Multimedia artist Sama Alshaibi consistently interrogates the female form as a nexus point for politics, histories, climate, and forced migrations. Her exhibition Four Series at Zane Bennett Gallery spans 15 years of artistic inquiry with a selection of photographs from four discrete bodies of work: Carry Over (2019), Silsila (2009-2017), Between Two Rivers (2008-2009, 2016), and Negative’s Capable Hands (2007-2010). Each series represents a facet of her interrogation, drawing on historical sources, contexts, and techniques to articulate the definitions and exploitations of freedom.
Alshaibi consistently features herself as a primary subject, illustrating how Western geopolitical forces, traditions, and networks undermine individual liberties, particularly those of Middle Eastern women. Carry Over deflects the Western gaze of “Orientalist” photography in the Middle East and Northern Africa. Using albumen, photogravure, and gum printing processes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Alshaibi poses in symbolic clothing with objects — in “Gamer” (2019), for instance, she wears a burqa and carries a towering stack of metal tins on her head, tins typically used by Iraqi women to carry buffalo cream and bread.
Alshaibi’s portraits are taken in a studio environment based on the likes of historic precedents such as Maison Bonfils and Francis Frith who, capitalizing on new photographic technologies, cataloged and codified a European appetite for the Middle East. Except Alshaibi’s images ultimately rebuke codification. The extravagant proportion of the props combined with the figure’s isolation underscores the contrived form of the tradition. In “Water Bearer II” (2019), Alshaibi carries a large vessel resembling a giant hand grenade or acorn. She appears to have extraordinary strength, carrying this blanched, cumbersome, and likely useless object overhead while wearing a white dress that is so long as to fold over her feet and prohibit her movement. The effort depicted is to no end save for producing an image.
Self-portraits in Between Two Rivers capture physical signs of trauma on the body using theater cosmetics. “Obverse Discursive” (2016) shows a close up of the artist’s face wearing a fitted hijab, gazing upwards and off to the right, lips sewn shut with golden thread, bloody where it appears to penetrate the skin. In another photo, “Arabic and Cuneiform: to read and write” (2016), bruised and branded arms extend over crumpled, luxuriously red fabric, hands cupped as though requesting alms from the camera. The arm’s branded cuneiform marks are bloody, suggesting a traumatic dislocation from language and history as though they had to be inscribed on the body for safekeeping.
In an affiliated artist statement, Alshaibi — who had to flee Iraq growing up — describes images in Between Two Rivers as a response to the Iraq war. She argues that the concept of women’s liberty was leveraged by Western powers to gain support for the invasion. Photos in this series illustrate the adverse effects the conflict had on women in particular.
The strongest work in the show comes from the seven-year multimedia project Silsila for which the artist loosely followed the path of a 14th-century Moroccan traveler, Ibn Battuta. Battuta traveled more than any other explorer in premodern history, the published account of which appears in his book A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling, otherwise known as The Rihla. Inspired by his path, Alshaibi focused on the extremes of water, particularly the diverse and regional populations of people facing ecological displacement.
The series links those communities, examining how rising tides expected to swallow the Maldives or Hawai’ian Islands are reciprocally connected to droughts befalling Middle Eastern and North African deserts. Works exhibited from this series include draped figures, often mirrored in water, and regularly associated with circles.
In “Tasma’ (Listen)” (2014), a figure kneels on the ground in a green burqa, hands on her knees in the center of a circle of stones in the middle of a receding desert. The circular composition is repeated in other works like “Ma Ijtama’at Aydina ‘ala Qabdih Mu’attal (What Our Hands Joined Was Broken)” (2014) where two rows of identical figures face one another with hands outstretched. Inner pairs shake hands while outer pairs are unable to bridge the distance with human contact. Clouds punctuate the blue sky overhead, reiterating a kaleidoscopic quality. Throughout the series, the mirroring capacity of water collapses the sky and ground.
Each of Alshaibi’s series highlights how individual agency, particularly that of Middle Eastern and North African women, is subject to geopolitical and economic forces that destroy the environment. The cause of displacement is varied — war, climate change and capitalism, colonialism — yet they each create inhospitable environments that undermine the liberties each regime paradoxically claims to champion. What is remarkable about figures in Silsila is the movement they nevertheless possess, carrying and wearing billowing fabrics, poised in motion, in dialogue with the changing landscape.
Four Series continues at Zane Bennett Gallery (435 S Guadalupe Street, Santa Fe, New Mexico) through April 16, 2022.