Art

Connecting the Lives of Colonized People Around the World

Initially designed to raise awareness of Sahrawi refugees living in Western Sahara, an exhibition takes a sprawling look at the legacies of colonialism.

In Close Proximity, installation view at FATVillage (image courtesy Belaxis Buil)

Curator Belaxis Buil explains that her show, In Close Proximity, takes its title from “geographies of conflict.” By this, she means the contentious spaces in which a colonizing force renders its victims fragile and flailing, but also powerful, sometimes by virtue of their incapacitation: they have to fight their way out.

This sprawling show is currently at a warehouse space in FATVillage, an art district in Ft. Lauderdale (the “FAT” stands for Flagler Arts & Technology). An exhibition like this risks getting usurped by its own broad mandates — the accompanying statement, that it “examines how cultures constitute their identities and attitudes in society,” is vague. Geographies of conflict are everywhere — Palestinians in Israel are cruelly treated second-class citizens with little access to much of anything, but even without politically mandated rules or harshly imposed borders, struggle and economic disparities are visible (just look at the US).

In Close Proximity, installation view at FATVillage (image courtesy Belaxis Buil)

But it’s the impetus of In Close Proximity that gives the show some specificity — it was initially designed to raise awareness of the political situation in the Western Sahara, where Sahrawi refugees have lived in Moroccan-occupied territories since 1975. The Polisario Front (Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguía el Hamra), a Sahrawi rebel liberation movement founded in Spanish Sahara, have fought for Sahrawi independence since 1973. With the Moroccan takeover of the region, their mission became further challenged. The United Nations has a peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara and is currently concerned with rising tensions near the buffer strip of Guerguerat. Most recently, it ordered both Moroccan and Polisario forces to withdraw.

According to Buil, she was initially approached by Malainin Slama, a Sahrawi researcher contacting global artists and activists; he hoped to discuss with her the possibility of an exhibition addressing these tensions. Later, Buil, Slama, Western Sahrawi ambassador Mohamed Beisat, and professor David Suarez — who specializes in identity politics, diplomacy, and the Western Sahara at Florida International University — organized a panel on the rights of the Sahrawi people. The panel was the predecessor and catalyst for In Close Proximity.

In Close Proximity, installation view at FATVillage (image by the author for Hyperallergic)

At the exhibition, filled to the brim with large-scale pieces, I was struck most by the photographs. “Standing Rock” (2016), a portrait of a Sioux activist, by JohnBob Carlos, addresses the Sioux Nation’s ongoing battle to preserve their land’s sanctity and health. The exhibition makes clear that the struggle in the Western Sahara is specific, but emphasizes how life in colonized countries has a fair amount of common ground. In fact, only one piece, Mohamed Soliman Labat’s photo “Untitled (Refugee Camp)” (2016), refers to the Sahrawi situation specifically. Labat lives in the Western Sahara; the distance between the photographer and his subjects — a group of children with their backs to us — isn’t quite so long. Labat is comfortable here, knows his environment well enough to observe and share it.

Labat’s image speaks, equally, to the simple routine of the day-to-day and the injustice of isolation, and I do wish there were more like it. That there’s only one artwork addressing the Sahrawi conflict that sparked the exhibition leaves it with a heavy burden to carry. While it is good to critique the pain of colonization, it would be even better to further unpack this specific instance of it.

Buil collaborated with Labat to place a small installation, “City of Walls” (2018), in front of his photo; the cinderblock enclosure sits across from both his and Nassar’s images and entraps viewers who step inside. Buil is a dancer; in other mediums, she still addresses the body. She watches the way people move through a space, inadvertently contort themselves, and unconsciously display their aversion or predilection toward an object. You can’t move much if you aren’t allowed to, this piece says, bolstering the inherent symbolism of Labat’s photo.

John DeFaro, “Miami Bottle Tree: Peace in your Yard” (2009) (image by the author for Hyperallergic)

There’s a third jarring photograph, Wissam Nassar’s “Beit Hanun, in the Gaza strip” (2015), wherein children in visibly war-torn Gaza are entertained by two cartoon mascots, one of whom wears a friendly, wide-eyed Dora the Explorer costume, a pink splotch on an otherwise gray-yellow-brown scene. The effect is chilling, as it becomes obvious how Palestinian children in Gaza grow up quickly; they cannot always play. The moments when they can produce images as starkly dissonant as this one.

In Close Proximity, installation view at FATVillage (image courtesy Belaxis Buil)

Colonization is often characterized by the taking of resources and reaping of riches, but power itself is untouchable, intangible. Archival Feedback’s piece, “Delimiting Site No. 1b” (2016), features the flagging tape and shovel from an archaeological excavation site — the Deering Estate — accompanied by sounds recorded there: the clanking of metal picks, the light plunk of tossed dirt. It reverberates throughout the room. This poetic piece addresses the tangibility of a people’s history — excavations at the Deering Estate have revealed Tequesta relics, hiding in the yard of a wealthy man’s former mansion.

The scope of In Close Proximity is broad, and I think it could have focused more — even solely — on the Sahrawi people. Still, a few of these pieces speak to one another. Very little archaeological research has been conducted in the Western Sahara, Buil told me, because of the territorial conflict with Morocco, and “Delimiting Site No. 1b” got me thinking about it. How often do we remember these types of tyrannies, in which the dirt beneath a whole people, the layers of their own history, is made inaccessible — not even excavated and subsequently destroyed by a ruling class, but just invisible, though the bottoms of their feet might be touching it all the same? All mythologies are subject to erasure by colonization or extinction. Still, if you dig, you might find them again.

In Close Proximity continues at FATVillage (521 NW 1st Ave, Fort Lauderdale) through March 31.

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