Art

In a Time of Displacement, Arab Artists Negotiate the Meaning of Home

Larissa Sansour, "Nation Estate – Olive Tree" (2012), C­‐print, 60 x 120 cm (photo by the artist)
Larissa Sansour, “Nation Estate – Olive Tree” (2012), C­‐print, 60 x 120 cm (image courtesy the artist)

TORONTO — “I’ve got no place, no address. I have ˆfinished my life,” says the protagonist in Youssef Nabil’s ten-minute video short, “You Never Left.” The quote is a perfect summation of the theme that sits at the heart of Home Ground: Contemporary Art from the Barjeel Art Foundation, on view at the Aga Khan Museum in North Toronto. Cairo-born Nabil joins 11 other artists in the show, which features a powerful, timely take on the notion of displacement.

Images of fleeing immigrants, so prevalent in the news lately, come immediately to mind when walking through the exhibition, which is housed on the second floor of the museum, overlooking the permanent collection. Notions of an ever-shifting Arab identity are thoughtfully examined, providing a good bridge to larger ideas about statehood and selfhood. Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, founder of the Barjeel Art Foundation, acknowledges the theme of displacement that runs through the show, noting in the catalogue that violence “isn’t the only reason why the region’s population has been in perpetual emigration. Others leave for reasons related to employment, social issues, and politics.” Also in the catalogue, Curator Suheyla Takesh notes that the name of the show has a powerful resonance because it explores ideas of home as being “defined, negotiated, and re-established” through the navigation of geopolitical barriers.

'Home Ground,' installation view (photo by Janet Kimber)
‘Home Ground,’ installation view (photo by Janet Kimber)

The idea of home, as both physical form and mental state, forms the heart of Home Ground. Even when the subject matter is personal, there are wider geopolitical ramifications that are frequently touched upon and explored. Beirut-born Mona Hatoum’s “You Are Still Here,” which greets visitors, plays on this political awareness by using the viewer as its main subject to question ideas around identity and survival. The piece, which is composed of a rectangular mirror with the title sandblasted on in white letters, points to a resiliency amid a changing identity and, as the catalogue underlines, slices the viewer “into two distinct selves, eliciting an intimate conversation between the two.”

Resilience also colors much of Larissa Sansour’s photography, which has a certain biting, sarcastic quality that feels like a cross between the self-reflexive curiosity of Susie Lake and the gleaming high-tech edge of Blade Runner. Presented against a soft pink backdrop, the Jerusalem-born photographer’s sharp work mixes the edgy, playful, and sad, all within the context of fantastical yet familiar sci-fi-styled religious settings. “Cactus,” a grey-hued painting by Asim Abu Shaqra, is a nice complement to Nabil’s film, which plays in a darkened area behind it. Shaqra, a Palestinian Arab who spoke fluent Hebrew and lived and studied in Tel Aviv before his untimely passing in 1990, used the cactus as a symbol for the identity of Palestinians who continue to live within the confines of a Jewish state. Nabil, with his sharp, vivid colors and wide lens, and Shaqra, with his muddy tones and thick, claustrophobic brush strokes, are united in their expression by a sense of deep displacement and estrangement.

Khaled Jarrar, "Volleyball" (2013), reconstituted concrete from separation wall, 20 cm diameter (photo by the artist)
Khaled Jarrar, “Volleyball” (2013), reconstituted concrete from separation wall, 20 cm diameter (photo by the artist)

“Volleyball,” by Palestinian artist and filmmaker Khaled Jarrar, includes a huge, sumptuous rug, along with texts and ceramics. The work, made from concrete that the artist secretly scraped off the Separation Wall near the city of Ramallah, was inspired by conversations he had with children close to the structure. Making a heavy form out of something that should be light and buoyant is a powerful symbol of both robbed childhood and inert identity, and the piece is made all the more meaningful by its thoughtful presentation here. The contrast between Jarrar’s work and the museum’s permanent collection below it couldn’t be more stark; it affords a quietly angry communication between abundance and loss, pride and humiliation, home and immigration.

“Measures of Uncertainty IV,” a massive acrylic by multidisciplinary artist Jawad al-Malhi, inspires an equally angry dialogue with both the museum’s permanent collection and Home Ground’s other pieces. The painting depicts its many subjects with their backs turned, save for two children at either edge, who look directly at the viewer in a kind of a challenge that’s echoed in other pieces throughout the show, notably its sculptural works. Dia al-Azzawi’s “Handala” is based on a cartoon of a boy with his back turned; the figure is a symbol of Palestinian identity. The Iraqi-born al-Azzawi, regarded as a pioneer of modern Arab art, offers a three-dimensional interpretation that automatically instills a desire to see the other side of the figure, regardless of the viewer’s politics. The sculpture’s slightly open mouth suggests many things: a readiness for dialogue, curiosity, a challenge.

Raafat Ishak, "Responses to an Immigration Request from One Hundred and Ninety-­Four Governments 2006–2009," oil and gesso on MDF, 30 x 21 x 1 cm each
Raafat Ishak, “Responses to an Immigration Request from One Hundred and Ninety-­Four Governments 2006–2009,” oil and gesso on MDF, 30 x 21 x 1 cm each

A more blatant sense of outrage can be found in Raafat Ishak’s “Responses to an Immigration Request from One Hundred and Ninety-Four Governments, 2006–2009,” including one which doesn’t exist yet, but is ostensibly the Palestinian state. The full series, made up of small, egg-like plates (representing responses) spans the length of a large wall; at the sides are copies of the pre-formatted letter the artist sent to all the nations requesting information about immigrating to their respective countries from Australia. The plates look like Easter eggs, with each country’s flag tidily fit into the shape, their respective colors muted into pretty pastels, with thick white Arabic lettering (part of each government’s response) painted on top. The cheery overall look belies the letters’ dour bureaucratic meaning and the artist’s clear sense of outrage.

Manal al-­‐Dowayan, "Suspended Together – (Standing Dove, Eating Dove)" (2012), porcelain, 20 x 10 x 23 cm each (photo by Miguel Veterano)
Manal al-­‐Dowayan, “Suspended Together – (Standing Dove, Eating Dove)” (2012), porcelain, 20 x 10 x 23 cm each (photo by Miguel Veterano)

Two selections from Manal al-Dawayan’s large porcelain dove installation Suspended, Together  (“Standing Dove” and “Eating Dove”) look out over the expanse and imply a sad if quiet commentary of the state of female citizens in Saudi Arabia. A photo from the artist’s full installation of the piece from the 2011 Venice Biennale shows an immense flock of doves, all with copies of Saudi Arabian women’s real travel documents imprinted on their wings. It’s a pity the Aga Khan Museum didn’t get the full installation; it would’ve suited the space nicely, and complemented the show’s theme of displacement.

Perhaps one of the most powerful pieces in Home Ground is Adel Abidin’s “Memorial,” an animated video based on real events. The quietly angry work, with only sound effects and music as a soundtrack, depicts a burning Baghdad and features the harrowing dilemma of a cow trapped on the wrong side of a broken bridge, trying to get back to its herd. Inspired by the artist’s seeing the remains of a solitary cow near a favorite bridge on a visit to Baghdad following Allied bombing during the First Gulf War, the video is a devastating portrait of both the horrors of war and the pain of not being able to go home.

Mohamad-­‐Said Baalbaki, "Heap (1)" (2014), oil on board, 40 x 50 cm (photo by Siegfried Bücker)
Mohamad-­‐Said Baalbaki, “Heap (1)” (2014), oil on board, 40 x 50 cm (photo by Siegfried Bücker)

The theme of home is presented with economical efficiency within Mohamad-Said Baalbaki’s “Heap” paintings, taken from a larger project. The paintings incorporate elements of cubism and abstraction, colorfully depicting the heaps of belongings left or unpacked by those fleeing conflict. Directly inspired by the artist’s childhood experience of displacement (owing to the Lebanese Civil War and the Israeli occupation of Lebanon), the playful energy of the brushwork and vivid color choices belie the unsettling (and unsettled) nature of its subject. The claustrophobic feeling of Baalbaki’s paintings also contrast with the overall open feel of the exhibition space, but the grouping also provides a nice contrast to Ishak’s immense plate series nearby.

Indeed, the museum almost feels too big for some of the works in Home Ground, but its openness is also one of its greatest assets, providing a kind of vast cosmos that reflects the rootlessness of the immigrant experience and the challenge of finding, developing, and maintaining an identity in an ever-shifting landscape of memories and aspirations.

Home Ground: Contemporary Art from the Barjeel Art Foundation continues at Aga Khan Museum (77 Wynford Dr, Toronto) through January 3.

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