In January, Bidoun Projects launched a series of art-writing workshops in Dubai, focusing on developing critical debate around contemporary practices. The first lively, weekend-long workshop was attended by over fifty curators, journalists, arts administrators, architects, and students — plus the occasional banker and graffiti artist — and tutored by Hassan Khan, Kevin Mitchell, and Kaelen Wilson-Goldie, while February’s session included a presentation by Shumon Basar. Workshops continue throughout the spring, in addition to one-on-one sessions with the tutors and ongoing exchanges via Facebook. The workshops are presented in partnership with the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority and held at Shelter, our home in Dubai.
Also at Shelter, the Portfolio Project — a rolling monthly showcase for upcoming photographers based in the UAE, curated by Alia Al-Sabi — continues with an exhibition by Sharjah-based Iraqi-Turkish artist Yasmeen Mohammed. Previous participants include Hind Mezaina, Mohamed Somji, and the duo Zeinab Hajian and Aisha Miyuki.
This issue of the magazine is being launched at Art Dubai, now in its fourth year. This year the fair invited Bidoun Projects to be its curatorial partner. We’ve programmed a series of noncommercial exhibitions, commissions, screenings, and educational events, including major new installations by Ebtisam Abdulaziz, and Vartan Avakian; a set of ice sculptures designed by Farhad Moshiri; and, for the third year running, an Art Park in the basement parking lot, full of videos, talks, and performances. We’ve also invited Sophia Al-Maria, Khalil Rabah, and Daniel Bozhkov to act as tour guides. Look out for Bozhkov’s contribution, The Fastest Guided Tour of Art Dubai: “a run through seven acres of creative production in forty-five minutes.” Bidoun Projects’ activities at the fair are kindly supported by the Emirates Foundation.
Also at Art Dubai, Bidoun celebrates the first anniversary of its ongoing collaboration with UbuWeb with screenings and discussions in the Art Park. Recent additions to the BubuWeb stream — accessible from ubu.com, but also from Bidoun’s redesigned and newly functional website, bidoun.com — include the ￼films of Hamlet Hovsepian and Sekai Senso Sengen (Declaration of World War), a joint film project of the Japanese Red Army Faction and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, produced in 1971 by RAF members Koji Wakamatsu and Masao Adachi.
The Bidoun Library makes an appearance at Art Dubai in March and then travels on to 98 Weeks’ space in Beirut in April, to coincide with the Hay Festival, Beirut39, and Ashkal Alwan’s Home Works Forum. The library is presented in partnership with Abu Dhabi Art; new sections include a focus on the pioneering Iranian state-sponsored book-and-film agency for children, Kanoon.
Meanwhile, in Cairo, a major exhibition of works commissioned by Babak Radboy, overseen by Ayman Ramadan, and executed by an array of artists, hustlers, and auto mechanics (sometimes the same person), is on display at the Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art. Forms of Compensation is a series of twenty-one reproductions of iconic modern and contemporary artworks, with an emphasis on sculptures, paintings, and prints by Arab and Iranian artists.
This winter also sees the publication of our second book with the Sharjah Art Foundation, the sequel to Provisions (March 2009), the companion to last year’s Sharjah Biennial 9. The second volume, again coedited by the biennial’s Lara Khaldi, is an innovative response to the “biennial experience”: visiting critics, curators, and artists contributed diaries from their time in Sharjah, while biennial participants sent us projects and interventions on paper that reflect on the UAE and their experiences.
Last, but by no means least, Bidoun celebrates the arrival of a new art director, Andy Pressman of the Brooklyn-based design studio Rumors.
We’ve been talking about doing an issue about the market for so long that the boom went bust before we got around to it.
When Bidoun started out, there were no art magazines in the Gulf, no art fairs or auction houses; galleries hardly existed. What did exist was a burgeoning group — not yet a community — of young artists, with few venues for showing their work and little or no place to talk about it, let alone critique it.
Six years later, there are auction houses and art fairs and prizes. There is another Middle Eastern art magazine, Canvas, and it has a TV station (with incredible set design by Zaha Hadid). For many artists from what some without irony call MENASA (sadly, not a space program), the problem is no longer a dearth of opportunities, but the kind of opportunities on offer.
In “Identity Bazaar”— a folio’s worth of rants assembled by Bidoun ranter-in-chief Hassan Khan — a gang of four artists and curators analyze, bemoan, disdain, and pity contemporary art institutions and the “ethnic turn” in curatorial practice (in an “arts and culture from the Middle East” magazine, no less). Accompanying their words are a selection of photographs that document Forms of Compensation, a project in which twenty-one iconic modern and contemporary artworks were counterfeited by workers from the mekaniki district of Cairo. The results are pretty funny, but they are also strangely uncanny in their stilted articulation of the originals. In this way, they echo the local bazaars, where such mutant clones as OK1 by Oalvin Klein, Y-5, Abidas, and Shanel abound.
This language of marketing is nothing new. In “Arabia on the Turkey,” Adam John Waterman tells the tale of Elkader, Iowa, a small farm town named for an early nineteenth-century Algerian revolutionary — and a pawn in the great game of cultural diplomacy even today. Lawrence Osborne’s short story “Hungry Ghosts” tells a tale of life and death in the gambling palaces of Macau. Gini Alhadeff’s lovely essay “Pleasure for the Eyes” suggests the indispensability of ornament, which we moderns tend to think is beneath, or at least behind, us.
In “Lord of the Drone,” Alexander Keefe recovers the life and legacy of the great Indian singer and tambura player Pandit Pran Nath, a key but underappreciated figure in the 1970s art underground. Alexander Provan’s “The Golden Compass” profiles another set of dreamers, the Murabitun — a wildly ambitious Sufi sect that plans to destroy the world-capitalist system not with bombs or swords, but with a gold-backed currency.
Lodged between a ceramic goldfish and a brick garnished with kale and cherry tomatoes, you’ll find the gilded pages of what might be the world’s first Kuwaiti comic book, Fatima Al Qadiri and Khalid al Gharaballi’s Mahma Kan Althaman (“Whatever the Price”) — the hermaphroditic lovechild of Moogambo, The Real Housewives of Atlanta, and a 1970s Italian fotonovela.
Farhad Moshiri, the Iranian Andy Warhol of the Arab world, is not the kind of artist you normally read about in this magazine, despite the fact —or perhaps because of it? — that his career, cachet, and controversy in many ways mirror Bidoun’s own. But in the Bizarro World of BAZAAR, he’s not just in our coverage — he’s on the cover, encrusting our logo with Swarovski crystals. All that, and it still only costs $12. WTF!
Phyllida Barlow & Nairy Baghramian
May 8–June 13, 2010
Conceived as a dialogue between two sculptors, this exhibition will likely push the conversation toward form, space, and narrative. Phyllida Barlow specializes in playfully exuberant pileups of everyday materials, such as cardboard, fabric, paper, glue, paint, plastic, tape, tarpaulins, and more. If her artistic lineage reaches back to Arte Povera, then Nairy Baghramian’s, by contrast, belongs to the sleekness and austerity of modernist furniture and minimalist interior design. Both artists’ works raise intriguing questions about the lives of artworks themselves. While Baghramian’s sculptural and architectural installations sometimes appear as stage sets waiting for a story to begin, Barlow’s works often last no longer than the time in which they are exhibited, as the artist tends to recycle her materials, destroying one piece for the creation of another.
Ramin Haerizadeh: Shahr-e-Ghesseh
March 15–April 16, 2010
The dark children’s musical Shahr-e-Ghesseh (or “city of tales”) was produced in the years before the Islamic Revolution in Iran, which was when artist Ramin Haerizadeh, then a young boy, first saw it performed. The play tells the morbid tale of an elephant that goes into a small town and breaks his tusk and thus is disfigured and humiliated by other animal townsfolk. Haerizadeh finds in this sinister play an uncanny symbolism and resemblance to recent events in Iran — images of bureaucratic debility and venerated violence. In his signature style of collage and photomanipulation, Haerizadeh adopts scenes from the play where the papier-mâché heads of the actors become poignant symbols of both the removal of the shah and the search for an alternative to the current events in contemporary Iran.
Can Altay & Iman Issa
April 24–May 29, 2010
This double-barreled show at Rodeo will feature Iman Issa’s visually austere yet riddling triptychs alongside a site-specific sculpture by Can Altay, which will weave around the gallery’s central columns like a labyrinth. Linking the two artists together is a shared fascination with cities, subversion, interstitial spaces, and the urban condition. Issa’s earlier photo- and video-based works captured architectural oddities and the performative gestures of a lone figure set against the imposing built environment of a weirdly anonymous metropolis. Her triptychs, however, are far more pensive and interior — a still life of a desk with a typewriter, blood samples, and a plant, for example, placed between a moody shot of a street lamp and a shelf strewn with notebooks. Forging crisp associations between objects and sound elements as well as among images, the series, from 2009, also signifies a major step in the development of the artist’s practice. Altay, originally trained as an architect, creates works based on extensive research into subcultural social phenomena and the improvisational or unsanctioned use of urban space. While he often employs slide shows and animations, here he’ll be creating an environment out of Plexiglas and wood.
Etel Adnan was born in Beirut in 1925. A poet, novelist, and playwright who has been experimenting for decades with an accordion-like form of the artist’s book, she will be exhibiting a selection of paintings and works on paper that explore landscapes, abstraction, and feminism. Yto Barrada was born in Paris in 1971. The director of the inimitable Cinémathèque de Tanger, she makes politically engaged (and, at the same time, art-historically evocative) photographs and videos chronicling the changing face and environmental degradation of Tangier. Here, she will be presenting a series of newly created sculptures and installations, in addition to large-scale photographs. By juxtaposing the work of two formidable but very different artists, this cross-generational exhibition promises to tease out some of the subtler aspects of their work by highlighting their common tendencies toward color, poetry, and nature.
Emily Jacir: Affiliations
Beirut Art Center
January 28–April 9, 2010
Emily Jacir’s first solo exhibition in Beirut emphasizes the artist in interventionist mode, featuring four works created over the past nine years. For the monumentally moving Where We Come From, Jacir asked Palestinians all over the world, “If I could do anything for you, anywhere in Palestine, what would it be?” Taking advantage of the mobility her US passport afforded her in the early years of the last decade (Jacir would no longer be able to execute the piece today), she took the responses, carried out the requests — including everything from paying a phone bill to going on a date with a girl in East Jerusalem — and documented the process in photographs and videos. For Sexy Semite, Jacir asked Palestinians to place personal ads in the back pages of The Village Voice, seeking Jewish mates who would allow them to return to their homelands under Israeli law. In the sound piece Untitled (servees), Jacir evokes an earlier era when the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem served as a threshold for regional travel. The final work in the exhibition, stazione, consists of documentation for a public intervention that was conceived for last year’s Venice Biennale, exploring the historic links between Venice and the Arab world; it was cancelled at the last minute by the city’s municipal authorities.
Walid Sadek: Place At Last
Beirut Art Center
January 28–April 9, 2010
Running at the Beirut Art Center is Walid Sadek’s first solo show. Place at Last features texts, silkscreens, wall works, sculptural objects, and the installations Learning to See Less, Love Is Blind, and Mourning in the Presence of the Corpse. For a fiercely intelligent artist and writer, who is notoriously (and perhaps productively) suspicious of institutionalized art spaces, all of this is an intriguing proposition. Among the many themes Sadek has tackled over the years — in ephemeral gestures, freely distributed publications, textual interventions, and, occasionally, images and installations — are the legacies and consequences of violence, the meaning of lingering strife in periods of political and economic stability, societies resistant to the resumption of healthy or normative living in the aftermath of war, and the poetics of social experience. In all of these works and themes and theoretical inquiries, Sadek continually returns, with great simplicity and tenderness, to the act of seeing and the ramifications of making images (or not).
Home Works V: A Forum On Cultural Practices
April 22–May 1, 2010
Ten days, five themes, and an onslaught of exhibitions, performances, film and video screenings, artists’ talks, panel discussions, and intensely heated debates. For the fifth edition of the Home Works Forum, Ashkal Alwan has slightly shifted its strategy by putting out an open call for proposals responding to the event’s five areas of interest: “In and Out of Education: What Can We Teach Nowadays?” (proposing an experiential, site-sensitive approach to arts education); “Where is Beirut, Ramallah, Cairo… From Saadiyat Island” (a research project on the implications of Abu Dhabi’s top-down approach to contemporary art and culture); “Sound & Citizenry” (exploring the many intersecting relationships between art, music, revolution, and more); “The Odd Years” (offering a radical re-reading and critical re-assessment of the 1960s); and “Militarism” (looking at the role of strong armies in politics in states such as Syria, Turkey, and Israel). The result is certain to be a far more open, interactive, and participatory forum ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼than ever before, with contributions reaching far beyond the usual suspects.
Darat al Funun
May 11–July 15, 2010
This exhibition is something of a mid-career survey for Jananne Al-Ani, focusing on forms of narration and the relationship between figure and ground (or, more accurately, the disappearance of the body in the vast landscape of the desert). In addition to newly created works in photography and video, the show will include The Visit, a complex, two-part piece from 2005, which consists of “Muse,” a single-channel video projection of a mysterious male figure pacing silently across a patch of land in seven consecutive scenes, and “Echo,” a four-screen video projection of four chatting women, their voices overlapping and escalating into a rumbling din. Reaching back further in time, the show will also include Untitled (Gulf War Work), a piece Al-Ani made in 1991. Drawing on the different uses of photography — from family snapshots and photojournalism to museum-style documentation and carefully staged portraiture — the piece consists of twenty small square images arranged in four rows of five. Ostensibly an illustrated history of the medium, it doubles as a critique of the lack of context and complexity that characterized political debates in the UK around the time of the first Gulf War (particularly when it became clear that British forces would be participating). By reviving this work now, Al-Ani seems to be asking, has anything really changed?
Art Dubai 2010
March 17–20, 2010
Now in its fourth year, Art Dubai has responded to the global financial downturn and its home emirate’s rollercoaster year by hunkering down in the region. Of this year’s sixty attending galleries, around a quarter are from the Middle East, with the balance an international selection including Grey Noise, Lahore; Galería OMR, Mexico City; and Galería ANIMAL, Santiago. The three artist/curator pairs commissioned for this year’s Abraaj Capital Art Prize — Kader Attia with curator Laurie Ann Farrell; Hala Elkoussy with Jelle Bouwhuis; and Marwan Sahmarani with Mahita El Bacha Urieta — present their finished installations; and the Global Art Forum, the largest talkshop in the MENASA (Middle East–North Africa–South Asia) region, returns to its tent on the beach. The fair has revamped the forum this year, taking on subjects such as the future of the art school and a series of “modernist moments” through conversations with artists, curators, museum directors, and collectors. The forum will be documented with a new mapping project presided over by a team of writers and artists — Shumon Basar, Haig Aivazian, and Naeem Mohaieman.
This year, Bidoun Projects will curate all noncommercial programming at Art Dubai. A group exhibition focuses on new and expanded formalist practice and includes cardboard sculptures by Hazem El Mestikawy; Safety Zoom, a dynamic wall installation by Mahmoud Khaled; and a set of mixed-media triptychs by Iman Issa. We have commissioned major new works from Vartan Avakian and Ebtisam Abdulaziz, and are also commissioning artists to design ice sculptures and give tours of the fair. The basement Art Park returns, with four video programs, curated by Bidoun Projects plus Aram Moshayedi, Masoud Amralla Al Ali, and the team of Ozge Ersoy and Sohrab Mohebbi. Bidoun will also officially launch our year-long collaboration with UbuWeb with a series of screenings and talks featuring poet and UbuWeb founder Kenneth Goldsmith and filmmakers Peggy Ahwesh and Hamlet Hovsepian. We will also be presenting the latest version of the Bidoun Library.
Al Bastakiya Art Fair
XVA Gallery and other venues, Bastakiya
March 15–21, 2010
Timed to coincide with Art Dubai, Dubai’s only fringe art fair will focus this year on contemporary Middle Eastern art through a combination of curated national pavilions, including Iraq, curated by Asmaa Al-Shabibi; Iran, curated by Rose Issa; and Lebanon, curated by Samera Zahed. It will also feature exhibitions by Dubai- and Sharjah-based galleries, and installations in public outdoor areas around the wind-tower stone houses in Bastakiya, Dubai’s atmospheric heritage quarter by the Creek. Now in its fourth year, and once again organized by XVA gallery, BAF aims to promote independent practices and to foster an international conversation ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼between members of the art community in Dubai and abroad.
Eye Love You: New Works by Shirin Aliabadi
The Third Line
March 10–April 22, 2010
Shirin Aliabadi’s first solo exhibition in Dubai takes on the bizarre aesthetics of wedding culture. In a series of pencil drawings, elaborately made-up eyes play on the drama and grandiose expectations of the marriage ceremony and the artificial body enhancement that can go along with it. The exhibition also includes a poem written by the artist, about a young girl bored into doodling about beauty, fame, material gain, and, of course, love.
Abbas Akhavan: MAPPING
The Third Line
May 5–June 17, 2010
Visitors to Abbas Akhavan’s first solo exhibition in Dubai will be able to take home a “piece of Dubai.” The Vancouver-based artist will create a series of maps that combine aerial shots of Dubai and neighboring regions with mythical mapping elements from the Middle Ages, focusing on Dubai’s infamous man-made islands and architectural icons. Akhavan plans to offer pieces of the map for sale — a reminder of the economy’s inevitable influence on the art market and its questionable ability to sustain itself through the crunch times.
On how to appear invisible
Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art
The exhibition on how to appear invisible takes Pier Paolo Pasolini’s call for a “state of emergency” in the 1963 film La Rabbia (Rage) as its point of departure. In the film, a collaboration between Pasolini and Giovanni Guareschi, Pasolini despairs at the state of apathy around him, calling upon poets and artists to rise up and disrupt the status quo. This project, curated by Sarah Rifky in collaboration with Reloading Images NYRT, comprises an exhibition, choir, party, series of nonevents, performances, reproduced papers, readings, and talks — making for a return to the more casual, everyday, personal, and introspective approach to art and performative practices. The exhibition portion will feature acts, works, questions, stories, and interruptions by Dora Garcia (SP), Carey Young (UK), Sharon Hayes (US), Ahmed Sabry (EG), Mohamed Nabil (EG), Hassan Khan (EG), Ceal Floyer (G/UK), Dan Perjovschi (RO), Johanna Billing (SE), Johan Svensson (SE), Nikos Arvanitis (G/GR), Sarah Pierce (UK/US), Ana Bezelga (PT), Tischa Mukarji (FR/IN), and the Complaints Choir (FIN/EG). ‘On how to appear invisible’ is an ongoing project to be launched at the Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art in Cairo. It will connect to Home Works V, Beirut, and On Rage, curated by Valerie Smith at the House of World Cultures, Berlin.
A few months ago, the artist Farhad Moshiri received a curious email. “Hello, Mr. Moshiri,” it read. “I wish that you would stop producing art.” A few weeks later, an article in a prominent online arts magazine derided a body of work he showed at the Frieze Art Fair as “toys for the anesthetized new rich.” The author, a fellow artist and gallerist, declared the assembled pieces — a series of elaborately embroidered birds sparkling in DayGlo colors, titled Fluffy Friends — “an insult to all brave Iranians who have shed their blood for more freedom.” In a final scabrous blow — it was only a few months after the contested presidential elections of 2009 and all the bloodshed that ensued — the author wrote that the artist had “amputated his Iranian heart and replaced it with a cash register.”
Moshiri, who lives and works in Tehran, was delighted. “I cherish these letters,” he told me. “They turn out to be like the diplomas people hang. I keep them close.”
At no taller than 5’5” — or, if you include the swirl of curly black hair that falls over and around his head, 5’6” — Moshiri seems an unlikely candidate to inspire such virulence. With his thickly rectangular black eyeglasses and ears that stand out at perpendicular angles to his head, he resembles Woody Allen, had Woody Allen been Iranian. His manner, detached and marked by a highly developed irony, rarely betrays anxiety, anger, or even pleasure. He has the social instincts of a hedgehog: he rarely leaves his own house or studio, is only occasionally seen out at exhibitions and openings, and is famously loath to attend art parties. He has been known to spend entire days in bed — doing what, nobody really knows.
Moshiri’s artwork, on the other hand, is often very big, very loud, and very present. Quoting from the languages of advertising, fashion, and even occasionally religion, it seems to yell, “Notice me!” “Covet me!” And finally, “Oh, please, please buy me!” With such titles as Run Like Hell, I Forget You Forever, and Three Homes Is Where the Heart Is, it also very often makes you laugh. When contemplating Moshiri’s works — spectacularly beautiful objects made of smaller spectacularly beautiful objects — our own reactions emerge as objects of scrutiny and wonder. It is, at the risk of reducing it all to a one-liner, artwork in seductive packaging that is in turn about seductive packaging. If you don’t enjoy the spectacle of someone having their cake — or is it yours? — and eating it, too, you may very well be annoyed by the fact that his work often sells for hundreds of thousands, even a million, dollars.
I first met Moshiri in Berlin in 2003 at an exhibition staged at the House of World Cultures under the pleasingly opaque title ‘Far Near Distance.’ There was a bevy of Iranian artists there — Khosrow Hassanzadeh, Marjane Satrapi, Ghazel — many of them members of a stable cultivated by Rose Issa, a Lebanese-Iranian curator who has probably done more than any other person to usher Iranian artists onto the international stage.
We met at the cocktail bar after the opening, and after exchanging pleasantries about the cold Berlin weather, I decided that we probably would not be great friends. I complimented him on the fact that his work, a series of gilded furniture pieces, was on the cover of the exhibition catalog. It was, as I understood it, a sculptural response to the prevailing Tehran decor vernacular of the times. “That’s great!” was all I could think to say. He remained silent. I got along better with his wife and sometime collaborator, Shirin Aliabadi, a woman with well-kept bangs that hung over a large section of her face. But after that, I kept running into him, especially in Tehran, where people would sometimes refer to him as “that pottery guy.”
The pottery, as it happens, were paintings — a series of works on canvas Moshiri had started in 1999, inspired by old ceramic jars that he had seen in a museum in his hometown. The mottled surface of the jars in his paintings were overlain with text. The words, which one might well presume would be the oracular stuff of Persian mysticism, were in fact drawn from popular sayings — the kind you sometimes find lovingly inscribed on the backs of long-haul trucks, like “Say Congratulations,” or “Only You,” or “The Past Is Past.”
Despite their cheek, the canvases were probably mostly experienced as beautiful objects. “I think it’s safe to say most people didn’t get it,” Moshiri says. Perhaps adding to their cachet, the canvases were vaguely evocative of the Saqqakhaneh school, an Iranian modern art movement of the 1960s and ’70s that was inspired by Persian calligraphic traditions, and has been called “spiritual pop art.” Artists such as Parviz Tanavoli and Hossein Zenderoudi were the movement’s patron saints.
In any case, the jar canvases were a hit. By 2001, the artist and gallerist Fereydoun Ave offered Moshiri a show in his space in Tehran’s central Vanak Square, and before long, the pottery was hanging on the walls of many of Tehran’s better-known art collectors. The series also introduced his distinctive relationship to text as an element of his practice — not exactly conceptual, but something far simpler. “Text became a shortcut for me to reach a certain emotional level. I noticed that text had an effect on people that an image never could,” he says now.
Tehran of the early 2000s was a stimulating place to be for many artists. Under then-President Mohammad Khatami, the oft-smiling figure whose previous job had been running a library, it was easy to imagine that you were living just about anywhere but the Islamic Republic (as long as your work didn’t engage politics). Artists got away with a lot. Alireza Sami Azar, a finely mustached architect-turned-art-dealer, had recently been appointed head of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, a modernist structure erected under the patronage of Empress Farah Diba in the 1970s. Soon, exhibitions of local artists were being held alongside international exhibitions. I remember seeing works by Henry Moore, Anthony Caro, Anish Kapoor, and Damien Hirst in Tehran at an exhibition of twentieth-century British sculpture back in 2004. A conceptual art show was launched, a cultural center in the north of the city reopened, and artists increasingly began to occupy public space — from roadsides to half-finished high-rise buildings to, in one unique case, the courtyard of the city’s central mosque. And of course, throngs of international curators passed through — mostly to assemble the sweeping Iranian group shows that would become de rigueur. Whatever you made of it all, things were undeniably happening.
It was also around this time that Tehran experienced a windfall of new wealth following the gradual opening up of the economy — under Khatami and his predecessor, the wily chameleon-like businessman Hashemi Rafsanjani. Money literally reshaped the face of the city: suddenly, Dubai-style facades were erected all over the city’s north side in a strange ersatz version of Beverly Hills. Neon-lit coffee shops with confusingly exotic names such as GRAFFITI and LATEX opened on every block. People drove around in circles checking one another out from their fancy car windows in the posh northern Tehran neighborhood of Elahieh. Nouveau-riche giddiness was the zeitgeist of the times.
Rather than retreat in horror, Moshiri, who today lives in Elahieh, reveled in the changes. He mined them. The high-rises, the consumer detritus, the nose-job fetish — it became his raw material. “People were even putting up mirrored disco glass in their simple village homes,” he muses now. His next projects included a photographic series of monumental Tehran residential facades, each in more heroically poor taste than the next. And then came work on what he refers to as “found objects” of the city: talismans of Persian culture colliding with decidedly Western tropes. A stylistic frottage, if you will. This was the land of Kabooky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hat, the best sort of Esperanto. It was too good to pass up. Even watching Iranian state television provided him with endless fodder. His work was wholly informed by the world coming up around him, and in some ways, continues to serve as an X-ray of it.
Farhad Moshiri was born in 1963 in the southern Iranian city of Shiraz — famously the birthplace of the great poets Saadi and Hafez, the seat of the Persian Empire during the Achaeminid Empire, and more recently the playground of Farah Diba as she orchestrated an avant-garde arts festival there from 1967 to 1977. In those years Merce Cunningham, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis, and many more came and went, staging events with the full patronage of the royals.
Moshiri was a wee young man when these strange manifestations of art took place. “I’d hear people laughing about the ‘high art’ in Shiraz,” he remembers. “It was mostly negative. That kind of art appalled and shocked people. The story was that socialites would come to Shiraz to see these weird things. As a kid I’d hear people mimicking the performances — the noises, the positions. There was a story about someone shooting rubber bullets up their ass and calling it art. I think it’s fair to say the Pahlavi regime seemed pretty out of touch.”
Moshiri’s father, a businessman, ran a string of cinemas in Shiraz, mostly showing standard spaghetti westerns awkwardly dubbed into English. Farhad loved the movies. He was also skilled at drawing, which his father encouraged. At school, where he failed many of his classes, his Indian-born teacher and his classmates would call him “big fool, little fellow.” He spent most afternoons riding his bicycle through the little desert town and eating Mars bars. As the Revolution of 1979 rolled around and the shah, his pretty wife, and all that avant-garde-ism was on its way out, Moshiri was shipped off to another desert town, called Idyllwild, some two and a half hours from Los Angeles. There, he ran around with the children of dysfunctional celebrities at a boarding school on top of a mountain.
He moved on to CalArts after that, where John Mandel was his advisor. Conceptualists John Baldessari and Michael Asher were also on faculty, as was Don Bukla, the inventor of the analog modular synthesizer. “Once I saw that instrument, I nearly fell over backwards,” he said. “An entire wall of shimmering metals and flashing LEDs was something out of sci-fi movie — it was Plan 9 from Outer Space. From then on, I stopped going to class. When I did go, I was a walking zombie.” Not going to class caught up with him, and in his third year Moshiri was called in to speak to the dean. “They gave me a simple choice. Show up to class, or get out. So I left.”
From there it was a short trip to various odd jobs — making sculptures out of liquid latex (the singer Billy Idol bought one, but later returned it) while moonlighting as an inventor (his claim to fame was a magical disappearing pen). At the same time, a modest gallery scene was coming to life in Santa Monica, and Moshiri would go to openings — “mostly for the free food.” In 1989, he received an offer for his first show from a small and respectable Santa Monica Gallery called Dorothy Goldeen. For the exhibition, he painted the opening and closing credits of films, and it got a write-up in the Los Angeles Times. “It seems that I was slowly cornering myself into becoming an artist,” he reflects. But still, in the midst of an economic recession, money was hard to come by, and he started to think about going back to Iran — he hadn’t been there in eleven years. “Suddenly it felt like things were happening. You’d hear about how great Iranian cinema was and this or that. I thought, ‘I could do that.’ So I packed up and went.”
In Iran, Moshiri submitted film ideas to the Farabi Cinema Foundation, which was giving out grants to young filmmakers at the time. All his ideas were rejected. He worked on some animations for UNICEF, and he and Aliabadi — who had just returned to Iran after studying archaeology in Paris — made a children’s book together. He showed what artwork he had to Golestan Gallery, one of a handful of respectable galleries at the time, and was told that his work was “like a salad,” a mishmash that didn’t make all that much sense.
Out of money again, he began to craft stylized knockoffs of antique furniture, the sorts of things trendy young people might put in their new condominiums. It was around then that he encountered the jars at a museum in Shiraz. Soon enough, just about any item under ten dollars — “That was my budget”— became a potential point of departure for his work. Of course, in a country where abstraction and expressionism were widely accepted, while Duchamp was largely unknown, Moshiri’s work with found objects was confusing. But Moshiri showed the jar canvases at artist and gallerist Fereydoun Ave’s space in central Tehran, and eventually, abroad. He may have even showed them too much. “I was becoming the Pottery Barn guy,” he says now. “And that terrified me.”
One day in 2004, while planning an exhibition of furniture pieces in a gallery in Rome — by then, his decorating work had evolved into artworks covered in gold leaf — the curator asked him to think about something he could hang on the wall. With the help of local craftspeople, he commissioned his first embroideries, the kind many Iranian families hang on their own walls, depicting bucolic scenes of flowers and countryside and the like. His body of embroidered works eventually evolved into a morphine paradise of colors depicting, variously, maps of the world, a shiny crown, pint-sized cowboys and Indians, a control room, a little boy painting under the sea in an underwater suit — all whimsical, all indulgent, drawn from what one would imagine was nothing more than a little boy’s fantasy world. “I’m sure my subjects come from some childhood hang-ups that I might not have worked through. A psychologist could explain this better than me.”
Later, he began to craft “cake paintings,” dense canvases that took inspiration from the palatial flourishes of the cakes common in Tehran bakeries. Made by squeezing paint through pastry bags, the paintings evoked all kinds of elaborate surfaces, from luscious fancy cakes to plaster-ornamented buildings. Chocolateman versus Pearlcake presents a muscly traditional Iranian wrestler made of what appears to be chocolate overlaying a ravishing pink pound cake. Others depict human profiles — seemingly drawn from hokey Eisenhower-era children’s literature — over images of ornate beds.
“I’ve found a cornucopia of materials that have become my palette,” he said. “They are my paint. They’re even more valid than paint.”
Occasionally, Moshiri invokes the self-portrait in his various titles, among them a work that involved a droopy crystal chandelier hanging over and absurdly close to a poofy chair. It is hard not to laugh. “It makes it easier for people to understand a work when you give it human characteristics,” he says. “I have paintings of couches that are self-portraits, too.”
What furniture does he really feel captures his spirit?
“I’m not a chair or a table. I’m more like a couch… that can also be a bed.”
Farhad Moshiri entered the public realm at a time when Iraneté was especially en vogue, inspiring a tsunami of terrible work. Some of the artists who rode the wave of attention stayed safely in that ethnic enclave, others moved on, and still others disappeared into the ether. Farhad, already a veteran of at least a decade of multicultural wars, carved his own peculiar route.
Take, for example, his lesser-known, but equally important, body of work produced with Aliabadi. Here, the world of Iranian products, television soap operas, and even censorship provide ample fodder for explorations of a culture in awkward flux. In their work, Moshiri and Aliabadi point out, for example, that the Iranian cola drink ZAM ZAM looks like PEE PEE when spelled in Farsi script. A popular disinfectant is called “Snow” in Farsi but “Barf” when translated to its phonetic Roman equivalent. Pages from censored women’s magazines reveal their own distinctive artistic style. Moshiri and Aliabadi have shown these inadvertent collages in their work (and sometimes as their work). Sure, it’s kind of facile. But it’s also a map of an economy of signs, translations, and lost-in-translations that speak to the contemporary condition.
Still, Moshiri’s work is not about globalization or the individual stuck between worlds, or any of that soppy East-West stuff, as much as it is about how culture is a thing that is always in progress and finally, inevitably, in the eye of the beholder. And if we accept that we live in a world in which borders are increasingly ambiguous, Moshiri’s work captures some of the stranger manifestations of that porousness to tell us a story that is as old as time itself.
There is, you might say, an important question to raise here about kitsch — especially for an Iranian artist who came of age in Los Angeles and whose consumption and representation of Iranian vernacular is so unabashedly garish. Few take Jeff Koons to task for misrepresenting the Easter bunny or for defaming American bad taste. But Moshiri’s art inevitably raises uncomfortable questions about taste and faith — both bad and good — in Iran as in the West.
In a way, Moshiri attempted to address this problematic in 2005 by putting on a curatorial hat in a small Chelsea gallery called Kashya Hildebrand. 'Welcome’ was the name of the show, and it included some of Moshiri and Aliabadi’s work — re-edited takes from Persian soap operas as well as a series of decorative plates — along with images of men’s belts by the photographer Peyman Hooshmandzadeh and the works of a popular street photographer named Bahram Afandizadeh, who normally serves Tehran’s Afghan community. In its own way, the show pushed back against the aesthetic language that America was becoming familiar with when it came to Iranian artists. And it was funny, side-stepping the didacticism of so many shows that take the art market as their subject.
Writing in the New York Times, the critic Holland Cotter aptly wrote of the assembled works in 'Welcome’: “They are self-studies, and they turn the show itself into a kind of cultural self-portrait. The portrait is shaped by the varied forms of modernity it encompasses, and by what it resists, namely a particular kind of self-exoticizing that the international art market tends to reward.”
There is a manner in which the discomfort Moshiri’s work evokes in some circles mirrors the sensitivities brought on by the peculiar geography that is Dubai — situated just one hundred miles from Iran across the Persian Gulf. Strangely, the artist’s fortunes have closely tracked the dramatic ascendance of that city, a place that inspires wildly diverse reactions, depending on one’s ideas about history, class, and, above all, taste. After all, it is in that glittering Xanadu — where Moshiri is represented by The Third Line Gallery, and spends more and more time — that he came to be known as the auction-house golden boy, the paladin of Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Bonhams.
In May 2006, Christie’s held its inaugural sale in Dubai, outpacing all expectations and tripling pre-sale estimates. It was not long before Bonhams and Sotheby’s followed suit. By 2007, Christie’s was holding two sales per year at the Emirates Towers Hotel, and in October of that year sold $12.6 million of Arab and Iranian art in one evening alone. Moshiri was featured in these sales and in 2008 broke the auction record for a painting by an Iranian artist, with a work with the Farsi word for LOVE embroidered in Swarovski crystals and gold sequins. There was an irony in the fact that Iranians such as Moshiri could go on living at home, while being within close reach of the flush markets of Dubai. Suddenly, many observers of this young market wondered if the auctions were not distorting the field. And still others called Moshiri a sellout — though often finding it difficult to articulate exactly what he was compromising. As ever, there was the discomfort of seeing someone get fabulously rich from making art. I once asked him if he ever thought of disengaging from the auction market and all its accompanying baggage.
“The refusal to participate wasn’t interesting to me. It wasn’t effective,” he said. “Sure, there were moments, especially when the auction houses would come to Iran to pick up work, that I would be frustrated. But by not entering, what kind of statement are you making? You disappear. Of course, the auction also means that you hope work you made ten years ago, and wish would disappear, will not reappear. But it’s still impossible to withdraw completely, or it was for me.”
On the subject of Dubai, Moshiri is enthusiastic. “To find myself in that position, to witness a modern city being built up, was incredible,” he said. “Things were adventurous, my imagination was running wild. The energy was incredible. To imagine an aesthetic that is completely run out of this world. Nothing was held back. Everything was unchained.”
Just as Dubai is routinely derided as all fake, all the time, an oasis of plastic, so too is Moshiri’s work. For him, perhaps, the complaints are of a piece:
“An artificial make-believe lifestyle fascinates me. I use fake diamonds in paintings, and that’s somehow related to the fact that some people want to believe that they’re real diamonds. Art is about illusion. It’s a manufactured idea in order to reach a certain illusion and expression via artificial methods… so suddenly the whole thing makes sense. We’re all in the same boat.”
It is true — at times, the lines between fake and real in his work become impossibly blurred. When showing his gilded vitrine series at the Sharjah Biennial in 2005, for example, he pleased two passing sheikhs, who appeared visibly disinterested in the postmodern stuff of international biennialdom that surrounded them but who nodded admiringly at Moshiri’s glittering objects — finally, something they liked!
In the end, Moshiri will always be — for some people at least — the guy who made fluffy DayGlo birds out of sequins while the revolution came and went. And indeed, he is not not that. Art, after all, may be about illusion, and it may be a manufactured idea, as he himself puts it. It may also be, as Duchamp asserted, simply what the artist says it is. “You are what you eat,” Moshiri once told me, of his gilded furniture pieces. Celebrate him or shun him, he may remain the paradigmatic artist of the boom times.
Over the course of a sporadic acting career that spanned nearly four decades, Isabel Rosario Cooper — aka Elizabeth Cooper, aka Dimples Cooper, aka “Chabing” — never found a home in the roles for which she was cast. Having starred in two silent films and one studio motion picture as a girl inthe Philippines, the young actress was whisked away to Washington, DC, in 1929 by General Douglas MacArthur, then the feted field marshal of the Philippine Army. MacArthur kept the wide-eyed Cooper hidden from view, more or less confined to an apartment near his office, for more than three years — then cast her aside. (She received a slim payoff when a muckraking journalist from the Washington Post threatened to expose the general’s sordid affair.)
When Cooper finally made her way to Hollywood in 1940, she found no more than thirteen bit parts — amounting to a total of sixteen and a half known onscreen minutes — before her suicide two decades later. (The cause of death, as announced on June 29, 1960, was an overdose of barbiturates.) Her performances were built around fulfilling the role of the exotic Other, a task that would require brief moments of visual impact and precious little narrative presence. Scottish-Filipina by descent, Cooper’s physical qualities were easily repackaged from one film to the next; her hair, skin, and costume could be done up to suggest the racial and ethnic type necessary for each film’s setting, whether in Japan, China, Thailand, or the American frontier.
The clips that comprise Cooper’s Hollywood output serve as the raw material for Los Angeles–based artist Miljohn Ruperto’s recent 16mm film titled The Appearance of Isabel Rosario Cooper (2007–2009), a chapter in an ongoing project that focuses on the life and afterlife of the late actress. Ruperto has assembled the pieces of Cooper’s career into a sixteen-and-a-half-minute loop, not unlike an actor’s reel, that foregrounds her presence in each film. Backgrounds and surrounding details have been digitally blurred by the artist, frame by frame, in order to direct our attention toward Cooper, recast as each scene’s central protagonist. The Appearance of Isabel Rosario Cooper serves a documentary function and provides a glimpse into the historical reality that cinematic images cannot help but convey. Although Cooper’s life off-camera was more dramatic than her small roles, only in the assemblage of her brief, fictional appearances are we reminded that she once existed.
The formal distinctions between each part of Ruperto’s larger project — four film-based works under the rubric “The Isabel Rosario Cooper Project” — seem to work toward the impossible task of retrieving a life from the historical traces that seep into the present. Ruperto is strictly committed to the employment of filmic strategies in rendering both appropriated and composed images as supplements to Cooper’s murky biographical history. The projects that proceed from The Appearance of Isabel Rosario Cooper vary in form and cinematic genre and reflect different moments in the actress’s life, both invented and true. The concluding chapters move beyond the realm of documentary and reorient the conditions surrounding Cooper’s life and death as material suitable for the creation of new filmic scenarios. In these works, Cooper gains the spotlight that seemed out of reach in her lifetime, but our knowledge of her will remain obscured and incomplete by the fictionalized accounts to which Ruperto’s critical voice insistently defers.
Ruperto’s commitment to the irresolute and fragmentary narratives extracted from this history is apparent in Arden Cho as Isabel Rosario Cooper (2007–2009), a stylized dramatization of a single day in Cooper’s life, in which the imagined scenario of her time spent awaiting General MacArthur’s return has been performed and filmed as a period piece in the style of Wong Kar-Wai. In a kind of coda to her tragic tale, the actress’s ghost emerges at the end of a darkened hallway in another film titled Re-appearance of Isabel Rosario Cooper (2007–2009), to sing a sorrowful adaptation of “Thinking of You” (from the lighthearted 1928 musical The Five O’Clock Girl). Together, these works attempt to reconstruct the fantasy and reality of Cooper’s life and death through the lenses of distinct filmic genres and tropes. The stylistic differences from one piece to the next represent the descriptive narrative potential that underlies cinematic form.
ISABEL, a very pretty teenaged girl in a tailored silk dressing gown, dawdles on the sofa in the parlor room of an elegant hotel suite.
The character description above opens Dimples, the unrealized screenplay co-written by Jean Shin and Miljohn Ruperto in the style of a Thirties-era romantic screwball comedy and based on the period around the end of Cooper’s relationship with General MacArthur in 1934. It is unlikely that the script will ever see its production into a feature film. When the four parts of the “Isabel Rosario Cooper Project” reach their eventual conclusion in 2010, Dimples will remain an unmade account of the actress’s life; the images that such passages as the description above conjure will remain hidden from view, relegated to the potential of the page and of the written word. Of course, it is a title role that only Cooper herself could play; no other actress would suffice. Haunted by this fact, Dimples will forever attend the return of Isabel Rosario Cooper for her final performance.
For those of us who’ve had the opportunity to stomp all over Marwan Rechmaoui’s Beirut Caoutchouc — a map of the city made of interlocking slabs of tough black rubber, spread across the floor like an oversized industrial slipmat — there may be another layer of urban experience to contend with in the near future. Rechmaoui, whose working process is famously methodical and notoriously slow, is about midway through a sequel of sorts, a new piece called Blazon.
The first piece, which was produced by Ashkal Alwan for the 2003 edition of the Home Works Forum, represents the most basic geography of the Lebanese capital. The artist cut the city into segments corresponding to the many municipal sectors of Beirut that snap together in the manner of a large-scale jigsaw puzzle (when installed, Beirut Caoutchouc measures roughly eight meters by seven). Carved into the surface are the shallow grooves of highways, streets, and alleyways, all of which are otherwise unmarked. While the map is accurate, it downplays well-known divisions. There are no indications of the different political or religious identities that characterize certain neighborhoods. The green line that splits the city in two appears as just one unremarkable line among many.
Beirut Caoutchouc plays with the myth and melodrama of Beirut’s resilience, a city that has bounced back countless times after being wrecked by earthquake, fire, and war. But by reducing Beirut to a flat, commonplace material — and by inviting people to walk across it, find their place on it, or trace there the routines of their days — it raises questions as to how the city has come to be known and experienced. The piece encourages viewers to consider the strange shape of the city and its development over time: how the port and quarantine grounds were added onto the historic core; how sleepy suburbs became urban sprawl; how Armenian, Palestinian, and Iraqi refugees moved in and settled down; how a massive rubbish dump became reclaimed land slated for the future development of parks and skyscrapers. It does so more effectively than any normal map because it presents Beirut as an object rather than an image.
Rechmaoui has described Beirut Caoutchouc as a piece about the singular division of Beirut, which persisted as an idea in the aftermath of Lebanon’s fifteen-year period of civil war. Considering the city now, he finds it more fractured and factionalized than before, suggesting that the civil war never truly ended and was never just one war to begin with, but many and competing wars. Blazon, then, is his gesture toward representing — and, by extension, investigating — these multiplying cracks and fissures.
For Blazon, Rechmaoui imagines Beirut as divided into six legions. Each legion corresponds to a version of the city as defined by pivotal moments in history, when borders swelled and expanded in response to wider political conflicts, economic crises, and demographic shifts. Each legion is assigned a color, an insignia, and a shield emblazoned with a coat of arms. The military lingo befits Rechmaoui’s idea of Beirut as a place that is always on alert, always preparing for another war.
As a work in progress, the piece currently consists of numerous graphic images — mostly maps and shields — on Rechmaoui’s laptop. But he plans in the coming months to translate a series of those digital files into large-scale works in vitreous enamel, or industrial-grade stained glass, fusing glass powder and pigment to sheet metal or cast iron in a kiln whose temperature exceeds 800 degrees Celsius.
Rechmaoui recently located a factory specializing in vitreous enamel on the Isle of Wight. The bulk of the factory’s business consists of things like appliances, chip-proof bathtubs, internal cladding for restaurants, and graffiti-resistant signage for the London underground. But it also does less explicitly commercial commissions and, rather unusually, runs an artist-in-residence program as well. Rechmaoui hopes to spend a few months working with the factory, learning about the material and mastering its properties. The industrial use of vitreous enamel is particularly appealing for an artist who typically works with cement and Plexiglas and rubber.
In the context of Beirut’s contemporary art scene, Rechmaoui is something of an aberration. He began his career as a painter, mining abstract expressionist and social realist motifs. Then he started making wooden panels covered with materials such as concrete, tar, iron, and glass. In the late 1990s, he abandoned two-dimensional works altogether and “got off the wall.” All of his works since then have been either sculptural or architectural. He has a deep and long-standing commitment to the spatial configurations that are created by placing three-dimensional objects in a room. He sees the hanging of two-dimensional works on the wall as a significantly less interesting proposition (for Blazon, Rechmaoui is exploring ways to make the glassworks freestanding).
Rechmaoui may share certain aesthetic, conceptual, and political concerns with his peers in Beirut, but while they tend to employ documentary and archival practices that rely heavily on critical texts or artist’s talks to generate meaning, Rechmaoui confronts viewers with no more than form, volume, and space. His work has a tactile presence that is absent from that of his colleagues. He rarely speaks about his work in public. He does not write texts, collect photographs, make videos, or stage performances. He insists that his objects — large, labor-intensive things crafted by hand or in factories — speak for themselves.
He is also far from prolific. He’s completed just four pieces in the last decade: Beirut Caoutchouc, Untitled 22 (a map of the countries that make up the Arab League, each placed at a slight distance from one another), Monument for the Living (a concrete replica of Burj al-Murr, a dysfunctional high-rise in downtown Beirut that is, for many, an appropriate memorial to the stupidity of war), and Spectre (also a concrete replica, this time of the Yacoubian Building in Ras Beirut, which Rechmaoui uses as a brilliantly understated case study for the failures of modernity).
Though Rechmaoui’s practice involves considerable research, preliminary sketches and plans, and multiple experiments with different materials, he rarely shows any of the background matter that influences his thinking or feeds into the creation of a final piece. Except for occasional illustrations in print publications, he has preferred to make and remake only those four pieces, often in slightly different versions or after intervals of many years, as new occasions for exhibition (or acquisition) arise.
Such is the significance, therefore, of Blazon, which is already, at the time of this writing, four years in the making. It also signifies a subtle shift in Rechmaoui’s approach to Beirut, which has always been, not just central to, but everywhere in the artist’s work.
“If I lived in London, I’d work on London, as a space,” he says. “So it’s not Beirut itself but what’s happening in this place. It’s the exchanges and the inheritance of things.” Rechmaoui says that the divisions operative in Beirut now are comparable to those of thirteenth-century Sienna or any moderately globalized city today, racked by competing political ideologies or ethnic tensions or trade in illicit goods and services.
“The whole world is moving in this direction,” he says. “This is why Beirut is important. It’s the future. Populations are moving wholesale into cities, and bringing with them their issues, their problems, which puts pressure on the city as a space. New York is the same, but the expression of it is polite. If you look at drugs or prostitution anywhere, you see the divisions. In some places it’s covered up. Here it’s open. I think there’s no more first world and third world, developed world and developing world. It’s getting messy all over the world. All these issues about security and terrorism mean that Western societies, which believe they are free, are starting to lose the benefits of being free. And if that’s happening, then the whole thing will be turned upside down. Underdeveloped societies will find themselves ahead because they have experience with insecurity and violence. Their immune systems are stronger.
“I’m not saying this is something good. It’s fucked up, but this is how it’s going. It’s a very perverted situation. When I started doing this work, I wanted to figure out why this city is so charming, why it’s so nice, because it’s not nice, but we enjoy it. People come here and think it’s friendly, but it’s full of hate and people killing each other. So what’s wrong here? The idea of friendliness, or the idea of hate? Look at the urban planning of Beirut. It’s totally chaotic, but we think it looks nice. We enjoy it. Does that mean there’s something wrong with me? Or with the idea of urban planning? So I’m trying to understand that. But all what I’m telling you now won’t be in the work. I’m just doing this to get to how those shields will look. Maybe there will be flags, too. When you enter the space [where the final work is installed] you must feel the intensity of a war that is about to start, a war that is just waiting for a spark.”
Before Doha, Dubai, or Abu Dhabi, the city with the boldest ambitions in the Gulf may have been Kuwait. In the 1970s, everyone from IM Pei to Andy Warhol traveled here to build, show, experience, and experiment in an atmosphere that was flourishing, at least in part, care of a sudden oil boom.
There were poetry readings, public performances, avant-garde fashion statements, and much more. Official and independent arts infrastructures were taking shape, thanks to the influx of cash and waves of influence rolling in from Beirut and Bombay and Baghdad.
The Sultan Gallery, which opened in 1969, is a living archive of those times, the history of which is unknown by many and overlooked by others. Farida Al Sultan first got involved in her early twenties, when her older brother and sister were running the show. She convinced them to keep going when the political situation started shifting in Kuwait, even when the arts seemed totally abandoned during the Iraqi invasion.
Today, Al Sultan not only directs the gallery, she also steers its original vision through a markedly different cultural landscape. Kuwait is no longer the hot spot it once was, but the Sultan Gallery is still a place for gathering young talent as well as a site for elaborating new aesthetics and ideas.
Al Sultan, who is conscientious and enormously down to earth, met with Bidoun in several different cities to discuss the past, present, and future of the place she hopes all of her artists and audiences will think of as home.
My parents moved from Kuwait to Bombay before the oil. There were many Kuwaiti families living there at the time. My family’s business was general trading — spices, wood, rice. We’re a family of nine. Five of us were born in India, four in Kuwait. As a child, I went to a missionary school run by nuns, where I studied French, English, and three Indian dialects. We studied Arabic on the weekends, which is when we met up with kids from other Kuwaiti families.
The building where we lived in Bombay was called Shah-Bagh on Peddar Road and was inhabited primarily by Indians. It was four or five stories high and built in the art deco style. It was also just one block away from the Cadbury factory, so you could occasionally smell chocolate in the air. Across the street from us was a Hindu temple, and outside of it were trays of marigold garlands and coconuts to offer to the gods. On one floor was a family involved in the film industry — the parents were producers and the children, actors — and we used to play with the kids. Many of them later became well-known, such as Nutan and Tanuja.
After the discovery of oil and the creation of positions within the Kuwaiti Oil Company, we all moved back. It was 1959, and I was thirteen. Because none of us really spoke Arabic — we spoke English and Hindi — and there were no secondary schools, many of us had to go to places like Cairo to study, as I did, or further abroad, like my brother, who went to Scotland to study medicine. Eventually I finished high school and university in Beirut. When I came back to Kuwait later, I taught English at a high school and later at university.
My brother Ghazi opened the gallery in 1969 on Fahad Al Salem Street in the Qibla district of Kuwait. The Gulf was just opening up then, and Kuwait was especially open. Even before the discovery of oil the country was culturally oriented because it was a nexus of many trade routes to the far east. There were poetry readings all the time, and the arts council was very active then. Kuwait was the place to be. The first emir of Kuwait was a visionary. There was a time when we had the highest rate of literacy in the world. We had a master plan, and a constitution that limited the power of the ruling family. You know, even before there was oil, there was culture. The first school in Kuwait, the Al-Mubarikiya School, opened in 1912. It concentrated on Arabic and math and was unlike the earlier Qur’anic schools. An important poetry magazine was launched in 1928, too.
Ghazi had studied architecture at Carnegie Tech and then later went on to Harvard. It was the very beginning of the art scene, and he showed only Arab and local artists at the gallery. There were no other galleries at the time, probably not even in the Gulf. There were annual group exhibitions organized by the American Women’s Association as well as the Fine Arts Society in the ’60s, but no galleries yet.
Ghazi gave me a corner of the gallery for crafts. And so I went back to India and began commissioning artisans to work on embroidered cushions. Later, during my travels abroad to England, I would frequent graduate shows of some of the art schools and commission artists to make pots for the garden and house, or ask weavers to do general basketry work. I also met up with and visited the studios of many Arab and English artists.
Back in the Sixtiess and Seventies, the Kuwaiti government supported the arts financially, and even sent artists abroad to study. Artists mainly gathered at the Sultan Gallery or the Marsam Al Hur (The Free Atelier), which was an old Kuwaiti mud-house complex founded by the Ministry of Education in 1960 and was basically a series of studios for artists in a traditional architectural setting. The government awarded full-time salaries to thirty artists, mostly educated abroad and selected by an annual committee. It was later run by the Ministry of Communication, and then later, the national arts council.
Kuwait was also active in the fields of architecture, design, film, and fashion. Students used to come to Kuwait to study music and theater. Architecture was also changing, beginning with the 1960s, when it became more experimental and regionally influenced — by Egyptian, Lebanese, Palestinian, and English architects. My brother Ghazi was influential in bringing architects to Kuwait in the 1970s. He brought George Candilis, IM Pei, Sasaki, and others. He even began a waterfront project called the Green Island, which was an artificial island, an aesthetic folly. When I see other countries bringing architecture to the Gulf now, I think to myself, “Been there, done that.” But unfortunately, there’s a lull in activity today in Kuwait.
Of course, everything was affected by the oil boom of the Seventies and the stock market crisis of 1982. People started sending their children abroad for school. When people traveled, they would bring back magazines like Hawwa’ magazine from Egypt, and Life, and we would discuss them. We also started importing art materials — paints, brushes, clay — and art teachers, for that matter — Egyptian, Syrian, Palestinian. Most of the art teachers were Egyptian. They were the only people in the region who ever really had art schools.
I would say that Munira Al Qadhi was the most important Kuwaiti artist of those times. Her works are in major museums abroad. She had studied at the Central School of Arts and Design from 1959 to 1961 in London. Her show with an Iraqi artist and architect named Essam Al Saidin in 1969 at Sultan Gallery was not only the first show to be held at the gallery but also the first major art show held in the Kuwaiti private sector. A Kuwaiti printmaker and graphic artist, Munira was a member of the Arab Art Group and actively exhibited in Europe and the Middle East during the Sixties and Seventies. I remember Munira had spiky hair. She was a real eccentric. Her work was very much in the school of symbolism, some torn canvases revealing various things behind them, an abstract series of mothers and such. She’s a recluse now, unwell, creating digital art, and lives alone in a flat in the Marzouk Pearl building by the sea.
Andy Warhol came to Kuwait in 1977, invited by the National Council of Arts, Culture, and Letters, and an exhibition of his work was held at the Dhaiat Abdullah Al Salem Gallery on January 18, 1977. Fred Hughes, his manager, accompanied him from the States, along with James Mayor of the Mayor Gallery in London. My sister Najat had initiated the meeting. I was heavily pregnant, but I do remember that he was a man of few words, standing in a corner all by himself, though you could tell that visually he was recording it all. The turnout at the opening was huge. The next night I went to a dinner for him at my sister Fawzia and Fawzi Mussaed Al Saleh’s house, where the wine and champagne were flowing. Warhol was a guest of the Kuwaiti state for a week. In the exhibition, he showed the Marilyn, Mao, electric chair, soup can, and early and recent flower prints, along with some drawings. It was a thrill for people who studied abroad to have this icon in Kuwait, but for the most part, people didn’t know him. Today, Sheikh Mubarak Fahad Al Salem Al Sabah has a row of Marilyns in his house, I have an electric chair print, and so do other members of my family.
I think the Sultan Gallery helped lay a foundation for the collecting of fine art in Kuwait. There are people who have bought one piece from every show the gallery has had since 1969. There was a collecting culture in the 1960s and ’70s, and the gallery even restricted collectors from buying more than one piece of art at a time! That was how different things were. Collectors included my uncles, a few people in the oil sector, some people from embassies. Later on, collectors emerged, such as Abdul-latif Al Hamad, who was buying for the Kuwait Fund, and others started buying for banking institutions, like Aziz Sultan, the CEO of the Gulf Bank. The national arts council also started collecting the work of any artist exhibiting through their organization, which culminated in the establishment of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Kuwait.
There have been biennials in Kuwait, but they have been awful. Take for example the Qurian Festival, which started in the Eighties and is actually not a biennial but an annual monthlong cultural festival that includes an art exhibition and competition. There’s also the Al Khorafi biennial, which is fairly new, about six years old, and open to all Arab artists. Anyway, a lot of the time when you have exhibitions sponsored by the government, it’s not on a par with privately run events. They don’t clean. They don’t paint the walls. The work is not great.
Oh, and there was the Saddam biennial in Iraq, which started in 1986 and was open to artists from around the world. The biennial featured lectures, murals, publications, and more. About twenty Kuwaiti artists were invited in 1986. The last Saddam biennial was supposed to be in October 1990, and a number of Kuwaiti artists had submitted work by April of that year. The biennial was cancelled after the invasion of Kuwait in August and, as it happens, none of the artists got their work back. Najat and Ghazi had traveled to biennials in Baghdad in the early Seventies to source out, meet, and commission artists. Up until then, Iraq had been Kuwait’s big brother, culturally speaking, in terms of art and music.
In 1980, my brother decided to close the gallery. I told him he couldn’t. He said, “Fine, you and Najat do it.” Najat was very much involved up until the invasion in 1990. I was more involved in accounts and she was more the brains behind the gallery. She passed away of breast cancer thirteen years ago.
When the Iraqi invasion took place in August 1990, I was in Boston. My husband called that same day to tell me not to come back, and that he would be sending my son Rakan, who was with him, out to meet me in London. I finally came back to Kuwait in 1991 with the children, got back to work helping my husband set up his business, and helped to restart the school that the children had been attending.
Today, I like to encourage young artists through the gallery. The shows I’m most proud of are those of Kuwaitis such as Ghada Alkandari, Fatima Al Qadiri, Khalid Al Gharaballi, Nadia Al Foudery, and others. Photographs and watercolors are my favorite mediums. A couple of times a year I do photography shows, such as a recent group show by Iranian artists, including Bahman Jalali. I’ve also shown Egyptian artist Moataz Nasr and Moroccan artist Lalla Essaydi, and we are steadily building up a clientele who appreciate the medium. Sometimes I offer younger artists the chance to curate the space.
Today, the Sultan Gallery is close to the airport, whereas in the past we used to be in the city. We’re situated in a low-built industrial area subsidized by the government for factories, like those for paper manufacturing or water bottling. It has become a destination in that it’s a little bit out of the way, like the Sfeir-Semler Gallery in Beirut, so only people appreciative of art seek it out.
The problem with galleries in Kuwait nowadays is that they compromise too much to commercial interests — for example, renting their spaces in between art shows to local designers who sell their kitsch homemade clothes or rugs. Because art is not a hugely profitable business, a lot of the galleries cease operating. There is little press culture, too. Sometimes one has to lure the press with gift packages, which I don’t encourage. Magazines like Men’s Passion, edited by Simon Balsom, and Bazaar, edited by Ahmed Adly, and the newspapers Al-Watan Daily (which has the Herald Tribune supplement and is edited by Dina Al-Mallak) and Al-Awan in Arabic are some of the few that come willingly to cover the exhibitions. Art not being a priority has forced much of the press to close down their cultural sections.
Kuwait has changed a lot. Starting in the 1980s, Islamists began smashing public sculptures. Universities are no longer coeducational, and there is talk of regular schools following their lead. Whereas in the past, a cousin of mine, Fatima al-Hussein, went out in the street and burned her abaya in protest against women’s oppression, we are now regressing! There are no formal art schools, probably because of a fear of the human form, or nudes. Look at the great art coming out of Iran! We don’t need nudes. There was a time when Kuwait stood to be a pioneer in the region. Those times have passed.
Nestled in a small street north of Amirkabir University in central Tehran, Rasht 29 Art Club was once a legendary watering hole for artists. It was launched at a time when there were precious few places for artists to congregate. Although an Armenian-Iranian artist by the name of Marcos Grigorian had run the groundbreaking Gallery Esthetique from 1954 to 1960, and the Tehran Biennale had been launched in 1958, the modern art scene in Iran didn’t really take off until the late sixties. Most initiatives lasted for a few months or a couple of years, at most. And whatever they were like, gallery spaces were not gathering places, but rather, more like glorified living rooms — formal and regimented. What the Tehran scene lacked was a place to talk about art and life till the wee hours of the morning. Besides, respectable young girls didn’t go to cafes, and bars were a male bastion, as was the local kebab stand. Across from the British Embassy, Café Ferdosi was the domain of yellow-toothed leftist intellectuals pondering Marx and Shariati. At Key Club and Cheminée, the smartest discotheques in town, one could watch bar fights or dance to cabaret pop — but these were hardly places for artists to gather.
Kamran Diba, Parviz Tanavoli, and Roxana Saba, friends and artists, sought a place of their own, and in 1966, they opened Rasht 29. Inside the club was a record player with with everything from Zeppelin records to “Me and Bobby McGee,” tables and chairs spread about, and a U-shaped bar. Art of the time hung on the walls, and at the peak of the club’s success, Rasht 29 hosted the first auction of modern art in Iran. In many ways, the space, avant-garde in tenor, would be an incubator for the Iranian modernists, not to mention a dress rehearsal for the activities of the Shiraz Arts Festival, launched in 1967 by then-Empress Farah Diba. Bidoun talked to Kamran Diba and Parviz Tanavoli about the history of the club, its activities, and its afterlife. Tanavoli is one of the most important sculptors of his generation, while Diba is a noted architect and artist who, among other things, designed the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art in the heart of Laleh Park (then Park-e Farah) and the Niavaran Cultural Center in northern Tehran. Diba was also the founding director of the museum.
Bidoun: How did it all begin?
Kamran Diba: I had recently returned from the US and opened an architect’s office at Number 29 Rasht Street in central Tehran. It was north of the Polytechnic (Amirkabir) University and close to Alborz College. The space was in a three-story, Bauhaus-style building. I had been renting the second floor for my own architectural office. At that time, a group of our friends would spend much of our time in Parviz’s studio. The core group was Parviz and I and Roxana Saba (daughter of the Iranian musician Abolhasan Saba) and Hossein Zenderoudi. Parviz knew a lot of people then; he taught at the university and was close to many artists. One day, we were talking about the fact that we didn’t have a place to hang out, and I wondered aloud about the first floor of my office building. Why not take our group and turn it into a club for artists?
Parviz Tanavoli: I had returned from the US before Kamran had and taught at Tehran University back then. It’s true, most of the time friends gathered in my studio in the Zarabkhaneh district in north Tehran. In the afternoons, after work, artists would come to my studio, and we would just sit around and talk. It was especially Diba, Zenderoudi, Parviz Varjavand, and some others at the time. There were many cafes around, but there was nowhere specifically for artists. We wanted a place, just as other guilds had them, like the construction workers, painters, plaster-workers, or drivers. They all had a coffeehouse where members of the guild would gather to find work or just see their colleagues. If you wanted a painter, you would go to the coffeehouse in a particular district and tell the waiter that you were looking for a good painter, and he would introduce you to a few. So we wanted to create a gathering place for sculptors, designers, architects, and musicians.
Bidoun: What was the place like? Did you decorate it yourselves?
KD: I had a friend named Arthur who had found a door somewhere downtown and had installed one in his own office and thought I’d like one as well. So together we installed a beautiful old arched door at the entrance of the Bauhaus building, put some colored glass in it, fixed up a bar, equipped the kitchen, and from there the club came to life. We opened for lunch and served dinner and had a menu of Iranian and foreign food, plus a well-stocked bar. We hired a domestic cook. He knew how to make Iranian dishes only, and I made the menu with the help of Hilary, my wife. Sometimes one of our friends, the sculptor Karl Schlamminger, went to the kitchen and made a dish. In my student days, I worked in restaurants, so I knew how to run the place better than my partners.
PT: I remember going to more traditional coffeehouses in the Shah-abdol-azim district to buy wooden chairs. Kamran and I went to Qazvin and bought traditional doors and windows. The place was a combination of a European-style cafe with some Iranian details.
Bidoun: And who came? Did artists start to come in right away? Could anybody walk into Rasht 29?
KD: You see, the generation of poets that frequented places like Café Ferdosi were older than us and were different. They wouldn’t sit at the table with their wives. They had very strong opinions about things. We wanted Rasht to be a more relaxed place for artists and art-lovers, so we made it a bit more private. We had someone who kept out the scoundrels and who would monitor the reprobates who would end up breaking beer bottles over women. We wanted to keep it affordable for the art crowd — but keep it to that art crowd.
As artists got to know the place, they would bring in their work, and we would put it up on the walls. Soon there were works by most of the well-known artists of the time, and collectors and others with deep pockets were able to see the works. Some notable members were Zenderoudi, Sadegh Tabrizi, Faramarz Pilaram, Sohrab Sepehri, Massoud Arabshahi, Yadollah Royai, Nader Naderpour, Reza Baraheni, Esmail Shahroudi, Ahmadreza Ahmadi, Bijan Elahi, Ebrahim Golestan, Hageer Daruish, Kamran Shirdel, Sadegh Chooback, and a host of architects. Karl Schlamminger and his wife Nasreen were permanent fixtures in the highbrow cultural life of Tehran and frequent visitors to Rasht 29. Everybody came.
I remember one day Zenderoudi kicked open my office door. He was extremely agitated. The Tehran police had arrested him and taken him to the station, and they had shaved a landing strip right down the middle of his bushy, fuzzy, and much-prized Afro. What made it even worse was that it was the eve of the opening of his exhibition. I called Tanavoli, and we laughed so hard that I fell off the chair and managed to disconnect the telephone. In the end, we went to the barber next door and just shaved off all his hair. Then I took him to a wig shop, where we spent several frustrating hours trying on a wide variety of possible hairstyles. Finally he made it to his opening, but with a slightly different hairstyle. Later I mentioned the episode on the phone to the queen, and she was extremely upset by what had happened. In less than forty-eight hours the chief of police had been removed from his office. I very much doubt that the Zenderoudi incident was the only significant factor in his dismissal, but it may very well have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. Tanavoli and I often teased Zenderoudi that he must be a very powerful man to be able to dismiss the chief of police.
Soon enough, the reputation of the club had spread beyond the immediate circle of the old faithful, and since the nightlife in Tehran did not offer much swing, Rasht 29 soon became a popular destination for “discerning” tourists and flower children on the trail to India or Katmandu. Once they had been “spiritually enlightened,” many would return on their way back to Europe.
PT: When some of the artists gave us work to put on the wall, we would give them credit so they could eat and drink there for free until their credit ran out. It was a successful system! We even issued membership cards for the art crowd, so not anyone could walk in.
I always went to Rasht 29 straight after work, and even arranged my meetings there with my collectors and commissioners. Diba had his office upstairs, and he would often come down. We would spend time there with our wives, invite our friends, and throw our parties there.
Bidoun: Were there any special events?
KD: We brought fiddlers from the streets, knickknack salesmen, and Shahr-e Farang carriers — a kind of portable cinema showing moving images. Various entertainers would come to showcase their talents. But basically the idea was to amuse ourselves and our audience.
Once someone recommended a musician who we later learned played at, you know, infamous places [laughs], though we didn’t know that. So he came over one day and started playing and singing these very explicit songs that had everyone turning red. We had to ask him to leave.
But besides these minor incidents, Rasht 29 soon became a lounge for a section of the creative community, a meeting place to exchange and discuss ideas. Sometimes these encounters ended up in collaboration. For example, one day when I was working on my 1968 exhibition at Seyhoun Gallery, Pilaram walked into Rasht. Tanavoli told me that he was a first-class calligrapher. It was then that I approached him about writing on the Ab-baz zebardast panels, a series of paintings in the form of panels and boxes that together with a sound piece were elements of a larger installation.
PT: At the time, the hippies were very active on their way from Europe to Katmandu. They would stay a few days in Tehran, mostly at the Amir Kabir Hotel and other cheap hotels around that area. We would go to those among them who had an instrument, usually guitars, and ask them to come and play at the club at night. So each night something was happening there, some kind of entertainment that was unique compared to what you would find in other restaurants and clubs.
We also organized other programs, like poetry readings, and we would invite famous poets of the time to come and read their latest poetry. If there was anything going on in Tehran, we usually connected it to the club. For example, at the time of the annual Shiraz Festival, many important artists would come and spend a few days in the city. We would invite them to come to the club, keep a table for them, and open a bottle of champagne. Many of the prominent artists of the time — whose names I have mostly forgotten — would also come. I remember the conductor Zubin Mehta, for example. He was there nearly every night with a pretty journalist girl; it was probably 1967. The actress Elke Sommer, who was in Tehran for a film shoot, came one night with some friends. Many of the artists, before going to the Shiraz Festival, paid a visit to Rasht 29. And whenever [the American collector and patron] Abbey Weed Grey came to Iran, we would host a party for her and invite artists and critics of the time.
Bidoun: Did you also sell work at the club?
KD: You see, Rasht 29 wasn’t a gallery, but it became a place artists showed their work to those who may have been interested. Some became interested in collecting after coming to Rasht 29. I remember Sadegh Tabrizi was looking for a place to sell his works back then, so we put them on the pavement in front of the club, and he actually managed to sell most of the works. We also held the first art auction in Iran.
PT: No, I would say we were more like a nonprofit space. We all had other jobs. I taught at the university and had my work, Kamran was a successful architect. We were happy just to break even and not have to spend our own money. And we would spend whatever we made on the club. We encouraged artists to bring their cheaper works and sketches every Thursday, and we would have a street sale on the pavement in front of the club for those who wanted to buy less expensive works. This was very successful, and the artists would bring works and the passersby would buy them without a gallery commission or the standard flamboyant frames. We would do other things to support contemporary art, too. Each time an artist had an exhibition, we would invite him and reserve a table for him and his friends to come after the opening. They would be our guests. Each time an orchestra was playing or coming from abroad, we would keep tables for them to come after the performance and be our guests.
Bidoun: And how did the auction come about? What artists were included?
KD: You should remember that at the time there was not an actual art market in Tehran, meaning there just weren’t enough venues for the artists to sell their works. An artist would have a show at Seyhoun Gallery or somewhere, but after that he didn’t really have a place to put his work. So most artists were broke most of the time and didn’t really know what to do. We told them to come to Rasht 29, where we would organize an auction. We gathered works by most of the well-known artists of the time and invited some people like the prime minister and the queen and with them many other officials. We weren’t an auction house; we just did it to generate income for the artists. But events like this created a new interest in contemporary art.
PT: Yes. We held the very first contemporary art auction in Iran, and we invited many professionals, major contractors, officials, rich people, and even the queen, who also bought works. We had works by almost everybody with a name by now: Pilaram, Tabrizi, Zenderoudi, Arabshahi, my own works, many artists. I don’t remember all of the names, but there are some. Any time Queen Farah raised her hand for a piece, some of the collectors challenged her and bought those pieces at higher prices. At the time, I thought they were rude; however, I learned later that all those pieces were presented to her as gifts.
As Diba became involved with larger projects, he had to change offices and moved to a bigger space. Tanavoli was swept up with work and traveling exhibitions. For its founders, Rasht 29 became an extra lemon — to use an Iranian expression — to carry on top of everything else. The club closed its doors after hosting the Tehran art crowd for just under three years. And while in the early 1970s many more galleries and salons opened — places like Borghese, Zand, Saman, Mess, and Saba, to name a few — none of them quite resembled Rasht 29.
Orange County, California, is home to over three million people. Its landscape consists of wide boulevards, high schools that resemble shopping malls, and countless big-box stores, as well as many of their corporate headquarters. In Orange County, the myriad clichés of an American exurb actually ring true. (It is also, of course, the land of Disneyland.)
Despite a sizable immigrant population, ethnic markets feel like a rare species here. When it comes to grocery shopping, residents can choose from among Ralphs, Gelson’s, Albertsons, Sam’s Club, Trader Joe’s and several other chains bearing one or another white dude’s name. But this is Southern California, where the greatest gastronomical gems are more often than not hidden within large anonymous shopping plazas.
Take Jons, for instance. With stores in Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley, Jons is a supermarket whose logo bears a striking resemblance to that of the decidedly better-known Vons supermarket chain. Jons is Armenian-owned, though, a fact reflected not only in its fine selection of string cheeses and sujuk, though there is that; Jons seems to be better at catering to the desires of other immigrant groups, as well. (It’s also way cheaper than Vons.)
Back in the OC, just off the Culver Drive exit of the 405, the discerning shopper will find Wholesome Choice. Not quite the same as Whole Foods, Wholesome Choice is owned by an Iranian, “Mike” Mokhtare, a veteran food importer from Tabriz with an MBA from an unnamed Turkish university. Aisles that would elsewhere be reserved for essential oils, protein powders, and hemp sunwear, are dedicated to dried fruits, halal cow tongue, and Persian music CDs. The store serves all the ethnic groups that populate the surrounding area — Chinese, Mexican, Pakistani, Korean, South African, Russian — carrying hard-to-find products displayed in a decidedly unsegregated fashion. The prepared-foods buffet offers Persian, “Mediterranean,” Indian, Thai, and Mexican fare. There’s also a kiosk cafe called Magic Coffee Ride.
With all its charms, Wholesome Choice is perhaps best loved for its hot-bread station. Positioned strategically near the main entrance, the bread station doles out giant blanket-like slabs of sesame-studded sangak bread, made almost-the-old-fashioned-way, all day long, to a seemingly endless line of hungry shoppers. The bread is good. Really good. Almost as good as the bread back in Iran, some say. Because it’s so good, and so popular, and the bread-making process is so slow, Wholesome Choice has developed a unique rationing system to ensure that all customers get their share: there’s a limit of two sangaks per person and a strictly enforced no-butting policy. If you want to get enough bread for a family of four, you need to bring three people with you — and you need to pretend like you don’t know them. The Mexican bakers behind the counter can see right through your act, but they will humor you nonetheless.
Artist statement published in a pamphlet for his exhibition in January 1968 in Tehran.
Translated from Farsi by Sohrab Mohebbi.
The contemporary artist, much more than artists in the past, uses the “accident” as part of his artistic creation. Often, some form of control appears in the course of the accidental event [through which] the artist’s expression finds its specific features. If in the West this is to demonstrate the originality of technique and evaluation of the used material, in the East it arises from the fact that accident as a natural affair is inseparable from control as a human affair. In the Far East, the artist sees his contribution in the creation of an artwork as equivalent to the work of the paintbrush or nature. This extends so far that in Taoism, human creative force is not seen as more creative than the elaborate architecture of natural vegetation, nor as separate from it. That’s why conscious art has another meaning in the East, with spontaneity carrying such a profound significance.
In the art of Zen, there’s no talk of abstraction. When a circle is drawn or a spot of color is applied, this form in itself is part of nature, which has continued its growth in the painting. If the Western artist speaks of domination over material, technique, and space in his work, like a hiker on top of a mountain, in the art of the East it is exploration, intimacy, growth and expansion, and unification with the world that we see and live in. And in this world there are battles and struggles and other things that one cannot avoid seeing.
Painting today needs to be presented in equilibrium with the existing critical situation. And this demonstrates each artist’s obligation to explain the basis and philosophy of his path. But not with a sentimental approach — rather, with the painter’s view of painting existing in the current situation and rooted within a historical and local context.
Certainly painting can never take the place of [direct] struggle and fighting for a single individual or many people, and the paintbrush cannot take the place of a common struggle for freedom and emancipation. And the work of each artist at any level of expression cannot excuse him from his social responsibilities, since it is within the limits of these responsibilities that his art can offer a vision into the future and a direction toward a way of life.
Why did I paint abstractions? I do not insist on the difference between abstract and figurative art, especially with what I pointed out about the concreteness of geometric forms. (I am referring to the conventional meanings of “abstract” and “figurative” in modern painting.) But what is important is that when I think about the conscious and unconscious presence of technology in art today, I see that by producing abstractions, painting, and plastic arts played an important role in bringing together the lives of humans and machines.
This issue does not apply to us like the contemporary Western artist who sees the factory as a museum — we are consumers! — but we have to say that contemporary man’s contact with the environment, his conceptions about it, and the efforts he makes in it all take place through “designed” objects, whose relationship with abstract and formal visual arts is significant in people’s lives. The social goal is more hidden within the painter’s rational reflections in front of forms, spaces, and masses of things. We live in forms and colors and spaces and masses of things that are made by machines, from our architectural components to plastic watering cans, and all of these and the rhythm they create is a part of the objective manifestation of historical and social facts of the times that we are living in. The painter’s primary working materials are nothing except these.
His rational reflections in front of such conditions can represent an effort to create a constructive order in this chaos. Just as we need production for our material needs, we need creativity for our spiritual needs. This means engaging in an artistic work that, considering the social realities, takes a rational stance vis-à-vis this situation. And we know that the basis of this kind of art cannot be an old or new Western aesthetic value and neither could it be solely committed to old traditions.
If it is claimed that humankind is at the center of art, it does not mean that we need to present his relations and questions in physical or figurative manifestation. Rather, any logical reaction to the environment he lives in will be a matter of humanity.
Our special folio this issue affords an opportunity to hear from a highly invested, engaged, and rather critical group of cultural practitioners. We’ve collected four analytical rants that take the packaging of the artist as their starting point. Cairo-based artist and filmmaker Sherif El-Azma presents a highly unfashionable critique of the faded grandeur of downtown Cairo and its emotional and intellectual ramifications on an art scene dominated by the hustler and the tourist. Nav Haq, contemporary art curator at Arnolfini, as well as co-curator of the controversial exhibition Lapdogs of the Bourgeoisie, shoots down the art world’s fetish for “celebration” as a recurring trope in the discourse surrounding cultural events in “diverse” locations. Nida Ghouse — member of two curatorial and artist collectives (Mumbai-based CAMP and Pericentre Projects in Cairo) — investigates what’s left in the cupboards of artists after curators have passed through. Finally, artist Mahmoud Khaled, Alexandria’s most famous and vocal critic of residency programs, explains why residencies remain vital to his practice.
Major cities like Cairo act as magnets, pulling all economic and cultural activity to them. Cultural activity gravitates toward a highly mythologized and romanticized heart — in this case, the old center of downtown Cairo. It’s my intention to raise some questions concerning the use of that urban location as a phantasmal space. To start, how is that center mythologized? And how does it really function?
Centralizing cultural activity in one place necessitates a stage on which such activity can appear, where different factions of the cultural scene perform their identities. Slowly, a series of relationships and differences among players comes into view. Competing players in Cairo range from international cosmopolitan art types to the remnants of the Sixties left-wingers to young and trendily punkish local practitioners. The simple act of appearing onstage objectifies all the players, turning them into easily consumable cultural products. The greatest irony is that the very space that highlights difference among all the cultural factions of the scene ultimately dissolves that difference by transforming the players into objectified products. You’ll find liberal post-leftists echoing, say, nostalgic royalists in their glamorization of the architecture of an imagined belle époque, or the lost daughters of the haute bourgeoisie sharing the same aspirations and ambitions as the bohemian artist-hustler.
The gilded stage of downtown Cairo exists as a metaphor, a physical location with clearly demarcated borders, while at the same time it’s a subconscious condition that operates in the imaginary of all the participants in this miniature ecosystem. By hosting all the different elements of an art economy — from “independent” institutions to studios to the places people simply gather socially — it also becomes the site where the label “art,” that validating stamp, is meted out. In a sense, art cannot really exist in other Cairo districts, such as Heliopolis or Shubra, unless it’s imported into the downtown mindset.
But how does downtown Cairo subsume the practices that occur under its sign? First and foremost, some practices might not need the ornamentation and formality implicit in a gilded stage. The power of the stage is that it draws its own addicts and followers, regardless of what’s presented on it. We find practitioners whose only interest is standing in the limelight, rather than engaging in the actual practice they profess. We find audiences attending a sit-down punk concert in a cultural center. The place transforms potentially subversive, subcultural activities into officially sanctioned events. People want to be associated with the history of that stage, since that history is the only record and validation of what they do.
Downtown is attractive for members of the culture industry because it’s a place whose identity is both “authentic” and totally abstract at the same time. ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼There is, too, an association with political history, mainly of the left-wing oppositional type; but it’s a vague association that doesn’t really demand the more exhausting, more difficult responsibilities of a truly committed relationship to political action. And because downtown is seen as a refuge for the Other in general, a diffuse ambience of political engagement and activism pervades the scene. It’s as if downtown is the sphere in which all alternative lifestyles can be accepted and even contained. It’s a ghetto that transforms the potentially subversive nature of the alternative into an attractive and exciting spectacle for the mainstream. The subtext is that through the general ambience of the district, all of us cultural practitioners who share the district feel that we belong to some kind of oppositional politics; we live in an atmosphere of ideological commitment without actually committing to anything.
The second element at play here has to do with the nature of the geographical space, the illusion that everything is in flux, is transient, doesn’t belong to anyone or any one thing. Downtown is felt as a purely public district, without the weight of residential and community history. It offers, simultaneously, a glamorous history and a clean slate. What marks both conditions is that they are both only possible as phantasms, fictions, or myths; neutrality is always a lie, and laying claim to an oppositional political history without a profound sense of self-reflexive engagement is the worst kind of false consciousness.
Cairo’s is a young art scene, in which misfortune is celebrated — a scene unable to affirm its own independence, a scene that will always thrive on the instincts of a liberal and charitable humanism. An artistic practice that bases itself upon grand narratives (whether about refugees, the working class, women, or Islam) will always leave symptomatic traces that appear in the work, most often manifest in the model of artwork as “personal” history. These symptoms indicate two things: a space of confusion in which artistic practice becomes a form of charity, and the situation where the hustler and the artist become one. You see, both rely on the same strategies for their survival.
Let us imagine a highly interesting painter who has come to Cairo out of an isolated fishing village. Curators have come from far and wide to see his work, but the same question always arises: Do we want to find out more about this painter and his work, or are we trying instead to detect the fishing village in his work? The space of downtown therefore becomes more like a fetish that serves the purpose of framing the artist. As a consequence, one never really has to deal with the artist or even the place itself. The location has become a backdrop and the artist an element of the set.
All that said, I find nothing more nauseating than the current arguments against the ongoing process of gentrification in downtown Cairo — often championed by actors within this “scene.” Is theirs really an ideological position? Are people actually fighting for their community? Or is it that because of this real-estate takeover, downtown will lose its vintage, faded grandeur? Why do people whine about the transformation of their belle-epoque ghetto into a commercial toy-town? I suspect that this is only a defense against the disappearance of a fetish that has proven extremely useful. If the artist is a hustler, the tourist poses in curatorial drag.
—Sherif El Azma
It’s easy to imagine that art revolves around parties. There’s always so much to celebrate — exhibitions, refurbishments, acquisitions, patronage, and lifetime achievements, among other things. Institutions most often play host, organizing receptions, galas, and previews for all these various occasions. And indeed it’s always a privilege to be invited.
Vernissage parties (and after-parties), which celebrate the opening of a new exhibition, are the most common variety. There is the finissage, to celebrate the end of an exhibition, and apparently even a midissage. There are occasions to acknowledge the good work that museums are doing, housewarming-style parties to mark the opening or reopening of an institution, awards ceremonies, fetes for anniversaries, and crucial fundraising galas. They’re all part of the social economy of art. But when does celebration itself become problematic? When does it go too far?
I find it fascinating how certain words appear in particular contexts time and again. In the not-too-distant past, I lived in South London, where it wasn’t uncommon to come across the word “vibrant” in newspapers, local council literature, and elsewhere, to describe a district of the city such as Brixton. What “vibrant” really meant, of course, was that a lot of black people lived there. Such areas might be a bit “edgy” for some, but the locals are surely content, making plenty of “noise,” selling colorful fabrics and exotic fruits. It follows from those details that they’re always ready for festivity.
￼Art institutions have their own special lexicon for when they work with artists (and, occasionally, audiences) who sit awkwardly within their traditional curatorial frameworks of practice and reference. The word “local,” for example, represents another somewhat discourteous term, invoked when an institution wants to communicate to the world that it does, on occasion, work with less-established artists. “Voices” is yet another common term, applied to so-called third-world artists, evoking frail, human, emotional stories from the battle-scarred, crisis-ridden outback.
But the word “celebration” is something else altogether. Normally found in either the snappy opening paragraph or the pensive last paragraph of press releases and exhibition guide texts, it’s a word often used with regard to foreign, predominantly non-Western artists, especially as gathered together in the ubiquitous “regional representation” exhibition. The type of celebration here, more akin to the surprise party, is sprung on groups of artists hailing from the ￼￼same country or region, who have succumbed to exhibiting together in this anachronistic yet tenacious format.
For artists, having your exhibition billed as a celebration must be a bit like encountering one of those flash-mobs, where everyone seems to be in on the same joke, except for you. The general tone is radically different from the norm, creating situations in which the pecking order between institutions and exhibiting artists becomes excruciatingly transparent. The message translates, roughly, as “Congratulations for making it this far!” To the public, artists are portrayed as happy-clappy ethnics — expressive beings, always grateful, always ready and waiting for a carnival to break out in the self-conscious bourgeois museum.
More prolific artists are surely bemused to find themselves generating so much fun around the world. Why is it that whenever I’m with this grouping of artists, someone always throws a party? (The fact that artists exhibit alongside the same peers again and again is a different, though not unrelated, issue, one we’ll set aside for now.) As with any surprise party, a lot rides on the reaction of the honoree(s). When the lights come on, some artists recoil, while others revel in delight, lapping up the attention, perfectly happy to perform for their patrons. Both responses are unfortunate in their own ways.
I’m no killjoy; celebrations are often important occasions. They’re markers for reflecting on how far something has come, and for projecting ambitions into the future. Internationalism in contemporary art is often about celebrating difference, unlike market globalization, which is about striving to harmonize the machineries of communication, economy, and mobility. For globalization, this harmonizing offers at the very least a kind of technological lingua franca. In the art sphere, the acculturation occasionally yields the sense that we haven’t quite discovered our own common language yet (other than the prerequisite ability to speak English, that is). It’s when celebration dissipates any attempt at criticality and intellectual relations that it becomes a problem.
Having been present at the openings of many of these sizeable group exhibitions and festivals — including, for example, Africa Remix at the Hayward Gallery, London, and the Images of the Middle East festival in Copenhagen — I’ve witnessed, if I’m to be particularly severe with my analogies, a present-day form of bear dancing, with foreign artists performing before appreciative crowds. Often these openings have a Putamayo vibe, as was the case at the opening of MoMA’s Without Boundary, where exotic canapés were served and live bands evoked the sounds of acoustic Arabia. For an artist of conscience, it’s a serious dilemma: either turn down such exhibition possibilities and risk losing high-profile opportunities for supporting one’s artistic life, or agree to such exhibitions and subscribe to an unsolicited identity. When embracing the latter, there’s no better time to assume the ethnic mantle than during a good party.
I spent a stretch of 2008 landlocked in Cairo, not too far from an art scene in which news about international contemporary art shows, especially those of the survey-seeking-to-be-seminal sort, would trickle in and turn into discussions about the ￼￼claustrophobia of catchall categories such as “Arab” and “Islamic” art. These rants would be directed at the contemporary art condition that caters to a vaguely defined concern for “the region” (curatorial attempts to understand or engage with the Middle East seemed, for one thing, to falter by reducing all matters of culture to political crises). In this context, artists often felt straitjacketed into identities they didn’t always care for, much less ask for.
At a symposium on the occasion of PhotoCairo 4, artist Raed Yassin declared that he had been turned into a “war-artist product.” Sometime after the summer of 2006 in Lebanon, when he realized that he was only being asked for works about postwar Beirut, he opted to assume the “war artist” tag and see what would come of it. He made a work in this vein while in Switzerland. Describing a true incident in which a missile destroyed his Beirut apartment, he extended the anecdote into an outrageously dramatic fictionalized narrative involving a pop singer and a party.
What Yassin was most surprised to discover was the built-in plausibility of his tale as he performed his war credentials; the work was well received, and just about everybody believed it to be true. Of course, his mode was mostly mocking, but where the compulsion originated was far from comic. He was deeply disturbed, for he felt that the avenues available to him for artistic expression were drastically shrinking. He found it difficult to show some of his favorite pieces — ones that were important to his practice, like the one he had playing in the background during his talk, titled Tonight — simply because they didn’t conform to prevailing preoccupations.
I moved back to Mumbai in 2009, and the context in that city was a bit different from the Cairo scene. India and its bold economic attitude had been in vogue for about a decade, and the art market was dealing with the aftermath of having gone manic. Through those boom years, many artists had played to the demand for their ethnicity and catered their production as such.
In an art scene wracked with identity opportunism and the lure of the lucrative, the more morally inclined might raise the charge of complicity, insisting that the only way for artists to salvage something of themselves would be for them to stay home, resisting the imposition of those terrible terms, which relegate them to the role of cultural contractors. But the futility of such a position lies in the failure to recognize the pervasiveness of a structure that — all the pretty prospects of cultural policies considered — seems to be firmly in place. The first thing to face, then, is that if the bazaar is found to be ubiquitous, withdrawal ceases to be an actual option.
Those who would seek to pack entire subcontinents into the confines of a couple of white cubes are invariably undone by their ambitions. International curators come to a region to carry out combing operations, and even though they scan the scene quite stringently at times, they often settle for a cast of usual suspects to provide the iconography for their museumization of that region. Even the most benevolent of biennials suffers from an insularity whose preoccupations can’t seem to move past the postcolonial.
Thinking about these things, I recalled a conversation I had with Sherif El Azma about the day he opened his cupboard at his studio in downtown Cairo to find his 2004 Kenya Tapes still lying there. The videos had been left there for a while, ongoing, overlooked, excluded. At that time, Cairo was still considered to be part of the Middle East — North Africa hadn’t entered the dialogue just yet.
Well, it has now.
Works that land outside the circuits of consumption are ultimately powerless; if they don’t find an audience for themselves, they can have no impact, they don’t matter. Given that the market
is everywhere — this is my take, anyway — their failure to get commodified, to attach themselves to an ethnic or national agenda and offer themselves up as art objects in that way, keeps them from entering the public view. This forecloses any claims of the works’ actual autonomy. Brave as they might have been at birth for not conceding to market control, they still don’t seem to stand on their own, and require the consent and courtesy of exhibitions to walk them out as “emerging” into the world and put them into circulation.
But despite the absence of these works in the global art scene, their ontological existence as contents of a cupboard is crucial, given the current condition of ethnic market exhaustion. Even as they lack visibility, they possess a strange tension that is, at the most basic level, a covert confrontation with a flawed cause. Their infidelity to the notion of a fixed or fitting identity gives
them the elasticity to move across and outside the constraints of categories. It is precisely for having fallen in the fissures that these works act out an aching and even arrogant ambivalence toward the market that couldn’t capture or contain them. In this state of suspension, the extent of their power is not limited, but latent, ambiguous, and unknown. The question, then, is how these works are found, how they slip into view, what structures they stand on, and what mechanisms they employ to enter and trouble the dominant world.
When I first began ￼￼￼traveling to residencies, mobility was deeply connected, in my mind, to professionalism: the more mobile the artist, the more professional he was. The more you were selected to participate in international exhibitions, the more professional you were. At least, that’s how it looked to me back then.
My early professional career was marked by a heavy influx of international curators visiting the local Egyptian scene. These were often curators who defined their approach via anthropological and ethnographic criteria. I definitely felt like I didn’t belong to that niche, nor did I care to be pigeonholed in that manner. Their exhibitions all seemed to present artworks as samples within a vast archive of a specific scene in a specific region. The relationship between the artist and curators in that setting seemed to be functional, perfunctory, and superficial. A whiff of exploitation and cynicism was in the air. Even if one were to treat those endeavors on the basis of their own claims (an exhaustive and comprehensive archival image of a geographical location), they were severely deficient.
As a result, residency programs seemed to be more likely to give me what I needed at that time: mobility, production facilities, and more experience as an artist. Although I was aware that residencies were also often based upon ethnic and geographical criteria, I had less of a problem taking part in them than I did sitting with a curator to select some token work to fit into a large-format regional group show. My reasons might seem very abstract, but I find the artist-curator relationship that leads to the standard white-cube exhibition format even more problematic. The white cube’s claim of being a neutral space in which to host art objects leads to an objectification based upon the structural authority of that white cube. The artist is therefore objectified in parallel to the art object.
Still, a growing sense of disillusion with residency programs set in. To start, many demands are made upon the resident artist — demands from many different quarters, ranging from the expectations of the average visiting audience member to the cultural sections of funding embassies or the hosting professional cultural institution. The artist is expected to do one of two things: to represent or perform his or her own cultural background, or to explore the hosting cultural milieu. Both are choices that I found equally uninteresting. I was just looking for decent working conditions, new stimuli, and interaction with a different cultural scene.
Although the claim is often made that residencies serve the artist first and foremost, the fact is that they are equally important for institutions and galleries to function. Residencies have become
an important part of the art industry, especially given the large number of contemporary artists who are not readily marketable, whose work is based upon long periods possibility of their work to feed back and enrich the cycle of artists, while allowing the of research and/or is more conceptual. The industry needs to absorb these large numbers with ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼production and exhibition-making. The production residency becomes the perfect circuit for that, making sure that those practices remain under the watchful eyes of the institution. (Artists are thus prevented from establishing their own alternative economy.)
And there are hierarchies. Is it me, or are residencies almost always for “emerging” artists? What does that mean, anyway? The subtext here is that artists coming from fucked-up countries have to travel to the West to learn how to be professional. (This is, of course, never announced in an open call for applications.) In this kind of system, it’s impossible for you to be seen as an equal in the scene in which your residency is hosted; the institution will always present you as someone gaining experience and learning. Although residencies do play a role in knowledge production, it’s never acknowledged that this is a reciprocal interaction, and that all parties, including the local scene and the hosting institution, benefit from this arrangement.
The artist gives the scene an international profile and raises its standing and significance. It helps entrench the image of an institution that promotes core values of neoliberal global culture, like diversity and cultural development. At the same time, there are double standards. The attitude of the institution toward its primary activities — for example, the standard exhibitions it puts on — is very different from the manner in which it chooses artists to take part in its residency program. In a way, this double standard represents a form of institutional blindness that, other than being demeaning and cynical toward the visiting artist, is a reformulation of the hierarchies implicit in the ethnographic and regional shows that I earlier rejected.
The best idea, in my eyes, is a sort of curated residency in the form of a commission from the institution and a truly engaged interest, on the part of the institution, in the artist and his or her practice: a dialogue between curator and artist. This is admittedly very rare, mostly because these institutions get their funding from local pools that are highly politicized. Given that, standard residencies at least force you, as the artist, to experience firsthand, to live through, the dynamics of human and artistic packaging. Rather than your artwork being placed in a gallery as an object that stands in for your very own objectification, as a resident you are a living, breathing, thinking, physical being. And that may be one of the first criteria for pushing back, for resistance.
Forms of Compensation is a series of twenty-one reproductions of iconic modern and contemporary artworks, with an emphasis on sculptures, paintings and prints by Arab and Iranian artists. The series was commissioned by Babak Radboy for Bidoun Projects and produced in Cairo by a range of craftspeople and auto mechanics in the neighborhood surrounding the Townhouse Gallery. The fabrication was overseen by Egyptian artist Ayman Ramadan, who sent installation shots of the original artwork found for the most part in Sotheby’s auction catalogues in Dubai, along with the instruction that each copy should differ in one small way from its referent. Besides this note, there was limited communication between Radboy and Ramadan, or between Ramadan and the individual fabricators. The small and often strange differences that result between the original works and their copies arise for the most part from this lack of communication, along with several conscious mediations made by Ramadan and considerations for time, labor and cost made by the fabricators themselves. All twenty-one pieces were completed within the space of two weeks.
On the morning of July 10, 2003, Umar Ibrahim Vadillo stood beside the whitewashed brick facade of the Mosque of Granada and looked out over the Darro River. Before him lay the ramparts of the Alhambra, where five hundred years earlier the legions of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella had completed the Reconquista of Moorish Spain. Beyond the Alhambra, Vadillo saw the shores of the eurozone, and beyond them the citadels of world finance: Brussels, Paris, Frankfurt, London; the marble-floored temples where hedge-fund managers, central bankers, and currency speculators paced and traded and plotted. Vadillo had been invited to Granada to celebrate the opening of the mosque, the first to be built in the city since the fall of Al-Andalus; the occasion was being marked by an ecumenical conference on the theme of “Islam in Europe.” Rather than invite some wizened imam promising to build bridges, or a conciliatory local politician, the organizers had invited Vadillo, a forty-six-year-old convert and a bookish interpreter of the relationship between Islam and paper money, to deliver the keynote.
Inside the mosque’s prayer hall, an audience of two thousand local converts, Moroccan and Syrian immigrants, and North African students had gathered. When it was his turn to speak, Vadillo ambled to the center of the stage and hunched over the lectern, his hair slicked back and his ferret-like face wreathed by a trim beard. After putting his notes in order, he began a measured disputation on the origins of debt, the commodification of currency, and the proper Islamic medium of exchange. The members of the crowd sat rapt as Vadillo outlined the history of currency and its role in the subjugation of peripheral economies. Eventually he revealed how Muslims could undermine Western capitalism. “The end to the enslavement of the Muslim masses does not require a jihad in the traditional sense,” but a struggle to quit the dollar, the pound, and the euro and return to a single, gold-backed currency: the Islamic dinar. The fortresses of fiat money standing beyond the sylvan hills of Granada could be besieged by prudent investments, their walls breached by the revival of the caravan, and their treasure usurped — if only Muslims would “stop being naive about the banks and the financial institutions.”
The conference was a uniquely high-profile event, and many in the audience were new to the gospel of the gold dinar. But Vadillo had been honing his message for years. It was in Granada, in 1991, that he had first delivered his “Fatwa Concerning the Islamic Prohibition on Using Paper Money as a Medium of Exchange.” Communism had fallen, Francis Fukayama had declared the end of history, stock markets were bustling, and the New Economy was ascendant. Where many saw the promise of a new, benevolent world order, Vadillo saw magical thinking. “The enormous debt of the countries and the even bigger debt of the individual persons to the banks DOES NOT EXIST on paper,” he wrote. “It is pure computer data.” National economies were financing growth by borrowing vast sums and manipulating their currencies. The financial system, he argued, would only exist for as long as people believed in it; once they realized it was an illusion, the global economy would collapse.
Although the Granada speech provoked controversy in the West (“The Corrosive Hagiography of Muslim Spain,” one headline read), it also buoyed the popularity of the Murabitun, the modern Sufi sect that counts Vadillo as a lieutenant. Named after an eleventh-century Spanish Islamic revival movement, the Murabitun is devoted to restoring the world to the economic and political system established by the prophet Mohammed when he governed Medina. Though militant, the Murabitun eschew violence; shortly after 9/11 they issued a statement announcing that “capitalism will not be abolished on the battlefield, but in the marketplace where it is practiced.” They consider the obsession with sexuality among Islamic fundamentalists to itself be a sign of decadence. And as discontent with globalization has peaked, the Murabitun have established outposts in England, Indonesia, Germany, South Africa, and Mexico, where missionaries found willing converts among Mayans caught up in the Zapatista rebellion. (They now number more than three hundred there and run a pizza restaurant, carpentry workshop, and Islamic school in San Cristóbal de las Casas.)
Vadillo, who declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this article, is a peripatetic finance guru, part Ali Shariati and part Joseph Schumpeter, traveling far and wide to lecture on the “mutation in social values” caused by a half-century of American imperialism underwritten by the dollar. In the past decade he has barnstormed halls of government, corporate boardrooms, and academic conferences from Kazakhstan to the Philippines, armed with PowerPoint presentations featuring outstretched hands cupping piles of glimmering currency stamped with the Dome of the Rock (his own design). The West’s prosperity is illusory, he insists, an empire of rot concealed by the veneer of the middle-class lifestyle its citizens have enjoyed. If Muslims would just turn away from the West and adopt the dinar — if Indonesian rice farmers would stop accepting paper money, if the Saudis would price oil in gold, if Iran would demand dinars for dates — it would induce a cataclysm on par with the Wall Street crash of 1929, and a golden age of Islamic trade would ensue.
Even before the global recession, Vadillo had prominent supporters, the most influential being former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. After the East Asian financial crisis in 1997, Mohamad blamed George Soros and other currency speculators for the collapse of Malaysia’s currency. While other countries restructured their economies along IMF guidelines, Mohamad rejected its recovery package for Malaysia, suspending the trading of ringgits abroad and barring foreign capital from leaving the country for a year. Inspired by Vadillo’s theories, he convened the International Convention on Gold Dinar as an Alternative International Currency, in Kuala Lumpur, where he argued that adopting the dinar would “do more towards countering the oppression of enemies than futile, violent retaliation.” In 2003, not long after Vadillo’s address to the Granada mosque, Malaysia was to become the first nation in the world to adopt the dinar as legal tender. But Mohamad’s long tenure as prime minister ended that October, and his successor scuttled the idea.
The global financial collapse has launched Vadillo into the rarefied set of oracles who foretold the crisis (he is the only one among them who was actively eliciting the collapse). Recently, finance ministers, economists, and heads of state around the Muslim world have committed to employing the Islamic dinar; today the coins are minted in four countries and used as an alternative currency — though not yet legal tender — in more than twenty. What we are witnessing is, in Vadillo’s estimation, “the end of the American cycle.” Since Granada fell to the Catholics, paper money has come to order the life of all humanity. The United States has for the past century employed its military might to ensure the steady export of depreciating dollars (which satisfies Americans’ ravenous appetite for consumer goods) and protect its economic interests abroad, with the Federal Reserve printing — counterfeiting, in his opinion — money to finance its escapades.
Of course, patriots, economists, hucksters, and zealots have been predicting the fall of the Western financial system — and positioning themselves to profit from it — since the dollar was made the official US currency in 1792. But never before have the dissenters been so many, so various, so vociferous, and in such general agreement. At the root of the consensus is a sense of revulsion toward the abstraction of value and the ruin that has resulted. “The more abstract the instrument,” financial markets expert Martin Mayer has said, “the less it depends on real developments in real economies, and the more likely it is to be a vector of contagion.” Texas Representative Ron Paul, who entered politics the day after President Nixon closed the “gold window” in favor of a fiat currency, compares the US financial system to the ancient Roman model — plunder, export currency, import goods — which “destroys the character of the counterfeiting nation’s people.” World Bank president Robert Zoellick recently acknowledged that “one of the legacies of this crisis may be a recognition of changed economic power relations.” (This was Bin Laden’s dream: “bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy.” In 2004 he said, “All that we have to do is to send two mujahedeen to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al Qaeda” and the “generals race there, causing America to suffer human, economic, and political losses without their achieving anything of note other than some benefits for their private corporations.”) Lately Glenn Beck’s apocalyptic melodrama on the ruinous state of Obama’s America has been sponsored by a gold dealer called Goldline. The founding fathers “talked about what the future of America was going to be like, and how bright it was going to be,” Beck says in one testimonial. “It was going to shake apart, and there would be troubled times, but then it would reset itself and be great again. But I’d like a little bit of insurance.” Gold is a great hedge — even if it’s your own country you’re wagering against.
National allegiances have been frayed by the global dominion of the financial elite, and the Murabitun propose that a new network of Muslim traders fill that void. Ironically, it is in Dubai that the Murabitun’s complementary business ventures operate. In addition to furnishing the theological and political rationale for the adoption of the dinar, Vadillo also invented and oversees the financial apparatus for the currency’s production and implementation, a web of interconnected dinar boosters and vendors. He is the founder of the World Islamic Trade Organization, which works to form a regional trade bloc based on the dinar; chairman of World Islamic Mint, a Murabitun-run company that fabricates dinars and dirhams; director of e-dinar, an electronic payment system based on the mint’s bullion; and chairman of Goldex International, an enigmatic Maltese business that “you can trust to look after all your e-gold needs.”
The Murabitun would seem to share little with Dubai. While the Murabitun sought to form a neo-traditional Islamic trading network, Dubai disappeared into Dubai Inc. — the moniker for its aggregate of state-owned companies — and accumulated $80 billion in sovereign debt as it erected figural skyscrapers, indoor ski slopes, and high-concept island resorts. Yet there are continuities between the two. Both dream of remaking the world in the image of Al-Andalus. Sheikh Mohammed says his model for modern Dubai is cosmopolitan tenth-century Córdoba. The deflation of Dubai’s real estate boom — the embodiment of Sheikh Mohammed’s striving to “overcome the impossible” — and the looming threat of a sovereign default have lately been a boon for newspaper-headline writers spinning variations on “Dubai’s Dream Is Built on Sand.” But it may also benefit the Murabitun, which has managed to profit handsomely from the trade in gold — its value has skyrocketed as the dollar has depreciated — while demonizing Dubai’s peculiar East–West fusion. “This old doctrine with Islamic labels is being revealed as a fraud,” Vadillo has written. “Modernist Islam has died alongside that obsolete model of society that they wanted to ‘Islamise.’” If the Murabitun and Dubai occupy two poles of Islamic finance, then the evaporation of Dubai’s putative wealth could mean a windfall for Vadillo and his band of traditionalists. Late last year, the British journalist Robert Fisk reported that officials from several Arab countries had held secret meetings with counterparts in Russia, China, Japan, and France, where they discussed settling on a new currency for the pricing and purchasing of oil. The alleged plan: to drop the US dollar — the exclusive currency of the petroleum trade since World World II — in favor of gold and a new, unnamed currency to be adopted by the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Vadillo was inducted into this milieu by Shaykh Abdalqadir as-Sufi, the Scottish convert who founded the Murabitun. (Their relationship has been compared by some Murabitun to that of Aristotle and Alexander the Great.) Abdalqadir, aka Ian Dallas, was a Scottish actor and playwright who had found his way into the heart of bohemian London. He eventually became alienated from the hedonism, cheap mysticism, and inferior hashish of the English counterculture and drifted to Morocco, where he happened upon the Sufi spiritual leader Sheikh Muhammad ibn al-Habib. When he returned, he began proselytizing a version of Islam built on Marx’s theories of commodification, anarchic communitarianism, Heideggerian phenomenology, and Goethe’s secretly Muslim humanism. (Eric Clapton got the idea for “Layla” when Dallas gave him a copy of classical poet Nezami Ganjavi’s The Story of Layla and Majnun; it is said that Dallas convinced Cat Stevens to convert at the house of T. Rex’s Marc Bolan.) He established the Murabitun with the goal of fostering a global financial system in line with Shari’ah law and harkening back to the halcyon days of Islamic commerce under the caliphate, which would lead to the creation of an international community of Muslims and, ultimately, the Islamization of the world. Supermarkets, distribution monopolies, disaggregated labor, interest-bearing loans, and inflationary currency would be a thing of the past, replaced by open marketplaces, traveling caravans, traditional guilds, and metal coinage. Most importantly, the pillar of zakat — the obligatory annual “purification” of one’s wealth by donating 2.5 percent of it to charity — would be restored.
Zakat must be paid with tangible goods. The currency that came into use under the caliphate was based on this gift-exchange aspect of the economy, and minted at a precise measure: a dinar of twenty-two-karat gold weighed four and a quarter grams (the equivalent of seventy-two grains of barley), while a dirham of pure silver weighed three grams. Muslims could calculate zakat precisely, and know that they were handing out a static store of value. This standard was abandoned with the fall of the Ottoman Empire, which plunged Muslims into a world of interest and inflation. The apotheosis of this new order was the 1944 Bretton Woods Agreement, which established the dollar as the world’s reserve currency, effectively replacing gold; it was only a matter of time until the gold standard was abandoned entirely, and the global economy was restructured around exchange values that fluctuated in accordance with the whims of traders and central banks.
“The most important political issue facing our Muslim nation today,” according to Vadilla, is that of riba, or usurious trade. This recondite stuff, gleaned from expansive extrapolations of commentaries on hadiths, is the crux of Murabitun theology. In an economic exchange, riba encompasses all “excess” value of goods received above that of the goods given, whether as interest on a loan (riba al-fadl) or as a change in the value of something being traded due to an unjustified delay in payment (riba al-nasiah). After all, paper money is just an inflationary note of debt — a pledge to pay in the future what you don’t have in the present — and speculative investment is the transformation of that debt into wealth, the production of money from money.
This is not such an easy concept to unravel. Fortunately, Vadillo’s writings refer often to others who have elucidated these concepts in starker terms, chief among them Ezra Pound. (Robert Luongo, a prominent American Murabitun and English professor, wrote a whole book about the poet’s pronouncements, called The Gold Thread: Ezra Pound’s Principles of Good Government and Sound Money.) Take this, from one of Pound’s radio speeches: “Usurers provoke wars to impose monoploies, so that they can get the world by the throat. They provoke wars to create debts, so that they can extort the interest and rake in the profits resulting from the changes in the values of monetary units. A nation that will not get into debt drives the usurers to fury.” For Pound, as for Vadillo, the problem is finance: “The foundation of the Bank of England in far away 1694, with the openly declared prospectus: ‘The bank hath the benefit of the interest on all monies which it creates out of nothing.'”
According to Vadillo’s magnum opus, a thousand-page tome called The Esoteric Deviation in Islam (2003), the Murabitun are not simply engaged in toppling Western finance, but in remaking a religion rent asunder by a century of heretical conciliation — the product of feel-good purveyors of an all-inclusive ummah, the Baha'i-inflected claim that there exist many paths to a single God. “The doctrine of the brotherhood of mankind is not a Sufi doctrine, it is not even Jewish or Christian, it is simply a freemasonic ideal,” Vadillo argues. He pledges on behalf of the Murabitun to “create people” who will stand apart from all the accommodationist sects and kowtowing imams, and, together, wage a quiet war against the West, starting with its financial apparatuses. Muslims have been lulled into believing that the meaning of life and the answers to their problems lie in another realm; in fact, the material world is the arena of their redemption.
Dallas College is the breeding ground for the future leaders of this movement. The ostensible reason for the school being in Cape Town is the symbolic power of the place. South Africa has long served as headquarters for the continent’s Western-oriented “banking elite,” and Cape Town epitomizes the disparities created by global capitalism, with gleaming downtown office towers encircled by sprawling slums. (“Islam has universal knowledge,” a recent commencement speaker said, “but it needs the right location in order to revive that unity of knowledge and action of the Ancient Greeks.”) But Cape Town is also far from the controversies that have hounded the Murabitun in Europe. In the mid-nineties, when Abdalqadir was based in Inverness, Scotland, his followers were involved in the takeover of a Norwich mosque — the Murabitun refused to allow non-members inside to worship — which brought the group to the attention of local media. Newspapers reported on “the shadowy world of a sect.” Pamphlets were uncovered that decried mainstream society as a cadre of Freemasons, and evidence of crooked business practices led to a criminal investigation. Defectors claimed that Abdalqadir was fashioning himself as a cult leader and had links to right-wing extremists. “Wagner was the authentic Sufi of the century,” he had said in a 1990 lecture that was unearthed at the time. “Adolf Hitler was the only mujahid! And Heidegger… was the one to say ‘Allah’ after Nietzsche had said there is no God.”
Abdalqadir fled Scotland shortly thereafter, and with age seems to have moderated his views. His public remarks now focus on the treacheries of global financial institutions, and though they have their own distinct flavor (one recent talk was titled “The Supreme Name and the Dogs of Kufr and Shirk”), their substance hardly differs from the opinions emanating from the American Tea Party Movement or MoveOn.org. He attacks Malaysia’s leaders as “servants of the ruling financial system” and predicts that the country will soon become a “Chinese colony” if it doesn’t turn to the Islamic dinar.
Though Abdalqadir’s website pictures him shrouded in a Jedi-esque cloak and hood, the videos on ShaykhAbdalqadir.com show a dapper gentleman with a Windsor-knotted tie, a kerchief in his jacket pocket, a crocheted cap on his head, and a neatly trimmed white beard. In “The Bankers’ World War,” he reclines on an overstuffed paisley couch and, with all the fury of a bemused grandfather, contrasts the decline of the nation-state with the “absolutely indestructible” fraternity enjoyed by Muslims, which persists despite “all the attempts of the syncretists and the interfaith movement of the atheists, run by gangsters like [Tony] Blair.” There is prejudice, to be sure, but it is of the anodyne variety. He beseeches Muslims not to partake of dialogue with Jews and Christians, or participate in the “freemasonic” financial and political systems that serve their elite.
At Dallas College, situated at the point where the Indian and Atlantic oceans meet, students are taught the Western canon alongside Islamic fiqh. The Murabitun have established an alternative to both the madrassa, which cloisters students in the world of the Qur’an, and the European model, which aims to integrate Muslims into the liberal state. But before being educated, they must be deprogrammed. “Young adults are adrift in a warped view of what they are told is reality,” one follower of Abdalqadir said at last year’s Islam in Europe conference. In such a state, they “attempt to obtain an education to prepare for a world that becomes their prison.” Once rid of false consciousness, they can get to the business of liberation: studying geopolitics, biopolitics, law, and information technology; reading Shakespeare, Carl Schmitt, Henry James, Heidegger, and Ernst Jünger (whom Abdalqadir credits with “winning back for man his centrality to existence just at the very point in history where he is most reduced and dehumanized”); learning Arabic, Urdu, and Ottoman Turkish (a nod to the sect’s empirical aspirations); and honing their fencing and horsemanship skills.
The results of this curriculum may be mixed — Dallas College graduates tend to write as if they’ve spent three years being force-fed sections of the Harvard Classics while copying generic denunciations of Western decadence on a blackboard — but Abdalqadir’s enterprise is not without its merits. He is, of course, fixated on the collapse of meaning in Western thought; he attacks Marx, Freud, and Einstein as “jugglers” who have done little more than overturn preexisting systems of thought in favor of their own crackpot theories, clouding the path to true knowledge of the self and the divine. But at the same time, he echoes their analyses, and suggests that Western critiques of capitalism aren’t separate from Islam; they are, in fact, subsumed by Islam’s prohibition against the incessant accumulation of capital. If the Europeans had only looked to Al-Andalus, they would have seen their utopia.
While the West’s phalanx of philosophers and critics have been unable to produce any real solutions to the various crises of capitalism — the social welfare state, now debilitated, having been their singular achievement — the Murabitun have a program of action for all Muslims: economic warfare, a return to the time when people traded a dirham for a chicken. (There are no ancient or modern forms of exchange, they argue, only natural and unnatural ones.) In the Islamic dinar, they have not only their weapon of choice, but also a perfect icon of their ideology — a rare and enviable thing for any mass movement. The coin does what all alternative currencies do, which is to make apparent the artificial nature of the prevalent system of exchange: how it compensates, spurs, and indeed embodies labor; how it ushers into being the very thing — value — for which it’s supposed to stand. It was Marx who, in his juggling, noted that money can never fully stand for anything. Every transaction leaves us with a remainder. The market fails to transcend and encompass, determine and measure, all things, whether goods or services or life insurance securities. It leaves us with a sense of the apocalypse on the horizon, when money will burn along with all else. Or it leaves only what can still be gotten from beneath the surface of the earth.
Sometime in 1979, the United States discovered the Muslim world. It was a tumultuous year for that sociologically suspect entity — between the fall of the shah in January and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December, there was the Egypt–Israel Peace Treaty, the taking of the American hostages in Tehran, and the siege of Mecca by radical Islamists. Even as “Hey Iran” bumper stickers, featuring an obscene Mickey Mouse, were appearing on station wagons across the country, a cultural diplomat at the United States Information Agency in Washington, DC rang up the editor of the Clayton County Register, the weekly newspaper in the town of Elkader, Iowa (population 1500), inquiring how the town got its name.
As it turned out, Elkader had been named after Abd al-Qadir al-Jaza’iri, a celebrated leader of the Algerian resistance to France in the nineteenth century, and the paper’s editor, Donna Menken, wrote a story about it for Al Majal, the USIA’s Arabic-language magazine. Al Majal was an organ of American soft power, and Elkader was great copy, a perfect talking point for American diplomats confronting a surge in anti-American sentiment: a small town in the heartland of America, in love with an Islamic revolutionary. “The Muslim world” and Main Street, USA, weren’t so far apart, after all.
Of course, the story in Al Majal mostly provided fodder for teatime conversations among diplomats and clerics. But a copy of the issue also sat quietly in the library of the US Embassy in Algiers, where one Algerian staffer, a native of Mascara — al-Qadir’s hometown — read the story with interest. In 1983 he made a journey to the little town, and the following year Elkader and Mascara officially became sister cities. Although it was unclear just what this quasi-political relationship entailed, it certainly provided an exciting vacation for Elkader mayor Ed Olson, who led a ten-person delegation to Mascara for the signing ceremony. It also provided his political rival in the next mayoral election with a ready-made rallying cry: “Get rid of Ed Olson and all his Algerian friends!” Olson lost, and the Iowa–Algeria sorority languished.
And yet despite the xenophobic tendencies of Iowans, Elkader was becoming a destination for Algerians in the United States. In 1990, Idriss Jazairi, Abd al-Qadir’s great-great-grandson, made a pilgrimage of sorts, and in 1996, no fewer than four hundred Algerian-Americans descended on the town for its annual Sweet Corn Parade in July. By the late 1990s, certain members of the Elkader Chamber of Commerce had begun to realize that the town’s almost whimsical identification with Algeria could lend it a certain brand identity, whether the townies were onboard or not.
Which is how, for the second time in 150 years, a small Midwestern town hitched its economic wagon to the legacy of a self-confessed jihadist — on the eve of America’s “war on terror,” no less.
Elkader, Iowa, was founded in 1846 during a golden age of real estate speculation, part of an ambitious scheme cooked up by a cabal of New York lawyers. It’s more than likely that the name was chosen, even then, for its market appeal. John O’Sullivan, a politician and journalist, had just provided North American land speculators with what would become their most effective sales pitch, linking the expansion of the United States across the continent to the battle against “the tyranny of kings, hierarchs, and oligarchs.” As promotional copy, the theory of Manifest Destiny was genius. O’Sullivan promised that Americans could live out their highest ideals by the most mundane means: purchasing a piece of land west of the Mississippi. (Elkader is about twenty miles over the line; the Turkey River, a tributary of the Mississippi, runs through it.) The town fathers of Elkader played on this theme — Abd al-Qadir was even then leading a guerilla war against the forces of the restored French monarchy, which had captured Algiers in 1830. By the same token, the name Elkader — with its vague Arabesque exoticism — distinguished the town from a field crowded with biblical allusions, Indian rebels, and wartime heroes.
More has come to hang on that Algerian connection than its founders could ever have imagined. The farm crisis of the 1980s decimated old farm towns like Elkader. Today, though agribusiness remains the largest employer in Iowa, it represents the smallest portion of the state’s gross product. The financial services sector is flourishing, actually, though it employs only a very elite group of well-educated professionals. Industrial jobs have disappeared; those few manufacturing plants that remain in the state are often there to take advantage of its decidedly non-activist, non-union workforce, including large numbers of undocumented, mostly Central American, laborers.
The one growing economic sector in Iowa is the heritage and ecotourist market in the northeast of the state. Elkader is part of the Driftless Area, a 24,000-square-mile geological novelty that spans parts of Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, and Iowa. When the Great Plains were flattened by drifting glaciers during the last Ice Age, the Driftless Area was spared, creating the most topographically variegated terrain for nearly four hundred miles, as well as an extraordinary biodiversity. Amid recessionary fears and rising energy costs, the Driftless Area has emerged as a regional destination for summer travel.
Entrepreneurial city chambers have exploited these circumstances by promoting redevelopment projects, transforming sites once devoted to industry and agriculture into temples of consumption. Dubuque legalized riverboat gaming in the mid-1980s as part of an ambitious plan to revive the Mississippi Riverfront. Using taxes and subsidies from gaming corporations, Dubuque has orchestrated the development of a small specialty business culture, catering to an exclusive out-of-town clientele. Gaming has underwritten a similar recovery in nearby McGregor. Once little more than four bars, three churches, and a gas station, McGregor is now a veritable oasis of latte liberalism, one-stop shopping for locally produced wines and spirits, heritage produce, and snapping-turtle jerky.
In Elkader, the most visible signs of this sort of development are the renovated opera house — underwritten by big capital sponsors like the Ford Motor Company — and Schera’s, a North African restaurant operated by a gay couple recently relocated from Boston. Frederique Boudouani, one of the proprietors of Schera’s, is the son of Algerian and French parents; his partner grew up in nearby New Hampton, Iowa. Elkader’s “multicultural heritage” has become its comparative advantage in the regional tourism industry. No surprise, then, that when the Algerian Embassy contacted local officials in 2007 about reactivating the sister-cities program, Elkader was ready to listen.
The Abd al-Qadir embraced by Iowans — the gallant defender of other religions — is a caricature of the historical figure but not a wholesale invention. Even during his jihad against the French, Abd al-Qadir was noted for his liberal attitudes toward Christian prisoners. Yet in trussing him up for local consumption, Elkader has shoved the broader doctrinal basis for his beliefs into a narrowly secularist frame that resonates with the politics of postwar liberal internationalism. In the words of a student essayist from Elkader Central High School, Abd al-Qadir was the forerunner of Susan B. Anthony, Elie Wiesel, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Barack Obama, in that he “helped revolutionize civil rights worldwide.”
On the one hand, this presents Abd al-Qadir as if his respect for other religions is somehow at odds with his faith as a Muslim, as if respect for other religious traditions was not a bedrock of Islam. On the other hand, this rendering of Abd al-Qadir strips his beliefs of all social and political context. The Elkader sister-cities website highlights his protection of Christians during the 1861 uprising in Ottoman Damascus, yet it fails to underline the extent to which Abd al-Qadir’s actions were those of an Arab nationalist — committed to a multiconfessional community of Arabs and a politics of anti-colonial solidarity.
As it happens, Elkader’s rebranding of Abd al-Qadir is rich with precedent. Since the start of the revolt in 1830, much of what has been written about Abd al-Qadir has been pure propaganda. Like many a latter-day Arab potentate — Saddam Hussein springs to mind — Abd al-Qadir has been celebrated and demonized in accordance with Western whims and ambitions. He appeared as the Bin Laden of his age, a devil sent to plague the French; yet after the overthrow of the July monarchy and the rise of Louis Bonaparte, Abd al-Qadir was made over as a liberator. Bonaparte hoped to realize his greater Mediterranean empire, uniting Arabs from North Africa to the Levant in a French protectorate under Abd al-Qadir’s leadership. While the end of the Second Empire spelled the death of this project, Abd al-Qadir went on to enjoy international respectability.
This Abd al-Qadir is, not coincidentally, the same character that Algeria would like the world to know. In the wake of the Algerian civil war (1991–2002), many Algerian intellectuals argued that the war was brought on by the failure of the nationalist project. Algerian nationalism was, they maintained, compromised by Arab nationalism; its postcolonial institutions only succeeded in reproducing a sense of transnational solidarity among Arabs, one that slid all too easily into the politics of Islamist revival. Despite its relative implausibility, this hypothesis has become the basis for postwar nation-building efforts championed by the Algerian state. The recovery of Abd al-Qadir as a national hero has proceeded as part of a general “reeducation” in the history of Algeria, one that (like all nationalisms) posits an idealized romance of the putatively national past as a way of articulating present political crises — and creating a safe space for economic development. The Abd al-Qadir revival is meant to produce social stability by promoting a greater sense of Algerianness, but also to brand Algeria as an exemplar of security and secularism against the larger field of Islamic — though not Islamist — nation-states.
And so — just as Algeria has been used to promote Elkader, Iowa — Elkader, Iowa, has been used to promote Algeria. In speech after speech, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has underlined the importance of Abd al-Qadir by celebrating his tolerance and generosity; stories highlighting the relationship between Elkader and Mascara appear with some regularity even in the pages of El Watan, a daily newspaper often critical of the government. When Ed Olson, the Elkader mayor whose “Algerian friends” cost him his reelection, died in August 2009, the story was national news in Algeria, as was a visit the previous year by the president of the Elkader Sister Cities Friendship Club, Kathy Garms, to attend a conference on Abd al-Qadir’s legacy.
The Elkader connection definitely seems to have increased awareness, among contemporary Algerians, of the historical al-Qadir. Whether that, in turn, might translate to a more distinctly Algerian identity is difficult to ascertain. In any case, the state has successfully inserted itself into a larger conversation about religious practice and political identity. Ironically — or not — Algeria’s promotion of al-Qadir echoes one of the US State Department’s more recent initiatives, promoting Sufism as an alternative to political Islam. A Sufi cleric in his lifetime, Abd al-Qadir represents the ideal that both projects seek to realize, a sense of Islamic spirituality divorced from the immediacies of the material world.
For its participation in this strange geopolitical parlor game, Elkader has been awarded an unprecedented level of access to foreign officials, as well as players at the highest levels of the global economy. When she visited Algeria in May 2008, Garms met with an array of government ministers, as well as officials from the Arab League and the US–Algerian Business Council — a veritable who’s who of global capital, including representatives from British Petroleum, Chevron, Coca-Cola, ExxonMobil, General Electric, Halliburton, Pfizer, Raytheon, and Shell Oil. The US–ABC is considering contracting with Elkader’s long-underused Caterpillar tractor plant to produce a fleet of earthmovers to remake the small Algerian town of Hassi Messaoud into a North African Abu Dhabi — a move that could herald Elkader’s industrial revival.
For the moment, the benefits that might come from these relationships remain largely speculative. Even the impact of Elkader’s ethnic marketing campaign is hard to quantify. Yet, in at least one way, the rapport between Elkader and Algeria has paid off. Shortly after Kathy Garms returned home from her Algerian visit, flooding along the Turkey River devastated parts of Elkader, destroying homes and ruining infrastructure. Algeria immediately offered to help, donating $150,000 to assist with the town’s relief efforts. The gift was presented, formally, by the Algerian ambassador to the US, Amine Kherbi, at the Elkader Opera House on July 5, 2008. Timed to coincide with the forty-sixth anniversary of Algerian independence, the ceremony opened with a line of Boy Scouts, marching to the stirring strains of the Algerian national anthem, hoisting the star and crescent of the Algerian flag.
On Mondays, at midnight or a little after, I arrive at the Greek Mythology in Taipa, where I play when I have nowhere else to go, when I feel the goddess of luck, Guan Yin, is with me. It’s one of the older casinos, archaic and run down, but I like its bars stocked with Great Wall and Dragon Seal wine which you can mix with Dr. Pepper. For that matter, I like the Greeks themselves, Zeus at the top of the gold staircase and the friezes of centaurs. I like the receptionists in cherry-red hats who sleep with you if you pay them enough. I even like the deserted traffic circle at the end of the street where I can go to catch my breath during a losing streak. The air in Macau is always sharp and clean, somehow — except when it’s foul and humid.
The crowd is mainlander at New Year, an outpouring of the nearby cities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen and their choking suburbs. The people look like swarms of ducks. I wonder what they make of the murals of ecstatic nymphs. Among them one can spot the safety-pin millionaires, the managers of the Pearl River factories, the mom and pop owners of manufacturing units specializing in computer keyboard buttons and toy cogs and gears for lawnmowers — all here to blow their hard-earned wads on the I Ching. The doors are that bright gold that the Chinese love, the carpets that deep red that is said to be the color of luck. Droplet chandeliers hang down from ceilings painted with scenes from Tiepolo, with zephyrs given Asian canthi. Corridor flowing into corridor, an endless system of corridors, like every Macau casino.
I pass into a vestibule where the glass screens are frosted with images of Confucius and naked girls. In a private room, briefly glimpsed, two Chinese players are laying down hundred-Hong-Kong-dollar bets with a show of macho lethargy and indifference. One of them smokes an enormous cigar, from the open box of complimentary Havanas on the table, flicking the ash into a metal conch shell intended to echo the cheap reproductions of Botticelli cut into the blue walls. My hands begin to sweat inside the gloves I always wear in gaming houses. The smell that curls into my nose is that of humans concentrating on their bad luck, perspiring like me because of the broken fans.
The game here is baccarat punto blanco. It’s played with eight decks of cards, dealt by three bankers. Each player is given two cards, traditionally by a “shoe” that moves up and down the table. Whoever turns the highest scoring hand wins the round. Cards two through nine are worth face value, tens and face cards — jack, queen, or king — are worth nothing and an ace is valued at one. Players calculate their hands by adding up the values then subtracting ten if that total is higher than ten. This is known as “modulo ten.” Nine is the highest value a baccarat hand can be. It’s called a “natural” and conquers all other hands.
Each table has an electronic board that displays the patterns of luck as mathematical trends. The crowds gather around these boards to decide which tables are lucky and which aren’t. They scrutinize the lines of numbers, which change minutely with every hand that is played at the table. It’s a way of computing the winds of change.
The waiter asks me if I would like another drink — a bottle of champagne, perhaps? There is a girl at the table and no one else. She looks over through her spectacles, and I see the look of a pro. She’s dolled-up in clothes from the malls in Tsim Sha Shui. Easy pickings, she thinks, looking at this plump gwailo in his gloves and bow tie like an outdated English tourist out on the town without his wife’s permission. She looks me over, and I enjoy the thought of skinning her alive with a few good hands. The bets are $50 HK a hand. I begin to smoke — Red Pagoda Hill or Zongnanhia, the stuff that kills — and we play. I begin to lose. Not ostentatiously or dramatically, but $50 by $50. The girl says her name is Shui Shui, and she asks me how I learned to speak Mandarin. It’s not every gwailo punter who can speak the mother tongue, she says, and I tell her I pick these things up. I speak languages in order to gamble.
I notice now her handbag, the kind you can buy in the markets in Shenzhen, faux Fendi with gilt metal that flakes away after a week. Her bracelet is one of those multicolored childish objects from the Paris Hilton collection. She must have seen it in a magazine — the small circles of enamel don’t suit her at all. She hoards her chips while her eyes scan the surface of the table as if it’s something she has never seen before. Then the rows of yellow numbers change, and I can hear them click, as if the luck force field is flicking them over like cards. The Shuffle Master ejects three cards apiece. Shui Shui handles them the way a customer in a market handles small fish before buying them. She looks over the top edges of the cards, and I see the crooked, up-country smile, the over-applied paints and creams. Is she a prostitute?
We play another hand at $100, and when the house flips over the cards with his pallet, I see that I have scored a baccarat, a zero. The girl shrugs and watches my chips move over to her. We’re now 7–0 in her favor. I stand up to go to the cashier for more chips. I have about two hundred US dollars left, and things are going badly. But the girl suddenly suggests that we go somewhere for the night instead of playing more baccarat. There’s little point in me losing more money, she says, since luck is against me. We can amuse ourselves with my remaining money, which will be just about enough. She says it as a joke, but she’s right.
We walk out into the lobby, and there’s a lilt in our walk, an agreement deep down at the level of the body. It’s not my favorite place, I say grandly. Have you been to the Venetian? I hate that, too, my tone implies, but at least you can get a decent drink. Oh, yes, she says. You can get a decent mojito there.
We walk out past the statue of Pegasus in the courtyard, and its wings are flapping, smoke coming out of its nose, and the whores standing about in the parking lot are laughing their asses off. We find a taxi to take us back to Macau. I suggest an older, colonial place near the An-Ma Temple, where I have not been before and where — for some reason it matters — I won’t be recognized.
The hotel lies at the top of a series of steep steps that wind around terrace garden patios with wizened trees and wet tables. As I close the door behind us, Shui Shui says she is not your usual prostitute. Not at all, she says. She’s a secretary at a real estate company, and she just wants to make a little extra on the side. She says she sends her money home to a small village in Sichuan called Sanbo. The monks of her local lamasery are gilding her deer on their roof, and she’s making merit by paying for them. So far she’s paid for the re-gilding of three deer. One customer per deer, she says, and it’s enough for a laugh.
After sex, as we lie in the dark listening to the rain, she asks me what I do, and I lie. I say I am just passing through. I like to gamble, I admit, that’s all. I don’t tell her that I’ve been here seven months playing every night and living at the Hotel Lisboa. I say nothing about my absurd compulsion. You must have a lot of money, she says, to stay in a place like this. All the other men run out of money. I win and I lose, I say, like everyone else. The odds against the punter in baccarat are a mere 0.27 so I can, in fact, break even. She says gwailo are all the same. We cannot give in to the goddess Guan Yin, deity of luck and sailors. If I could go with the flow, she says, I could win big. Gamblers, she says, are what the Chinese call hungry ghosts.
She says that Buddhists believe that the afterlife is divided into six realms. There is the realm of devas, or blissful gods; the realm of the animals and that of the humans; the domain of the asura demi-gods and that of preta, the hungry ghosts. Below them all lies the realm of naraka, or Hell. Each realm reflects the actions of a previous life. People who are reborn as hungry ghosts were strongly acquisitive, driven by desire. Their insatiable desires are symbolized by their long necks and swollen bellies. They are supernatural beings, continually suffering from hunger and thirst. Their huge bellies signify their crazed appetites, while their narrow necks suggest that they can never satisfy them. Their karma afflicts them in their rebirth. For Taoists, the hungry ghosts are the spirits of suicides and those who have died a violent death. During the seventh lunar month of the Chinese calendar, the hungry ghosts are let out of hell to roam freely, and the Hungry Ghost Festival welcomes them. The sacrificial altars of the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva are arrayed with plates of flour, rice, and peaches. They say that’s what the hungry ghosts want to eat. It is a beautiful touch, that the ghosts crave peaches. As if the afterlife does not have them.
I dream about Shui Shui’s gilded deer. When I wake, she has gone, taking the “gift” I had placed on the night table before falling asleep. I go for breakfast at the Clube Militar, the old Portuguese officers’ mess, and eat a plate of baccalau asado and clam dim sum with a bottle of Perequita. I have $17 left.
The following night at eight o’clock exactly, I put on my darkest suit and take the elevator down from the seventh floor of the Hotel Lisboa. It’s the hour of the “second shift” in the world’s most profitable casino, and the revolving doors turn like turbines as crowds pour through them and disperse into the labyrinth. Seven million dollars a day in revenues and a pall of smoke that never moves, smoke that hits the throat like sawdust mixed with powdered metal. It hovers above the tangerine trees, from which a thousand red New Year’s envelopes hang like poisonous fruit.
I go down to the hotel’s main mass-market casino, the Mona Lisa, where the games are endless in their diversity: pai kao, fanton, cussec, Q, and stud poker, and, of course, punto blanco, that dirty queen of casino card games. The boys bring me a sausage rolls and cognac, and I order a buttonhole from the Rua da Pessem. I lose again.
With $4, I play fish-prawn-crab dice for an hour — forgetting myself completely, winning a bit — then move off down the elevators to the Crystal Palace, which is like descending into an ice grotto. Glass shards are suspended from the ceilings in waves of green and orange. This is a place where the rational mind comes apart. From there I find my way in total solitude, arriving at the Club Triumph and the Lisboa Hou Kat, a place with a secretive feel to it, like a buried palace in Crete from the time of Linear B, with a circular room of leather sofas and more tangerine trees with New Year’s envelopes.
The hours pass. The money slips away. After a long losing spree, I go back to my room to freshen up and grab another $200, then take the elevator down to the casinos for a second try.
It’s nine now, and the evening shift is just in. Brutal, cynical men with red faces and cheap suits, with eyes that suck everything in and spit it out again. On the ground floor, they stand by the “throne of pharaoh,” a reproduction of a chair from Tutankhamen’s tomb, and a large vertical oil painting with its title provided: La Mère Abandonée. The painting depicts a woman with a lyre, sighing over a baby sleeping in a wheeled carriage. This scene of rural misery from nineteenth-century France fails to arouse their curiosity, and they turn their backs to it as they wait for the elevators. They carry bags of gaming chips and cans of winter melon tea. Their breath smells powerfully of oyster sauce.
I buy a cigar in the underground mall and go up to the Vvip rooms, where Renoirs loom on the walls. Here in the four innermost rooms, the bets are a minimum of $10,000, up to a maximum of $2 million. Three plays at a time, usually. There’s a separate entrance leading into the hotel so that the high-rollers are encouraged to roll right out of bed and gamble with sleep in their eyes. Here bright red armchairs are surrounded by Alma-Tadema paintings of ancient Rome, with gardens of laughing Nereids.
I play side baccarat for a while, and I’m impressed by the way the staff brings me my supply of chips. I cheer up as my luck improves; I win three hands out of six. Four hundred back in. I experience a stab of sadistic vitality. How bright is the world of money, the making of money from money.
It’s well after midnight by the time I get down to the new Sands, the first of the great American casinos, where one is guided by staff dressed in yellow Wizard of Oz uniforms. I’m feeling absurdly lucky as I am escorted upstairs to the Paiza Club, the most exclusive private gaming room in Macau. Here, I think to myself, I am surely going to experience the heights of ecstasy and torture. The style is very Chinese, so appropriate to this dawning age of Chinese capitalism, the coming golden age of Chinese money. Terra cotta jars in niches and dragons everywhere. The world’s biggest chandelier, my escort says, indicating with her hand. I am then given a choice of private rooms with fires in grates, blood-red panels, and gray tables. I choose a room where I can play against the bank alone with $10,000 HK hands.
It is now that I feel the compulsion. A sensual moment, charged with anticipation, the mind emptying out, scurrying like a wingless bug. The gambler is a man attuned to the supernatural. He
is wary of portents and omens. He is perpetually on edge.
The dealer bows. Do you like the cards? he says. Special from Germany. Binokel with Württemberg artwork. I feel sweat moving slowly down my back, clinging to the spine, an area of moistness developing between my eyes. I think of Guan Yin. Her name means “listening to the sounds of the world.” For the Taoists she is an immortal, and I pray to her. But she’s not listening, the bitch, and I lose everything in eight minutes.
Stunned, I get up, thank the bank, and leave. I am now functionally destitute. I walk back to the Lisboa in the dawn, past the yawning molls of the Rua de Pequim. The sky is lit with contorted neon signs for massage girls. Suzie, Babylon Girls, Mega. Inside the Lisboa lobby I wander in despair around the shopping galleries, staring at those antique inkstones and Chinese seismographs that seem to be permanently on sale. There is a gilded peacock from Garraud’s of London displayed with a glass of blue wine next to it.
Soon, because I’m an addict, I feel the itch returning, and I think of the seventy dollars still in my room, which I could use right now in one of the Lisboa casinos. If I lose it, of course, there’ll be no breakfast tomorrow morning, and no lunch either. I’ll be begging my gambler friends on hands and knees for small change. I go up to my room and pull the notes from under my mattress. I stand there in the middle of the room, shaking. A play or breakfast? I throw the money down and weep, then take a long hot bath. I am shaking even in my sleep.
The next day, somewhat calmed, I change into a different suit, one of my many cheap suits from Bangkok, and I feel something in the pocket of the old pants that I hadn’t noticed previously. It’s a small jade charm on a chain in the shape of a deer. It must have been put there by Shui Shui, while I was asleep. I hold it fondly between my fingers and turn it back and forth. That girl. I can barely remember her now. The jade is worn and smooth, it might be hundreds of years old. I wonder why she has made me such a gift. Perhaps she felt sorry for me. I put the chain around my neck. I feel exhausted but determined as I make my way downstairs.
I walk for a while down long Reppublica, which is like a boulevard in Lisbon or Madrid, to the far end where the ferries and cruise ships dock, and to the tail end of Felicidade, or Happiness. The brothels used to be here, but now Felicidade is filled with tea shops, which I suppose is another kind of happiness. Endless side streets are arranged like a jigsaw puzzle. I circle back to a small church I love that lies at the top of the Travessa do Bispo and sit there with my dripping umbrella, trying to clear my head, praying for luck.
That afternoon, I decide to go to the Grand Emperor, one of the gaudiest of the Macau houses. It’s conspicuous for its gilded replica of the British royal state carriage by the front doors and for the Beefeaters in fur hats in the gold vestibule. There is something in this kitsch that reminds one that there is more to being alive than being alive. It’s like some Hans Christian Andersen fairy palace as imagined by a small child with a high fever. I pass under an imposing but strangely sympathetic portrait of Queen Liz and another of the Duke of Cumberland — a bad-looking motherfucker, if I may say so — and I finger the $1000 note I am going to use.
I take the escalators up past floor after floor decorated in the theme of European aristocracy. I settle for the Venetian floor, with myriad images of the age of Casanova, swooning inhabitants of boudoirs, weeping over handkerchiefs, and candlelit gallantries around baccarat tables. I sit at a table of fourteen mostly young and indolently thuggish men in leather and velvet jackets with wide lapels, like the accoutrements of famished princes. I begin to win.
I win a natural, a perfect nine. Then, on the very next hand, I win a second natural. There is a low exclamation — drawn-out, animal — around the table, and the three bankers shoot me incredulous looks that could have been synchronized by puppeteers. I rake in the chips. These consecutive wins suddenly induce a mood of superstitiousness in the entire room, and I notice the tables thinning out as people migrate to mine. Success is irresistible. It’s like a crime scene, something that enchants the worst side of the mind. I play on and on, winning by naturals for six hands in a row. Spectators begin to swear. Zau gei! I make four thousand HK in sixteen minutes. Then eleven thousand. The bankers perk up.
It is said that in 1897, a wheel at the Monte Carlo Casino rolled eighteen reds in a row, and a German gambler made a small fortune on the eighteenth because nobody else around him dared bet on red. That man held his nerve. I do the same, cash my chips, and leave. I walk out like Nero among his ruins.
It goes on like this for several days. I go out every night with splendid confidence and clear out a few tables. I go to the Landmark in the early hours to play amidst that Ancient Egyptian decor and then have a gin and tonic at the bar, which is shaped like a Nilotic barge. I try smaller casinos I have never been to before on the high floors of nondescript skyscrapers. I go to the Fortuna and the Hong Fak. I get richer and richer for about a week, and I cannot fathom how it’s come about. Luck is just like that. You reap it while you may. When I go home to the Lisboa, I lock the door and listen to music. I go for walks to Vulcania, the reconstruction of a Roman city that sits on the edge of the waterfront, with a fiberglass Colosseum and centurions in full armor who raise their arms and cry “Hail!” As I walk by, they salute and offer me instead of the usual “Hail!” a slangier Cantonese greeting with a dash of English: Gum lei take care la.
Flush with cash, I eat at the Galera restaurant on the sixth floor, where Joel Robuchon holds sway for the Lisboa’s owner, the billionaire developer Stanley Ho. Ho at eighty-nine is a wine collector, a ballroom dancer, a former gunrunner, and a marvelous cad. The Lisboa is his bad dream. There are stars on the ceiling that turn on and off and stuffed petrels sitting stiffly on silver perches. I eat an almond soup sprinkled with purple gorse flowers. There, one evening, over a bottle of Kweichow Mountain 1927 (at $47,000 HK, the most expensive Chinese wine ever made), I spot a small item at the bottom of page 16 of the South China Morning Post. It’s one of those items that I am naturally drawn to, small tragedies in large cities. This one tells of a suicide in an apartment block in Jardine’s Bazaar in Wan Chai. A secretary at a real estate agency has hanged herself with a light flex in her fourth-floor walk-up studio. Her age is given, her name withheld, but it says she was an avid gambler and had lost a lot of money in the Macau casinos.
It stops me cold. I put down my glass, and I find that my hand is shaking. I feel myself losing any sense of where I am. I know that it is Shui Shui. Then I look up at the top of the paper — it’s dated January 14, last week. Counting backward I realize that this is only three or four days after our night together. I pay the bill and go back to my room. I collect all the cash stashed there and put it into two Adidas bags, then take a cab to the Venetian.
The Venetian is the world’s largest casino, and its baccarat tables are set in columned halls with fountains and frescoed ceilings and cypress trees. Parts of it are like a baroque church, with glassy marble floors. Actors dressed like characters from a Puccini opera wander about, breaking out into arias or ringing bells and turning cartwheels among Taiwanese tourists who are anxious to capture them on film. I have a few drinks at Florian’s, then make my way to the center of the gaming floor.
I sit and ask for a glass of naughty lemonade, which is served at all the tables. I feel tipsy as I ask to join the game. I’ve already converted my cash into a considerable pile of chips. When I say that I want to bet all of it, they ask me if I’m certain. I say, Sure, why not, I’m in the mood to bet all of it. They ask me a second time, as if the sheer size of the bet is a hazard to me in some way. A manager comes across and says that a bet of this size would not normally be permitted, but if I insist, he can request clearance. I say, Go for it. I say I’ve had a good week and I have chips to burn. He bows slightly and smiles. Very well, sir, he says. Just let me call up.
Within minutes the matter is settled, and I’m told I can bet whatever amount I want. It is a remarkable privilege. It is perhaps because I am a gwailo and have been known to suffer the ups and downs of baccaratic fate.
I ask the dealer to play. As the highest better I have the right to the first two cards. Just before play starts, however, I halt the proceedings and take back 20,000 of the chips and return them to my bag. This act of prudence is warmly approved as very Chinese in spirit, and the dealers ask me again in Cantonese if I’m comfortable with the bet as it now stands. I nod. I have finally become, I think, a true Chinese. I feel the winds and the gaze of the Bodhisattva and the ghost of the dead woman hanged in her miserable apartment in Wan Chai. I am in the realm of the hungry ghosts, and I know how to get out of it. I am certain that these supernatural presences will not let me lose. They are looking over my shoulder, protecting me, directing the flow of luck.
I turn the cards and — supernatural or not supernatural — it’s a baccarat. The losing zero. There are no ghosts, after all. I hear voices whisper, the gwailo just lost everything! The crowd is silent for a while, contemplating this awful fact, which might have happened to any one of them. Then they begin to laugh, to guffaw, cigarette smoke steaming out of their nostrils. It’s the laughter of bad faith, but also of relief. Theirs, and mine. Baccarat, baccarat! The poor bastard gwailo lost it all! Luck has come, and luck has gone away.
I am not in the slightest bit disturbed. In fact, I am happier than I have ever been. I pick up my bag, thank everyone concerned, and walk out of the casino as if nothing has happened. I walk back to the Lisboa through a freezing drizzle. I pay part of my outstanding bill there and keep back a few dollars for the next day’s play. Then I go to sleep in my room with the aid of a few pills. The nightmares come back, but I know I can survive them.
The following day I ask the receptionist to post a letter to the monastery in Sanbo, in Sichuan. I put 10,000 into the envelope and seal it without any note of explanation to the good monks of that far-off place, which I will never visit. I hope it will be enough to re-gild the remaining deer on their hallowed roofs. I turn then and walk to the escalator that will take me down to the Mona Lisa. I have seventeen dollars for the first play, plus enough for breakfast at the Noite e Dia Café in the basement, where I can watch the dog races on TV all day long and where I will be served by tall Mongolian girls dressed in pale gray leather capes. In the bright glare of the relojerias and the pharmacies rich with cellophane-wrapped shark fins, I will feel a great love for the hungry ghosts, and when I pay the bill, I will leave Shui Shui’s jade charm alongside the crumpled banknotes and the little sign that says “Thank You” in English.
“Go back to your souk!” is still the worst thing an aunt of mine in Milan can think to say to my uncle, who, like me, was born in Egypt. Fortunately, I have one right here in New York City, in a diminutive room you wouldn’t give two cents about. No one ventures into my souk but me. The local anthropologist calls it my “treasure house” and leaves it at that. When packages come from foreign places, he leaves them by the souk’s entryway without inquiring as to their contents.
There is a window in my study-vault at the end of a narrow walkway between stacked containers, right behind the desk. I get a tremor of pleasure every time I walk by those clear plastic containers, which are called Iris and made in France — I can catch a glimpse of their insides without having to do anything so elaborate as opening them up. I come in here to work when I don’t want to be interrupted, but even more to be in a place filled with silent ornament. It makes me feel less alone, somehow, and it helps me to work, as well. I cannot explain it, but I’m certain of it — that this assemblage of threads, woven together with the thought of creating a pleasing pattern, can concentrate any mind that approaches it, and that this effect is similar to that induced by the mosaics of the Shayk Lutfallah Mosque in Isfahan and a thousand and one such places.
My little souk did not appear overnight. It took years to come together. I have come to think of it as a charity undertaken by a number of objects of various descriptions and origins, on behalf of one like me, born in Alexandria, and with a grandmother from Istanbul. They must have sensed that I suffered from a morbus of the eyes, a severe and progressive condition brought about by lack of beauty placed before them. Art can do its share of nurturing, in New York City as in Italy; but, as everyone knows, art goes straight to the mind. With a work of art, the eyes act as mere secretaries: they report who’s at the door, and furnish the briefest of descriptions, just enough to signal whether the visitor may gain admittance or not. No, I’m talking about the balm of ornament.
Until recently, I might have protested that ornament played no part in the life of an obdurate modernist like myself. Decades ago, working alongside an Italian designer who seemed unfailingly irked by curves and other femininities, I had willingly entered a universe of blues, blacks, grays, and whites — a convent of classical Western attire. There was no better place for an indoctrination into sobriety than Milan — except possibly Japan, where I’d gone to live when I was ten. In my five years in Tokyo, I’d absorbed Kuki Shuzo’s theory of iki — that impalpable taste for form and color in which a thing could be termed decent only if it was, at a minimum, virtually impossible to describe. And I greatly admired Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows. Staring long and hard into the bottom left-hand corner of La Main Chaude by Rembrandt, at a shadow shaped like the massive head of a German shepherd, right down to the ears, one notices it contains every variety of green-black, blue-black, gray-black — a thought to warm the heart of any iki adept.
Mind you, I may have dressed in men’s trousers, jackets, and shirts for years, but it wasn’t just me. The West forgot how to make ornament, even forgot to feel the need for it. When it did, it summoned up only the most ordinary of designs. In the language
of ornament, one has to learn to say something more complex than the equivalent of “Nice dog” or “Good boy.”
But I was so dead set against ornament that ornament knew. It somehow knew that a direct assault would be ill advised, so it went about its work surreptitiously.
In Aswan not three years ago, I visited the souk. I headed toward it thinking I would get a chalk-striped men’s djellaba such as I’d seen men wearing on the street. Can you explain why I returned with a pile of butterfly-hued cotton scarves?
First of all, I had not bargained on the salesman — or with him, for that matter. There are salesmen in souks, and one is as destined to one or two or three of them as one might be to one’s family members, friends, or associates. You find yourself drawn to their stalls, and there you stay. Then like djinns dancing out of their bottles, things begin to emerge from beneath piles on dusty shelves. You are taken by surprise. And you feel it is your duty to buy something. This is correct. You might have gone in thinking, “I’ll pretend to look, then I’ll leave and go find what I really came for.” But you have entered into a social contract — this is not mere consumption.
Later I realized that as I’d sat on the terrace of my room at the Old Cataract, admiring the sound of creaking doors and floors, surveying the miniatures on the walls of my room — veiled ladies draped over couches entertaining merchants bearing finery — I had answered a sort of call. A call to the souk — or, more precisely, to Mr. X’s stall. I was in a relationship with the gentleman, as surely as the veiled lady and the turbaned man who had probably plied her mother with wares, and no doubt her mother’s mother before her. I might have preferred the stall next door, or two doors down. But I would never know; I had been chosen.
I have no recollection of consciously deciding to correct my metaphorical scurvy, my souklessness. My body began to solve the problem by itself. After that first time with the scarves at Aswan, a more radical cure emerged one summer at my mother’s house in Strada in Chianti. I had finished writing an interview with an artist from Bangalore named Pushpamala N, who dressed up as the goddess Lakshmi, for instance, from the oleographic paintings of Raja Ravi Varma. An entire issue of the magazine was being dedicated to India. There was to have been an article on saris, too, which a friend in Chennai had agreed to write but could not complete. The editor suggested I do it. I had every good reason not to, principal among them that I didn’t know the first thing about the subject. But since that had never stopped me before, I agreed.
Gingerly, I went online to see what there might be to see of saris from my desk in Strada in Chianti. I had three days to write the piece. What there might be to see turned out to be hundreds and hundreds of saris. I fell down a hole and couldn’t stop looking. There were Bengali muslins with ribbon borders and jacquards with repeated intricate Islamic patterning, such as I’d seen on my grandmother’s collection of Turkish glass. There were swans in disciplined rows, swimming along borders, and colors conniving together that I hadn’t ever seen next to one another, like blue-gray with pale orange, or gold with cyan.
In a moment, I lost my minimalist compass — or rather, it was sent spinning by the multitude of designs set before it. It was as if I had sighted an oasis of color in a bleak desert of plainness and puce. Right there and then I dreamed of acquiring a thousand and one saris. The packages from foreign places began to arrive and took up residence in the treasure house.
Now I am entwined in ornament. It runs curlicues around my head and limbs and draws me back into the souk where I belong. Here in my dingy magical room, my eyes recover their power. The treasure house is a temple to those few left in the world who still know how to create an object for daily use that will enter the eyes and settle there, a burst of pleasure, given and received. In a souk in Marrakesh, a man who was angling to draw me into his stall of painted vases said, “Plaisir des yeux.” Pleasure for the eyes. I wouldn’t have to buy anything, he said. Oh, but I did.
First comes the drone of the sci-fi supercharged tamburas, fluxing and oscillating, too high up in the mix for the bureaucrats and professors at All India Radio, way too high. It’s like the rush of a marsh on a midsummer night with a million crickets, or the howling wind stirring the power lines outside a cabin in backwoods Idaho, or the hushed roar of the stream in front of a hermit’s cave above Dehradun: see the blue-throated god lying there, recumbent and still, his eyes shut, the dangerous corpse of the Overlord waiting for the dancing feet of his bloody, love-mad consort.
This was the sound La Monte Young heard the first time he heard any music from India, Ali Akbar Khan’s 1955 LP Morning and Evening Ragas, in a Music City Records promo-spot on the radio in Los Angeles. Young drove over, bought the record, and brought it back to his grandmother’s house, where he locked himself in his room and listened as the musicians were introduced by violinist Yehudi Menuhin, along with their instruments — this is Mr Ali Akbar Khan on sarod, this is Mr Chatur Lal on tabla, and this is the third instrument, the tambura, played by Mr. Gor. The sound that follows this final introduction lasts only a few seconds on the recording, but it had a dramatic impact on the young composer, who heard in it the basis for a music built around sustained tones and a sublimated, slowed-down rhythmic pulse.
If minimalist music as we know it was in some sense an emanation from that first tambura on the radio, it seems safe to say that it was another tambura that midwifed the birth of its more intimate, disparate heirs. Pandit Pran Nath’s tambura was louder, higher, and harder; it hits you deep in the body with its synesthetic sine wave vibrations and cascading overtones. Hear the world poised at the brink of some radical unfolding, the macrocosm in a bare moment, the maximum minimum, the music of another set of spheres. You haven’t heard the tamburas sing this song before because Pandit Pran Nath was a lifelong student and devotee of these incredible machines’ unearthly sound, adding a special finish of his own fashioning to their resonant lower gourds and tuning them up for hours until they turned into the lightning-black curtains and magenta-midnight light for the Malkauns, a raga with a special place in his repertoire.
It isn’t just the quality of the drone that distinguishes Pandit Pran Nath’s performance of the Malkauns, recorded at midnight in a studio in Soho in 1976. What really stands out in this recording — identified by his former student Henry Flynt as one of the two or three most important ever made — is his voice, stony and austere, with a subterranean intensity. When he hits the tonic note — what in Indian music is called the shadaja — and then slides it slowly, microtonally, downward, you can feel it inside your chest, an impossible emotion somewhere between awe, erotic desire, and annihilation. Some ragas are light-footed maidens dancing through springtime, at play on swings in the flowered groves along the Yamuna riverbank; Pandit Pran Nath’s are cremation grounds, the blue-black color of smoke rising softly from the smoldering log of a sadhu’s fire, the moon on the mountainside.
A musicologist will tell you that a raga is a specific mode, a series of notes that serve as the basis for improvisation, but Pandit Pran Nath and his students would tell you something else, that a raga is a living soul the performer invokes like a celestial, numinous presence moving behind and between the notes, a cosmic teacher that the performer, if he is successful, embodies and transmits, dissolving the boundaries between singer, listener, and song. Each raga comes assigned to a certain time of day, but many artists ignore them in performance, regarding the designations as conventional and dispensable; Pandit Pran Nath only sang midnight songs at midnight. The Malkauns raga is one such, a druggy pentatonic nocturne that some superstitious musicians refuse to play on the grounds that it attracts demons; it works like a powerful narcotic, replacing clock time with another temporality altogether. Do not attempt to operate a motor vehicle under its influence. Put on the recording from 1976 and prepare to lie down on something soft: those four simple syllables Pran Nath sings — go vin da ram — are the name of God.
I first came across the name of Pandit Pran Nath after listening to a recording by La Monte Young and his partner, the artist Marian Zazeela. Often referred to as “the black record” because of Zazeela’s dark kaleidoscopic cover design, it was released in 1969 in a limited edition of two thousand by the Munich-based arts impresario Heiner Friedrich on his Edition X label. The LP quickly became a founding document of the avant-garde underground, a scriptural touchstone for noise music, as well as a cult legend in post-minimalist psychedelia and sound art. Side two comprises “23 VIII 64 2:50:45 – 3:11AM The Volga Delta From Studies In The Bowed Disc,” an extended, highly abstract noise piece generated by Young and Zazeela with a gong given to them by the sculptor Robert Morris. But what caught my ear was “31 VII 69 10:26 – 10:49PM Munich From Map Of 49’s Dream The Two Systems Of Eleven Sets Of Galactic Intervals Ornamental Lightyears Tracery,” which takes up the entirety of side one. The track, recorded in Friedrich’s gallery in Munich in 1969, starts in media res, with two voices — Young’s and Zazeela’s — keening and pushing against each other, sliding up and down against an electronically generated sine-wave drone.
It immediately reminded me of North Indian classical music: Zazeela’s vocal accompaniment quavering slightly alongside the sine wave; Young’s reedy, sliding modal lines. The tone was so mysterious and shifting — especially at the lower end of his range, Young’s voice sounds alien — and yet somehow wrenchingly human with intakes of breath, tiny imperfections, audible effort. I started to feel drugged and overwhelmed, and roughly handled, plied with disturbing visions and physical effects. The music was so serious, so dark and intensely somatic, so utterly forbidding, with no nods or winks, no toeholds; you either laughed off the black record and turned away, or you came away changed.
It didn’t fail to occur to me that what I’d heard might have been the product of some gross act of appropriation, but it just seemed so odd, so disinterested in pleasing me or anyone else. If this was appropriation, its motives were obscure. Then I learned about La Monte Young’s relationship with Pran Nath.
Pandit Pran Nath arrived in New York in 1970 after years of struggling to survive as a vocal instructor in Delhi, and soon established himself as a key figure in the downtown underground music scene. If the influence of Ravi Shankar expressed itself in ersatz sitar-lite solos and bubblegum neo-Orientalist psych-pop beloved by millions, Pran Nath’s took the opposite course, targeting tiny circles of elite connoisseurs — rock snobs of the highest order, drone junkies, and white sadhus. What resulted were life-defining metaphysical commitments and electro-shamanic experiences of aesthetic rapture. He was there, like a force field, at the founding of some of the contemporary art world’s most revered institutions, including the Dia Art Foundation and The Kitchen, with a roster of students and devotees that reads like a who’s who of the American experimental fringe, including the progenitors of drone-rock, post-minimalism, No Wave, world music, and ambient. He reinvented the Indian gurukul, a centuries-old pedagogical institution, for a new era, positioning his practice as an Indian singer squarely within the most avant-garde corner of the American avant-garde. For all this, he’s disappeared from the history of Indian contemporary art, as well as the history of Indian music. Indeed, he barely registers in our contemporary accounts of the development of music and sound art in the 1970s and ’80s. All narratives are based around exclusions, of course, but Pran Nath seems to have found a way to be excluded from every single one.
Untangling fact from legend in Pran Nath’s biography is as difficult as untangling the teacher from the student who tells the story. Born in Lahore in 1918 to a wealthy Hindu family, he is said to have run away from home at age thirteen to live in the house of a singer named Abdul Wahid Khan, first as a servant, then as a student. Khan was a reclusive and Sufi-minded ustaad, or master, in one of North India’s gharanas, extended family-based institutions something like musicians’ guilds that combined pedagogy, stylistic peculiarity, and performance. Abdul Wahid Khan’s was called Kirana, taking its name from a small town near Delhi where a legendary singer-saint named Gopal Nayak had settled some eight centuries ago. According to gharana lore, the Sultan of Delhi had taken Nayak, the finest musician of his age, in tribute after the sacking of the town of Devgiri, along with elephants loaded with precious jewels and gold. Nayak, then, was the first link in a continuous chain of performers that carried his deeply spiritual performance style unchanged into the present day.
In fact, this insistence on the “living link” was as much a product of modern anxieties as it was an objective assessment of musical pasts. Cultural nationalists developed a revisionist historical narrative that sought to minimize the authority of the gharanas, casting them as ignorant and illiterate remnants of a once great and glorious “classical” (read, “ancient Hindu”) tradition. The project of proto-nationalist musicology was framed as one of a grand recovery of a lost essence, and the formidable, secretive, and predominantly Muslim ustaads — often steeped in esoteric and heterodox religious beliefs — were seen, at best, as impediments to that project. Reformists, many of them English-educated colonial elites, were easily scandalized by practices and institutions that failed to conform to their evolving notions of “authentic” Indian culture, and for some of them, the gharanas were embarrassingly visible reminders of India’s incoherent medievalism. Increasingly, Hindustani musicians were expected to shoulder the burden of representing not only their own gharana, but the putative Indian nation as well.
Understanding the politics of classicism and revival in twentieth-century Indian music is essential for mapping Pran Nath’s impact on the American avant-garde. To his students in New York, he was the very embodiment of the timeless and unchanging voice of antiquity; this was a key part of his appeal. But his persona and story — presented by his disciples and improved upon by enthusiastic music critics and promoters — was very much a legacy of India’s early twentieth-century culture wars. In a milieu that placed musicologists and musicians in opposing camps, laying exclusive claim to “the origin” was the ultimate trump card. The most successful of the old-school ustaads carved out a space for themselves by premising their authority on performance rather than transcription — by taking the musicologists’ dismissive label “illiterate” and turning it into a badge of authenticity. Real Indian music, they suggested, was learned by ear, through a process of initiation, repetition, and memorization. Real Indian scales escaped the musicologists’ staff notation, just as real singers always exceeded the rubrics of Western-derived musicological modernity.
In the case of Pandit Pran Nath’s Kirana gharana, this intractable resistance to academia and thorny insistence on the primacy of orality found its natural complement in a style of singing that represented Hindustani vocal music at its most ethereal, solemn, and majestic, focused almost entirely on pitch rather than rhythm, on solitary meditative aesthetic experiences rather than entertainment — on the slow and often unmeasured introductory alap section of a raga, rather than the crowd-pleasing virtuosity of the fast drut. At some point in the early 1940s, Pran Nath pushed this system of musical values to its logical limit. He took up residence at Tapkeshwar, a cave-temple of Shiva near Dehradun, and lived there as an ascetic for five years. According to his students, much of that time was spent singing a single note, the shadaja, accompanied by the sound of the stream that rushed past his hermit’s cell. The story goes that in the late 1940s, his old teacher, near death, tracked him down at Tapkeshwar and beseeched him to abandon the ascetic life, to take a family and teach the Kirana style. A newly independent India was being born, the subcontinent divided. Pran Nath came down from the mountains.
But his passage was a bumpy one: the picture that emerges of his life in the New Delhi of the 1950s and ’60s is one of a recalcitrant and disaffected performer, unhappy with the constraints of university teaching and disgusted by the musical trends taking shape around him. The memoirs of Sheila Dhar, his student at the time, depict Pran Nath before his American reinvention: an immensely talented but eccentric outsider, impoverished and unpractical, utterly out of step with the times. The new nation had institutionalized a certain idea of “classical Indian music,” promulgated by the state-run All India Radio and musicology departments of universities, but Pran Nath either could not or would not make the leap. It must have come as a relief to him when a new type of student started trickling into Delhi in the mid-1960s, seekers without the usual baggage, looking for someone to revere. These Westerners found a stubborn middle-aged man with a limited but oracular command of English, a voice of astonishing power, and an otherworldly mien. Pandit Pran Nath became gurujee, and then a few years later he was gone, leaving behind an Indian cultural scene increasingly hostile to a performer of such suspect religious leanings — he was a devotee of the Chishti Sufi saints, as well as a Nada yogi and mystic — not to mention such stubbornly contrarian tastes.
Many in New York first heard the name of Pandit Pran Nath in 1970, in an April issue of the Village Voice, in an article written by Young. “Nadam brahmam,” it opens in Sanskrit, “Sound is God. I am that sound that is God.” The article introduced Pran Nath as a singer-saint, recounting his background and eventual retreat to the mountains where, at “the age of 28 Pran Nath chose to become a naked singing saint, or naga, and so for five years he sat, clothed only in ashes, singing for God.” This is the most powerful image Young leaves with the reader, that of the naked yogi, the wandering Sufi singer, whose absolute control over pitch and tone constituted a kind of esoteric science, a bridge between the singing of the Vedic gods at the origin of time and the cosmic, vibrational physics and neurochemistry of the future-shocked freaks. It was perfectly in line with the shifting mood downtown. Gone was the cool Zen reserve and rational skepticism of Cage and Stockhausen: Truth had been found, God had been located, and the counterEnlightenment had begun, with Pandit Pran Nath as its spiritual guide and Young as his chief apostle.
It was the first glimpse of an unusual bond between Pran Nath and a man who, by the mid-1960s, was already being hailed as the definitive American composer of the post-Cage era. Young was the father of minimalism, an enfant terrible of the Fluxus movement and one of its earliest escapees; with his Theatre of Eternal Music he had already virtually invented avant-rock, blowing circular modal saxophone lines over the droning accompaniment of John Cale, Tony Conrad, and the frenzied Luciferian pulse of Angus MacLise’s hand drums. In the sixties multimedia underground, where boundaries between film, music, sculpture, and happening were porous at best, the loft he shared with Marian Zazeela was a central node in the network that included artists like Walter De Maria, Robert Morris, and Yoko Ono, and musicians like Terry Riley and Henry Flynt. It was a scene where the high modernism of the fifties was being challenged by a populist performance idiom somewhere between concert and ritual: the Theatre of Eternal Music began playing before the audience arrived and finished after they left, consciousness-altering improvisations that were equal parts hillbilly, dervish, and jazzman. Even John Cage was suddenly square, out of step with a social mood shaped by the Civil Rights Movement and Bo Diddley, the Vietnam War and the assassination of JFK. La Monte Young was at the center of this shift when he met Pandit Pran Nath.
In the grand tradition of American white-man music-swindles, the composer might have just ripped off his style and moved on. Instead something unexpected happened: Young and Zazeela took formal initiation as his students and disciples, beginning a twenty-six-year relationship that would only end — or, as they might say, shift registers — with Pandit Pran Nath’s death in 1996. The really radical impact of this relationship wasn’t in the move away from the piano keyboard scales of the Western tradition toward South Asian microtones and modes, nor in the embrace of improvisation: these were all already happening in an American avant-garde pushing away from European tradition, away from the sterility of staff notation and equal temperament. The really radical break was Young’s emblematic subordination of himself to a teacher, in the fullest possible sense. This was a confrontation with Eurocentric modernity that went far beyond how a piano was tuned or what drugs to take or where to perform; it was a total rejection of a certain way of thinking about personhood, about the role of art, about knowledge itself. Pran Nath became the guru to a generation of American underground art makers who found it in themselves to stick it to the professors and the gallerists and declare themselves important, to experiment outside the bounds, to estrange themselves into other worlds where old distinctions didn’t matter.
Of course, their art changed, too. Jon Hassell practiced ragas on his trumpet for three years sitting by Pran Nath’s side, developing an electronics-enriched cosmopolitan sound without which the “world music” that followed would be inconceivable. Rhys Chatham did sound for Young and Pran Nath while assembling noisy sound installations of his own and curating the first music series held at The Kitchen. Yoshi Wada transformed himself from Fluxus prankster to mega-drone shaman. Henry Flynt crafted a dissident strand of raga-infused hillbilly freak-folk. Don Cherry went mystical. Terry Riley, Young, and Zazeela became like a wandering band of American sadhus, dressed in traditional Indian clothes, performing their own compositions and accompanying Pandit Pran Nath on travels to India and beyond, leaving scratched heads and blown minds on more than one continent.
Pandit Pran Nath’s music changed, too, though in less obvious ways. In a sense any changes in his style had to be less obvious: the role he had created for himself on the American scene was, after all, as the bearer of a timeless revelation. Change, for him, could only be characterized as a kind of platonic unforgetting, a return to divine origins. The invisibility of his innovations are, then, a testament to the success of his art; his new audience and entourage gave him the freedom to take his already unusually slow and severe style of singing and pare it down even further. His insistence on performing ragas at their appropriate times of day became, rather than a simple matter of tradition (as it was and is for many Indian performers), the parameters for ritual happenings. In his concerts, Hindustani vocal music itself, performed beneath op-art light installations in cutting-edge galleries and in Soho lofts, became a kind of post-minimalist liturgy, an aesthetic experience of shared, visionary transcendence that was, at the same time, deeply lodged in the bodies of the listeners and performer. It was ancient and exotic and Other; it was space-age and downtown and Ours.
Describing music with words is inherently difficult, perhaps even more so in the case of a music like Pran Nath’s — so minimal and non-discursive, so profoundly alien to a Western ear — but it is essential to at least try and convey something of its intense charismatic presence. Without that, it would be hard to understand how this uncompromising and eccentric singer, who had traveled so many unlikely roads, became, in 1979, the spiritual touchstone and centerpiece of an art-installation in Soho that was, on the level of its scale and ambition and funding, a close cousin to Donald Judd’s Marfa Project, James Turrell’s Roden Crater, and Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field. La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s Dia-funded Dream House, located from 1979 to 1985 in the old Mercantile Exchange Building at 6 Harrison Street, was set up to be the laboratory for a fringe-science of sound, exhaustively archived and recorded with the best possible equipment, its upstairs rooms pulsing with Young’s incessant electronic sine waves, lit by Zazeela’s magenta op-art neon tubes and calligraphic fantasia. What was once the trading floor became the venue for five-hour performances of Young’s microtonal magnum opus, The Well-Tuned Piano; downtown heads would come to lie or sit in the lotus position on a thick shag carpet, dreaming to Pandit Nath’s cosmic drone.
The Dream House was emblematic of the early days of the Dia Foundation under Heiner Friedrich and Philippa de Menil, who used her fortune to fund the financially impossible mega-projects of solitary geniuses, to realize mad hermetic visions that combined minimal means with maximal scale. Like other early Dia projects, the Dream House positioned itself as the structure for a transcendent, visionary experience; Pran Nath’s voice found its partner in the elemental, aerial physics of Turrell’s volcanic Hopi neo-kiva. The idea was to push the listener inward, inside the earth, inside the body and self, to experience art as a means of flight, as a private experience of aesthetic rapture and embodied, emotional ecstasy. In its explicitly metaphysical intentions, the Dream House was perhaps the paradigmatic early Dia project. “Sound is God,” Young had declared, and this was its temple. When the first phase of the Dia Foundation began to fall apart, and a coup replaced Friedrich and De Menil with a more business-minded board of directors, the Dream House was among the first of the great Dia projects to be shuttered and spun off, its building sold, its inhabitants left to fend for themselves.
The collapse of Dia funding was unsurprising to cynical onlookers, who saw Young and Zazeela’s project as a grand folly, their clothes as an affectation, and their spiritual guide and mentor as little more than a “raga teacher.” Pran Nath relocated to the West Coast, where he continued to teach and practice despite declining health. Young and Zazeela moved back into their old loft at 275 Church Street, opening a scaled-down version of the Dream House that still exists today, along with the Kirana Center for Indian Classical Music. Thirteen years after Pran Nath’s death, they remain committed disciples, making available the precious few publicly released recordings of their teacher at the height of his powers — including Midnight: Raga Malkauns, mentioned above — and hosting annual concerts and listening parties in his memory. At the heart of this story is the remarkable and stubborn fact of their guru-bhakti — their absolute, devotional discipleship. It was — and remains — an astonishing act of surrender, and provided Pran Nath, an eccentric and until then somewhat obscure Indian outsider, with a platform to extend a powerful influence over the American underground art scene at a formative moment.
During an era when, in India, self-consciously “classical” musicians were expected to democratize their idiom and adhere to purificatory standards set by a rigidly hierarchical system of state-sponsorship, Pandit Pran Nath forged an alternative, cosmopolitan model for the future of South Asian traditional music, one focused on advanced sound technologies, spiritualized sensibilities, and a circle of elite connoisseurs, neo-nawabs, and princesses of the underground, holding strange court in a new world. He was a nomadic innovator, an idiosyncratic original, and the godfather of drone; and he’s been written out of the history of Indian contemporary art and music, first by nationalist historians and critics who didn’t know where to place him, and now, by a contemporary commercial scene that scarcely knows his name. But the South Asian art world is changing quickly these days, increasingly focused on new media and electronic arts, on unpredictable collisions between national and global cultural flows, and on manipulations of identity. Perhaps the time is right to sift through the archives again and look harder for the Pran Naths hidden there, lost or hidden lineaments of the avant-garde and the Outside. Pran Nath means “Lord of the life-breath” in Sanskrit — his destiny, and a promise.
Sometime, in another life, in another world, he danced in the nightclubs of Khartoum. There were women, lots of them. Empires, kings, and presidents. He saw them all through the lens of a brand-new Arriflex camera. He was the only person to own one in Sudan. His name was Gadalla Gubara, and he was the father of Sudanese cinema.
Then everything went dark. There were only voices, coming over the airwaves. Hour after hour he sat in his chair, resting his head against a radio he held with both hands. He looked like a turtle, head sunk into his shoulders, though he would straighten up suddenly when he heard a song he recognized, and he would sing along, in a voice that belied his frailty. It was that voice, and his hands — pinching my bottom, if I wasn’t careful — that helped me imagine what he must have been like, before.
The cabinets in the tiny one-bedroom house where he lived were filled with the memorabilia of his life, all in careless disarray, useless to him. There were manifestos from the early days of the Federation of Pan-African Cinema (FEPACI), pictures from travels abroad to film festivals in Moscow and Paris and Berlin. Pictures of women. There was a strange intimacy to sitting beside him and looking at photographs he himself could no longer see. The world they depicted seemed far away from the insulting obscurity of his existence.
I was living in Khartoum when I met him, working for Al Jazeera International. For one summer it was my job to go around the developing world, finding stories for The Fabulous Picture Show. Gubara was one of my subjects. He was making movies again, and that was the story: this blind and broken man, almost ninety years old, was the alpha and omega of Sudanese cinema.
Gubara was born in Khartoum in 1920. His father, an impoverished farmer, was part of the extended family of Muhammad Ahmad ibn as Sayyid Abd Allah. Muhammad Ahmad had proclaimed himself Mahdi and led a jihad against Sudan’s Turkish-Egyptian rulers and their British deputy, General Charles George Gordon. The rebellion culminated in the battle of Khartoum, with Gordon slain at the steps of his palace. It was at the Gordon Memorial College that Gubara received his education, earning his school fees by working after class.
Gubara was first exposed to filmmaking during WWII, when he served on the North African front as an officer in the British Army Signal Corps. The British Colonial Film Unit traveled with the troops, screening war movies for infantrymen who’d been drafted from across the empire. One of Gubara’s tasks was to show propagandistic documentaries like Desert Victory, With Our African Troops in the Middle East, and Our African Soldiers on Active Service. Gubara was so impressed by the films’ effect on morale that he sought training as a cameraman. After the war, he received further instruction while serving in Cyprus and London.
When he returned to Sudan, the British Film Unit commissioned him to make educational films about their agricultural schemes — gum arabic production, cotton syndication, and water irrigation. Cinema in local languages was regarded as the best way to reach the mostly illiterate population. Gubara made his way across Sudan with a cinema van, screening documentaries for rural populations, along with more light-hearted films. His time with the mobile film unit confirmed his calling.
“They believed one hundred percent in the images,” he told me. At one screening a man in the audience, alarmed by the sudden appearance of a lion in the film, hurled a spear at the screen; it narrowly missed Gubara, who was standing on the other side. This felt like a story I’d heard before — of French audiences running screaming from early movie-houses as the train onscreen bore down on them. It must have been so exciting to see a film for the very first time. One afternoon we took a ride to one of the villages where Gubara used to pull up with his cinema van. The motorway out of Khartoum is brand new, with endless columns of oil trucks zooming along its length. Thanks to oil, Khartoum today is a boomtown, the whole city a construction site. Osama Bin Laden had a construction business here in the 1990s, when he lived in Al-Riyadh City, a rich suburb of Khartoum. He was an acquaintance of Gubara’s eldest son. Mohammed Gubara knew everyone because he was the director of the Blue Nile Sailing Club. Mohammed also knew Carlos the Jackal, a leftist terrorist who lived in Khartoum in the 1980s, when he was one of the world’s most-wanted criminals. The Jackal was eventually betrayed by his own bodyguards as he lay recovering from minor surgery — for a varicose vein on a testicle — and extradited to France.
When we arrived at the village, people gathered to greet Gubara. They all remembered cinema vans. One man said he didn’t miss them, now that everyone has television. Gubara, who had lain down on a daybed under a tree, laughed. Another man, more of a cinephile, said that “TV is a small place, where people are alone. Cinema was a big place where everybody came together.” After a mandatory tour around the mayor’s date palm grove on the banks of the Blue Nile, in the most golden of the evening hours, we returned to Khartoum.
On our way back, the sky was suddenly drenched in red light, the air thick with fine sand. A sandstorm! It was almost impossible to see anything, though that did not seem to stop the cars driving at and around us. Gadalla was in the passenger seat, oblivious to it all, whistling a song on the radio. I was afraid and a little bit philosophical, so I asked him how he felt about death. “I prefer to die than to be weak,” he said. “When you’re old, you’re weak. Sexually. Your knees don’t carry you. What’s the point of living?”
That night I stayed at Gubara’s house. I needed a break from his son Mohammed, who would not stop telling me that Darfur is a lie made up by the United States. Gubara was sleeping out in the front yard, and I tried to, as well. We both had colds, and I spent the first half of the night listening to him coughing up phlegm. Later I heard him rummaging through the house, so I got up to help him. I was drenched in sweat and covered in three hundred mosquito bites, mostly on my face. The rest of the night I spent indoors, listening to the howling of stray dogs, waiting for the ventilator to fall onto my face.
The next morning I found him sitting on his bed, without his black sunglasses, his dentures, or his turban. He did his morning gymnastic routine, looking perfectly mad with his arms gyrating through the air. The power had gone out, and we were waiting around for things to start up again. He embarked on a toothless tirade.
“The government doesn’t care if you have water or electricity, there’s nothing at all. They don’t care. It’s too bad. Too bad. The people work hard. They don’t have enough clothing. No one complains. You know why? You complain if you can compare. If you come from Europe, you can compare, but if you live in misery all your life, nothing will move you.” It was the only time I ever heard him complain about the government.
Once, prosperity seemed to be just around the corner. In 1950 Gubara shot the first color film in the history of Sudan. It was about Khartoum as a modern city. The film captures the architecture, the shops, the nightlife, the fashions of the times, intercut with a folkloric performance of a sword dance.
On January 1, 1956, in the People’s Palace in Khartoum, the British and Egyptian flags were lowered and a new Sudanese flag was hoisted. This formal independence ceremony marked the end of two centuries of, first Ottoman, then Egyptian-British rule. The British Film Unit seamlessly transitioned into the Sudanese Film Unit, with Gubara in charge. His first film in his new position, Independence, captured the ceremony. It remains well known in Sudan, an iconic document of the new nation, testament to the hopes and the optimism of those early years.
Gubara’s camera would bear witness to the boom years. Thanks in part to an explosion in the worldwide demand for cotton, Sudan was suddenly prosperous. A railway and an airline were established, and the government wanted the Sudan Film Unit to document it. The 35mm newsreels Gubara made in those years are proud displays of motor cavalcades, military processions, state visits. He produced educational films about the tsetse fly, about black magic. The key words were education, enlightenment, and progress, and the medium was part of the message. Gubara always maintained that nothing was more important than cinema. It was more important than building bridges and hospitals, even, because it could teach people to be self-sufficient, to take care of themselves.
In 1959 the US government invited him to study film at UCLA. He had a great time in the States. He appeared on television, teaching kids about Sudan. He got a pilot’s license and crashed his plane, breaking only his clavicle. Driving with me through Khartoum one afternoon he sang a song by Ray Charles. I got really excited because I’d been thinking since we met that he looked like him. “I used to listen to these songs when I was young and gay and in love and happy,” he said, dreamily. “I’ve got good memories of that song.”
After his studies, he became more interested in cinema proper, moving away from news and educational films. Because there was no industry in Sudan, he went to Cairo to work at Misr Film Studios, the epicenter of Egyptian cinema and the oldest film studio in Africa. Egypt’s storied film industry was in the last years of its golden age, with all the camp and glamour of a fading era, but the example stuck with Gubara. To be successful, he thought, African film would need its own studio system, with its own stars and distribution networks.
Back in Sudan he struggled to find a cinematic language that could reach people on an emotional level, that could be political without being owned by any particular government or movement. “We must open our eyes and develop a means of resistance,” he told one interviewer. “All films are political. They carry a message. Cinema is a language. If you make a good film, you are understood by society.” In 1969 he was part of a cadre of filmmakers from across the continent that gathered in Burkina Faso in 1969 to create FEPACI. The group included Ousmane Sembène, Med Hondo, and Souleymane Cissé.
Despite his founding role, however, Gubara was always something of an outsider within the almost exclusively Francophone federation. He viewed France’s role in supporting, educating, and bankrolling nearly his entire cohort of African filmmakers with deep suspicion. But filmmakers in Anglophone African countries had no support from hardly any films in those countries, period. Eighty percent of African cinema is in French.
At one point, he worked as a cameraman for Leni Riefenstahl. She had come to Sudan to live among the people of the Nuba Mountains, on the border between South and North Sudan, matching her perfect eye to their perfect bodies. Gubara didn’t know anything about her infamous career in the Third Reich until much later. He just thought she was a funny elderly lady with a bossy voice that he could still imitate to a pitch decades later.
In 1972, Gubara set up the first privately owned film studio in the Sudan, Studio Gad. He put everything into the studio — his energy, his dreams, his savings. He was the scriptwriter, director, editor, and producer. (He was also a pilot, a boxer, a soccer promoter, and a photographer.) He spent nearly all of his time in the studio, until one day his youngest daughter, Sara, was diagnosed with polio.
The doctors said nothing could be done. But one recommended swimming, to stop the muscle from atrophying, so he took her to the pool every day. In the water she could move more freely than on land, where she had to walk with a cane. She learned how to swim. After a few years, she started winning swimming competitions. At some point she outgrew the pool. When she was twelve, Gadalla and Sara went to Capri, so she could compete in the thirty-mile race from Capri to Naples. She saw the ocean for the first time. The salt water made her throw up, and the race was long — twelve hours, without any breaks — but she came in second, anyway. Overnight she became famous. Her father made a documentary about her, Viva Sara, which would become the basis of a feature film of the same name, co-written by Nadine Gordimer.
Gubara’s most famous feature is his first, a love story called Tajouj (1977), a sort of “Romeo and Juliet” set among the Homran of North Sudan, an Arabic-speaking ethnic group. The premise is that the lover must never mention the name of his beloved. When he does, he is made an outcast, and his grief causes him to lose his mind, until an untimely death reconciles them. The village witch is the real culprit in the film, wreaking havoc with her old superstitions. The film, beautifully shot and epic in scale, was very different from the kinds of films his comrades in FEPACI were making — less didactic, yet still engaged. More Hollywood, perhaps, but in Arabic, and unabashedly Sudanese.
The most bittersweet photos I saw of him came from this period, when Tajouj was screened at big international festivals — Berlin, Cannes — and Gubara was on top of the world. Studio Gad was a success, and his dream, to create a true Sudanese cinema to show the world, seemed to have come true.
It was too good to be true, though. In retrospect, the coup was the beginning of the end. In 1989 an army lieutenant named Omar Al Bashir ousted Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi, a relative of Gubara. Many of Sudan’s creative class left the country, but Gubara had too much invested. He kept working on films, even as he found himself under political pressure. The government assigned him a producer to work with — a cousin of Bashir. It went predictably badly. (The rights to Gubara’s 1998 film Barakat el Cheikh are now owned by the cousin.) The political climate disintegrated, with fighting and famine, the resumption of the civil war, and the rise of the Islamic parties.
One night when Gubara was almost eighty years old, he was woken by a knock on his door. It was a pair of policemen, there to inform him that his studio had been confiscated by the government. Gubara was incredulous; but they’d brought proof. He looked at the letter they showed him, then looked up to the ceiling where moments before a neon lamp had been. Now there was only a thin line of light. The news had caused a psychosomatic reaction referred to as hysterical blindness.
When he fought the order, they put him in jail. His studio was turned into an army barracks. His children led a campaign for his release, but when he came out he was a broken man. It wasn’t just the blindness — it was the powerlessness. He had spent his whole life making film, building the studio, and now it had been taken from him. “I felt terrible,” he told me. “I wanted to die because I couldn’t see. I made a big mistake by going into the field of cinema. But I love films. All I ever wanted to do was make them. What can I do?”
It was Sara, his youngest daughter, who got him out of jail and eventually won the studio back, or part of it. To coax him out of his depression, she suggested he should make a new film. She would help. He agreed and got straight down to business, hiring a secretary to type up a scenario — a modern-day Sudanese version of Les Misérables, Victor Hugo’s seminal tome on social injustice. “I had read it more than ten times, and my imagination is very good, so I could visualize a scenario.”
Ironically, perhaps, he applied for funding from the French government. “Any producer who loves his work and understands the game will figure out a way to finance his films,” he explained to me. “From my experience the human being is very strong. If you want to achieve something, you can do it. Provided you’re patient.”
The French agreed to provide the 35mm raw stock. The Iranian ambassador offered to have it processed and printed in Tehran. The rest came from Gubara’s savings, plus money from friends and family.
I still don’t fully understand why the Sudanese government agreed to grant permission. Maybe they didn’t read the script. If they had, they would have discovered that Gubara and Sara had left out the revolution. “Everybody makes their own revolution,” Gubara told me, cheerily. “If you’re treated unjust, you make your own revolution.” He was seated next to Sara in an editing room when he said this, listening to his film.
It was a touch quixotic, the blind octogenarian directing a film — Les Mis, no less — in Khartoum. Gubara’s forty-year-old 35mm camera was called back into service, as was his cameraman, a sweet man named Ali, who had retired from cinematography twenty years earlier. Their light meter had been lost in the occupation of the studio. It’s a pretty essential piece of equipment to get the exposure right, but they decided they would have to work without one, relying on Ali’s eyes.
The result was “Not great, but fair. Not very good, not very bad,” as Gubara put it. “I hope it wins a prize, inshallah. I’ll show it in Cannes and Berlin.”
The lead actors in the film were Gubara’s granddaughter, who played Cosette, and a bald Sudanese comedian with a handlebar moustache — looking like a cross between a circus strongman and a member of the Village People — as the main character, Jean Valjean. Sara did the costumes, the catering, and the location-scouting. Some scenes were filmed in the very jail where Gubara had been imprisoned.
In all honesty, it was pretty overexposed, and the story was sort of falling apart, having been cut down to one hour. Still, Sara said, “I want people all over the world to see this film. Not because it’s a great film. It’s not even a medium film, because it’s so low budget. But it’s something to be shown because we made it, in this situation. I love it because I did it — I know what cinema should look like, but under these circumstances no director can work, no one can do that.” Gubara’s Les Mis was made during the summer of 2007. It was the same summer that Ousmane Sembène, Ingmar Bergman, and Michelangelo Antonioni died. It was as though the century of cinema was fading away. In Khartoum, at least, it seemed as if no one noticed. In the end, Gubara’s film was never released.
He wasn’t discouraged, though. He had other projects in mind, and began preparing a script for his next film, the tale of his ancestor the Mahdi. “To teach the Sudanese about their history,” Sara told me, doubtless echoing him. But it was not to be. One August day in 2008, Gubara had a heart attack, and three days later he passed away, in a hospital in North Khartoum, attended by Sara and two of his other children. The most incredible thing, she said, was the crowds that came to pay their respects. For days, thousands of people blocked the road to his small house — his son-in-law Bella thought there were ten thousand people at the funeral. They’d noticed something after all.
One day near the end of my time in Khartoum, we’d taken a trip downtown to see what was left of Studio Gad. Gubara was in a good mood. He talked about how he hoped Les Misérables might screen in Cannes and Berlin. He asked me whether I was attractive, and if yes, would I play in his new film for the tourism board of Zanzibar?
His studio was surrounded by high-rises, most of them unfinished. We had to cross a little bridge over an open sewage canal, filled with stinking refuse. There was a hand-painted sign announcing “Studio Gad” in Arabic and English lettering. In the courtyard, under a single tree, a homeless man was taking a nap.
Inside, past the trash-strewn courtyard, lovely old equipment stood at the ready, as if waiting to be used again. There was an old 35mm camera — the Arriflex, with its lens missing — and a majestic-looking Italian film-editing table. On the walls there were awards from film festivals, a pilot’s license, and a photograph of a smiling young man in an elegant gray two-piece suit, a camera strapped around his neck, shaking hands with Gamal Abdel Nasser.
And then there was the library. A wall’s worth of film canisters, covered in a thick layer of dust, stacked on a shelf that ran from floor to ceiling. Four of the only eight feature films ever made in Sudan were there, as well as hundreds of newsreels and educational documentaries, some sixty years of work. This room was far too hot for storing celluloid. But until the building could be sold off and demolished, this accidental archive was the last remaining evidence that once upon a time, a Sudanese national cinema had existed.
November 19, 2009–February 7, 2010
It’s apt that artist and filmmaker Harun Farocki’s recent solo show at London’s Raven Row was couched between Artillery Passage and Gun Street in the city’s financial district. Outside that gallery’s walls, tall steel and glass buildings are material reminders of crumbling businesses and capital’s auto-destructive and extravagantly mediatized downfall. Visitors entered the gallery and were confronted with an artist’s lifelong project, which — through an exacting use of archival footage and digital, animated, and filmed images — demonstrated as well as critiqued precisely the means by which those technologies of power operate, the worldviews and imaginaries they impose, and the concomitant possibilities of reframing both through montage and text.
The solo show ran alongside a retrospective of twenty-two Farocki films shown at the Tate Modern and a monograph edited by artists Antje Ehmann and Kodwo Eshun of the Otolith Group. In nine film and video installations distributed across three levels, Farocki’s obsession with global capitalism’s mathematical, mechanistic operations of surveillance, control, and destruction came to the fore. Recurring themes were: the apparatus of war, the US military’s reconnaissance technology, the mechanized collection of data on consumers in supermarkets and inmates in penitentiaries, and the automation of industry and labor.
Much in the same manner that Chris Marker turned the cinematic mechanism into what Jonathan Kear has dubbed a “machine that quotes from the past,” snatching and recombining images and somehow interrupting the flow of time, Farocki’s films formed juxtapositions that provoked thought (and quite a bit of anger and disbelief), rather than producing a seamless linear narrative. His lyrical, meticulous, and sober engagement perhaps indicated that Farocki isn’t concerned with those modes of oppression and representation in a polemical or combative way — at least, not anymore.
It was interesting that the film installations on show at Raven Row belonged to Farocki’s more recent work and appeared perfectly suited for a gallery setting. Since his films usually belong to the genre of film essays within the world of cinema, this begged the question of whether the multiscreen works were themselves informed by shifts in the moving image’s exhibition format, or whether the show’s curatorial voice was also lucid and sensitive to Farocki’s relatively new but necessary place in the contemporary art world, thereby influencing the choice of work and its arrangement throughout the space.
At the very least, the gallery format allowed for the exploration of old and new connections between various pieces of his practice over the years. Take, for example, the two-screen video projections I Thought I was Seeing Convicts (2000), Eye/Machine III (2003), and Immersion (2009), which had more in common than the large, split-screen format that he’s used elsewhere; the images used in them were produced without direct human intervention. Using CCTV footage from the Corcoran State Prison in California, digital animation from virtual reality immersion therapy used to treat Iraq war veterans, and the so-called intelligent images from laser-guided smart bombs and cruise missiles, the three films highlighted the way panoptic imagery is produced for the purposes of security and control (and cannot but end in the death of those it is purported to monitor and pursue). Images of images, these works evoked an archaeological practice, inasmuch as they dug up, mapped, and interrogated the use of imaging technology in the exercise of control. Farocki calls such images “operative images,” in that they’re neither informative nor representative but form part of the technical operations that go hand in hand with brutality.
Still, the archival images in Farocki’s film installations, as well as his other films more generally, didn’t function as mere artifacts. Not only did the split-screen and multiscreen images comment on each other, but Farocki’s textual commentary in the form of intertext and/or voiceover also allowed us to revisit and reread archival footage anew.
As he explained in the outstanding film Interface (1995), Farocki spends years looking at certain images, as an art historian might, until he discovers something else, virtually “resurrecting” or reclaiming the material. Shown on two adjacent TV monitors, with poignant voiceover narrations, in which he referred to himself as an author who brings to life the stories handed down to him, Interface zoomed — in a quasi-Godardian methodological manner — into the philosophy and mechanics of Farocki’s research-based, manual practice and editing lab. Quoting archival footage from previous films and film preparations — from the Dow Chemical company, which produced napalm in the 1960s and about which he made the unforgettable film Inextinguishable Fire (1969), also shown at the Tate — as well as numerous images of himself in front of his work desk and editing suite, Farocki mused over notions of editing as metaphor, claiming that the invention of cinema came one hundred years too late, when Europe had already occupied most of the world and, thus, the images of the world.
Purportedly inspired by Allan Sekula’s photographic series War without Bodies (1991–1996), Transmission (2007) consisted of images (filmed by Farocki this time) of pilgrims flocking to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC; the Buchenwald concentration camp memorial plaque; the Church of St. Mary in Munich, where the devil’s footprint is said to exist; the imprint of the hand of Christ at the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem; the open-mouthed marble statue of the river god Triton. What these places have in common — aside from the human fascination with permanence — is the way pilgrims continually touch the stones, plaques, and names in the hope of infusing the matter with their own memories and desires. Farocki’s method of progressively “breaking open” images by repeatedly watching and studying them became apparent as he showed us the sites again and again, as if in a loop. Each set of locations and pilgrims was interrupted with textual commentary onscreen, which grew more precise and personal each time, until eventually the last meaning assigned to the image was quite different from, and more chilling than, the one we first constructed. For Farocki, it might be that the stones and metal plaques have the same properties as images, in that they behold both memory and forgetfulness.
Just as it was said that the distinctive filmmakers Jean-Marie Straub and Danielle Huillet (who worked as husband and wife) questioned the transformation of painting and literature into film as a way of rereading, readjusting, and reinventing meaning, the same can be said of Farocki’s use of film archives, through his utilization of speech and montage. In the same way their work has been said to halt easy access to an original text and to their artwork more generally, so too do Farocki’s film essays, in their sometimes durational, sometimes untranslated form. In fact, most of the works on show at Raven Row — many of which lasted no less than twenty-four minutes — pushed the boundaries of habitual, lazy spectatorship. Future film projects include charting — and most likely critiquing — the use of virtual reality headsets and robotic hands by those in positions of power, whom, needless to say, Farocki’s films and writings have always held in the highest contempt.
Haris Epaminonda: Vol. IV
October 10–December 5, 2009
Haris Epaminonda’s first solo exhibition at Rodeo Gallery in Istanbul featured ten discrete installations. They ranged in complexity from a single image, found and framed, to an elaborate collection of objects, including five small statuettes, three plinths, a chunk of rock and a postal scale, a low-slung table, a bowl made of clay, a glass box with a book inside, a meticulous assortment of fifty stones and fossils arranged on a folded piece of cloth, and nine more images, all similarly found and framed and stacked against a wall like the unsold stock of a gallery or a junk shop.
Almost all of Epaminonda’s work — however it’s expressed in its final form, whether as videos, Polaroids, fragile collages, or tightly packed installations — consists of stuff she finds in the world around her. She is a consummate and possibly obsessive collector of rarities, curiosities, and seemingly random, mundane ephemera. The only things she “makes” are supports, such as frames and pedestals and plinths, and occasional sculptural and architectural details, such as the thin wooden square with diminutive legs that, for the show in Istanbul, wrapped around one of Rodeo’s central concrete columns.
By placing substantial emphasis on the structures that prop up, contain, or in some cases obscure her found objects and excised images, Epaminonda plays with conventional modes of exhibition-making and museum display. But her approach is far from that of a cool institutional critique. While the forms themselves are minimal and austere, their function is warm, even affectionate, such that Epaminonda’s supports seem to embrace and protect and provide shelter for materials that have otherwise been discarded or forgotten.
Of course, much of that material — as with Epaminonda’s fertility figurines, in the installation Untitled #07 — is dated. The pages she pulls out of old books depicting archeological relics, colonial explorers and adventurers, tribal costumes and jewels, wild animals, and lush, untainted landscapes, are evidence of an earlier, more politically incorrect age, when anthropologists, ethnographers, and travel writers for National Geographic were free to characterize distant lands as savagely beautiful, backward, untouched by industry or modernity. But Epaminonda thoroughly strips this material of context, such that viewers are able to lose themselves in her own barely decipherable, yet strangely emotive, language — which, incidentally, she delicately yet steadfastly refuses to interpret or translate.
In the current climate of overly self-analyzed artistic production, Epaminonda is rare in that she doesn’t bother building any discursive or textual scaffolding around her work (biographical or geopolitical readings are therefore totally beside the point). For her contribution to the catalog of the 2009 Sharjah Biennial, for example, she eluded the editors’ request to respond to a survey (“Could you tell us about the work you’re showing in the biennial?” and “What challenges have you faced so far?”) by submitting an excerpt from Maurice Blanchot’s Friendship instead. Not an excerpt, exactly, but a photocopied spread of the first two pages of the book’s fourteenth chapter, entitled “Destroy.” Enigmatic outside its intended context (“Let us say it calmly: one must love in order to destroy”), the section ends, mid-sentence, on the word “without.”
Substituting a selection from Blanchot’s text in place of her own thoughts or ideas, Epaminonda dodged the more or less explicit demand to explain herself, her work, and her practice. Rather than a description or exposition of her Sharjah commission — consisting of fifteen Polaroids and a video projecting a single still image of a zebra, color streaked across its neck, being immobilized by three men, one of whom seemed rather shocked to have gotten two hands around the animal’s tail — the artist simply added another layer of her art, which hinges considerably on oblique associations and gestures.
Epaminonda’s work also seems intimately tied to, or at least fascinated by, the extinction and obsolescence of its own medium, be it the Polaroid or the book. All of her exhibitions are, for the most part, serialized in volumes. Her ongoing collaboration with the artist Daniel Gustav Cramer, The Infinite Library, involves binding together pages from different books to create new ones. Whenever Epaminonda does talk about her work, she likens it to poetry, making sentences, creating systems based on rhythms and patterns — all of which sounds far more literary than visual. And perhaps, in a way, that’s what the work is all about, creating the imaginative space and potential that is usually associated with literature, with the added challenge of doing so solely in visual and spatial terms, without recourse to the trappings of language or narrative.
Emily Jacir: Dispatch
Alexander and Bonin
October 28–November 28, 2009
In writing about Emily Jacir’s Where We Come From (2001–03), Edward Said remarked upon one of the most salient aspects of daily life for a Palestinian: the waiting. There is the waiting at checkpoints, waiting for papers to arrive, waiting for visas to be granted or refused — “eons of wasted time, gone without a trace.” A Palestinian from Lydda can never return there, Said wrote, because its inhabitants were evacuated by Israelis in 1948, and the town was renamed. Jacir’s work, in which she carried out and documented the wishes of displaced Palestinians who could no longer access their homeland, lyrically gave form to the interminable wait, and called attention to its paradoxical nature.
Lydda Airport, one of two projects in Jacir’s recent exhibition, ‘Dispatch,’ returned to Said’s invisible site by way of film noir. The exhibition’s central work was a short black and white film. Archival photographs of the airport circa 1936 were animated into a narrative involving concrete runways, Jacir herself, and a dashing clunker of a plane emblazoned with “Palestinian Airways Limited.” Lydda Airport was to be a stopover for Imperial Airlines in the British Mandate of Palestine. A scale model of the building stood in a separate gallery, showing off a curved central tower flanked by descending tiers of elongated horizontal masses: a typical example of modernist architecture for export — international style with a touch of De Stijl utopianism. As an object, the architecture was an anachronistic blueprint for a future that never arrived. Captured by Israeli forces in 1948, Lydda Airport is now Israel’s Ben Gurion International.
As the plane in the film silently took off, there was a closeup of a woman’s eyes, a crackle of paper, and a view of a bouquet of roses. Amelia Earhart, Jacir’s story went, was to have been welcomed to Lydda in 1937 by Edmond Tamari, an employee of a Palestinian transport company. “She never arrived,” a press statement confirmed. But Jacir’s silent, smiling figure, played by the artist herself, wasn’t quite the same thing as Earhart’s hapless greeter. Hovering about the half-finished airport structure, she looked weirdly disjunctive, like a time traveler on the lookout for a history that hasn’t arrived either. Set on a continuous loop, her waiting seemed more interminable with every repetition. The film was a playfully self-reflexive departure for Jacir, whose conceptual armature is usually much more conclusive. What the fragmentary narrative lost in directness, it gained in poetry and open-endedness.
Said would probably have enjoyed Lydda Airport. The late critic was an admirer of the elegance and clarity of Jacir’s work, and he undeniably agreed with her politics. But Jacir’s meteoric rise, marked recently by major awards from the Venice Biennale and the Guggenheim Museum, has invited widely diverging critical responses. On one side, there is lyrical praise — of how her work’s “simplicity could make you weep,” how it expresses “the ache of things undone” — readings that appear overwrought in comparison with the economy of Jacir’s conceptual gestures. Her detractors, of course, can be just as excessive. “Dry, cerebral, fragmentary and stylistically derivative,” snapped the New York Times of her recent Guggenheim exhibition, concluding that “the problem is with her unexceptional artistry, not her politics.” Ouch. Time Out New York set the all-time low, though, with intimations of evil festering in the aesthetic soul. “It is not the museum’s business to help this Palestinian further her cause,” a patron had complained to the Queens Museum several years ago. Institutions now preface her work with the museum’s political equivalent of parental advisory stickers.
Does the provocation lie in the affective impact of the work, or in the uncompromising nature of Jacir’s politics? One could well ask the same question of her supporters as of her detractors. To admire Jacir’s work presumes a sympathy with its issues, an openness to the histories therein, and a responsiveness to the poetic forms used to express them. At an institutional level, she’s doubtless considered useful, addressing token ideological ethnic questions. But in the absence of such receptiveness or requirements, wouldn’t such work usually be ignored? Not in Jacir’s case. stazione, the second project in the exhibition, was yet another example of authorities moving to suppress her work, in this case, without its even having been publicly displayed.
stazione was a series of photographs and a brochure that comprised Jacir’s proposal for the 2009 Venice Biennale. She had planned to add Arabic translations to the names of the vaporetto stops on the route that winds down the Grand Canal, drawing attention to Venice as a historic “station” for cultural exchange between Europe and the Arab world. The photographs were mockups of her proposal, where Ca’ d’Oro, for example, was accompanied by its literal translation into Arabic, bayt az-zahab. The intervention would have been a modest, if very visible, one — surely one of the less dramatic public sights during the tourist season of the biennial. But the wall text at Alexander and Bonin informed us that the work was “abruptly cancelled by Venetian municipal authorities and remains unrealized.”
It was tempting, given Jacir’s history, to take this as further evidence of how her art can rattle the powers that be. But if the Venice municipality was nervous about accusations of aesthetic evil or anti-Semitism, the installation at least gave no hint of that. The censorship marked stazione with a peculiar, indefinable aura; I couldn’t help but scrutinize the photos for possible offenses, trying to imagine the sinister and shocking impact of Arabic text upon… the international art world? Its motivations notwithstanding, the Venice cancellation established parallels between stazione and Lydda Airport, and their reference to Palestine itself: as sites of forgotten histories and, finally, as unrealized propositions.
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune: An exhibition of a film that never was
The Drawing Room
September 17–October 25, 2009
Published in 1965, Frank Herbert’s Dune is the bestselling sci-fi novel of all time. Set twenty thousand years into the future, the plot is both expansive and involuted, concerning — among many, many other things — the aristocratic house of Atreides and the fight for the desert planet of Arrakis’s precious commodity “melange,” produced (why not?) by mile-long sandworms. The Wikipedia summary of the book is practically a novella itself, and Herbert wrote five sequels to Dune; this should place it alongside Ulysses and Naked Lunch as one of the great unfilmable novels.
Unfortunately, films have been made of all three. David Lynch’s fraught production of Dune made it to cinemas, with substantial cuts, in 1984. Though Herbert was generally supportive of the film, Lynch later disowned it. Indeed, in a 1996 essay on the director, David Foster Wallace argued that studio meddling was enough to push the director away from the Hollywood mainstream for good.
Between the best-selling novel and the rather less successful movie lay a film by Alejandro Jodorowsky — unfinished, yet rivaling both in infamy. Due to funding limitations, shooting on the Chilean polymath’s 1976 version never began, but a voluminous archive from two years of preproduction remains — a two million dollar vision of the vast worlds involved. Perhaps the only viable approach to adapting such a wacked-out epic would be to create something inspired by it. In this sense, Jodorowsky was a canny candidate for the task, a guy who knew a thing or two about shifting intentions: with El Topo (The Mole, 1970), the joke goes that he started out making a Western and ended up making an Eastern. Rather than an adaptation, his Dune was to be a reinterpretation: “I did not want to respect the novel, I wanted to recreate it. For me, Dune did not belong to Herbert, as Don Quixote did not belong to Cervantes.”
Rather than rely on the then-nascent special effects industry, Jodorowsky assembled a crack team of visionaries whom he referred to as his “Samurai”: French comics artist Jean Giraud (aka Moebius); Swiss surrealist HR Giger, whose Dune designs were eventually incorporated into Ridley Scott’s 1979 Alien; and British illustrator Chris Foss (who, intriguingly, also illustrated the original edition of The Joy of Sex in 1972).
Moebius made some three thousand drawings for storyboards (later reworked into the successful French comic series L’Incal), on which Giger based his initial designs. The latter was introduced to Jodorowsky by Salvador Dalí, who had been slated to play the insane emperor until he demanded an hourly fee of $100,000, not to mention a golden throne — made from dolphins — that functioned as a toilet. Jodorowsky could only secure funding for an hour and a half of filming with Dalí, so he cut his script to a couple of pages and devised an ingenious, robotic plastic stand-in for the rest of the film. The legend of Dune is littered with many of these what-could-have-beens, loose ends often more interesting than Herbert’s best efforts.
Curated by Tom Morton, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune was a split proposition that mixed prints of the original storyboard designs with works by Morton’s own samurai — Steve Claydon, Matthew Day Jackson, and Vidya Gastaldon — who had been asked to respond to the unmade Dune film as a morphing myth.
The potential problem in this approach was twofold. On the one hand, a survey of the Jodorowsky-commissioned preparatory material, all two million dollars of it, could fill several museums — how to condense it in the Drawing Room’s modest space? On the other hand, how to adequately respond to a vision whose vaulting ambition bordered on hubris and led to bankruptcy? As the subtitle of the show — which is touring to Plymouth Arts Centre in the spring — suggested, it took a light approach to sub rosa influences, alternate versions, and parallel universes. It was both a worthwhile exercise in cosmological thinking and a glance at the possibilities of adaptation.
Presumably due to funding limitations, Morton opted for prints rather than originals. Although familiar from Alien, the Gigers looked decidedly weird — crepuscular but also gelatinous, larvae-like but carious, in ashen greens and stormy grays. The three Giger prints included sketched out details of two leviathan war machines and the Harkonnen Palace. The Foss prints were spectacular (the originals were montages of line drawings with ink, acrylic, and paint on board), clean renderings of planets and spacecraft that suggested CGI renderings, unlike Giger’s more impressionistic versions (the bulbous taupe windows of Foss’s Spice Container had the luminescence of Pixar’s Wall-E).
In this context, it was hard not to make far-flung comparisons: the yellow piazzas, though set against chemically lambent skies, seemed to nod to those of De Chirico. On a depthless background, the Harkonnen Flagship could almost be taken for a red version of one of the Bechers’ water towers. Maybe the latter comparison wasn’t so far off — fabricating the workings of industries in the distant future versus documenting dead industries in the already-distant past.
In the bottom margin of each of Foss’s five immaculate prints was a rough pencil sketch of the surrounding landscape. Although mapping universes and interlocking worlds, Jodorowsky’s Dune was strictly a bottom-up project; in the designs for his film, nothing took a wider view than a single planet, completely characteristic of his modular approach to the project — he had planned for several 1970s behemoths (Pink Floyd, Mike Oldfield, Cluster) to orchestrate a soundtrack for each world. Funding aside, Jodorowsky was ultimately sunk by the impossibility of forcing all of these details to cohere.
Where to begin was the question facing the latter-day samurai — a question answered unsatisfactorily by Gastaldon’s Blakean illuminated drawings of fiery bursts, molten swirls, and bulbous creatures, which took Herbert’s Dune as a source of inspiration à la the I-Ching. Capitalized pencil quotations were picked at random from the novel, as though chance operations could make sense of the vast opus (if you hadn’t read the book, it was here that you sensed how bad it is). Gastaldon’s works on paper were overshadowed by the original preparatory material.
The work made by Claydon and Day Jackson for the exhibition wasn’t so different from anything else they’ve produced recently, though their sharply mixed registers — modernity and classicism, museological display and gilded Gothicism — made for a good fit with Morton’s brief. On musty, museum-style Hessian plinths, Claydon presented rusted brackets and a khaki-green lacquered bamboo stem, fitted with a brass mouthpiece so as to look like a bong (or cosmic oboe). This was stoner territory, characterized by seemingly fuzzy connections: a brass bust (of Nietzsche?) was fitted with a yellow headpiece (the artist’s t-shirt). Day Jackson’s black-skulled, gold-plated plastic skeleton (To infinity… , 2009) perhaps referred to the planned Dalí double. But maybe it didn’t — this work didn’t encourage much pinning down.
Many are the problems of contemporary mythmaking. In the New Yorker’s recent profile of James Cameron, George Lucas was quoted as saying, “Creating a universe is daunting… . It’s a lot of work.” As Morton noted in his catalog essay, Jodorowsky’s vision of the future of filmmaking would never take place — his favored draftsmanship and labor-intensive planning was taken over by effects-laden blockbusters such as Star Wars, released a year after the Dune project folded. Jodorowsky himself, perhaps presaging David Lynch’s frustrations, put it this way: “Almost all the battles were won, but the war was lost. The project was sabotaged in Hollywood.”
The Jerusalem Syndrome
October 11–20, 2009
Arriving in Jerusalem by road from Amman proved a fitting introduction to Jack Persekian and Nina Möntmann’s The Jerusalem Syndrome, presented at various locations within the Old City of Jerusalem this past October. Occupation and displacement, coexistence and conflict, borders and scrupulously demarcated territories — all integral to the experience of travelling between Palestine and Israel — formed the stuff of this fluid and aptly titled project.
Artwork, interventions, poetry, and film by thirty artists were presented over ten days in venues including the Al-Ma’mal Foundation in the calmly elegant Armenian Quarter; the Austrian Hospice; the Swedish Christian Study Centre; Padico; and the streets, cafes, and stores of the city’s Christian Quarter. A film program, curated by Rasha Salti of ArteEast, was shown in the Jerusalem Hotel, outside the gates of the Old City. Characteristic of the collaborative spirit of the project and of the interlinked ecology of artistic and cultural activism that has developed in the Palestinian Territories over the past decade, The Jerusalem Syndrome also coincided and interconnected with the 3rd Riwaq Biennale, A Geography: 50 Villages, under the artistic directorship of Khalil Rabah, and the exhibition The Other Shadow of the City, curated by Samar Martha of the organization ArtSchool Palestine.
Anyone visiting Jerusalem for the first time is likely to find the intensity and density of religious tourism in the walled city hallucinatory. Umbrella-wielding tour guides lead caravans of people who rent wooden crosses to carry along the Via Dolorosa, as they cross paths with a mix of prayerful and curious visitors to the Western Wall, located beneath the long wooden footbridge that leads to the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. Visible waves of religious fervor wash over and also subtend the undeniable tension of a city that is both symbol and enactment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in which the control of movement, high-level security interventions, and an ever-present, simmering violence is part of its essential fabric.
The Jerusalem Syndrome — the term for a condition of aggravated psychosis resulting in delusional religious experiences — was the deliberately metaphorical title (and also the subject of a video work of the same name by Nathan Coley) of this show, the third in a series of curated events first initiated by Jack Persekian in 2007. Persekian describes the ongoing project as “neither a biennial nor a one-time event… neither a large-scale show nor an international grand exhibition. We like to see it as an attempt to intercede between the apocalyptic decadal tides of upheaval under which the city kneels, stealing time during the ebb of violence.”
For this most recent manifestation, Möntmann, curator and author of Art and Its Institutions (Black Dog Publishing, 2006) and the editor of New Communities (Public/PowerPlant Toronto, 2009), teamed up with Persekian, and together they invited artists from Palestine and abroad to exhibit amidst the tense spatial politics of the city and its inhabitants. Comprising new commissions as well as existing works, many by artists whose work is still little known in a broader international arena, the very nature of The Jerusalem Syndrome, in terms of specificity of place and the urban scale of presentation, meant that every encounter held an acute and resounding charge.
In contrast to the theatrical rhetoric of large-scale international exhibitions, biennial or otherwise, organized in cities around the globe, the modestly scaled presentation of works and interventions in The Jerusalem Syndrome reflected an awareness on the part of the curators and artists of the impossibility of competing with the spectacle of the city itself and its complex meshing of history, religion, and politics. Encounters were poetically pointed, if not fleeting, as one was obliged to walk through the divided geography of the city and its streets and discover its buildings. Jumana Emil Abboud’s photographic collaboration with Jack Persekian, Jack’s Chairs and Jumana’s Gone to Pray, interrupted the rambling foyer and staircases of the Imperial Hotel at the Jaffa Gate. Other works encouraged a form of observational spatial drifting. Maider López’s postcard texts directed their recipients to follow a set of guidelines, such as walking straight and changing direction only when coming across “someone dressed in red,” “someone smoking,” “someone wearing glasses.” Jerusalem-based Raouf Haj-Yahia’s Gaza-Express, a series of small-format, color inkjet photographs of traditional Palestinian flatbreads being prepared for shipping via FedEx or stuffed into foil containers normally used for vacuum-packing medicine capsules. The work offered a subtle yet dark-edged response to the Gaza crisis and the subordination of human rights to politics and the technologies of representation. Installed at various locations — behind the counter of a local bakery, in a small kebab restaurant close to the thronging pilgrimage routes, and in the front window of a pharmacy by the bustling Damascus Gate — Haj-Yahia’s interventions also provoked critical questions about spectatorship and situations in which direct communicability is an urgent necessity.
The use of metaphor, abundantly present, was also poignantly expressed in Samira Badran’s photographs of mannequins in varying degrees of repair and disrepair in Ramallah shop fronts, hung in the convent-like corridors of the Austrian Hospice. Testimony and acts of simple documentation were also evident, as in New York–based Palestinian-Iranian duo Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri’s compellingly simple multiscreen work What Everybody Knows, based on footage and interviews shot on sixteen trips to Palestine and Israel several years preceding. The artists presented, in resonant tandem to the latest episodes of this ongoing project, Case sensitive America, a narrated video meditation on Guantanamo Bay and the pervading limitations on human rights and basic freedoms that underpin contemporary life.
Installations by Sandi Hilal, Alessandro Petti, Basel Abbas, Ruanne Abou-Rahme, Jumana Abboud, and CAMP, over the three floors of the elegantly restored medieval spaces of the Padico building, offered a set of environments drawing on the evocation of memory and the pathology of occupation and surveillance. While sitting to rest on the sides of the empty stone fountain of the building’s ground floor, one’s senses were gradually alerted to the pungent smells of Abboud’s pickled cauliflowers bathed in an almost phosphorescent pink vinegar at the base of the fountain. From below arose the haunting sounds of Hilal, Petti, Abbas, and Abou-Rahme’s Ramallah Syndrome, which premiered in the Palestinian Pavilion in Venice earlier in the year; its installation here in the cool damp of the underground cellar, with its floor covered in desert sand, provided a heightened psychological and physical intensity, its immersive field offering a powerful expression of the pathology of occupation.
It is to the curators’ credit, and without doubt to Jerusalem-born Persekian’s knowledge of the city and its rhythms, that The Jerusalem Syndrome unfolded, for the most part, after daily activities had largely ceased. Venues were open between 6 and 9pm, after the heat of the day and the oppressive throng of pilgrims and tourists had disappeared and the narrow, stone-paved streets took on an altogether different tempo, as dusk turned to echoing night. Among the programmed performances taking place each evening was a breathtaking reading by New York–based Palestinian poet Suheir Hammad, her words delivered in hip-hop cadence. True to the tone and pace of The Jerusalem Syndrome overall, the experience was bittersweet in the exquisite dignity of hope amidst frustration, loss, and a deep-seated despair. For anyone looking for a thought-provoking consideration of the place of art within a world fraught by conflict, this was a finely pitched and richly layered beginning.
Wael Shawky: Larvae Channel
Darat al Funun
October 6, 2009–January 5, 2010
Wael Shawky’s latest series of videos, the second installment of which debuted during his solo exhibition at Darat al Funun this winter, was the most documentary-style work he’s produced to date. While earlier efforts employed a gestural and impressionistic approach to the medium, and relied heavily on intentional artifice, staged or repeated performances, and historical reenactments, the new pieces are far more direct and responsive to contemporary situations and contexts. That said, they do bear certain similarities to the artist’s previous work.
Just as Shawky’s previous series, Telematch, took a singular setup — the structure of a German television game show from the 1970s — and explored it at length and in several different permutations, his new series, Larvae Channel, riffs on the idea of the roving television reporter connecting with common folk on the proverbial street in workaday cities, interviewing them about their lives and, more often than not, fielding their gripes and complaints. Because Shawky’s hoi polloi mistake him for a journalist rather than an artist, they bitch and moan to him, bellyaching about their circumstances, venting their frustrations, and speaking of their hardships and injustices, as if their voices will be heard, as if through some magic of the media their messages will be delivered to, and acted upon by, unseen people in power.
Larvae Channel 2, from 2009, resulted from a month-long residency in Amman last year (the ten-minute video was exhibited there first, then immediately after presented at Frieze and Paris Photo). During his time in Jordan, Shawky visited several Palestinian refugee camps. After conducting rounds and rounds of interviews with residents, he began picking up recognizable patterns. People talked to him in clichés. They recycled the same stories. They fed back to him the reductive images and simplified scripts of tragically shallow accounts in mainstream newspapers and on the nightly news.
To shift the emphasis of the footage he collected from such encounters, Shawky turned one particular interview with an elderly couple into a rotoscope animation, which was surprisingly effective in amplifying the body language of his interlocutors while pushing their spoken dialogue into the realm of background noise. The scratchy traces of the rotoscope also functioned metaphorically for history repeating itself, with the camps as a palimpsest, registering the same narratives of grief, dispossession, and despair over and over again.
In Amman, Larvae Channel 2 was shown alongside another new work, the most recent addition to the Telematch series. Telematch Crusades, also from 2009, featured a group of children — casting kids is by now one of Shawky’s signature tropes — seen riding donkeys single file along a dramatic stretch of beach on the island of Lamu, off the coast of Kenya. Amid the fluttering of crusader flags, the boys looped and surrounded an old crusader fort.
As the work was presented at Darat al Funun (in a long, acoustically challenged room opposite a projection of Telematch Sadat, from 2007, in which another pack of kids reenacted the assassination, funeral procession, and burial of the Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, who was killed in 1981), Telematch Crusades was divided into sections, with the action on the beach broken up by an animation, totally fictional, of Pope Cornelius calling on Christians to wage a war against Islam. (Pope Cornelius predated the Crusades by about eight hundred years.) By the time the same piece was installed at the Alexandria Biennale, where it won top honors in December, Shawky had cut out the animation completely, which made the piece more elegant and the pace and material that remained more beautiful, coherent, and concise.
It remains to be seen whether animation really works in Shawky’s practice, which he often describes as a process of translation across cultural or civilizational lines; an attempt to pry open and consider the changes wrought by lurching interludes of modernization in Egypt since the 1970s; and an exploration of political schisms that cause momentous tears in the fabrics of several societies, all at once or over interminably long periods of time.
The most compelling evidence that animation is, in Shawky’s hands, an appropriate tool for such themes was Al-Aqsa Park, from 2006, which was also included in the Amman show. The ten-minute video showed a computerized black and white rendering of the Dome of the Rock doubling as a carnival ride that lifted, tilted, and whirled at perilous angles, an intensely contested religious icon transformed into sheer spectacle.
In Al-Aqsa Park, the animation is no more than a formal technique that allows the artist to achieve a desired image, and it is that image that conveys meaning. In Larvae Channel 2, the animation is a formal technique saddled with the additional burden of generating meaning, too, and it doesn’t quite do it. Nor does it take the work far enough away from the appearance of yet another misery tour of the camps, fodder for hundreds if not thousands of existing documentaries and films. The translation so central to Shawky’s work — if it is indeed translation at all, and not something closer to amalgamation or interpolation — seemed, here, to miss its mark. Either that, or documentary simply isn’t Shawky’s strong suit.
Omer Fast: Nostalgia
South London Gallery
October 7–December 6, 2009
In his video and film installations, Omer Fast plays with both voices and the stories they tell to create disjointed, destabilizing narratives. Looking Pretty for God (After GW) (2008) pasted the thick brogue of a New York undertaker, talking about his business, onto the synching lips of a cherubic kid. In The Casting (2008), an American serviceman’s memories from Iraq and Germany were cut together and narrated by a sweetly confused, thick-necked actor.
Nostalgia III, the centerpiece of Fast’s recent three-part installation at the South London Gallery, took the story of a West African refugee as source material for a film in which roles were reversed. The asylum seeker in the film was a white Englishman and the hostile, wealthy country to which he’d fled, through a system of underground tunnels and across the Mediterranean, was in Africa.
This made for some bitterly funny moments, as when the official who offered the Englishman amnesty and a place as “the first naturalized European,” should he reveal the location of the tunnel from which he emerged, told him, “We’d love to take you all in, as many as possible. But the tragic fact is, we can’t afford it.” Or when the same official reminisced about her time doing volunteer work in England, teaching “irrigation techniques, sustainable hunting, and farming,” explaining that the English are an ancient culture and — ha! — good dancers. The film could serve as a nice thought-piece to be shown to UK Home Office officials, who are infamously deficient in their understanding of the gravity of refugee situations. (To be fair, these officials are essentially pawns in a political battle to win the approval of anti-immigrant, xenophobic Middle England.)
Fast’s conjuring of a dystopian past (the film is set in the 1980s) was less effective where the film lost its tight relationship to the present. For one, Europe does take in (some) asylum seekers. And of the England fled by the refugees, Fast provided only a vague sense of its descent into anarchy, so that it remained a blank terrain unhampered by the complex web of politics, trade, and profiteers that usually thickens such situations. Indeed, the entire set-up, in as much as it tried to channel contemporary politics, was a bit unrealistic.
Fast nodded to this with two surreal moments: in the first, a naked man seated on a chair in an abandoned London underground station watched a projected film of a giraffe being shot in the bush; it leapt first gracefully, then ever more grotesquely, as blood spurted from its chest, the image filling the screen. In the second, a girl vomited, having been caught and savaged by police dogs as she attempted to make her way through the underground tunnel. As the camera panned over the mess, it turned into a still life of bright and shiny flowers and fruit.
While those moments did move viewers — conveying a certain pointed and even poignant queasiness — the film as a whole didn’t cohere. There was too much information packed into its thirty-one minutes, but not enough narrative substance for it to expand to a full-blown feature. Fast tried to get around this problem by using the linking device of a “twitch-up snare trap” for catching animals, as described by the West African refugee.
By the time we got to Nostalgia III, we were pretty familiar with this trap; the installation’s opening gambit was a five-minute video demonstration of one being built in a sunny glade by a hefty white guy dressed in camouflage gear (Nostalgia I). This was accompanied by a disjointed narrative, in which the speaker looked back on the time when he learned how to make the trap, to catch a partridge, as part of an army training camp in the forest.
A dark corridor led to the second video, a two-screen installation showing the storyteller on one side and an interviewer on the other (Nostalgia II). The storyteller was a West African refugee named William, the interviewer a rather unsympathetic character (an unshaven, greasy-haired prototype of the artist?) looking for the selling point in the refugee’s story to use in his film.
As William, increasingly desperately, described the partridge trap, he slipped, describing instead what would happen to a monkey who put his hand in the trap. The interviewer stopped him — “Why would you want to catch a monkey?”— and there followed an awkward moment in which William started to explain that monkeys can be eaten, too, before backtracking as he sensed the interviewer’s unease with that idea. (You could say William nearly got caught in a trap of his own making.)
The interviewer challenged the story at a number of points in the ten-minute video. Not quite understood, not quite trusted, not quite making sense, William’s attempts to perfectly provide the linear narrative expected by the interviewer — and his inability to do so — echoed the contortions that refugees must undertake as they fit their stories into a testimony that will grant them refugee status.
Nostalgia II was the strongest part of the show, perhaps because Fast is most at ease as an artist inserting a layer of uncertainty into the stories people tell. When he ventures into filmmaking proper, this uncertainty means his work lacks the narrative power to pull through, and the result ends up looking flimsy. (See also Take a Deep Breath, 2008.) Fast is onto a good thing when he demonstrates that real life doesn’t all tie up so neatly; but perhaps he should stick with video installations.
3rd Riwaq Biennale
June 3–October 16, 2009
The 3rd Riwaq Biennale organized itself around a question: Can a biennial be a biennial in a state that’s not a state? In addressing that question, curators Reem Fadda and Charles Esche assembled the biennial in the form of tours, curated conversations, and temporary interventions distributed between disparate locations in Palestine. This was the second act of a “dual presentation”; the first half was staged by director and founder Khalil Rabah as a biennial-cum-artwork in the exhibition ‘Palestine c/o Venice,’ a “collateral event” of the 53rd Venice Biennale.
Following in the tradition of Rabah’s earlier conceptual works — The New Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind among them — the Riwaq Biennale posed as an institution engaged in the elaboration of national narratives, and as such, it negotiated the space between fact and fiction. Named for the NGO Riwaq, the biennial aligns itself, in each iteration, with the aims of that organization, which seeks to promote and preserve Palestinian cultural heritage. Though this year’s biennial itself didn’t extend to the geography of the titular fifty villages, it sought to draw attention to the range of historic sites on the NGO’s register.
As a self-proclaimed “journey between locations,” the biennial sought to fracture the spectacular through the fragmented physical and cultural landscape of Palestine. In view of the local political condition, the event eschewed monumental displays. Instead, the tour itself often served as the main event: the trails of this biennial followed the trajectories of the curatorial framework, often looping back, creating fissures where participants might encounter themselves as consumers, critics, creators, and captives of sometimes competing cultural narratives. In an area already overdetermined by ideologically driven tours, the Riwaq Biennale seemed troubled by, and called attention to, the limits of rhetoric. In a region that’s so resource-poor, event organizers questioned, of what value is pure theory? Their efforts, rhetorical and otherwise, to create a framework for sustainable cultural engagement married the two Riwaqs: the NGO’s mission of historic conservation and the biennial’s efforts at cultivating a contemporary cultural preserve. By generating the conditions for new artworks to be made and stay in the territories, organizers hoped to invest in a new generation of cultural capital.
In this iteration of the biennial, the tours of villages centered on Riwaq’s conservation projects. A sense of the urgency of Riwaq’s operation was especially manifest during a trip to the town of Sabastiya, with its Roman ruins and presumed tomb of John the Baptist. Asphalt was recently laid down atop the Roman road there, and the sides of the bus I was on nearly grazed what columns remained standing on either side. Sabastiya is one of a number of towns under a protection plan put in place by Riwaq. The NGO is working, in the absence of a national policy, for the preservation of cultural and national heritage, and is undertaking efforts to establish the necessary constitutional and legal framework for that.
A Riwaq Biennale tour of Jerusalem intersected with two other art exhibitions: The Other Shadow of the City, and The Jerusalem Show. The biennial-within-a-biennial begat a tour-within-a-tour, as curators Jack Persekian and Nina Möntmann led a guided exploration of the artworks and interventions situated throughout the Old City. Brought together under the title The Jerusalem Syndrome, the exhibition referenced a state of delirium known to overtake tourists to the city — who might, for example, succumb to the illusion they themselves are the Virgin Mary or the Messiah. The Jerusalem Show, like the Riwaq Biennale, ministered to the covert, distributing works throughout the Old City, to be read as moments of resistance. The curators conceived the show itself as a political act that knit together an affiliation of institutions, organizations, cafes, and other operations in the city in recurring armistices.
The majority of art exhibitions included in the Riwaq Biennale’s arsenal of cultural tourism highlighted concurrent productions put on by Palestinian cultural organizations. One tour incorporated Birzeit University’s Ethnographic and Art Museum, which presented 'Jerusalem Our Home,’ one of a series of exhibitions on Palestinian cities planned by the museum, and House No. 197, by Jawad Al Malhi, a photographic panorama of the Shu’fat refugee camp, also included in the 'Palestine c/o Venice’ exhibition.
Presentations of artwork organized for the Riwaq Biennale itself were few in number. A program curated by Nikki Columbus for Cairo’s Townhouse Gallery, a collaborating institution, was a standout. Featuring contemporary videos from Egyptian artists, the screening was projected in an outdoor courtyard in the historic center of Birzeit. The site brought works such as Wael Shawky’s Telematch Shelter — featuring the already “improbable” architecture of a sculptural mud hut imposed on a desert in Western Egypt, with Bedouin children silently entering and exiting — into juxtaposition with the local geography, lending the program’s exploration of place an added resonance.
Occasionally, the event’s stated emphasis on a “quieter register” gave way to an aspect of theatricality. At a tour of a recently renovated community center in Jamma’een, a collection of international and local artists, curators, architects, critics, and biennial guests were greeted by a courtyard of cameras and children outfitted in traditional costume, some bused in from outside villages to entertain them. The performance served to illustrate Riwaq’s mission of cultural preservation, though it threatened to cater to guests’ expectations of an “authentic” experience. Still, the critical engagement of the curatorial framework kept the interaction from defaulting to the maudlin, as the guests were as much witness as cultural consumer.
Three volumes of Riwaq Biennale documentation followed on the event itself, incorporating photographs of the fifty villages, elaborations of recent and past biennial iterations and itineraries, and new contributions from collaborating artists, curators, critics, and institutions. There is a certain paradox built into the entire operation, that this biennial, which explicitly affects a position against the art object, should be claimed as an artwork by its director at the Venice Biennale — in the words of its curators, “leaving room to speculate on its own conception, validity, and continuity.” At the same time, Riwaq appears, perhaps by virtue of its ambivalence, poised to incorporate the future artworks of its participants, as well as collateral cultural productions. It is a well-intentioned mischief, occasioned by a misgiving about more formal platforms for cultural patronage and patriotism.
Whether Riwaq achieves its adopted goals of protecting, utilizing, and promoting cultural heritage in Palestine may take time to fully discern; the grafting of this cutting-edge contemporary art and architecture biennial onto an infrastructure whose principal focus is historic conservation does yield a strategic shifting of art-world attention. The biennial has proven successful at making Riwaq and Ramallah at large a requisite stop on the international circuit of art shows and biennials. Yet while many international biennials are criticized for being little more than tourist attractions, the Riwaq Biennale turned the tour itself into an object of, and tool for, critical reflection.
Manifesta: Coffee Break
December 12–13, 2009
Faux assassinations, decent refreshments, and a bare minimum of PowerPoint are hardly standard fare at a major art conference. Still, this was the lay of the land at the kickoff meeting — endearingly called a “coffee break” — for the next Manifesta, Europe’s famous nomadic biennial, to be held in October 2010. An impressive group of art world professionals convened for the two-day conference — held in Murcia, Spain — to experience the context of the host city, to learn more about the curatorial concepts of the three groups shaping the event, and to have a wider discussion surrounding some of the key ideas and contentions of Manifesta in its eighth iteration.
A lot, it seems, has changed. In a departure from its traditional Eastern Europe–Western Europe orientation, the Manifesta Foundation has assumed a new, more expansive, trans-Mediterranean approach, connecting Europe and North Africa. In another noteworthy development, the foundation has invited three collaborative groups to curate the biennial: Chamber of Public Secrets (CPS), the Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum (ACAF), and the tranzit.org network.
The coffee break’s first session was kicked off by Alfredo Cramerotti and Khaled Ramadan of CPS and aimed to focus specifically on the general contextualization of the biennial — on the local, in terms of audience, artists, and media presence. Raising important, if slightly hackneyed, questions — “Could the audience and regional art community really play a role in the biennial? Could they make use of it in a long-term, sustainable way?”— the session’s organizers aimed to take into account feelings of invasion as experienced by locals whenever the international art fraternity happens to land in their neighborhood.
Overall, it was a didactic session, its sweep broad enough to cover numerous perspectives; but in the end, it never came to any conclusions as to what exactly “the local” could and should be. Christine Eyene of the Creative Africa Network gave a talk about collaboration with artists based in Africa, ultimately suggesting a more inclusive approach from CPS, for the biennial and in general. What was sorely missing, however, was the reasoning behind such a plea for inclusion. At times, there seemed to be a fine line between curiosity (over the antagonisms that bringing Africans to Spain could induce, given Spain’s general hostility toward them) and politically correct representation of foreign creativity.
The second session, led by ACAF, was more performative, and downright entertaining. “Ladies and gentlemen, señoras y señores! Welcome to our auction!” Bassam El Baroni, artistic director of ACAF, along with associate curator Jeremy Beaudry, hosted an auction in which the audience could bid, using imaginary Manifesta euros, for contemporary exhibition concepts that in reality would be painfully derivative, such as That Other Modernism! (an exhibition that would trace the influence of “Western aesthetics” in art from North Africa and the Middle East); The Tables Have Turned (an exhibition of contemporary Islamic art — with a twist!); and I’ll Be Your Mirror (an exhibition about the West’s fascination with itself, especially when filtered through the lens of the exotic Other). It proved extremely engaging and, I dare say, fun for the audience, while demonstrating ACAF’s savvy, as well as their reflexivity toward the politics of representation.
Just as it seemed the auction was approaching its finale, an audience member stood up, a distinctly Middle Eastern–looking guy, struggling to speak English but evidently and vocally cursing the curators. An awkward moment for the audience ensued, after which a mock gunshot assassination took place, with our two auctioneers subsequently lying inanimate on the ground. Then the lights dimmed, and the auctioneers, while shining torches up into their own faces, slowly clambered to their feet, as if zombies awakening, and staggered to the exit door miming along to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s “I Put a Spell on You.” Heady stuff.
Invited participants also gave thought-provoking and engaging presentations. Sherif El Azma presented a lecture-performance based on his tracking of the Cairo Psychogeographical Society — which, as Beaudry commented during one of many intervals, “breathed new life into psychogeography.” Nida Ghouse, representing the Take to the Sea Research Collective (she is also a member of CAMP), also gave an engrossing composite lecture-performance on their investigation of migratory impulses, to conclude the session. ACAF’s well-crafted session presumably offered a taste of what’s to come of their “theory of applied enigmatics,” a concept at the core of their approach to the upcoming biennial.
Described as a “network of autonomous art associations” from predominantly across Eastern Europe, tranzit.org led the program’s next session with a rather clinical lecture-performance incorporating audio and video components and addressing, if somewhat abstractly, issues of identity politics and social classification as they understand them. The session was followed by a general discussion of the relationships between postcommunism and postcolonialism. The ensuing confusion, which ultimately reeked of the standard post-painful-legacy-anywhere-type conversation, was the only real disappointment of the event. It was just too bewilderingly broad to engage the audience.
At its best, what the session managed to do was highlight a divergence in attitudes toward the postcolonial impulse. While tranzit.org seemed to be grasping for critical theory or a discourse to address the postcolonial, ACAF emphatically rejected it as superfluous baggage, particularly with respect to the trans-Mediterranean context. CPS, in the meantime, through the proclamations of Denmark-based artist Ramadan, seemed more inclined toward the idea of contemporary neocolonialism than of actual postcolonialism, citing, somewhat ambiguously, Western interventionism in the Middle East. I, for one, was concerned that we couldn’t avoid the requisite nod to postcolonialism as lens.
The Manifesta Coffee Break wouldn’t have been complete without, indeed yes, its coffee breaks. They were frequent, vivacious, and exceptionally discursive intervals for deliberation. Still, the central questions raised during the conference, particularly around locality and the exact form of any “Trans-Med” dialogue, remain unresolved. And while it’s clear that there won’t be a curatorial consensus here, the worst-case scenario would be for the conference to have been a conscience-easing session, a gesture, without pushing any of these discussions on in a substantive manner. But the three groups — each radically different in ethos and pursuit — in taking on these issues during the conference, suggested some kind of attempt will be made to tackle them.
In the end, the coffee break was a surprisingly artistic event as far as conferences go. All three groups involved are made up predominantly of artists. None of those dry and monotonous panel discussions, full of inflated curatorial rhetoric, took place here — which perhaps indicates a more performative, certainly more refreshing, approach “towards Manifesta 8.”
Disorientation II: The Rise and Fall of Arab Cities
Manarat Al Saadiyat, Saadiyat Island
November 22, 2009–February 20, 2010
There wasn’t much to see along the brand new ten-lane highway that extends from Abu Dhabi onto Saadiyat Island. Cruising through the desert at 160 kmh, we passed under fragments of construction that looked like triumphal arches straddling the highway — overpasses-to-be, the ramps and roads that will connect to them still unconstructed. Clumps of mangroves dotted a landscape that is broken up by giant billboards of… mangroves.
After passing a handful of construction sites, more massive billboards with slick renderings of happy golfers, and lots and lots of sand, we arrived at the only complete building on the 27-square-meter Island of Happiness to find a curious thing: a challenging, engaged, and not-necessarily beautiful exhibition. ‘Disorientation II: The Rise and Fall of Arab Cities,’ curated by Jack Persekian, was a collection of work that examined how the Arab world’s recent history of struggle, violence, and suffering is inscribed onto its cities. It was the sequel to 'DisORIENTation,’ which, also curated by Persekian, was held at the House of World Cultures in 2003. The opening of 'Disorientation II,’ a peripheral event during Abu Dhabi Art, marked the inaugural show at the temporary exhibition space Manarat Al Saadiyat and was a welcome departure from the commercial spirit of the art fair.
In his candid catalog essay, Persekian attempted to untangle the exhibition. He explained that one of his central curatorial conceits was to break the exhibition in two, contrasting the warm, interior spaces and personal narratives inscribed in Hala Elkoussy’s and Ali Jabri’s work with pieces by Mona Hatoum, Wael Shawky, Diana Al-Hadid, and eleven other artists who tend to dwell on the exteriorized dystopia of alienation, boundaries, and powerlessness.
Elkoussy’s On Red Nails, Palm Trees and Other Icons — Al-Archief (Take 2) (2009), was a rich homage to Cairo and its collective memory. Assembled from hundreds of the artist’s photographs and found images arranged in an intimate room, the freestanding construction came complete with chairs and a carpet, dimly lit by a chandelier. Portraits of young boys in uniforms, snapshots, photos of buildings and flora and fauna, video of daily life in Cairo, and much more was all hung salon style, ostensibly in the manner of many Cairene living rooms. The work presented a distinct locality through a fastidiously recreated visual history. Jabri’s sketchbooks, drawings, and collages, on the other hand, represented a history rediscovered. Part of a collection dating back to when Jabri first moved to Cairo in 1977, the playful, intimate, and even romantic work was uncovered after his death in 2002.
Persekian aligned these two particular artists with Nasser-era pan-Arab unity, then contrasted that moment of vaulted idealism with what he called “the helpless, unforgiving situation of loss and conflict experienced in the Arab world today.” Throughout the rest of the exhibition, this bleak take on our contemporary condition was read through its traces left on the city. Hrair Sarkissian’s series of photographs, for example, presented a visually interesting collection of healthy-looking yet strangely empty urban spaces in Syria that were, in fact, loaded sites of past violence, as only, eerily, revealed by the title, Execution Squares (2008). The three-dimensional photo collage Qalandia 2047 (2006) by Wafa Hourani similarly presented an animated quarter of Palestine that seemed alive and playful despite being cut off and contained by a checkpoint and a wall.
Two works by Marwan Rechmaoui each had a quiet power that conveyed the curious state of Beirut. Beirut Caoutchouc (2004) was a large three-dimensional rubber map of the entire city. The deep black mat was cut into sixty pieces that corresponded to the sixty municipalities of the city — an understated attempt to raise questions about the logic of this division. A Monument for the Living (2001) was an equally subtle and even more striking piece. Appearing at first to be a minimalist sculpture, upon closer inspection it revealed itself to be a scale model of an unfinished building whose exterior was cracked and pitted. The building was intended to be a commercial high-rise but was left unfinished during Lebanon’s period of civil war. It became a sniper’s nest and makeshift prison because its location and hundreds of unobstructed windows made it strategic. It still stands in Beirut, too damaged to be completed but too tightly woven into the urban fabric to be safely demolished. The object in the gallery was itself a monument to the circumstantial memorial of the original.
Kader Attia’s stark images of huge piles of large concrete blocks also evoked minimalist sculpture. The stripped-down and essential photographs in the series Rochers Carrés (2008) were taken by the sea in Algeria. The blocks dominated their frames below a clear blue sky, often with a sliver of ocean evident behind the mounds of piled rubble. Young men loitered or fished in groups or alone. The breakwater is the rough fringe of the city, the last edge of Algeria before the Mediterranean stretches across to Europe. The images depicted a marginal community whose gaze is oriented away from the city, out to the sea, and beyond.
As a curator, Persekian asked us to think about how Arab cities have been shaped by various wars, traumas, massacres, displacements, and forced delineations. He mined the work for its anger and positioned the city itself as a subject as much as its inhabitants and Arab identity in general. Yet the show begged the following questions: What was at stake in Abu Dhabi? Why were there no artists from the Arab cities of the UAE, which are so famously and conspicuously in flux? Was it an intentional irony that he staged such a show, about senseless assaults on urbanism, on the brand-new Island of Happiness, a tabula rasa, planned, utopian cultural community?
In the end, the show would have been stronger if it had taken its host country and context as an additional topic of exploration. Although untouched by war, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Sharjah are certainly not without their own urban issues to excavate and hold up to the light. As ever, discussion and debate is urgently needed so that we may initiate a dialogue about the next phase of Arab urbanism — as envisioned by the UAE.
American Writers in Istanbul
By Kim Fortuny
Syracuse University Press, 2010
Read enough books and essays on Istanbul, and they begin to blend into a familiar cacophony of sights and sounds. It becomes hard to distinguish nineteenth-century Italian traveler Edmondo de Amicis’s Constantinople from the latest boutique-hotel dispatch in Travel + Leisure. There’s the requisite huddled hodgepodge of red roofs under a jagged minaret skyline, the hustle-bustle of craggy-faced ware-hawkers pushing rickety wagons over dusty cobblestones, seagulls encircling mysterious dark women shaking out their laundry, and a language that defies characterization or sense. The great messy city is reduced to a squawking theater set, an Oriental pop-up book.
And then there are essays of comic disenchantment with Istanbul — among them Joseph Brodsky’s “Flight from Byzantium,” which occasionally strip the clichés from the city’s anthill streets. Brodksy’s text, written in 1985, when the author was forty-five, may be the best of this genre. For Brodsky, the glorious mosques were “enormous toads,” the myriad surfaces resembled “the color of an upturned grave,” while amid the blue and green splendor of the Bosphorus, “nothing will grow except moustaches.” In fact, “nothing will happen here anymore, apart perhaps from street disorders or an earthquake.” This has the ring of a wish. How could Istanbul not be beguiling to every first-time visitor? For many, it turns out, it hasn’t been, and through their eyes, we can see the city anew.
Brodsky excused himself, albeit feebly, for his hatefulness. “Every observation suffers from the observer’s personal traits,” he admitted, “that is, it too often reflects his psychological state rather than that of the reality under observation.” In this spirit, the Istanbul-based American academic Kim Fortuny has assembled an essay collection, American Writers in Istanbul, that includes Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Paul Bowles, Nelson Algren, James Baldwin, and the travel writer Mary Lee Settle.
One might hope that Americans, free of much of the baggage Europeans bring to the idea of the terrible Turk, would be able to regard Istanbul with more clarity than prejudice. Only sometimes has this been the case. Not surprisingly, some of these writers passed through town relatively quickly, merely scribbling down careless impressions, and inevitably those chapters tell us far more about the writers than they do about Turkey. More complicated, and perhaps more interesting, is how Fortuny’s subjects made sense not only of a truly foreign world, but of their own country’s rapidly changing relationship to it. Fortuny writes of Melville, “Like many American writers of the period and after, he seems to have little sense of the political or economic relationship his country might have with the Ottoman Empire, which by the mid–nineteenth century is an empire much less threatening to the West due to power shifts in the world order.” By the time she gets to Baldwin, the tone is markedly different. “The American public’s fear and distrust of the Muslim world are ‘historical and public attitudes,’” Fortuny writes, “though they feel natural and justified in the face of what is called terrorism.” The first American writers washed up quietly on the shores of Sultanahmet — modest, sometimes critical, observers from an indifferent world. The latter ones, emissaries from a young superpower, were riding the crest of a tidal wave.
Initially, the Americans’ detachment from the Ottomans is at once refreshing and disturbing in its innocence and ignorance. “If 19th-century English poets such as Byron demonize the Turks in order to feed a necessary social hunger — a need to project internal cultural insecurities on an available and distant enemy,” Fortuny writes, “or early 20th-century writers such as Yeats romanticize the Levant as an aestheticized alternative to the realities of postwar Europe, Melville assesses the city, its beauty and its desolation, as he would any other city old enough and wise enough to put into question the permanence of human structures.” It’s as if Melville had no ideas about the Ottomans at all. But Melville’s openness quickly gives way to Mark Twain’s revulsion. Fortuny makes the convincing case that Twain’s usually brilliant powers of apprehension utterly failed him on the Golden Horn; he couldn’t make sense of Constantinople, so he desecrated it mercilessly. “If traditional romantic Orientalism finds splendor and luxury in Constantinople,” she writes, “Twain finds filth and decay.” And Twain is not the only one in this collection to have thrown his hands up at the confusion of Turkey.
In some cases, though, Americans have been more clear eyed. Hemingway, then a young correspondent during the Turkish war for independence, was able to recognize that the young Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was not another marauding Turk from an imperial power, but the hero of an emerging national liberation movement. Hemingway could see the Turk both as perpetrator and victim, something his European colleagues — and much of the international community — could not do. John Dos Passos similarly recognized the Turks as victims lost in the imperial struggle of World War I. The two writers’ perceptions, however, blinded them to other suffering — of the Armenians, of the Kurds — so desperate were they to fit the fallen Turks into their larger critique of empire.
The best chapter in the book is Baldwin’s. In 1961, exhausted and sick, Baldwin moved to Istanbul at the behest of a Turkish friend he’d met in New York. He would stay, on and off, for about a decade. He never actually wrote about Istanbul, but it’s clear from interviews that his experience in the Muslim East deeply affected his already devastating view of the Christian West. Fortuny boldly but gracefully draws a connection between Baldwin’s dissection of racial hatred in America and America’s eventual cataclysm with Islam. “Writing from the vantage of a culture peopled with the descendents of the proverbial ‘barbarian horde’ — the Turk mythologized beyond recognition by eight hundred years of Christian theology,” Fortuny writes, “Baldwin exhorts America to look within before it aims its guns without. The lie that leads most directly to war is the one that tells us an enemy, a stranger, the barbarian, threatens our wealth.” Through Baldwin’s ideas, Fortuny can finally connect America to the Ottomans, and the absence of this connection in the rest of the book feels like a curious void. Even these brilliant men and women weren’t entirely conscious of history. Only a writer thoroughly soaked in the language of Christianity could see the dangerous future ahead for Islam and the West.
Still, Baldwin, like almost all of these writers, failed to grasp the complexity of Turkish politics. Only one essay mentioned in the book, Paul Bowles’s “A Man Must Not Be Too Muslim,” was so prescient that its ideas could be ripped from today’s headlines. (Not coincidentally, he was the one writer in the collection with a near-lifelong relationship to the Muslim world.) “Rationalizing words like ‘progress,’ ‘modernization,’ or ‘democracy’ mean nothing because, even if they are used sincerely, the imposition of such concepts by force from above cancels whatever value they otherwise have,” Bowles writes. “There is little doubt that by having been made indifferent Moslems the younger generation in Turkey has become more like our idea of what people living in the 20th century should be. The old helplessness in the face of mektoub (it is written) is gone, and in its place is a passionate belief in man’s ability to alter his destiny. That is the greatest step of all; once it has been made, anything, unfortunately, can happen.”
Life Is More Beautiful than Paradise
By Khalid al-Berry
AUC Press, 2009 (English)
Merit Publishing House, 2004, revised edition 2009 (Arabic)
Cairo’s central neighborhood of Wust al-Balad — downtown — features prominently in Mekkawi Said’s Cairo Swan Song, as indeed it does in an overwhelming number of Egyptian novels. And as is increasingly the case in many of these literary efforts, the district is used in Said’s work as a backdrop against which to make heavy-handed statements about Egypt’s growing social and political decay.
The downtown area was established by Khedive Ismail, who in the 1860s grafted a European facade onto his capital just in time to impress the foreign visitors who traveled to Egypt for the opening ceremonies of the Suez Canal. Ironically, Ismail’s beautification project was one of the sources of the country’s subsequent bankruptcy and the seventy-year-long British occupation that would follow.
Throughout the 1950s, the downtown’s belle epoque buildings and glittering cafes were home to Cairo’s many expatriate communities. Nowadays, the downtown’s dilapidated, nationalized buildings bustle with small commercial businesses, and its sidewalks are crowded with street vendors and lower-income flaneurs.
This dramatic change has made the neighborhood — in literature, at least — a stand-in for a certain vaguely defined nostalgia. The success of Alaa Al Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building, in particular, has popularized the once-fashionable district as the symbol of national decline. Said’s novel — which was shortlisted for the 2008 “Arab Booker” and recently translated to English by the American University in Cairo Press — falls squarely within this tradition. Downtown — inhabited by feral, glue-sniffing street children, foreigners with dubious intentions, and the schizophrenic, suicidal narrator of Cairo Swan Song — is symbolic of all that ails the country.
Then again, in this novel, everything is symbolic — often painfully so. There is, for example, the narrator Mustafa’s university sweetheart, the angelic Hind (“celestial, unique”) — killed by an unexploded Israeli mine from the 1973 war; and his friend, the filmmaker Yusuf Helmi, whose mementos are destroyed by his fundamentalist son. It’s as if, on every page, the author has affixed a glaring notice that reads, “Look what’s happening to Egyptian society! It’s terrible!” Instead of building a coherent plot, Said focuses on his narrator’s motivations, leading to yet another ominous, over-the-top tale.
The author’s treatment of Mustafa’s American girlfriend, Marcia, exemplifies this lack of subtlety. Marcia — a one-dimensional stand-in for foreigners — isn’t a plausible human being, but rather a mysterious source of loathing and dependence. We’re told early on that the narrator has fallen into “Marcia’s claws,” that, to mix metaphors, she’s like “quicksand.” Eventually we discover that the American girl is helping him make a documentary about street children — an auspicious project, since it “could damage the State or tarnish its image.” He wonders whether “she is receiving direction from over there?” Yet Marcia’s motivations, and the dynamics of the relationship, remain completely confounding — probably because the author is incapable of imagining them as anything other than a dark parable for foreign relations.
There are instances where Cairo Swan Song explores with greater sensitivity the complexity of relationships between Egyptians and foreigners — as when Mustafa wonders what the guards at Marcia’s building must think of him: “That’s the foreign chick’s boyfriend… her friend… her teacher… spy… tourist-sponger… embassy employee… whatever.” But mostly the book falls back on startlingly xenophobic and misogynistic attitudes. Mustafa’s best friend’s Singaporean girlfriend, for example, is described as a “frog,” a “migrant crow,” a “lizard,” a “she-goat,” and a “mangy dog” — her crime being that she “steals” the narrator’s friend and suggests he leave (read, betray) Egypt. Such abuse isn’t reserved just for foreigners, either: the narrator’s Egyptian lover is “just a vagina with legs,” someone with “no real talent, except for being a slut.”
All of this metaphorical violence could be taken as a clever literary device to portray Mustafa’s oft-mentioned mental illness, but the author never shows any signs of ironic detachment toward his narrator’s paranoia, resentment, and self-pity. Instead, we seem to be expected to sympathize with a character who says — again, of the girlfriend from Singapore — “Is she going to replace him with one of her monkey-brain eating countrymen…? If it’s her vagina that’s causing her distress, then let her fill it up with cement while she waits for his return.” Rather than portraying a consciousness that operates according to a different, skewed logic, Said uses the narrator’s mental illness as just another symbol. “Schizophrenia struck my society before it struck me, Doctor. I’m just a symptom,” Mustafa thinks out loud, in case we missed the point.
Cairo Swan Song has no clear narrative framework — it just strings together incident after incident, conversation after conversation. And the writing itself is no better. The author has a penchant for the squirm-inducing simile: “I looked at Warda like a cowboy looks at a wild horse he’s just roped and saddled”; “She sat back down like a frustrated mother obeying her spoiled son”; “She seemed mortified, as embarrassed as she’d have been if I’d walked in on her waxing her pubic hair.” Everyone always laughs “hysterically,” people often cry “blood-red” tears. Often the images are both gross and confusing: “I’d come to end a relationship, but it was all wrapped up in veins and arteries, and if even a part of it were cut, I’d bleed to death.”
While its narrator’s illness is never more than a trope, this book does chronicle a particular malady; it captures the clichés that ail contemporary Egyptian literature at its worst (sensationalism, stylistic self-indulgence, wooden symbolism). And it shows — in a different way, certainly, than was intended — the malaise of a segment of Egypt’s leftist, nationalist, secular cultural elite, so busy feeling sorry for itself that it has no empathy, insight, or even power of accurate observation for anything but its own distress.
Another element woven into Cairo Swan Song is an occasionally trite, superficial critique of the Islamization of Egyptian society. The book is rife with characters who take sudden turns toward extreme piety, and who are portrayed always as either despicable or deluded. Their motives are incomprehensible.
Khaled al-Berry’s Life Is More Beautiful than Paradise offers an entirely different and engrossing look at the appeal of religious militancy. Also just translated by AUC Press, the book chronicles his time as a member of the fundamentalist Islamist group the Jama’a Islamiya.
On the opening page of al-Berry’s book, he’s fourteen and being bullied by an older boy. To avoid a confrontation that he knows he’s sure to lose, he resorts to a shameful stratagem. “All I could think of as an excuse was to pretend that my knees had given way and to fall to the ground at some distance from him. It was obvious, laughable, pitiful cowardice.” A few pages further on, al-Berry is joyfully riding alongside the neighborhood news-seller on his cart, which ends up blocking the way of a police car. “The officer got out of the car and, violating every rule of Upper Egyptian manners, slapped the man, who was old enough to be his father, on the face. From then on I was too embarrassed to joke around with Uncle Ahmad. I felt that I ought to make myself look sad whenever I saw him, out of respect for his feelings.” The purpose of these two anecdotes is to subtly point toward the attraction that the Jama’a Islamiya, with its promise of solidarity and self-respect, holds for a sensitive and physically timorous adolescent — how comforting belonging to such a group can be at an age when one is suddenly called upon to “be a man,” in a society in which that very manhood is vulnerable to sudden and devastating humiliations.
Not that any of this is spelled out for us. Why al-Berry joins the Jama’a and is an active member for the next six years — appointed “amir of the Secondy Schools Brothers in Asyut,” active as a preacher and enforcer of moral codes at the University of Asyut — is explored throughout this memoir, without ever reaching a definitive answer. The closest al-Berry comes to a conclusion is when he describes the Jama’a as “a movement of the resentful middle class,” whose leaders “were from families with a goodly apportionment of education but a shaky apportionment of money and/or authority.” On a personal level, his choice remains in part a mystery; after all, he tells us, “It is difficult for a person to comprehend why he loves what he loves, or even to know what he loves.”
What the book does manage to do is provide an insightful account of the appeal of the Jama’a. Al-Berry is motivated by affection for his elders in the group and by genuine spiritual elation. He writes that in place of his old self “there was a new person who, each time he opened his mouth to utter a prayer, felt that he was growing closer to God and that a fine silken thread connected him to the sublime.” Yet he also documents the human frailty of the group’s members — their jealousies, hypocrisies, and inner struggles, particularly with the sexual purity to which they are supposedly committed (these are teenage boys, after all).
Al-Berry offers an accessible overview of Jama’a theological arguments and a fascinating account of the stages by which indoctrination takes place: the small, significant sacrifices (of TV and music); the stickers with prayers to be affixed on one’s door, bathroom, and vehicle (in his case, his bicycle); the “Islamic” clothes and beard that set one apart.
Despite some misgivings, al-Berry becomes more and more committed to the organization, drawn in by a sense of loyalty and belonging. His righteousness begins to slide, almost imperceptibly, into acts of thuggery. He intimidates Christians in his neighborhood, scolding male and female university students who dare to talk with each other in public. The book is set in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a time when the Jama’a was engaged in open, violent confrontation with the state. Al-Berry meets brothers who are later killed by police or participate in assassinations and terrorist operations. He himself is never — as he later discovers — part of the inner circle.
Al-Berry’s honest, subtle exploration of his turn toward fundamentalism is matched by writing that is clear, understated, and at times quite beautiful. “I longed for the clear silence that brings a tinge of beige to the world,” he writes, “the strained calm of the seasonal sandy winds that herald the coming of springtime in my hometown.” Or, of his father’s attitudes toward him after he gets out of jail, “He still had that same gaze that could see anything in the world but my face, as though it were transparent.”
In the end, after a brief stint in prison, al-Berry decides to turn his back on the Jama’a. The book’s title describes the author’s feelings as, released from jail, he runs home through the empty nighttime streets. And yet in spite of the conclusion, this isn’t a morality tale, a simple story of error and redemption. It’s more complicated. In the introduction, al-Berry writes that “it would be painful to me should the readers of this book think that these men who were my ‘brothers’ in the Jama’a were in any way evil people.”
The final section details the quite poignant difficulties of becoming a regular, unknown student in Cairo, struggling to make friends and meet girls, bereft of the self-assurance that his role in the Jama’a gave him. “I sat on the bed in my darkened room, imagining myself as a pair of socks rolled inside out and revealing what was within me. I didn’t know who I was.” Yet there are surprising consolations: reading Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, watching Babette’s Feast, and realizing that he’d rather be an individual, stripped down to “his eternal, infinitely ancient weakness… and… strength,” than a member of a righteous collective.
Footnotes in Gaza
By Joe Sacco
Metropolitan Books, 2009
In November 1956, two massacres of Palestinians by Israeli soldiers occurred in the Gaza Strip. As tends to happen, both were almost immediately subsumed, by the Suez Canal crisis and other successive crises in the region. Episodes of comparable horror and greater political import took over the headlines, and the events in Gaza disappeared into the sediment of the conflict. Joe Sacco, the venerable war-reporter-cartoonist, had read about one of the massacres — the shooting of 275 men in Khan Younis — and, on a reporting trip to Gaza in 2001, spoke to some survivors. According to a Hamas senior official whose uncle was among those killed, the episode “planted hatred in our hearts.”
Months later, after the article he had been working on was published (with the part about the massacres excised), Sacco decided to return to Gaza and further investigate what had happened in 1956. The second incident caught his attention as he was doing research: Israeli soldiers had been searching for guerillas in Rafah and called for all men to gather to be screened; the soldiers for some reason panicked and began firing on residents, killing more than a hundred of them. This episode, too, had nearly disappeared, save for a couple of painfully judicious sentences in a United Nations report.
What Sacco has done in Footnotes in Gaza is exhume those two massacres and, in a deftly told and richly illustrated narrative, bring them back to life — not only through the memories of the people who survived them, but through the lives of the many Palestinians who are shaped by them still. Sacco — represented, per usual, as a gangly, fat-lipped, camera-toting blot on the landscape, his eyes concealed by spectacles — roams Gaza in lockstep with his fixer, who arranges interviews and acts as the author’s perennial companion. As in Sacco’s past books, the fixer (this time a native Gazan named Abed) mediates between the reader and the journalist’s subjects: though from the English-speaking upper class, he’s still struggling to make a living. The fixer channels the ambitions and ambivalence of his brethren — the awkward balance between resenting and yearning for the West, despairing and feeling hope for the future. Abed in particular embodies the connection between the daunting accumulation of historical fact in Israeli archives and the reports of the NGOs and the fragmented memories of traumatized Palestinians; through him, Sacco melds the horrors of the past and the deadening life of Gaza in the present.
Sacco makes no attempt to achieve “balance”; there are no statements from the Israel Defense Forces, no equation of human suffering and the exigencies of domestic politics. He focuses on the lives spent in dusty refugee camps and smoke-filled, single-room dwellings, training his eye on the exhausted faces of veteran resistance fighters (though they’re hardly fighting anymore). One of them is Khaled, a militant on Israel’s “wanted list” who has been living underground for years, traveling from safe house to safe house, stopping by his own home every so often to see his wife and son. “The boy insists on being woken up to play with his dad no matter what time he shows up,” Sacco writes, the text floating above a child clad in pajamas who struggles to stay awake while his father regales the journalist with stories of intifadas past. “Khaled’s wife is expecting again,” Sacco notes as their conversation is ending. “Khaled says her relatives encourage her to have more children as soon as possible. They wonder how much longer Khaled has to live.”
Pathos and fact command Sacco’s attention equally; while his writing is unadorned, alternating between the language of historical documents and interviews — save for the occasional authorial interjection — his illustrations illuminate the page, transporting the reader from rubble-strewn battlefields to claustrophobic domestic scenes to expansive cityscapes. If Benny Morris’s The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem and the work of Israel’s other New Historians focused attention on the mess of nationalistic narratives around the country’s signature conflicts — 1948, 1967, 1982 — Sacco steers attention toward the calamities whose symbolism is eclipsed by their arbitrariness, and which form the architecture of daily life rather than the spectacles of politics. The massacres he narrates are but two of the manifold roots of the anguish that simmered beneath the stagecraft of the post-Oslo period — episodes that have become such a part of the fabric of life in Gaza that, Sacco notes, even those who lived through them have a hard time distinguishing between them. Those who do remember would just as soon not speak about it, or else they wonder why Sacco is interested in these forgotten historical episodes rather than the suffering of Gazans today.
In the end, Sacco is not quite sure either. The story of the journalist seeking to relate a discrete episode, or a neatly packaged piece of the horror of war, and ending up with a tale that lacks a clear beginning or end, an arc or hook, logic or relief, is not a new one. But whereas for many journalists this personal revelation becomes a cheap hallmark of the war-reporter-turned-author, Sacco allows his characters their own ambivalence, which he records from a slight distance. Of course, that distance, too, diminishes over time. Toward the end of the book, Sacco tells of an interview with a man named Abuh Juhish, who was in Rafah in 1956. He remembers — or chooses to remember — little beyond the fear he felt that day. “Suddenly I felt ashamed of myself for losing something along the way as I collected my evidence, disentangled it, dissected it, indexed it, and logged it onto my chart,” Sacco writes. “And I remembered how often I sat with old men who tried my patience, who rambled on, who got things mixed up… how often I sighed and mentally rolled my eyes because I knew more about that day than they did.” Sacco — young, stolid, and set to leave Gaza the next day — sits across from Abu Juhish — ailing, tearful, and destined to die in Gaza — in silence for a moment before ending the conversation.
Freedom Rhythm & Sound
Edited by Gilles Peterson and Stuart Baker
Soul Jazz Records Publishing, 2009
Dozens of books of album cover artwork have been published; it’s a genre in itself by now. Most of these things are pretty and nicely laid out, but they don’t tend to feel essential. That’s largely because they play into the type of context-free fetishization that handily sucks the social import and even the fun out of music. That’s what’s so neat about this LP-sized book collecting album art from the heyday of the African-American free jazz scene — it’s perhaps the first book of its kind to feel substantial.
First off, the book’s layout encourages you to spend time with it. As you’d expect, there’s a short and informative section on Sun Ra and his Saturn label, but records by Sun Ra crop up throughout the entire book. This slightly idiosyncratic decision not to box everything up into little cookie-cutter sections makes the book feel more like a mix tape or radio show. Even the most rabid fan is likely to run across records and artists she or he has never heard of before, and could never afford regardless. As few as one hundred copies were pressed of these original records, and some of them “book” for more than the cost of a used 1998 Toyota Corolla. You may have heard of Milford Graves, Phil Cohran, or Archie Shepp — but what of Steve Reid, Shamek Farrah, Horace Tapscott, Tribe, or Paris Smith? They each made radical, essential music that was deeply rooted in their local communities.
Who the actual cover artists and designers were is rarely revealed; that is the one flaw of the project. In general, strong graphic elements and spartan color schemes dominate the covers; these artists — whoever they were — had to get the most from a limited budget. There were no blueprints for how to run one’s own record label back then, nor were there any layout programs. Typography was either hand drawn or funkily laid down in Letraset type. Meanwhile, the imagery reflected the Afrocentric, radical nature of the music. This shit is strong, in every sense.
Earth of Endless Secrets
By Akram Zaatari
Portikus, Galerie Sfeir-Semler and the Beirut Art Center
Akram Zaatari’s Earth of Endless Secrets is an artwork, a project, an exhibition, and now a book. Documenting fifteen years of artistic practice, this gorgeously produced publication is neither a retrospective nor a mid-career survey but rather a collection of four carefully composed, exhaustively researched ruminations on a single theme: the complex representation of geographic territories that have been subjected to episodes of occupation and withdrawal. Clustered around four video works, from 1997’s All Is Well on the Border to 2007’s Nature Morte, the books explores politically fraught landscapes from the former security zone in South Lebanon to the hotly contested Shebaa Farms. Zaatari’s material ranges from objects literally pulled from the ground to interview transcripts, buried letters, cherished snapshots, documentary photographs, and more. Exploring both physical and psychological modes of archeological excavation, Zaatari’s works here probe the experiences of men who signed up to fight for a cause when they were teenagers, only to find themselves adrift as adults, their guiding ideologies shattered, their movement in ruins, their cause lost. As such, Earth of Endless Secrets pensively probes the relationships between occupation and resistance, narrative and fragmentation, lover and fighter, desire and fear, pursuit and escape, heroism and human frailty.
By Slavs and Tatars
Released in tandem with their Netwerk Center for Contemporary Art show, the collective Slavs and Tatars’s Kidnapping Mountains begins with the Caucasus Mountains and extends throughout Eurasia and beyond, constructing an odd history as fragmented as the regions’ inhabitants. Kidnapping Mountains, published by Book Works, functions as an expanded catalog of Slavs and Tatars’s various strategies of jocular didacticism, including reproductions of their posters, slogans, and songs. The book illustrates the muscular battle of wills involved in the highly contentious staking of a regional identity. Slavs and Tatars inform the more recent history of the 2008 South Ossetia War by culling from the Caucasus regions’ ephemeral and perennial histories. They personify the Caucasus Mountains as the subject of their narrative, using the term “Caucasian” as a battleground, “wresting the immanent complexity of the name from its extinguished usage,” through tactics of linguistic and graphic subversions that play between flippancy and dead seriousness.
Grass: Untold Stories
By Bahman Maghsoudlou
Mazda Publishers, 2008
Three years after Robert J. Flaherty’s seminal anthropological documentary Nanook of the North, a trio of American filmmakers, two of whom would continue on to make King Kong, took on Iran with a similar naturalist adventurism in the film Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life. The disintegration of the Ottoman Empire in the wake of World War I functioned as a conceptual entry point for Merian Cooper, Ernest Schoedsack, and Marguerite Harrison to forge unabashedly into the Middle East, traveling to southern Iran in 1923 to follow the Bakhtiari tribe in an effort to preserve them in celluloid.
Bahman Maghsoudlou comprehensively recounts the making of Grass in his book Grass: Untold Stories, informing the sparsely documented history of the film with biographical and diaristic information, gleaned from correspondence and autobiographical sources. Beginning with America’s entry into World War I, Maghsoudlou reconstructs a temporal narrative of the three filmmakers’ world-spanning travels, among which the journey to Iran that produced Grass becomes secondary. Grass: Untold Stories carries the imperative of an extensive historical document, though it’s imbued with the pulp-like nature of two men and a woman following the path of a migratory Iranian tribe with adventurous rather than strictly anthropological motivations. Maghsoudlou compiles a cohesive narrative of early cinematic production follies and 1920s adventurism through Cooper, Schoedsack, and Harrison’s wartime and postwar activities, culminating in the production of their overlooked documentary film.
Edited by Céline Condorelli
Sternberg Press, 2009
How much ink has been spilled over the role of those anonymous administrative or curatorial or bureaucratic — or simply ancillary — characters who contribute to the production and exhibition of artwork but never sign their names to it? Not nearly enough, according to Support Structures, which bills itself as a manual for those operating in this ill-defined terrain. According to author-editor Céline Condorelli, the book “represents an effort to draft and construct a supporting structure for the creation of support’s discourse, to house other forms of support structures, and to revive… a particular way of engaging in and with subjects in a desire towards emancipation.”
That’s a lot of “support,” you might say. This reviewer had never noticed the gaping hole where a rich discourse should be; Support Structure, the collaborative project leading up to the publication of this book, has been filling in the holes and fleshing out the meaning of the role since 2003. In this age of artists whose production models are often the collective or the factory — and who often do little more than provide concepts, outlines, directives, and supervision — it makes sense for the overlooked technicians and mechanisms that actually fabricate artwork and usher it into the world to garner some critical consideration. Support Structures grants them that — and then some. Support, it suggests, is marginalized because doing so reinforces the myth of the autonomous art object.
Besides the introductory texts by Condorelli, the book consists of numerous works — lists, essays, manifestos, rants, complaints — that elucidate and embody the slippery subject. The selections comprise an ambitious, if willfully uneven catalog of what support can be: primers on social practice (Rirkrit Tiravanija), documentation of anti-gentrification street art, a conversation about the meaning and possibilities of humanitarian intervention (Rony Brauman and Eyal Weizman), and a meditation on the position of the frame in the history of painting (Jean-Claude Lebensztejn). “Any attempt at defining support,” Condorelli writes, “would entail a position external to the subject, and… there can be no discourse on support, only discourse through support.” Here it is.