The question that comes to mind seeing Nidaa Badwan’s work 100 Days of Solitude, is whether it is primarily the documentation of a protracted depressive episode undergone by the artist or her inventively aesthetic response to a situation that is unbearable. In other words, I wonder whether the photographs in this exhibition are about the artist slowly breaking down, or alternatively, are about the world breaking down around her impelling her to carve out a space of shelter from the devastation. The circumstances under which she undertook 100 Days of Solitude, on view at the Postmasters Gallery, are grim. Badwan rarely left her 100-square-foot room for 20 months. She says she entered a condition of isolation impelled by Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip, which essentially put her city under a state of siege. It’s an odd and drastic psychological rationale — but a logical one nevertheless — to cocoon the self that is forcefully, violently confined inside an even smaller space that has the one, key benefit of being a space of one’s own making. After peace talks broke down in April of 2014, and Palestinian children were killed by Israeli soldiers, a series of reprisal murders precipitated an armed conflict that resulted in the death of thousands of people, the majority of them Gazans. This was the world Badwan retreated from: rocket and mortar fire, kidnappings and murders, siege and terror.
Knowing all this backstory the photographs taken together do seem like they depict a space of refuge, but they are also an extension and illustration of the artist’s urge to transform her room into other spaces: a painter’s studio, an office, a small goods factory, a storage den. There are obviously abject elements — a hole in the back of her guitar, the manually tuned transistor radio — that speak to the economic fragility of her circumstances. There is also an image of Badwan pausing to wipe away tears as she peels onions. But the colors of the repeated elements — the woven rug, the patchwork quilt, her clothing — are so bright and vibrant with verdant greens and luscious reds that the work reads as lively. The dominant tint is orange, which spreads a warm glow throughout Badwan’s room, so the mood feels welcoming to me. This room is certainly a place of refuge, but Badwan is not a hopeless refugee. She withdraws to construct a lovely and complex interior life.
It’s tempting to draw a circle around the work to include those photographers that are known for self-invention and constructed, fictionalized dramas, such as Jeff Wall, Cindy Sherman, and Stan Douglas, but Badwan’s work has higher immediate stakes. She poses the crucial question of how to nurture and protect that uniquely human part of ourselves that can abstract our fates, that can imagine ourselves somewhere else when war is pounding on our doors and we don’t know whether we will actually survive.
Nidaa Badwan’s 100 Days of Solitude continues at Postmasters gallery on 54 Franklin Street, in Tribeca, Manhattan, until October 15.