Nour el Saleh


“I feel like it may be easier to respond the opposite which is what I hope not to reach with my work – and I think that would be satiety”

AT: Where are you from and how/why did you start engaging with art?

NeS: I’m originally Lebanese but I grew up in Abu Dhabi (UAE). Abu Dhabi was quite a young city when I was growing up so my exposure to art was quite limited as I wasn’t able to go see many shows or museums. However, I have always been quite drawn to making and seeking out ways to be creative. At a younger age I was mainly drawn to doing drama, playing pretend and drawing characters and imagined spaces, all of which still feel relevant.


AT: When did it become serious?

NeS: Art always felt serious as it was the one thing I would always do whether or not I was meant to. Even before realizing that it was something I could pursue when I got older, I would carve out time to do it, stay up late or do it instead of anything else I was meant to be doing.


AT: Are there any person who has been significant in your breakthrough as an artist?

NeS: I feel lucky in the sense that I’ve had different people throughout the various stages of making art that really encouraged and enabled me and naming them all would make for a very long response. A form of support that has been very encouraging and helpful has been being invited on residencies. When I first graduated from the Slade, I got offered a residency with V.O curations. Being able to go straight from my undergraduate to a free studio space with a show opportunity was a great form of support and was probably quite pivotal in encouraging me to keep up my momentum with making. More recently I was at the Castello di San Basilio residency run by Aloisia Leopardi which gave me so much time and space to create, and work towards a body of work that I felt really close to – it made me feel like I could slow down and really focus on my practice. Similarly, I was invited to Palazzo Monti by Edoardo Monti, where I was able to really take time to make and engage with new surroundings.


AT: What is your first approach to the work? How would you describe your practice?

NeS: My practice is a lot about exercising an obsession and playing with the application and eradication of structure. While painting, I allow compositions to build and change throughout the process of applying the paint, responding to how that entertains or interacts with my subconscious, my fantasies and my research. A lot of my work is built around the fictionalization and dramatization of my own thoughts and experiences, letting myself get into painting while trying to implement new ideas and create symbols and codes that may go between being readable to being misleading. On some days my approach feels calculated, diagrammatical and can verge on being overly-contextualized while on others it feels extremely extinctive and fleeting in it’s meaningfulness.

Set to Default, 2023, Oil on canvas, 145 x 200 cm

AT: What do you aim to reach with your work?

NeS: I feel like it may be easier to respond the opposite which is what I hope not to reach with my work – and I think that would be satiety. While I often do work towards momentary satisfaction, I feel like the notion of an end goal or resolved satisfaction scares me. The mix of curiosity, boredom and longing can create quite an inspired state which I tend to chase.

AT: What are your favourite tools and materials for working?

NeS: I’m most excited about making work when I am combining or discovering new ways of using materials. I have recently really enjoyed painting miniatures on canvas with clay sculptures growing out. My practice generally revolves around larger paintings but doing the opposite feels quite important.


AT: What do you feel while you work? Do you usually think about the final outcome beforehand?

NeS: I don’t work towards a final idea when I am making, I tend to let the process inform the ideas that make the work. I generally prefer to work in silence and ideally in isolation as I think I work best when I’m least aware of or distracted by my physical state.

AT: How do you understand that a work is finished?

NeS: A work never truly feels finished, although the moment I feel like the painting isn’t calling for my attention anymore and I’m able to either put it away or think more about another work, my time with that initial work tends to come to a close despite it being fully resolved, under or overworked.

Underfoot, 2022, Oil on Canvas, 145 x 220 cm

AT: Where does the inspiration for the work come from?

NeS: Everything more or less feeds into the work. There are cumulative ideas and concepts that continue to grow and exist from as early as my childhood to new found interests that I exercise through research and then get over. The combination of the two often begin to inform each other along with my experience, what I am exposed to daily and art that I am drawn to.


AT: Are there any artists who influenced your works? Why?

NeS: A lot of artists influence my works, especially when I newly encounter them, but some of the ones who’s books are almost always open in my studio, or who’s work I’ve consistently loved for years include; Odelion Redon (specifically the painting The Cyclops), James Ensor, Quentin Matsys, Chaïm Soutine, Hilma Af Klint along with others.


AT: How important is the role of social media for you?

NeS: I think it can be quite important as long as I have a healthy distance from it. Realistically a lot (if not most) opportunities can come from social media, those opportunities then expose your work to a wider audience as well as to more artists and a lot can come from that. That being said, I don’t value my work through social media, I strictly view it as a tool to enable me to continue making and getting to know more artist’s work rather than viewing it as the main platform for the work to be shown or for conversations and reactions to be had about it.


AT: What is your opinion about NFTs and their impact on the art world?

NeS: To be honest, I’m not too sure I have much of an opinion. It doesn’t interest me at all and I’m sure either argument can make some kind of sense. Personally, I’d rather not engage with the whole NFT thing.

Maskhara, 2021, Oil on canvas and acrylic on clay, 20 x 25 x 5 cm

AT: As an artist, what is your point of view about the contemporary art system?

NeS: The fact that the word system can follow the word art really says it all. It’s tricky, on one side, making art and being granted the opportunity to keep making has been facilitated by the art world being more of an industry/system – however it does feel like artists are having to turn into to business based socially driven thinkers which I find difficult.  The art artworld often feels like it feeds on how badly artists want/need to keep making but equally there are more opportunities at the moment which are centered around enabling artists to keep making through various modes of support. I am excited by a lot of the work that is being made and the various ways it being shown and shared – the contemporary art scene has a lot going for it at the moment and just as ever it has also has it’s issues.


AT: What do you find to be the most challenging or daunting thing about pursuing art? What is the most rewarding part of working as an artist?

NeS: Working as an artist means that I get to be in the studio often and get the chance to make and interact with other artists and their work. That easily answers both angles of the question as it means that I don’t get to hide away from making art or being seen in relation to it, things don’t feel too private, opinions (as useful as they may be) can be daunting and time away from the studio can feel scary. However, making work creates the illusion that time goes on and things really matter when I give them the space to and sometimes, they can matter to someone else. Either way it provides  me with a feeling of continuity, self-reflection and/or self-scrutiny.


AT: What do you do besides art?

NeS: I teach art a couple of times a week which can be quite a nice way to experience art outside of making.


AT: What are your goals and expectations for the future?

NeS: Hopefully I can keep making and developing my practice further while pursuing new methods and ideas. In the long term, I would like to work towards opportunities that would enable more time to make and digest work as well as expanding on ideas that may feel unattainable at the moment.

The Actor’s Dollhouse, 2020, Oil on canvas, 200 x1 70 cm
Nour el Saleh (born 1997, Lebanon) completed her postgraduate degree from The Royal Drawing School in 2022. She has recently exhibited at Edel Assanti, UK (2022), Castello di San Basillio, Italy (2022), Cassina Projects, Italy (2022); Plaza Plaza, UK (2021), V.O Curations, UK (2021); Lowell Ryan Projects, Mexico (2020); Kuva Gallery, Finland (2019); Daniel Benjamin Gallery, London (2018). She was recently in residence at Castello San Basilio, Italy and Palazzo Monti, Italy. In 2023, Nour will be exhibiting at Quench, in Margate, UK. El Saleh lives and works in London.