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“Audiences are understandably tired of the polarizing and dominant narratives of the mainstream media and political conversations,” Stephen Stapleton, co-founder of the arts non-profit Edge of Arabia, tells me on an afternoon in July. We are broaching the subject by way of Foundland, the two-artist collective based in Amsterdam currently completing their first New York residency at the International Studio & Curatorial Program (ISCP) in East Williamsburg.
“Foundland, and its work, is very relevant to U.S. audiences because they are exploring histories that are very accessible and resonant here and internationally,” Stapleton says.
In 2009, after completing graduate school at the Sandeberg Institute in Amsterdam, Syrian-born Ghalia Elsrakbi and South African–born Lauren Alexander met each other and created Foundland. For the initial three years, they focused foremost on perfecting graphic design elements, allowing the subject matter to come second. In 2011, however, when the Syrian uprising began, the duo refined their focus and drew from Elsrakbi’s Syrian background, still using their training in graphic design, but redirecting their attention to specifically Arab political matters. Their most recent works, including four sculptural installations, are currently on view at the ISCP in their solo exhibition, Escape Routes and Waiting Rooms.
“We were busy with themes that have to do with identities and social identities in relation to public space,” Elsrakbi explained. Alexander then continued, “It is really about how political identity is constructed and how, in a personal sense, what does it mean to have an Arabic identity? What does it mean to have an African identity?”
Escape Routes and Waiting Rooms marks the culmination of Elsrakbi and Alexander’s residency at ISCP and provides a brief survey of Foundland’s work — text and design merge with drawing, video, and photography.
“We were first drawn to the strong research element of Foundland’s work,” Stapleton continued. “As a collective, they understand how to deconstruct the important images that are playing and have played an important role in shaping perceptions of the Middle East.”
Once inside ISCP and at the top of a flight of stairs, a white table large enough for 19 people stands in the center of the gallery. Although the piece, Friday Table, immediately evokes notions of Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, the names of attendees are unknown to the viewer, yet intimate to Elsrakbi. Rather than noted artistic and literary figures as in Chicago’s, each name and place setting represents Elsrakbi’s family members who were born in Damascus, but many of whom fled. Fifteen relatives left Damascus, and thus, only four physical plates remain at the table. Just as Chicago’s intricate floral plate denotes Georgia O’Keefe, family members’ names and statistical information are printed on the table, replacing the 15 plates. Information includes the name of the family member, his or her place of birth, current location, future plans, route of escape, online activity, and current job. Many of the refugees hardly use the internet, limiting their activities to email; some have no online presence at all.
“The table questions the distinction between what seems temporary but is becoming permanent,” Elsrakbi explains.
In accordance with both artists’ training as graphic designers, the table presents the vast amount of information in a simple and understandable manner. Black, block lettering clearly states the basic facts, various symbols identify the family member’s role and marital status (grandmother, child, married, divorced), patterned lines connect each plate to the city in which the person now lives, and a key reveals the meaning of all symbols and patterns. Some family members are missing, many have been arrested, and those who are traceable now live around the world in Cairo, Berlin, Aachen, Amsterdam, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Mostar, and the Zatari refugee camp.
The layout of the table represents the seating plan of Elsrakbi’s weekly family Friday lunch ritual: a ritual that once seemed permanent, yet quickly shattered as family members fled. Some flights seemed temporary, but have since become permanent because certain family members cannot return to Syria.
Moving further into the exhibition the name of the exhibition becomes clear: it is art about both escape and indefinite waiting—two words that plague refugees’ lives. Another installation, Waiting Room, presents a tent onto which hand-drawn floor plans are projected. Paper copies of these floor plans hang on the wall opposite the tent. Alexander and Elsrakbi asked Syrian exiles to draw the ground plans of their homes in Syria as they remembered them and how they were used. “Many refused to do it at first,” Elsrakbi said. “But then I realized that was a good question to ask them.”
During their New York residency, the two women conducted field research, meeting with people who once lived in Little Syria — a neighborhood now extinct that was once in the Lower West Side near Tribeca. “We wanted to explore what it meant to be displaced in New York,” Alexander said.
Recurrent themes such as the effect of pop culture and image manipulation appear in their earlier works, while Escape Routes and Waiting Rooms focuses strongly on the deconstruction of identity and what it means to be displaced. When Alexander and Elsrakbi moved to Holland for graduate school they both felt displaced; when they moved to Cairo for a residency in 2013, they were displaced once again. Here in New York, they also consider themselves displaced. While they rely on their own experiences of displacement and identity, they combine observations, analytical research, speculation and risk to bring their work into a global context.
“Being in Cairo brought a lot of confusion, emotion, and changing plans,” Elsrakbi said. “The major change [in location] really effects your daily pattern … and shifts the way we are working.”
In addition to the installation pieces now on view, Foundland previously published a catalogue in which they present appropriated images used for Syrian political propaganda and a fictional Q&A with an Islamic leader. Although the conversation is imagined, it is based on factual information pulled from recorded speeches, interviews, and published articles. It’s the artists’ imaginations taking a risk to explore identity, politics, and society. The publication represents their overall approach to art, design, and research. “It’s a way of compiling everything,” Alexander said. “The work doesn’t need to be 100 percent reality.”
Escape Routes and Waiting Rooms is on view at the International Studio & Curatorial Program (1040 Metropolitan Ave, East Williamsburg, Brooklyn) through September 26.