LONDON and BEIRUT — In an ongoing exhibition and curatorial project titled Thicker Than Blood (2017–2018), multidisciplinary artist and curator Izdihar Afyouni has investigated the ethical and psychological implications of racial and genetic profiling by subverting the process of accumulating race-differentiated data. She subjected her audience members to capillary blood tests, the results of which determined their experience of the curated program across three rooms in a BDSM dungeon in London. The tests were used to construct hierarchies and the exhibitions were treated as a body to be rigorously examined and detained, ultimately questioning the position of the witness.
After completing her MA in Art and Politics at Goldsmiths, University of London, Afyouni was invited to create a site-specific installment of the project in Beirut by curating Arab and diasporan artist responses to bio-surveillance technologies in the region, but the project was met with backlash. It was planned as an immersive reimagining of the Israeli Defence Force’s structuring of the settler occupation of Palestine, focusing on how the body can be manipulated as a tool of the state. Having first taken place in March and September 2017 in London, this third instalment — planned for October 2018 — has been delayed due to restrictions.
By queering the body, the erotics of violence and exposing bio-surveillant measures used by nation states to weed out genetic and undesirable threats, Afyouni strives to make the unseen workings of government public. Here she discusses gender, migration, and violence with Hyperallergic.
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LVC: Can you tell me a little about how your own relationship to academia and the art world feed into your work?
IA: As an Arab artist, I feel I am always in a precarious position in terms of how my work is received by cultural censors in the Middle East, and by an alienation effect when it comes to how Western curators situate my work. I am not interested in creating an aesthetic framework for abstract concepts, which are disconnected from the body and geopolitical context. So, I feel as if I am in a double bind. While I cannot escape the politics of my particular situation, this politics is exacerbated by the way I am surveilled by the conservative Arab viewing public and contextualized by curatorial enframing.
LVC: When did the concepts of otherness and subjugation become central to your art practice?
IA: I studied representational drawing at an atelier in Florence and became fascinated with anatomy, which led to researching the extremes that the body can be pushed to, and the idea of transcendence, which led to researching government-sanctioned torture in the Middle East. Torture is a complete loss of subjectivity, what Elaine Scarry [in her 1985 book The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World] refers to as “unmaking [the victim’s] world.” As an undergraduate student, I created a series of large paintings responding to the dissemination of images taken of prisoners in Abu Ghraib.
LVC: You have now moved from depicting men to women in pain.
IA: I think that (up until recently) I had been avoiding painting women in pain. Socially, male pain, male anger monopolizes the field of sexuality and media studies. Moreover, as a nonwestern woman creating work about subjugation in a UK academic context, my only hope of the work being taken seriously was to position the figures as male or genderless. Considering the highly censored discourse on the torture at Abu Ghraib proved, in many ways, too psychosocially probing. I was already asking so much of the audience to look at these blown-up, hyper-stylized images of the “Other’’ in pain, and in their own visual language that I felt unable to tackle the gender politics of female pain in the same image.
LVC: The social and political dimensions to female pain are so vast and yet so easily dismissed.
IA: Exactly. Female pain is fetishized but never vindicated. It’s easier to objectify women, that continuous attack on subjecthood under patriarchy, both in interpersonal relationships and in society. I didn’t feel I had the visual language until now to adequately describe that form of objectification, perhaps because I was undergoing several forms of abjection myself as I was entering womanhood and exploring my own relationship to pain.
LVC: This loss of subjecthood is an interesting angle to explore within the Arab world, although it is not culturally specific.
IA: No not at all. The “Stepford Wife” trope is a Western one, but it’s interesting (and disconcerting) to see the different ways in which culture and tradition are distilled into patriarchal norms.
I grew up in Jordan; cognitively, I was formed there. The fact that women are expected to act as agents of the patriarchy is really prevalent in the Middle East. Women are conditioned to internalize their own subjugation. It’s a culture that both hyper-sexualizes women while simultaneously punishing them for their lust. There’s this paradoxical framing of women’s bodies: they’re at once impure and wild if not governed, as well as wholesome and nurturing.
LVC: Your work is often described as angry, a term that is particularly gendered towards women.
IA: The vocabulary used to describe male violence is often bold and aggressive. Anger suggests emotionality and chaos, which does not apply to a project like Thicker Than Blood, which sought to interrogate the racialized politics of genetic profiling policies and government surveillance by questioning the audience’s subjecthood. I did so by curating their experiences of the event based on a test sample of their blood, and placing them in blood groupings. This procedure was very clinical and studied, which is contrary to the notion that the work is angry. It may be fitting to describe the work as aggressive, as the methodology I used to talk about unpublicized bio-surveillant methods of government was certainly aggressive, namely the interrogations that those with the lowest white blood cell count were subjected to at the exhibition, but it wasn’t angry.
LVC: Do you feel like your focus on female sexuality played a part in your struggles to get the work off the ground in Beirut?
IA: People don’t feel comfortable when confronted with representations of violence from a female voice, especially when they’re asked to examine institutionalized violence through an eroticized aesthetic. This was challenging for me as an artist and a feminist, and was even more difficult to swallow for a (white, British) audience. The white male academics who were grading the first edition of Thicker Than Blood focused on my gender and sexuality. They were highly dismissive of the critique of institutional violence because the setting for the event [was] a BDSM dungeon and themes explored by the artists who were exhibiting were linked to fetishism and the erotic realm.
Conversely, the exhibition was met with critical engagement from non-white, Non Binary and female academics. There was an interesting parallel between trying to find the language to talk about racism in the UK, where it’s a very touchy subject – both as a woman and as a migrant – and discussing the abjection of Palestinians in Lebanon, which was the main point of contention when it came to getting backing from cultural institutions in Beirut. Not only was my work viewed within the double bind of woman and migrant but the question of “sharing my privilege” concerning Palestine was subject to similar degrees of censorship that Palestinians feel in their near imprisonment behind the bare life of the refugee camp.
LVC: There’s a general consensus in the west that Lebanon is the most progressive (meaning westernized) country in the Middle East, with its party scene, but the rampant human rights abuses of migrant workers and Palestinian refugees directly contradicts that.
IA: I find this veneer of progressive liberalism that’s projected onto Lebanon to be a sham. Treatment of Palestinian refugees as second-class citizens in Beirut is absolutely discriminatory. They have no right of return, no citizenship, and consequently no rights; they are often forced to live in horrible conditions and banned from entering certain workforces despite their qualifications.
LVC: It’s very trendy to talk about refugee experiences or to “give voice” to these experiences in the Beirut art scene at the moment, but it’s hardly ever refugees that are controlling their own narratives.
IA: These struggles are commodified and fetishized, fitting seamlessly into Western orientalist narratives. Edward Said explained that the Arab world has come to believe the claims of the West, and is acting them out — you can see this with fundamentalist Islam. Psychosocially, Britain, France, and the US have literally dictated who’s going to be in power in the Arab world.
By not only ignoring, but actively suppressing these narratives the Lebanese left mirrors for the shortcomings of western liberalism and white feminism, and ignore the various racial, socioeconomic contexts and multiplicities of feminist and refugee struggles in favor of bourgeois political discourse, which is an ill-disguised means to accumulate further labor. It is not intersectional activism when so-called socially engaged cultural institutions silence the narratives of the migrant population in Lebanon while selectively culturally exploiting them to remain on trend.
… I think this language of othering in the West was also adopted in Lebanon, and its ideologically destructive on two counts: the complete lack of accountability from governments, which is compounded by an imperial cultural exploitation of the migrant experience that’s so prevalent in contemporary discourse at the moment. I feel like this is not too different from how western liberalism masquerades as progressive by way of human rights discourse while maintaining a hegemonic stronghold on political narratives. It’s a shield to accent political rights.