Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Maripol, on first name basis

After two decades in journalism, there are so many people I have interviewed yet forgotten about – and others that linger in my memory long after the fact. I know, for sure, that years down the line, Maripol would be one of those people I shall remember fondly. She assumes her age gracefully all while radiating an inner youth; and for someone who defined the style esthetics of the 80s she’s dressed in a minimalist pop way which hints at a little mellowing all without reaching conformism.
Sadly, for someone who covered such extensive territory in her career, who has bad personal relationships with the most notorious figures of the art and design world, she is – for the large public – still defined after that one historic moment in pop culture when she styled Madonna in her Like A Virgin era. “Nowadays, I avoid talking about [Madonna], she doesn’t need any publicity. Yes, it was a moment in history, but to be honest it gets tiring in the long run,” she contributes in a very effervescent tone.
Deborah Harry by Maripol

And whereas Maripol continued from strength to strength, she dropped from the radar of the audiences at large, only to resurface courtesy of a fan. And the fan in question was none other than Marc Jacobs – whom she knew in the 80s when he would hang around Fiorucci for which she worked as art director – and who issued a collection of t-shirts and jewelry based on her iconic designs in the 80s.
“It was a great collaboration” offers Maripol by way of explanation, “I was lacking the means to produce and distribute the works.  And they offered the structure. Already the esthetics of the 80s was coming back with a vengeance, the jelly bean bracelets which I invented, the neon colors, etc… So it was simply a perfect timing to pair up with Marc whom I knew for a long time, including his Perry Ellis days.” (Note that Jacobs was eventually sacked from Perry Ellis after the “grunge” collection which the house thought would never sell and which went on and defined the style trend of the 90s)
However, the time when Maripol landed in New York, witnessed a different city than the one we came to know today. New York, at the time, was a city on the verge of bankruptcy, with a rundown downtown, and a sense of urban decay. “I have had the same loft since 1979, and there’s always the risk of promoters coming in and forcing me out. But aside of that, the fact that I came from a different country, I was able to see what the locals did not notice. I think this is the basis of the Polaroid series, this need to document what was going on.”
Maripol refutes the notion that history was being made, “no, no, the scene was very superficial. It was just sex, disco, drugs and glamour. Surely the people had a lot of character, but the scene itself was shallow.” Naturally, what amazes about her is this ability to drop first names of what eventually amounts to be people mere mortals have studied as family names in art history books.
“Andy was – despite all his success – very humble, even timid.” For the rest of us, this would be Warhol. As a matter of fact Warhol said “Maripol is an talented designer who is an important part of the fashion and art community in New York City.” For the anecdote, the first time she showed up at “The Factory” he also inquired after she left: “Who is this sexy girl who just passed by?” – self-depreciatingly Maripol adds with a witty smile “I was much thinner back then.”
Jean-Michel Basquiat, who is featured in Downtown 81 and which Maripol post-produced, “was a rebel. A total rebel. He was also a victim of racism which bred anger in him. Just because of his race he couldn’t get a cab for example. Actually, the critics were very harsh on his collaboration with Andy (Warhol) at the time which caused a rift between the two. And when Andy died, Jean-Michel was devastated. A year later he would die too of an overdose.”
Already, two deaths were mentioned in the same sentence. Immediately aware of the fact, Maripol brings in the third major casualty that struck home – “Keith.” Keith Haring was undeniably a major element of the New York she knew and which came to define how the world would look at graffiti and street art at a later stage.
Keith Haring by Maripol

But the mention of Keith Haring also brings the intricate web of talented people who synergistically fed each other’s genius. It was Haring who painted the body art on Grace Jones who was the romantic and artistic partner of Jean-Paul Goude. All three names were people with whom she was a close collaborator of at one point. “Grace wore my bracelets on her ankle, and I was assistant to Jean-Paul on several shoots.” She flips through one of her books to show me one photo which took Goude one month to shoot, and another where she is featured as a naked acrobat and which also came from him.
Maripol directed a whole documentary on Haring, “Keith Haring: The Message” which is a poignant portrait of the man who died too soon. “Keith and other people popularized the idea that art would be visible everywhere. At one point I was living on the Line 5 of the Subway in New York which links the Bronx to Brooklyn, we used to call it “Fabulous 5”, and Fab 5 Freddy painted on three tram carriages Merry Christmas New York City, but when the tram would be passing so fast one could only see a kaleidoscope of colors. He also did the Campbell Soup cans on the trams as a tribute to Andy Warhol.”
She continues, “Actually, graffiti made its way from the street to the art space via Patti Astor’s FUN gallery. The same way Keith opened his Pop Shop which is a way to make this tangent between art and life.”
However, it all came to a tipping point when things started disintegrating – “the AIDS epidemic that struck the US in the 80s changed everything. First it was called the gay plague, then straight men and women started getting infected by it. The whole art community was dealt a severe blow. I remember going to see Klaus Nomi at the hospital and having to wear a mask. At the time there was so much confusion as to the disease and how it spreads.”
Asked whether Basquiat and Haring would have wanted their legacy to end in special models by Reebok and a collection of t-shirts and hoodies from Zara, Maripol answers: “When Keith died there was no money to establish a foundation. So his agent of merchandising keeps getting those deals and just last year a Million Dollar was donated to the Whitney Museum even though the art institutions snubbed him when he was alive. All this money comes from merchandising and ultimately those who buy the Zara product will end up wondering what they are wearing so it paradoxically ends up teaching them about art.”
Decades later, and in retrospect, it is easy to look back at the legacy that the indie scene of the New York in the 80s left. “I believe the beat generation paved the way for the underground generation that we were,” says Maripol, “I guess looking back at the whole experience we keep the art, the legend that surrounded those who made it as well. The people who made the graffiti on the streets of Beirut are a clear example of this cross-cultural contamination which was generated back then.”
Graffiti is not the only cross-cultural topic in the conversation – Maripol herself is a prime example of that: “My mother is French-Maltese and my father is half Lebanese from his mother’s side.” So her show Maripolrama which will open on Sept. 20th in Station will be a sort of return to roots.
Station dubs itself as a multipurpose venue dedicated to hosting progressive cultural events in Beirut. It is located in an old wood factory and the dynamic duo behind are French-Moroccan artist Leila Alaoui and Lebanese media production figure Nabil Canaan. Canaan clarifies that the factory has been in his family for more than 60 years, and in 2006 he looked at the area from the overlooking hill of Achrafieh and drew the plan of how he envisioned it to be on a tissue paper.
When Beirut Art Center and (the Lebanese association of plastic arts) Askhal Alwan moved into the industrial area and new lofts started being built, he knew it was time to put the Station project into action. As for Alaoui she admits “falling in love with Beirut upon my first visit” she has been a resident for one and a half years here and apparently still cannot enough from the intensity that Beirut offers.
The works that will be exhibited during the Maripolrama show are her 80s Polaroids printed on canvas and enlarged to a square format of 70x70cms, her films about Basquiat and Haring will also be shown on the 23rd of September. On the subject of the Polaroids she says “Polaroids were the digital of today.” But she goes on to say that whereas she had a Leica strapped to her neck, she does not do Instagram as she needs “to archive all of my work. Besides Instagram offers no individuality, they don’t care about the photographer but rather about the way to make money out of him. Facebook allows itself to use all uploaded photos for commercial purposes for example.”
And on that note, the time to part ways sadly came. Though not before an impromptu photo shoot in front of a graffiti by Yazan Halawani of “Beirut Banana Republic.” Now that everyone was on first name basis, there were sincere hugs and kisses, “the way old friends do” as ABBA would say.

 

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