|Friday, September 13, 02
Egypt was my next destination. Again, I flew out of Tel Avivs Ben Gurion Airport. Making it through this airport has become a numbing ordeal. Known to enforce the strictest security measures, Israeli airport authorities consider every single Palestinian man, woman or child going through their airport a potential suspect. Hence, every time I travel I have to brace myself for hours of questioning, interrogation, body searches, delays, and endless waiting.
The process all starts at the very entrance to the airport grounds, where Arab cars, identified by their license plate numbers, are singled out from the stream of other vehicles; they are expected to line up and wait. The scrutiny begins with certifying the identities of every single passenger, followed by checking of the contents of each piece of luggage, and concluding with the inside-outside-underside-engine search of the car itself. Upon entry into the airport building, every Palestinian Arab is expected to line up again to go through the x-ray machines. While all other passengers may go through the strict security checks that one undergoes at any airport in the world these days, at Ben Gurion Airport, Arabs are designated separate lines for personal inspection. That means when it comes to the countrys native non-Jews, Israeli security agents cannot trust their own x-ray machine. Instead an agent has to go through each piece of luggage again, examining its contents one by one. This is followed by a thorough body search that takes place behind closed doors. Finally, the passenger is permitted to walk to the airline counter and passport control, always escorted by an agent, courtesy of the security service.
On previous trips to Cairo, I have seen Arabs stuck for hours at the airport. Even those carrying foreign passports, like myself, engender suspicion as soon as their names are perceived to be Arabic. In my case, entering Egypt with an American passport and a non-Arabic name was a breeze. I could not wait to get downtown.
My visit was timed with the opening of Photo Cairo, an exhibition mounted at the Townhouse Gallery. There were four artists participating in the show. Works by Lara Baladi looked outstanding, and one in particular caught my attention.
Borrowing her title from a tale in the Arabian Nights, Laras al-Fanous al-Sihri (the Magic Lantern) was composed of an octagonal star-like x-ray box with a nine meter diameter. The box was suspended at one point from the high ceiling. According to the artist, the suspended structure alluded to one of the enormous chandeliers that hang in the mosque of Mohammed Ali in Cairos Citadel. The x-rays show the image of a female doll, reminiscent of the archetypal dolls made in Egypt. In this work we see one giving birth to a baby doll, which in turn grows up and gets pregnant, then gives birth to a baby doll. The cycle of repetition goes on ad infinitum. Each time, the baby tumbles out in a wholly naïve, light-animated depiction of the reproductive cycle. Decomposed via stills, the stilted movements of the unassuming heroine recall the moving images of Sanduk al-Dunia, the local traditional street theater for children.
This work by Lara Baladi with its critical feminist edge -- could have been perfect for the show in Berlin. However, the regulations that prohibit the drilling of any holes anywhere in the historical monument that harbors the House of World Cultures made it impossible to install the work, which weighs one ton and is supposed to be suspended from a single point in the ceiling. After much discussion with the artist and the house team, in addition to a couple of visits to Berlin in October and November, Lara finally decided to propose an entirely different project. Sandouk al-Dounia (the world in a box) is a large panel of more than nine hundred images, the assemblage of which draws on the traditional board game of Snakes and Ladders. These images depict a microcosmic city, whose females exist as caricatured extremes in a chaotic urban context. This modern city is transformed into a labyrinth where creation disintegrates into destruction, and
central amidst the chaos that marks the apocalypse at hand is a figure inspired by Maha Kali, literally the artists grandmother, whose tongue mirrors the trademark gesture of the destructive Hindu Goddess. Here is recognition that darkness is the mother of light, and here is wisdom, sanity, and order in madness for, like Kali, she exists as an acknowledgement of the necessity of destruction for the sake of reconstruction, and finally, rebirth.
In Cairo, William Wells, director of the Townhouse Gallery, introduced me to Moataz Nasr who had recently shot an interesting video on a common street in Cairo. The video shows faces of different people reflected in a puddle of water. Due to the occasional disturbance of the waters surface, however, the faces in the reflection are never fully reconstituted. The moment the water settles and features in the reflection seem about to become discernable, some passerby steps into the puddle, stamping out the face. Moataz suggested having the video projected in an enclosure containing an actual puddle of water on the ground. The spectator is tempted to recreate the videos images in real life. Faced with ones own reflection in the glassy surface of the strategically placed puddle, the spectator is lured to plunge into it, and tread over ones own reflection or possibly over that of somebody else.
Another installation Moataz proposed especially for this show involves two video screens facing each other. On one screen, the viewer sees a scene from a popular old Egyptian film by Youssef Shahin. It portrays an old man lecturing a group of young farmers and lay people about how men in his youth were real men, unlike todays men who are passive and spineless. On the opposite side of the room another film -- a reenactment of the same scene -- is running simultaneously. This one shows a young Egyptian speaking the very same words to a group of common people gathered in a street coffee-shop in 2003. The films have the same timing and run at the same pace so that one seems the mere echo of the other; nothing has changed.
Tuesday, October 1, 02
I am already on my way to the momentous encounter with all the artists, who are gathering for the first time in Berlin. After meeting with the artists individually back in their home countries, I was especially looking forward to the arrival of Roza al-Hassan from her current home in Budapest. Even though our paths had not crossed since we last saw each other at the 1998 Biennale de Sao Paulo, we had maintained regular contact. Once I actually invited her for a visit and possible show in Jerusalem. She declined because from time to time she visits relatives and friends in Syria and a trip to Jerusalem might jeopardize that.
I was sad when I learnt that Roza would be unable to make it to our meeting in Berlin. That week, a fire had broken out in her kitchen while she was out of the apartment. She and her little daughter had to find shelter somewhere else as their home was largely destroyed. Preoccupied with fixing up her place, Roza had all she could deal with for the moment.
After much deliberation Roza decided to present an image of her Blood Donation performance in Zurich, where she and several other people give blood to the Red Cross. In her hand she carried a rolled up image of Arafat donating blood for the victims of the 9/11 attack. She held the image of Arafat rolled up in her hand in awareness of the delicate line between political activism and performance. In a previous performance in Budapest the image of Arafat giving blood had been openly displayed on the bed where she herself gave blood. The image was hijacked and misinterpreted by right wing extremists as the need for more blood to eliminate the unwanted groups in society. Coming from a mixed background (Syrian-Hungarian) Roza was conscious of the thorny politics that characterized the relations between Europe and the Middle East; the differences in culture, mentalities and religion. Her home and family represented common ground where differences were negotiated and dissimilarities patched up, and which provided her with rich material to draw from in her work. In Stretched Glass Roza suspends a fragile glass cup with two steel cables that pull at both sides of the glass. Steel and glass, two elements at odds are unified in one piece that puts them both to the test.
Jananne al-Ani whom I had met during the art forum Homeworks organized by Christine Tohme in Beirut in March 2002 was a total revelation. Thanks to the Berlin meeting, we had a rare opportunity to learn about each other and to work together in a way we are unable to dream of since the part of my home country that I live in has been cut of from the rest of the Arab world. During our harried encounter in Beirut, I was impressed by her and the ideas that our discussion yielded. The few days we spent in Berlin facilitated a more focused discussion of the issues at hand and our expectations and reservations regarding her project in Berlin. Jananne studied the place, asked for time to reflect, and came back with a very interesting proposal that incorporated the place, the building and the idea of disorientation.
What I'm proposing to do is to sporadically transmit, in various parts of the building, the sound of quiet laughter, gradually getting more and more 'hysterical' until it tips over into the sound of crying and sobbing. The sound would be occasional and quiet enough for people to imagine that something is happening somewhere in the building, just out of sight.
Jananne also proposed a second piece which is very much connected to her previous work on veils and covers, and the question of protection and obscurity. This second proposal involved a large-scale video projection that shows a woman brushing her long dark hair over her face. The tape runs in loop, the brushing incessant, and the audience never gets to see the womans face.
Susan Hefuna lives in Egypt and Germany. I met her early 2002 at Delfina Studios in London where she was doing a residency. I had seen her work in a couple of publications at the Townhouse gallery in Cairo. Our discussion focused on the possibility of her doing a residency at Al-Mamal Foundation in Jerusalem in 2003. As soon as I was commissioned to do this show (disorientation) I contacted her. Towards the end of June, Susan had her idea and proposal ready. She planned to work on the image that has been popularized in the Western world by the statue of Nefertiti, one of the most talismanic emblems of ancient Egypt. The image of this icon of beauty continues to pop up in todays commercials, signs and billboard ads. Through the depiction of this Egyptian symbol Susan wished to examine the significance of Nefertitis place in Berlin, its perception through the eyes of its people, and the nature of its influence on the image and representation of Egyptians in particular and Arabs in general.
In another work she proposed, a video entitled Life in the Delta, Susan takes a personal view of the place which constitutes part of her personal heritage, a place she belongs to and which shaped part of her personality and identity. Rose Issa wrote of this work:
Susan Hefunas work deals with displacement. She articulates the complexity of cross-cultural dialogues and at the center are the questions about identity and the representation of Egyptian people/women in the Diaspora, in Germany. In her work she plays with the different cultural codes and with the fact that there is no 'innocent view' - every view is culturally conditioned. In all these complex and multi-layered experiences - particular the tension that she feels, being educated in German art academies and German/Western thinking, with regard to the stereotype of Muslim women in the West - Susan Hefuna questions how Egyptian culture is presented and seen, and how she herself is situated within her own Diaspora in Germany and Egypt.
Wednesday, December 18, 02
I think I will stop here. The opening is still three months away and undoubtedly the volatile nature of life and art will continue to affect the form and content of the exhibition. My quest to find and display new Arab art has led me to cross real borders but also to reflect on the artists who confront the boundaries of their countries, re-shape the parameters of their traditions, and challenge the confines of their identity as men and women, as Arabs, as artists. They also raise the question of the dividing line between fiction and reality
The real and the imaginary make me wish
wish I had the guts of the artists I work with. Sometimes I fantasize that some of the events described here were fabricated, just to make the narrative more interesting. Wouldnt it be wondrous if Ali Jabri were not really dead, Walid Sadek coming to the show and the barriers, borders and occupation no more?