visit museums or have studio visits, buy material or bring artwork to framers, and, last but not least, teach. My most typical day, however, would be an artist-in-studio day. First, being an avid coffee drinker, I make my favorite black coffee at home with my coffee grinder and Italian coffee maker. Then I eat something, get my bike if the weather is sunny and warm (which I prefer…), and go to my studio, where I work all day. I usually have lunch nearby and bike home again when the sun sets, since I usually work only during daylight. At home, I cook almost daily and often work again on paperwork or correspondence late at night, or read, watch the night sky, or go out.

Swiss Embassy: What defines the Swiss artistic scene in relation to other key locations for Contemporary Art World?
Karim Noureldin: The artistic landscape in Switzerland is particularly dynamic, as it’s a very international country with about two million foreigners working there and bringing with them their own cultural backgrounds and perceptions. I lived in the U.S. for many years and have travelled regularly throughout Europe and Asia: there are so many “art scenes” to be discovered and, although they are sometimes connected and intertwined, they are also extremely unique; it’s difficult to pinpoint one geographic or cultural “center” within the landscape of the contemporary art world.

Swiss Embassy: Why did you become a visual artist rather than an architect?
Karim Noureldin: I didn’t really choose — it wasn’t really a straightforward personal decision. It was more a kind of wish or feeling early in my life and then, a long process to achieve and, later, to sustain it. It’s something you cultivate through education first and then later through your professional life and then constantly have to work toward, which is what I keep doing up to this day. Further, although I studied architecture I never worked as an architect but went into fine arts instead in my subsequent studies. The work I do today often incorporates architectural sites. It’s like things come full circle: it’s somehow natural in a way that I should combine art and architecture in my artistic interventions.

Swiss Embassy: In what way did New York and the people you met there influence you?
Karim Noureldin: New York was (and still is!) a key city for modern art and I was absolutely fascinated by its energy and strong multicultural identity. Looking back at the seven years I spent there, I think it was really the right place at the right time for me. I immediately felt at home there and it gave me time to develop my own artistic language, as I had just finished my studies. It changed me profoundly both as a person and as an artist: It just made me “me.” Maybe it gave me enough insights, impressions, inspirations, possibilities, experiences, and knowledge to be what I am today, being myself a cultural mix of East and West.

Swiss Embassy: Could you show us three of your works that are particularly close to your heart, and explain briefly why?

Karim Noureldin: This is a large structure installed in one of the leading art museums in Geneva, Switzerland. A painted image on a wooden platform floor, you could walk on it and actually be a part of the artwork, space, and site. The piece was about working with the floor and with its long history as a flat picture in the form of mosaics, carpets and stones. ZigZag was also a sculpture and its underlying wooden structure and panels provided a pattern for developing the rather irregular white and dark blue stripes covering this very large piece. I consider it one of the best site-specific pieces I have created so far, mainly because it includes everything I am interested in and I just love the museum where it was shown.

Karim Noureldin: This is one of the many projects for which I was contacted directly by architects and asked to collaborate during the building process. Set in a newly built underground parking lot, the contrast between the austere, concrete structure and the brightly colored shapes situated around the only natural source of light made everything fall into place, both the site and the artwork. It was all about working with the lights, colors, architecture and space: art and architecture.

Karim Nouredlin: I had been working on this new series of painting entitled “Pi” since 2019 and it incorporates everything I always wanted to do in a painting, with balance and certain states of minds at the center of the artistic process, translated into visual signs. As they are painted on wood, it also comes close to being an object as well, which is an aspect I love. “Pi” is also a mathematical formula and it inspired me to do variations on the theme of infinity.

Swiss Embassy: What projects are you currently working on?
Karim Noureldin: I have a lot going on right now! They include a wall painting for a staircase in a private house in Berlin and another in Geneva, a textile project for another private house in Portugal, some textile and ceramic pieces, drawings and paintings, and a catalogue documenting my work over the last ten years. As many artists, I always work on several projects at the same time to meet different deadlines, which also involves a fair amount of organization and coordination. The Covid-19 pandemic did slow down or cancel some projects for shows and exhibitions, but I’m looking forward to 2022, when I plan to participate in a three-month artist-in-residence stay in India.

Swiss Embassy: What is your dream project?
Karim Noureldin: I would very much like to build my own artist’s studio, which I actually hope will become a reality in the future. I would use it for production, contemplation, and storage, but would also live there, all within an architectural structure I plan, develop, and build: that would be my favorite project at this point. I could imagine myself buying some land or converting an existing site into my “ultimate artist’s studio space”.

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