Ashraf’s Olfactory Art

Like many gifted individuals, I have many varied interests and talents, and a patchwork background that reflects it—a patchwork that for a long time seemed aimless and unfocused. I felt like the jack of many trades, but the master of none. But now, more than ever before, I feel like a master of my trade.

I started out in Lebanon, where I was born and grew up, Ashraf 1did my undergraduate studies in biology as a pre-med student, and left medical school before the end of the first semester. I grew up in a medical family, with parents and four uncles in the field, but I wanted to become a filmmaker. That, however, was not acceptable to them; so I had to compromise. I left for the US to do my graduate studies in architecture, which I practiced for ten years afterwards. Studying architecture and teaching it was a pleasure; working in it was a whole other matter.

So four years ago I moved to Switzerland where I did my postgraduate studies in curating. By then, my interestobsession with scents was growing beyond a hobby, so I focused on olfactory art. That, again, wasn’t very acceptable to the powers-that-be at the university; so the second year I focused on a more academically palatable field, socially-engaged art.

Now I am back to my passion, focusing squarely on olfactory art. Sometimes it feels like a made up profession, perhaps because it is. Not that I have an imaginary job (although, at first, it often felt like it), but it is one that I’m creating as I go. Curating, in its 21st century conception (as meaning-making through exhibitions, as opposed to taking care of museum collections), is a relatively new profession. And olfactory art is even newer.

While perfumery has been around for centuries, olfactory art emerged from a different tradition, namely that of the “visual” or “fine” arts. The advent of photography in the late 19th century shook painting like nothing else; in a sense it liberated art from its job of realistic pictorial depiction. That allowed art to explore other realms, opening a Pandora’s Box of art movements in the 20th century.

One of these (that emerged from Zurich a century ago this year) was Dadaism, which rejected many of societies’ bourgeois notions in the shadow of WWI. One of its main figures was Marcel Duchamp who was critical of the visual (or as he termed it “retinal”) fixation of art. If art is about life and ideas, why limit it to the visual? Duchamp—who many consider to be the most influential figure in 20th century art—thus shifted the focus of art, opening its door to the conceptual and the other senses.

However, it wasn’t until a couple of decades after WWII that olfactory art truly took root. At the time, it was rarely referred to as such; smell was simply one of the dimensions of art that some artists experimented with. It wasn’t until this century that some artists started dedicating the majority of their practices to exploring that dimension. And it’s been less than ten years that the first exhibitions dedicated to olfactory art started to take place.

There aren’t many books published about olfactory art. Heck, it isn’t even on Wikipedia yet (where even twerking has its own entry). But if you’re interested in learning more about it, (and here we begin the shameless shameful self-promoting part of the profile; sorry) I would refer you to my postgraduate work, a historical overview of olfactory art in the 20th century. And for newer examples of it, my website, Scent Art: Olfactory Art in the New Millennium.

I’ll give here, however, a few examples from my own work. (This will be far easier for me in the future, as I am much more comfortable promoting artists’ work than my own.) After finishing my postgraduate studies, I met a professor at Bern University whose research focuses on the cultural aspects of scent. And we decided to found the Scent Culture Institute (SCI).

SCI’s first project was a production for Biennale Bern titled Urban Scent Walk. A more recent project for a more alternative venue in Zurich called Art Container was a small exhibit titled Ephemeral Materialities. And in ten days, the first exhibition (titled The Scent of the Material) of a yearlong four-exhibition series I’m co-curating opens at Kunstmuseum Thun.

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However, not all my projects have come to light. An ambitious project (that is especially dear to my heart) is titled Scents of Exile. It is based on a text by one of my favorite poets, and we were lucky enough to gain the interest and partnership of the world’s biggest fragrance firm. And recently it placed 5th in a worldwide competition of more than 500 proposals. But despite that and the interest of several art venues in Europe and the Middle East, we haven’t been able to procure the funding to produce it.

Sometimes the road is long and winding. But that what I hope this group will do, help us to keep on going when we can’t see what’s around the corner, to share frustrations as much as victories, and hopefully, miraculously maybe, help us solve a problem or two through connecting. Because, as one of my favorite poems by Langston Hughes asks, “What happens to a dream deferred?

– Ashraf Osman

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