Why are we so drawn to stories? Why when, for example our grandparents sit us down and tell us a story, we feel somehow transported to another world, forgetting the current moment we’re in?
That’s because stories give lasting meaning to human experiences. We think in story. We speak in story. We remember in story -- because narrative is what evokes emotion and empathy, the basis of human existence. As the prominent Lebanese writer and artist, Khalil Gibran, said: “It has been said that next to hunger and thirst, our most basic human need is for storytelling.”
Although art is arguably a story in itself, why do we find ourselves in exhibitions looking for the title, a short blurb maybe, or any sort of context on the work we are looking at?
That’s because storytelling is inherent to us as social creatures. Painted symbols on cave walls were used as a way for the storyteller to remember a story, to entertain those around him, and enhance social bonds. According to The National, one of the first forms of visual storytelling was a 45,000 year old cave drawing of a life size pig found in Indonesia! And according to the BBC, it is said that the profession of storytelling originated in the Middle East, specifically in Mesopotamia. It was there (in around the 9th century) that the epic collection of Middle Eastern folktales, Alf Leila Wa Leila (One Thousand and One Nights) was produced.It’s safe to say that these different types of narratives are what allowed our ancestors to form key social connections key to their survival.
Even research, from neurobiologist, Paul Zak, shows us that the human brain has a natural affinity for narrative sequences. The brain produces oxytocin, a chemical which increases with care, connection, and empathy. Meaning our brains are designed and inclined to understand and retain stories. There is no doubt that art on its own has the ability to have a profound impact on us in the context of our personal experiences. With some of us thinking, “Why do we need to know the story of an artwork if it can be open to our own imagination and interpretation?”
Yet, if art already has this ability, how much more powerful would it be when we know the story behind it?
The value of storytelling that we just discussed is also applied to the Arts. Whether it’s learning about the historical, cultural, or personal context of the artist and his or her work: we are one step closer to diving into their world. Through storytelling we are able to tap into more of our senses and emotions to develop a different type of connection with the work and the world around the artist that shaped it.
In short, stories transport us, captivate our attention and capture our hearts through familiar and relatable themes centered on society, culture and identity.
Emergeast artist, Ghalamdar plays on this idea of storytelling in his work below:
Persian miniatures, that once used to be enjoyed as a part of a book, in storytelling form, have in the past few decades been stripped from its essence when displayed in museums as framed single sheets of paper. Ghalamdar paradoxically tries to show nonsense caused by these museums by overlapping multiple absurd miniatures over each other to not tell a meaningful story. Now knowing the irony behind this piece, don’t you view it from another light?
In other art forms, geometric linear abstractions by Noor Abu Issa transport us into a non-linear and emotional world defined by the artist's story. In her Expression of Now series, the artist wills the viewer to take a step back from end results and contemplate the celebration of small joys, potential beginnings, links and happy accidents through this visual sphere. In the wake of the mundane everyday experiences, this series of paintings compel us to let go of self-induced pressure, ignore composition, and embrace raw feelings and beginnings of internal dialogue.
Beyond the aesthetic, the story behind the artwork serves to bring alive the true essence of art and evoke the emotions and imagination of the observer - creating the collector's overall collection narrative and its own story. In the words of Abbas Kiarostami, "Art is the experience of what you've felt inside."