BY Negar Azimi AND Alex Ayed in Interviews | 19 APR 23
Featured in
Issue 234

Alex Ayed Sets Sail for Adventure

As the artist trains to sail across the globe, his email correspondences with Negar Azimi consider the ocean as inspiration, animism and the ‘boat boys’ of the Caribbean

BY Negar Azimi AND Alex Ayed in Interviews | 19 APR 23

Dear Alex. We haven’t yet met but I feel I know you already, care of our mutual friend Lydia. The other day Tausif, a colleague, asked me if I could think of artists whose practices are built around ‘faith’, which is to say, letting go, simply letting things happen. I thought of you. I understand you’re on the sea? A geography that resists grand plans, that makes a meal of control. Is that your intention? To let serendipity and chance have their way? Negar

Dear Negar, It’s true. I’ve just returned from sailing in the Caribbean, and I’m now training in a camp off the coast of Brittany, preparing to be on the seas for a long time. The journey will begin this summer on the Mediterranean, and then onward to Dakar, across the Atlantic and wherever else the winds take me. The training for the voyage has been harrowing. I cracked a rib or two yesterday. We don’t really have time off, which is why I’m writing to you so late at night. I know the frieze editors were inspired by the theme of ‘lost at sea’. Honestly, I don’t intend to get lost. But why not get lost in a correspondence between two strangers? Btw the feeling is mutual. Somehow, I don’t know why, I feel I know you. Goodnight, AA

Alex Ayed, Fitzberg. Off the coast of Saint Lucia, 2023. Courtesy: the artist 

Dear Alex, tell me, how did you get here? Perhaps this voyage is, to invoke Herman Melville, your white whale? Like most high school students in America, I read Moby-Dick (1851) as a teenager. Apropos nothing, I once lied to a stranger that the last word of that tome was ‘shampoo’. Must have been pre-internet. How silly of me. Negar

Dear Negar, it’s 1:20 am and I’m reading your note lulled by the mechanical snoring of sailors. You ask what brought me here. For some years, I’ve used painting as a pretext to get closer to the sea, to commune with sailors and boat-makers. I would ask them for used sails that I could turn into paintings. Every time I finished a series, I’d go back for more. This way, I could spend time in harbours and in shipyards. My intention was always to build a boat and sail away. Living with strangers offers unexpected surprises. One crew member, Anisset, hails from the Kongo tribe. He recently confessed that he was terrified by a pheasant ruling over the woods near our camp at night. He is from an animist background, believing that all animals and humans carry spirits within them, among them the spirits of the dead, and that each element must find its own harmony. After a couple of days, he told me that he had exchanged a few words with the bird as he was running back from the toilets to his tent. The pheasant, apparently curious, asked him: ‘Why are you running?’ Anisset was petrified but replied that he didn’t want to run. He was only afraid of the bird’s presence and didn’t want to disturb him. I don’t know how the conversation ended but, the next day, Anisset told me that they were at peace. By the way, the social aspect of this experience is getting quite interesting. We are barely ten days in and have four months to go, and people are already fighting. I feel like I’m in a reality television show. Goodnight, AA

Alex Ayed, Boat Boys, 2023. Courtesy: the artist

Dear Alex, I am imagining you amid a gaggle of sailor men, each of them a seeker of one sort of another, with the sea a place of projection. As for your Congolese comrade, the one communing with the spirit world, I’m with him. What is life if not a fine psychic balance? Tell me, what about the sea? Does it speak to you and, if so, what does it say? I’ve seen images of the paintings you speak of, made from the canvases of sails, and find them affecting: crusted with the sediment of time and touch and experience. They hold stories and, by extension, they ‘speak’, too. How was today? Negar

Dear Negar, it’s 2:08 am here. Anisset dropped out today. Too intense, he said. We’re two men down, which now brings us to an equal number of men and women on board. You asked whether it speaks to me, the sea. I like to think we are in a dialogue. We cut a deal a couple of years back that I would never be away from her for too long. It’s a one-way deal, actually. I don’t expect anything in return. Lately, I’ve been fascinated by the ‘boat boys’ in the Caribbean. They come out to intercept approaching vessels. In exchange for dollars, they can provide you with pretty much anything: from anchoring and live lobsters to pearl necklaces and local weed. Some have marvellous coloured boats. Captain Kojak from Union Island had a wooden speedboat painted in flashy pink and green. But not all have colourful boats. One day, as we approached St. Lucia, we saw someone waving from a distance. He was rowing along on a tiny surfboard in a desperate attempt to catch up with us. We turned off the engine to let him approach. He proudly presented the surfboard as his vessel and told us we should remember his name: Fitzberg. As we left, I turned back and watched as he slowly disappeared from view on his lonely vessel. Most islands live off the dregs of colonialism, trade and slavery. Those who inhabit them have lost contact with their ancestors. They are a little like the Tillandsia that grow on the trees, subsisting in a precarious equilibrium provided by their aerial roots and the humidity carried by moist Eastern winds. I’m sending you a photo of Fitzberg on his vessel. Tomorrow morning, we leave for three weeks. I hope to write more soon. Goodnight, AA

Main image: Alex Ayed, 2023

Negar Azimi is a writer and editor-in-chief of Bidoun.

Alex Ayed is an artist. His upcoming solo exhibition will be shown at the Louis Vuitton Foundation, Paris.