raeda saadeh - vacuum - le bastart

Arab women artists: body, home, territory

The Book of Genesis talks about a man and a woman made together in the image of God. We are not talking about Eva, Adam’s subaltern product, born from his rib as if she were a cyst. We are talking about Lilith, born of dust with Adam on the sixth day. But she soon disappeared from the manichaean script of good and evil. She left Paradise and went into the desert, taking refuge on the shores of the Red Sea. You can keep your apples, I’m going to look for some others, she told herself.

randa maddah - light horizon - le bastart
Randa Maddah. Light horizon 2012 (video).

Lebanese writer Joumana Haddad vindicated the figure of Lilith (replacing the subservient and complacent Sherezade) as a symbol for the contemporary Arab woman: liberated, independent, knowledgeable of her body and her desires.

The artists participating in the IVAM exhibition In rebellion, confront, each in her own way, the reductionism with which, from western parameters, that archetype of feminine submission has been forged.

The exhibition is divided into four sections (public space, intimacy, desire and warlike conflict) that in practice are inseparable if you live in places (such as Arabic countries of the Mediterranean) where historical circumstances make the mere idea of home almost utopian, where gender identity issue can force exile (internally or physically), where private space is the last retreat, where any public act is political or potentially subversive… and where, according to the Palestinian Raeda Saadeh, being a woman is living in a state of permanent occupation.

rula halawani - negative incursion - le bastart
Rula Halawani. Negative Incursion 2002. Untitled VI

Vacuum is a double screen projection in which we see Saadeh vacuuming the arid hillsides which flank the Dead Sea, a barren desert whose silence is broken by the monotonous sound of the applicance. Underlying the absurd gesture of cleaning the mountain resounds the echo of another (more sinister) cleansing.

Becoming obsessed with housework when the house is just a ruin or a mere remembrance, a behaviour which we also see in the video Light horizon (2012) by Randa Maddah, filmed in the occupied Syrian Golan (the artist, after sweeping a floor with hardly any tiles now, sets the table and sits to watch the horizon), disrupts gender roles by transforming domestic work into a political tool, a resistance weapon.

nidaa badwan - one hundred years - le bastart
Nidaa Badwan. One hundred years of solitude 2013

To the insanity of the world they oppose their own; their madness is born as a denial of that, the last bastion to safeguard daily life within a state of perpetual exception.

Even for a photojournalist, the reality can be so unsettling that she opts not to develop those photographs, and what remains is a “Negative Incursion”, the denial of the right to exist (Rula Halawini, Negative Incursion, 2002, Ramallah).

farida hamak - traces of war - le bastart
Farida Hamak. Traces of war. 2003

One day, walking through the streets of Gaza, Nida Badwan had an argument with a jihadist who felt offended by her way of dressing ((something light). Living in a region (bordering Israel) in a state of siege, after that incident, she decided to besiege herself in her own house. She photographed her day-to-day life in staged photographs (One hundred days of solitude, 2013) showing a cozy and colorful interior (unlike the hostility and grayness of outside). We see her drawing, writing, sculpting, cooking…; using creativity as an escape mechanism.

The pictorial references, especially to the Dutch tradition, become clear in these photo compositions. It is not strange that the Flemish painting of the Golden Age, which specialized in idyllic domestic scenes, be evoked in a land of stateless persons, as also happens in the photographic series Traces of War (2003) by Farida Hamak. The Lebanese artist documented the daily life of Shiite refugees in the once splendid Dahesh Palace of Beirut. The light filters through the window, bathing those childish yet mature faces, softening the decadence of the place with a mysticism reminiscent of Vermeer.

mona hatoum - measures of distance - le bastart
Mona Hatoum. Measures of Distance 1988 (video)

Lebanon was also a host country for Mona Hatoum‘s family, as well as for many other Palestinians forced to leave their land. But the most bitter incident would come later, when the artist, while visiting London, could not return home because the civil war broke out in that country. Her mother, in one of the letters they exchanged during that double exile, wrote: “I feel as if my soul has been undressed.” Hence, Measures of distance (1988) was born: in the video, body fragments follow one another, glimpsed behind a lattice of calligraphy; then the whole body of her mother appears, naked, in a shower, and the letters look like drops falling in a downpour.

ahlam shibli - eastern lgtb - le bastart
Ahlam Shibli. Eastern Lgtb 2004

Many of the countries in the Middle East and Maghreb have suffered a clear involution in the field of permissiveness. With Eastern LGTB (2004-06), Ahlam Shibli introduces us to behind the scenes of night lives that develop on the margins of society, often far from birth place, where being gay or transsexual is penalized.

zhora bensemra - milad siri - le bastart
Zohra Bensemra. Milad Siri examining her handgun

The dancer Milad Siri doesn’t feel safe either when she walks through the streets of Baghdad, hiding her exotic dress under Islamic clothing. Zohra Bensemra photographs her in her daily ritual: before leaving home, after reading the Quran, she keeps a gun in her handbag (Milad Siri is examining her handgun, 2004).

Then, we travel with Bensemra from the capital city of Iraq to the Algerian beaches, where a woman covered from head to toe covers her eyes, shocked, to avoid seeing her companion in a bikini (A girl, 2003).

nermine hammam - unfolding - le bastart
Nermine Hammam. Unfolding series

On another beach, Nermine Hammam places overlapped scenes where young boys adopt advertising poses or emulate film stars from the 1950’s, while women wearing black barely show any flesh, but it doesn’t prevent them from bathing and splashing in the water.

In this series, Escaton (referring to eschatology or the end of the world), cultural and layers and layers of history form confused strata, mixing past, present and fiction, similar to how in Unfolding the Egyptian artist mixes police brutality in the streets of Cairo with tigers and lions roaming in ancient Japanese prints. From the Arab Spring to the State of Terror.

amal kenawy - silence lambs - le bastart
Amal Kenawy. Silence of the lambs 2009 (performance)

Without leaving Cairo, we accompany Amal Kenawy wading through the crowd and the traffic as “shepherdess” of her “herd of men”: Silence of the Lambs (2009) led to intense discussions in the street, an expected reaction by Amal and that gave full meaning to the performance. Passers-by were indignant to see those groups of laborers moving on four legs, led by a woman. This is art? they asked. An action that doesn’t need to be explained, that speaks for itself of the uncritical submission to unjust rules and impositions.

The Berber singer Matoub Lounes, instead, was a perfect rebel who fought against cultural colonialism without fear, ignoring death threats he received over and over again. Nadia Benchallal brings us the memory of this Algerian martyr.

ghada amer - private rooms - le bastart
Ghada Amer. Private rooms 1998

The joint efforts of despots and businessmen, together with Islamic fundamentalism joined by consumerist propaganda, gives birth to (or has given birth to) the Fulla doll the good Muslim woman (anti-image of barbie). Diana El Jeiroudi shows us the degree of fascination that this doll awakens, that sneaks into Syrian homes (Dolls, a woman from Damascus 2007) from TV screen.

Religious and ideological conditioning filters into the bedroom of the newly married. It is what Ghada Amer (Private Room, 1998) makes us understand when she sews texts from the Quran referring to women in garments bags and other items of the dressing room. But those texts are translated into French, and in some way also speaks to us about the cultural gap, about the misunderstandings that literal translation produces.

Anna Adell

zohra bensemra - girl bikini - le bastart
Zohra Bensemra. A girl wearing a bikini

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En Rebeldía. Narraciones femeninas en el mundo árabe
IVAM Valencia
Curator: Juan Vicente Aliaga
until 28th January 2018

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