If you go down to Highgate Woods in London today, you might be in for a bit of a surprise. Among the dog walkers, the frazzled parents searching for their kids and the forestry workers making sure that the ancient woodland is being preserved, you might, if you look carefully, find one of the most prolific artists and illustrators working in the UK. Highgate Woods, all 28 hectares of it, is Noma Bar’s ‘office’. Everyday, come rain or shine, the graphic artist is there, somewhere, armed with his notebooks and pens, working through ideas that will appear in their final forms in newspapers, magazines, as part of a campaign or a gallery.
“You won’t find me drawing the flowers or the trees,” says Noma with a chuckle. “I’m not here to react to the seasonal changes or the landscape. I need the energy and the contrast to what is happening in the city.” We are sat by his current ‘desk’ that is hidden away from a footpath. It is here that he works, pen in hand, only leaving for meetings in the city or to go home and turn his ideas into the thought-provoking, inventive and sometimes controversial work he is famed for. It’s Nice That has joined for an afternoon to see the sights and learn more about Noma, his background and art. Our interview occurs soon after he has released Bittersweet, a “mid-career retrospective” with Thames and Hudson – a mammoth five volume box set that splits his portfolio thematically between: Life Death, Pretty Ugly, Less More, In Out and Rough Smooth.
Noma’s work has been exhibited and published extensively responding to subjects ranging from war crimes to online porn. Over the course of his career his images that playfully tackle these far ranging topics have become known for the juxtaposition within the imagery and his mastery of negative space and block colour. “When you see my work, you wouldn’t think it was created in the woods,” says Noma thoughtfully. “I like this contrast.”
As we wander the footpaths beneath the canopy, Noma regularly stops to point out what he is seeing. A long lateral branch looks like the sinewy arms of an athlete, faces appear in trees, and at one point he singles out four pieces of concrete kerbing that have been laid into a shape that would bring a wry smile to those who notice it. “That’s the Highgate Woods dick!” he says with a chuckle, having pointed out possibly the only north London municipal infrastructure nob gag.
“Ah! A snake!” exclaims Noma as we stop by a felled tree with a pleasing curve that our photographer Jack wants to use in an image. He dashes over to his bag and pulls out two markers before returning to the tree and dropping to his knees in front of his discovery. He eagerly starts colouring in the tree in dark tones, his addition barely distinguishable from the bark and sap stained wood. “It’s not graffiti,” he states firmly. “I’m not going to come here and start painting everything around me, the rain will wash this away soon.” He silently and swiftly adds layer and layer of ink to the wood, only pausing to change pens, and in a very short space of time, the profile of a snake becomes apparent. These woods are full of original Noma Bar artworks, but you would be hard pressed to find them. “I’ll come back and finish that later,” he says.
London has been Noma’s home for the past 20 years, having moved to the city after completing art school and mandatory military service in Israel. His life, like his work, is full of stark juxtapositions. He grew up north of Nazareth, his father worked with trees all of his life (which he thinks explains, to some extent, his connection to the woods) and he was surrounded by family who had toiled to be artists in a region that was bereft of the culture he craved. “My aunt and uncle were frustrated artists,” he explains. “They came to Israel in their mid-20s and found themselves doing day jobs and creating art by night. So it was in the family. We had paintings of the uncles and everything, but it was kinda forbidden. ‘You shouldn’t be artists.’ That was the spirit. It just made me want it more. I didn’t want to study electronics as my parents wanted me to. They realised if they wanted to keep me calm, they could give me a pencil and a notebook and that’s it.”
It was in drawing he found his calling. “It was my weapon. My protection. My world,” he says. “When other kids played sports, I did drawings. I knew this from the start.” Having completed his schooling, he was drafted into military service and at the age of the 18 was enrolled in the Navy. “I was living with ten people on a 20-metre boat. I didn’t want to be there,” he recalls.
He got through the period, like everything else in his life, by drawing. “I created books with caricatures of the commanders. I would design T-shirts for the unit. In every serious situation, if you start to draw, you find the humour,” he recalls. “In situations like that, where it is so serious, when you are handed a weapon and you sit down to draw it, you can make everyone laugh. It’s a social thing, even if you draw on your own. That’s how I got through it.”
“In every serious situation, if you start to draw, you find the humour.”
– Noma Bar
On leaving the Navy, Noma spent a year working as a security guard in a hotel to save up for his next step: attending art school. “It was an explosion. I met people like me. People who live art and design – not just treating it as a hobby,” he says. The contrast to his structured, hierarchy-driven time in the military was stark. “It was very open and very much about thinking. It was an amazing time. Our teachers had studied at the Bauhaus and similar places. We never learned techniques. It was all about breaking the rules and creating things. There was a spirit of discovery and innovation.”
It was while studying typography that Noma started to think even more seriously about negative space and understanding its potential. “We had lessons in drawing type and drawing around type. In a way I am a graphic designer. The negative space became prevalent in my studies, then began to influence the storytelling in my work,” he recalls. While studying, to make ends meet, Noma also worked for Channel 2 in Israel, a national television broadcaster. He would be on the graphics desk for the morning shifts from 4am until 9am and then head to classes. “It taught me so much about working with editorial,” he says. “I learned to work fast, to think and to not hesitate. I did the really boring things like graphics for maps and financial charts, but I always looked for something else in them – so I would hide faces in them that only I saw.”
After graduating Noma headed straight to London. He and his wife went straight to Zwemmer’s famous bookshop on Charing Cross Road and spent three days devouring the art and design books and magazines on the shelves. “We thought: ‘Wow! Something is really happening here!’ London blew our minds. It was beautiful.” Settling in north London he began to produce the work for publications and agencies, finding himself more and more in demand from art directors and publications, keen to use his way of telling stories through images.
His work is adept at condensing complex subjects into simple images that belie the depth of thought and endeavour that goes into making them. His work for the Guardian, New York Times and other bastions of the old media establishment has seen him deal with the topics that informed the names of each section of his new book with apparent ease. “There isn’t one way to do it. There’s something in me that wants to strip things down. No one knows the pain and sweat that goes into making each work,” he explains. “It’s like being a musician or a dancer. You might see the sweat on the stage, but you don’t see everything that has gone into it. I’m not crazy about showing that process, I want to keep things for myself. Theres a lot of deleting and starting again."
Whatever the brief, be it a commercial client, a publication or a commission for a charity or campaign, Noma’s belief in his responsibilities is resolute. “As designers we have power. If I can use my pen to say things, to affect and change realities, I will,” he says firmly. “It’s like a singer writing a song. If I work for someone like Cancer Research and can attract someone to donate to the cause through a poster, that is my contribution. It’s another voice. It can be a powerful thing.”
It’s not only the more overtly emotive works that embody this thinking. Noma has been called to produce portraits of countless faces over the years. It’s something that endlessly fascinates him and his sketchbooks are full of faces he has seen on his travels in the woods, around the capital and further afield. “Taking iconic faces and working into them is fun,” he says. “It’s deconstructing them to the extreme. The power lies in taking on something that is already iconic. I am taking the icon and breaking the icon. An average, normal, beautiful face is more tricky to draw.” Among the film stars, politicians and royalty he has to depict, one face returns more than others. “I get a lot of Hitlers. People don’t like that I draw Hitler. For me, drawing Hitler is provocation whatever the message is. It’s something that I am dealing with and it is a bitter pill. Hitler is fun. Challenging is fun.”
The challenges come thick and fast, and as Noma gathers his thoughts and records them in his sketchbook, sat among the foliage in the woods, he can never truly anticipate the response an image will generate. Controversy has followed his overtly political works – be it a Time Out cover that merged the image of Big Ben’s clocktower with an representation of anal sex, or a piece about George Bush and the Iraq war that saw “countless emails and letters questioning why I did it”. It’s Noma’s storytelling abilities that get him to his final ideas. “I didn’t choose this. It’s just something I can do,” he says. Noma can reduce the graphic nature of a topic without losing how profound the message it is, or place something in the mainstream media that might be too difficult to convey in another way. “I have a name now, people come to me to solve problems. I wouldn’t do what a photographer would do. I can say things about, say, sexuality and bring fun to sex. Or I have done really serious briefs covering topics like rape, war or paedophiles. There is no harm in what I am doing visually. I enjoy doing this work.”
As it nears four in the afternoon, it is time for Noma to return to his studio where he turns his thoughts and sketches into the final works and sends them to clients. Deadlines are imminent and he must deliver the final artworks to his clients. “It’s like stand up comedy or something,” he muses. “Every day I am on stage. Copy arrives at 12, then the brief changes at four, the deadline is seven… It’s nerve wracking. Tomorrow, millions of people will see my image. You just throw yourself onto the stage each day. I enjoy the pressure. Otherwise I wouldn’t do it. You never know what is around the corner and people keep surprising me with what they commission.”
“As designers we have power. If I can use my pen to say things, to affect and change realities, I will.”
– Noma Bar
Noma packs away his sketchbooks and pens. As he puts his book, that has been guiding our conversation, away I ask him if the process of reviewing his portfolio and life has changed the way he works at all. How does it feel to treat an archive in this way? “The call it a mid-career retrospective. To me it is a collection of things I am doing. If it wasn’t this right now, it would be a collection of things I am doing. Maybe a book of portraits or something. I think retrospective is a scary word. I never saw it as that,” he says carefully. “For each illustration you see, there are 20 that you don’t. The editor and designer, Fernando Gutteriez, did so much. My job was to collect images and stories.” Notably, one of the volumes Rough Smooth shows work in Noma’s sketchbooks – something previously unpublished. Given his reticence to show the “blood and sweat” that goes into the work, why did he decide to include them? “It wasn’t easy,” he says. “They are my personal stories. Every day I get emails from students wanting to know about my creative process. Each sketch blends with my work but they weren’t meant to be published. We went through about 70 or 80 sketchbooks. This is how it evolved and, in the end, I was very happy to do it.”
The dualities within Noma’s work mirror his life. This fascination with the essence of the story and a translation of this into a beautiful and profound image is a struggle on which he thrives. In the spirit of Bittersweet I ask him to try and sum himself up in two words. He pauses, furrows his brow beneath his ever present hat, then smiles: “Always More!”