I thought I was dreaming when I first heard that a group of young artists drove a mobile exhibition through the streets of Tehran. I must have been naïve to think this sort of thing doesn’t happen in Iran. But there they were, two rickety open backed trucks, with permits and everything, sharing their work with the entire city. I started asking questions and found that public art projects and site specific work were happening all over the Middle East and actually being embraced. When did this happen? I tried to imagine my grandmother interacting with a series of ceramic dead dogs in the middle of a highway. My aunt passing by a woman wrapped in 100 meters of cheesecloth on her way to the supermarket. There are video installations in old garages, plays in abandoned churches, photography on the sides of buses. Forget the four walls of the white box; artists are placing their passion where people may have the chance to react a little differently.
A few weeks ago at lunch my friend Farhad Moshiri said “I’ve noticed that I can’t really see myself until I leave Iran and come back. The whole time I’m gone, I’m aware of what is happening, but it is only when I get back to Iran that I can process it.” This made me think — is contemporary art in the Middle East more readily received because it has been taken out its context?
The traditional forms of expression in the Middle East — painting, carpet weaving, calligraphy — have typically taken religion as their subject. For some years Contemporary art had been flourishing within a very small community; a group of artists creating work for a small audience who were invested in the same modes of artistic practice. However in the last few years the situation has changed dramatically. It seems that contemporary art is shifting out of its elitism. No longer for a dedicated group of gallery goers, contemporary art is now seen by passers by, commuters, bankers and engineers — anyone who’s normal life happens to overlap with this progressive form. As people who were not normally interested in art now become part of this open-minded, incredibly receptive audience the work begins to take on more meaning.
The landscape is changing; now institutional exhibitions are being outshined by smaller, independent productions. Young curators are being favored over the out of touch establishment and spontaneous art happenings preferred more than stuffy, formal functions. The Cairo Biennale, for example, was awash in the tired ideologies of identity and the “Role of the Arab” in today’s world — a theme that has been so overused that it has been pushed to the brink of irrelevance.
Is this because Middle Easterners are tired of talking about who they are? No, it is because we are tired of other people telling us who we are. Instead of constantly being taken out of context by others, people are taking matters in to their own hands. From popular reality television shows like Arabic Big Brother to homegrown independent movies shot on DV, there is a whole movement of self-documentation.
In this, our first issue, we try to bring together some of the people who are bringing these projects to the public. We Are Spatial because we are bringing the private into public space; because we are redefining the boundaries between inside and outside. We Are Spatial because we are transforming the spaces in which we work and live. We Are Spatial because, although we are spread all across the world, we try, in some small way, to come together here.
Galerie Janine Rubeiz
May 12–June 10, 2004
Lamie Joreige has a keen eye for surfaces — for skins, silk screens, and skims of paint, for images reflected on glass and abstractions washed over canvases. Born in Beirut, raised in Paris, and educated in the States, she is now back in Lebanon, living and working and showing a dexterous hand at navigating two vastly different media — painting and video. Among Beirut’s small but vital pack of intellectually rigorous and critically engaged contemporary artists, Joreige is one of the very few to be both a staple of film festivals and be represented by a proper gallery. Over the past nine years, she has navigated with ease the alternative and traditional channels of artistic production in Lebanon that otherwise stand in stark opposition to one another.
While Joreige’s films often carry suggestions of painterly-ness, she has for the most part kept her canvases separate from her video works. But the segregation has vexed her. So, for her latest solo exhibition at the blue-chip Galerie Janine Rubeiz, Joreige has pulled off a beautifully accomplished forced integration of sorts.
“Time and the Other,” on view from May 12 through June 10, plays out in three parts, like chapters in a loose novel. Part one, called Embrace, features six images — all stills shot with a Super-8 camera and then transferred to video, massively enlarged, and printed on paper — along with a four-and-a-half minute video. Part two, entitled Sleep, consists of three huge single images and four long strips of another 31 images in series, like diary entries, and accompanied by another video. The final part, Lost Chords, includes seven lush paintings for which Joreige has taken photographs of the body, tweaked them in Photoshop, transposed them onto archival paper, and painted the surface.
The story unfolding in this exhibition is one of love and loss, and also one of violence and sex. Yet Joreige manipulates the tensions in her surface so well that all such content lurks enigmatically rather than announcing itself stridently. One medium bleeds into another, presence into absence. Appearances are never quite what they seem, stretching a thin yet intriguing veneer over realities always threatening to rupture Joreige’s surfaces from beneath.
Jerusalem Al-Ma’mal Foundation for Contemporary Art The Jerusalem Network
A nonprofit organization aims to promote, instigate, disseminate, and make art. We serve as an advocate for contemporary art and a catalyst for the realization of art projects. We aspire to create opportunities for experimentation, inspiration, and education. We give special emphasis to working with children and youth. We invite artists to come to Jerusalem to work and present their work. The forum we provide is a conduit through which we strive to contribute towards the evolution of the cultural fabric of society, which gives art more possibilities to become a mode of expression and a way of life.
The Jerusalem network is an ongoing effort to connect and collaborate with institutions and individuals at the local, regional and international levels. Al-ma’mal organizes workshops and exhibitions in partnership with community centers, youth clubs, and educational institutions and in collaboration with local and foreign artists, engaging children and youth in activities that stimulate their senses and introduce them to a wide range of materials and media. Through al-ma’mal’s workshops, children and youth are provided with opportunities to be engaged in art and express themselves through the different media painting, drawing, photography, video, sculpture etc.
This July, Ayrene Anastas will be visiting Jerusalem to work on her proposed art project and will be hosted at the foundation as part of the artist-in-residence program. August will host an exhibition by Zeyad Dajani Dajani was hosted at the foundation for the residency program last year. The exhibition is a selection of the work the artist created while in the residency. In September 2004, Jananne Al-Ani will be returning to Jerusalem as an artist in resident to continue with the development of her work.
Bidoun speaks with Ola Khalidi, the founder of a new art space in Amman called Makan.
Bidoun: How would you describe “Makan” and your work? It is a gallery? An alternative gallery?
Ola Khalidi: Makan is an alternative cultural house/space founded for the purpose of showcasing contemporary art in its various forms, by providing a space for expression and interaction amongst young emerging artists in Jordan. The goal is to allow for the networking and exchange of ideas in the hope that they would result in art projects and performances in and outside Makan. It is hoped that Makan would eventually also become a regional hub for art and artists.
B: Do you see Makan as part of the development of new art spaces in the Middle East?
OK: Well I would consider it as a development because it’s established in Amman, and it’s the first of its kind …it concentrates on the emerging artists mainly, the idea is to develop the young artists, whether by hosting their projects, connection them with other institutions, informing them about workshops or festivals, introducing them to other artists, or trying to involve them in joint projects. That’s why I don’t like to call Makan a “gallery.”
B: Do you think that a network already exists between the “new” art galleries?
OK: I have already established links with similar alternative spaces that work with contemporary art but of course older, i.e. Zico House in Beirut, Townhouse gallery in Cairo, Al – Mamal Foundation in Jerusalem …
I think most of the spaces try to link with each other, because they are not that many and we all need each in some way or another.
So answering your question, yes there is some sort of a network between the new art spaces.
B: When did you start Makan?
OK: Makan started officially in April 2003.
B: Why did you first become involved in this project, and how did it develop?
OK: My involvement began with young artists whether they were friends or people that I
worked with and how much I felt their thirst for an alternative space where they can express their ideas and thoughts without any restrictions or boundaries .It stemmed from the need for a space that would understand their needs and frustrations and connect them with each other.
So far the results have exceeded my expectations. I started off alone, and now after one year I was able to establish some sort of a network of young talented people who are involved in Makan. In addition we were able to establish connections with many other organizations and individuals in the field of art and culture and we are in the process of developing projects together.
B: What is your professional background?
OK: I hold a B.A in political Science and Public Administration from the American University of Beirut and a Masters degree in Management from the University of Surrey in England.
OK: I worked for two years in a cultural café called Blue Fig in Amman. After that I moved to Beirut and worked with an NGO called Beirut D C (Beirut Development and Cinema) and then I started doing research on my project (Makan) and it took around 8 months before I started it.
B: What are your future plans?
OK: Near future: involvement in art projects that have to do with development and mainly children. Mainly our future plans are to reach more to the public, and widen our audience. But I try as much as I can to work on a small scale and grow bit by bit. I would have to add that this is a self-funded project, that’s why at this stage our projects are all very low budget; we work with the minimum.
Istanbul Oda Projesi
Oda Projesi is an artist collective based in Istanbul, Turkey. The core group consists of Özge Açıkkol, Günes Savas and Seçil Yersel. Oda Projesi which means Room Project, is about thinking of the different usages of the “room”: finding a way to combine the daily life and art practices. The dynamics of space is a big part of the project.
The project was intiated in 2000 in an apartment located in a neighbourhood called Galata. At first we rented an apartment as a shared studio in 1997 in the same neighbourhood. During that time, the studio became a meeting place for children, for women living in the neighbourhood and for artists, so the idea of the Oda Projesi originated from the art practices in Istanbul and from the energic dynamics of the neighbourhood. The project takes the concept of the room (oda) as the basic space to start with and extends its area of interest to the courtyard, the street, the neighbourhood and finally the city itself. We want to bridge relations between artists, non-artists, artist-run groups, institutions and the communities in the neighbourhood. Our objective is to give a new meaning to the artist’s identity by using the collective structure of the public space, to destroy the art subject and the object’s pedestal, to develop relationships and to represent the whole process as a work of art.
Galata, where Oda Projesi is based, is a neighborhood very close to the entertainment and cultural center of the city, Beyoglu, where all kinds of events take place and where people from different social and economic backgrounds come together. Beyoglu has always been historically important because of its multinational structure; it’s there that the first Westernization movement took place. As the center for foreigners, it also has a vital role in the traffic of commerce. At the end of Istiklal avenue is Galata which was the old harbor neighborhood and which used to be the old Jewish neighborhood. When the owners moved out, the old buildings became home to the first generation of immigrants who came to Istanbul from the east and north of Turkey in the late ’70s and mid-’80s. The area has been undergoing a gentrification process for the past 10 years and is continuously changing and being shaped by the circulation of people such as journalists, artists and so on. Since the gentrification is where Oda Projesi finds itself, we thought that we could develop a relationship within the neighborhood of Galata and transform the gentrification process.
Ever since our first project — when Özge Açıkkol emptied the room and exhibited it with the text of George Perec, About a Useless Space — we have been extending invitations for our neighbors in Galata to meet in an unidentified place and talk about various possibilities that could take place there.
These on-site events often do not have any object-like end-product, similar to what happens in performance art, in the sense that what we call the artwork is temporary in character — meaning that it is performed at some place within a certain amount of time and does not leave behind anything for display. The only thing left behind in this kind of event would be an experience. One such event was called Picnic. The artist Erik Göngrich was invited to participate in an Oda Projesi project. He organized a picnic in the courtyard, in which the neighbors and the artists participated. Based on the idea of “Istanbul as picnic-city,” the courtyard was arranged, people brought food, and a whole afternoon was spent eating, playing and chatting. And then the event concluded with the slide show by the artist.
La Biennale des Cinémas Arabes L’Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris and Marseille, France June 26–July 4, Paris June 28–July 3, Marseille
The premiere outing for Arab cinema in Europe — if not the world — the seventh Biennial promises its usual roundup of the best features and documentaries produced over the past two years competing for prizes totalling 31,500 Euros. This year’s festival also includes un hommage to Egyptian grande dame Madiha Yousry, and a retrospective devoted to Iraqi cinema. While the professionals debate subjects such as “the role of television in documentary production” and “the nature of Iraqi cinema,” adventurous moviegoers can catch around 100 films at various cinemas in Paris, including the IMA. There’s also a slightly smaller version of the festival in Marseille.
Berkeley Sacred Space Berkeley Arts Center June 20–August 7, 2004
Seyed Alavi, Taraneh Hemami, Dee Hibbert-Jones, Rhoda London and Rene Yung explore the meditative potential of art in this exhibition curated by Terri Cohn. “In light of the uneasy social, cultural, and economic climate that has emerged and continues to unfold since 9/11,” say the organisers, “‘Sacred Space’ invites its audience to a space of reflection created by site-specific installations that use a poetic visual language to express issues that are both personal and political.”
San Francisco Ala Ebtekar: Elemental Intersection for the Arts June 16–July 31, 2004
Painter Ala Ebtekar explores the merging of styles from two different cultural traditions spanning opposite ends of the world and separated by centuries: Iranian coffee house culture and American hip-hop culture.
South Korea Pierre Bourdieu In Algeria: Testimonies of Uprooting Institut Français de Séoul, South Korea June 11–July 18, 2004
The tour of Bourdieu’s images from his field research work in Algeria, 1958–1961, organised by Camera Austria, continues to South Korea. The first presentation of the French sociologist’s photographs, the exhibition “testifies to a social world full of non-simultaneities, whose people even today have not overcome their uprootedness.” It is scheduled to travel on to Germany and Sweden.
Paris Musulmans au Caire, à Téhéran, Istanbul, Paris, Dakar Parc La Villette, Pavillon Paul Delouvrier, Paris Until November 14
Described as a “series of portraits and stories rooted in five large, modern cities,” this exhibition aims to explore the “new ways of living and being Muslim” that emerge in the dynamism and tensions traversing today’s metropolises. The exhibition includes reportage from Cairo’s Nabil Boutros and Istanbul’s Manuel Çitak and Patrick Zachmann, new work by Tehranis Khosrow Hassanzadeh and Sadegh Tirafkan, and a Senegalese mural by Papisto Boy.
Barcelona Documentary Fictions CaixaForum Until June 27
Inspired by (and including) Kutlug Ataman’s Women Who Wear Wigs, Caixa Forum explores the links between art and documentary cinema with screenings of twenty-two films and videos by twenty-one international artists, including Sobhi Al-Zobaidi, Keren Amiran, Kutlug Ataman, Harun Farocki, Avi Mograbi, Walid Raad, Tacita Dean, Allan Sekula, and Zineb Sedira.
In the late 1990s, Egyptian American artist Amina Mansour prospectively mapped out the conceptual structure that she would fit her future body of work into. She modeled a conceptual container for her art, and has since worked within its boundaries. Her vast project has been presented to audiences in separate installments which she has called “Chapters.” The structure that ties these “chapters” together is actually a “hyperreal metanarrative” that is never revealed or directly mentioned. Much of the uncanny ambiguity in Mansour’s work is a result of her ability to discreetly hide the meta-narrative or regulate its presence to a symbol or a group of symbols within the work. The disarranged order further confuses the audience and serves to disrupt any linear or chronological readings. And yet, the simulated components that collectively form Mansour’s sculptures and installations actually do take on a progressive pattern, one that seems to be related to the concept of Darwinian evolution.
When taking into consideration the entire body of work the artist has produced as part of her ongoing project from its beginning until her latest solo exhibition, one can identify three stages of evolution. Mansour’s Cotton Sculptures can be said to represent the “protohistoric” period of her project: it is the stage of evolution were individual units are still in the early phases of development. The state of existence of the intricate seedling forms made out of pure white cotton could be compared to that of “primal selfish genes” — contained within square Plexiglas boxes, these seemingly protozoan forms have yet to form a consciousness of their own. When fully developed, these budding entities will need to inhabit a more sophisticated organism to survive. To visually render this ethereal existence and lightness of being, Mansour effectively uses a white-on-white color scheme.
In Vitrine (Chapters 1–5), Mansour’s calculated uncovering of her subject matter is an attempt to render a bicultural and historical junction. Mansour leans towards a “new historicism” as she deconstructs the histories of the two cultures she relates to the most: the American Deep South prior to the civil war, and the Mediterranean metropolis of Alexandria, Egypt, prior to the 1952 revolution. The artist relocates the fragments that have been produced during the deconstruction process, using them to create a sculpture rich in metaphorical and symbolic meaning. She capitalizes on the fact that aristocratic cotton-trading families in both cultures shared some similar tastes and sensibilities. The darkly veneered Louise XV vitrine represents the kind of objets d’art and refined furniture one would find in the homes of such families. The juxtaposition of the two cultures is evident in the oval shaped, hand-painted porcelain plaque embedded in the middle of the vitrine. A drawing that depicts an American antebellum home centers the plaque while the names of prosperous, cotton-trading Egyptian families are inscribed on the plaque’s slightly protruding surface. The European sounding names show that cotton trading was mostly an expatriate business, which was also the case in the United States. By replacing the slender tubular legs typical of such furniture with muscular female legs carved out of wood — which rest on elegant but claw-like hands — Mansour is perhaps evoking metaphors for the relationship between the working class and the privileged traders. The cotton floral bouquet, which is the centerpiece of the vitrine, suggests that the seedling forms of Mansour’s earlier pieces have evolved into multi-cellular organisms; they have inhibited what Dawkins would call a “survival machine,” and, although still locked up inside an airtight space, they have developed some sort of volition. The dialogue between the developing inner will of the cotton flowers, and the enclosed patriarchal fostering the vitrine provides for them, gives the piece a lethargic atmosphere.
Mansour’s latest installation, Chapter 15: A Failed Contemporary Attempt at Being a Modern Day Ophelia — specially conceived to fit into the enormous empty space of a rundown factory — pushes the evolution of the organisms a little further. Here, the floral entities of the past projects have developed into quasi-human organisms formulated from images of female hands. These computer-generated hand symbols signify a peculiar sign language that seems to be communicating the organisms’ newly-found will. Although they seem androgynous, what appears to be recently developed sex organs make their first appearance in Mansour’s project, implying a need for movement after a long span of directionless existence. What makes Mansour’s work so perplexing is that even if the need for life is expressed in the evolution of the organisms, it is always counterbalanced by the tragic aura of death lingering in the narrative.
Since the beginning of the nineties, many have perceived a new development in the art scene in the Near East: the conquest of public space. Particularly during the past few years, one could observe a steady increase of private art initiatives that experiment with “space” and “setting.” Artists and curators come together — over both shorter and longer periods of time — leaving conventional gallery frameworks behind. The results — events and exhibitions — indicate a new openness in format and conception. These not only break through the four “walls” of confined gallery spaces, but also the understanding or self-image of art spaces in general and particularly, their role in society.
It is always difficult, slightly superficial and often simply incorrect to draw up general conclusions from observations that one has made at a few locations or periods in time. Developments are too multifaceted — the general conditions are too diverse, the processes too fast moving. For this reason, Bidoun has decided against a static overview on the development of public art spaces. Instead, we would like to offer room for some of the “doers,” activists and artists to have their say.
It is nearly impossible to give a resume of the experimental art spaces in the region because of several reasons. One is that the region acts with a degree of provisionality. Things are provisional because the governments and even the states are provisional nowadays, so are the fundamentals of governance. Having to work with skimpy resources does not help either. Continuity is the exception and not the rule. Funds available have international criteria and are focused on the concept of the institution, or projects that provide large-scale public awareness; there is little interest in individuals or local initiatives. This often leaves cultural producers in an atmosphere of volatility and allows the “outsiders” to come in and revamp the discourse into their pre-established agendas, or hijack and often totalize and freeze-frame a discourse in flux. The artists, too, as well as the professionals have to agree to the funds offered them and are then requested to represent or de-present their geography abroad. This is never a relationship between equal partners, and a sense of locality is hampered. These are problems that we are all aware of, but at the end of the day you have to bring home the bread while maintaining a precarious balance.
It is also impossible to make a comparison between the cities and their structures. The vastness and the density of Istanbul, the haphazard and extreme conditions of Cairo and the precision of Beirut are cases in point. Aside from the generic problems of funding, levels of censorship and self-censorship, religion, space, structural and intellectual support exist. The problems for art production and display in each city are extremely specific. There is no single remedy. The only remedy is the establishment of direct, unmediated contacts between these nodes of density, such as Cairo, Istanbul and Beirut. The foresight exists to set up regional platforms of negotiation without inviting the mediating agencies from outside who often arrive with their own set of agendas.
Despite all, the situation keeps flourishing. Nevertheless, there is almost a generic development in contemporary art practices and spaces that takes place not only in the region but also globally. This change has also to do with the changes in the political arena that favors a certain kind of economic and political system, that in turn at least tolerates and benefits from contemporary art. The notion of art spaces that have a public mandate and operate largely, or in part via public funding is an anomaly and anchored only in certain geographies. What one experiences in our region is that institutions with public mandates are more often than not supported by private interest, or are directly for-profit even though in exercise they do not operate like commercial structures.
Furthermore, the notion of public is not a generic term that can be applied cross-culturally. The “public” funds in our region may not actually be subjected to the same kind of codes that would for example exist in Central or Northern Europe. I should also say that the art market, in whatever its skimpy or developed mode of existence, exists differently in different parts of the region as an anomaly as well. The transience and provisionality that I have described as a constant in the region apply here as well. Some of the great artists from the region are now in the stables of established galleries in Europe and the United States. A situation like this would have been unthinkable two decades ago. However, this does not imply a sense of reciprocality, there is little in the way of the contemporary great collector from this region who stakes an interest in acquiring and maintaining a common cultural history of human kind. In the end, this implies a drain of the most vital cultural output of the region, away from the region. This is by no means a new situation for in order to see the best Impressionists from France one has to go the United States; the best antiquities are in Berlin or London. I am glad that someone is maintaining these works. Although the region’s sense of historical memory is radically strong — too strong and sometimes too ignorant for its own good — its sense of pseudo-scientific or manic categorizing of history is not as strong. This would imply the absence of the museum, but if this makes way for investment in contemporary culture, so be it.
Artistic “happenings”; artists taking their practice to the streets; experimental installation; collaborations between architects, performers and video artists — this might be the stuff of the everyday in New York, Paris, London, Beirut, but in Tehran, it’s radical. Over the past decade, groups of established and upcoming artists have begun taking their art out of the city’s clutch of contemporary galleries and displaying it instead in houses due for demolition, on the back of trucks circulating the expressways, in old military depots, and in half-built high-rises.
For Tehranis, these public exhibitions are a first. “This is definitely a new movement,” confirms Bita Fayyazi, a well-known installation artist and one of the main instigators behind the public art events. “We’ve had street theater, passion plays, acted out in the streets before and after the Revolution, but no such thing in the visual arts.”
Dr. Sami-Azar, director of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art and a highly influential figure in the city’s art scene, says the impact of these events should be seen “against a background of non-issue-based art advocated by a modernist preoccupation, which tends to avoid subject matter. It has come as a surprise to many that art is now playing a key role in the intellectual growth of the society and in enlightening the people,” Sami-Azar told Bidoun. “[The projects] proved that art can remarkably contribute to the quest of our people for social reforms and civil society. Their popularity also rests with the initiative they have taken to bridge the gap between artists and the people that existed for decades — ever since modern art arrived in Iran.”
Fayyazi dates the first experimental public art project in Tehran back to 1992, when a group of then younger artists — Mostafa Dashti, Sassan Nasiri, Farid Djahangir and the late Shahrokh Ghiasi — took over a five-storey house, producing original work for exhibition. (A second show in a dilapidated villa in north Tehran, organised by the now US-based artist Houman Mortazavi, took place in 1994; though this is described as impressive, it was unfortunately not documented or reviewed.)
Three years later, in 1997, Fayyazi set up 150 terracotta dogs on a stretch of empty road near Tehran. Lying prostrate as though crushed or run-over, they formed part of an installation project (created with Mostafa Dashti), appropriately titled Road Kill. The dogs were consequently buried in a mass grave — over which a high-rise has now been built — and the process was documented on video.
Media Farzin, formerly the arts correspondent for Tehran Avenue, a dynamic online magazine, describes Fayyazi’s projects — the artist’s other works include the display of thousands of outsize ceramic cockroaches — as “the earliest installation pieces shown in Tehran.” They had, Farzin continued, “a kind of vision and social awareness that was new to an art world that evolved around painting and sculpture neatly contained within their traditional boundaries.”
1998’s Art of Demolition made the new, collaborative trend explicit. Farid Djahangir and Sassan Nasiri — who had participated in the 1992 project — got together with Fayyazi, Atta Hasheminejad and well-known painter Khosrow Hassanzadeh to turn another abandoned house, near the Hosseinieh Ershad Mosque, into a studio-gallery. At the exhibition, the group was stunned when thousands of Tehranis queued to see the work. It was by far the most popular exhibition in Tehran that year.
“The collaborative quality of these group shows was something of a first,” Farzin commented to Bidoun. “I think it still sets a precedent for many of the new ‘artistic groups’ and multimedia projects forming today.” The studio situation was clearly illustrated by the work: Hassanzadeh’s stark paintings of falling objects, indicative of an unravelling domestic world, and Djahangir’s melancholic canvasses were complemented by Fayyazi’s sculptures of men and women walking, falling, gesturing. The space was duly razed to make way for yet another high-rise, and the artworks — including Fayyazi’s installation of hundreds of quizzical sculpted crows atop old fruit crates — went with it. Film director Maziar Bahari recorded the process in his sympathetic documentary Honar-e Takhrib (Art of Demolition).
In January 2000, Hassanzadeh, Fayyazi, and Bahari were joined by photographer Sadegh Tirafkan in a more potent reference to the fabric of the city. Again a multimedia show, Children of the Dark City took on Tehran’s shockingly heavy air pollution. Fayyazi’s groups of expressive, sculpted children appeared to both play and plead; the other works were darker in sentiment — much like the cavernous “gallery,” a ramshackle three-storey house on Nedjatollahi Avenue. Once owned by a wealthy Zoroastrian businessman, it had been abandoned since the Revolution and was loaned to the artists for two months by the Tehran Municipality.
Then one day in May 2003, Fayyazi and a group of younger, upcoming artists took their art even more public, setting off from their studio at 11 a.m. — just after receiving the permit, in the knick of time — in two open-backed vans posing as mobile exhibition venues. The tour of Tehran’s busy streets lasted all day, with stop-offs every 45 minutes. “Our sculptures were experienced by passers-by, school children, drivers, shopkeepers, road-sweepers, tramps — a cross-section of Tehran society,” explained Fayyazi. “We wanted to reach out to new viewers outside the studio, gallery and museum spaces, besides the usual elite who frequent art exhibitions.”
Fayyazi pointed out that it’s only in the last few years that artists have started to have a voice, aided by these high-profile public exhibitions. “And the younger generation of artists are doing quite astonishing projects entailing mainly social issues which is quite courageous of them,” she adds.
Sohrab Mahdavi, editor and founder of Tehran Avenue, describes the kind of artistic co-operation of the On the Road team as “unique to the Iranian culture.” “It seems to me that such collaborative efforts are not few in the city of Tehran,” she told Bidoun. “During the war and shortages, people had to spend a great deal of time together, learning how to accept each other’s ways and eccentricities.”
In August of last year, Neda Razavipour and Shahab Fotouhi came up with Census, described by Tavoos magazine as “unprecedented” — the first environment art project in Tehran. They filled the bare windows of a half-built high-rise off the busy Chamran expressway with 70 back-lit portraits of Tehranis, which randomly lit up and faded away.
Media Farzin, now a curator based in New York, included documentation of the event in “Turning Points,” an exhibition at Columbia University earlier this year. “Census and public art projects of that kind can have an immense impact on Tehran, and I think they are very important in bridging the divide between public and private spaces, or at least calling attention to it,” she told Bidoun. “Artists work in relative isolation and large groups of the urban population are unaware of thoughtful inquiry happening among artists.”
In this year’s For Bam, Tehran’s experimental, collaborative movement stepped back inside, this time to a grimy former military depot. Reviewed in this issue of Bidoun, the charity exhibition involved around 20 artists and performers.
But lest this all appears too simple, it’s worth remembering that the permissions required to stage projects like this can be overwhelming, and, as Media Farzan points out, the funding can be “daunting in a country where art funding is rare and grants non-existent.”
Artist and gallery owner Fereydoun Ave, whose “shopfront” exhibition space, 13 Vanak Street, has been a key instigator and supporter of contemporary art projects in Tehran. Asked about the development of public art projects, their impact on the Tehran art scene, and their relationship with the established art scene, the maverick gallerist merely replied: “Against the odds. Like water off a duck’s back. With a touch of indigestion.”
This article was based on interviews with Bita Fayyazi. Thanks also to Media Farzin, Sohrab Mahdavi and Fereydoun Ave. See the review of “For Bam” in the Reviews section of this issue of Bidoun. www.tehranavenue.com includes news and reviews of exhibitions in Tehran, as does art magazine Tavoos (www.tavoosmag.com).
Tareq Abou el Fetouh is a hard person to get a hold of. If you’re lucky, you might find him in his office in Brussels or in Café Daringman, across the street from the Maison du Spectacle in the Rue de Flandre. But most of the time, he travels between projects, festivals and forums in Beirut, Alexandria, Amman, and Tunis. He is the producer and director of the Young Arab Theatre Fund (YATF), a scenic designer, an architect and a creator — but first and foremost, he is a discoverer. Discoverer of unused public areas, which he transforms into openly accessible theatre spaces.
Bidoun was lucky enough to meet the charismatic founder of the fund during the Kunsten Festival Des Arts in Brussels, where a production of the YATF was running. Between his coffee break and the start of a theatre performance, we spoke with the unassuming space designer about his beginnings, the development of the theatre landscape and his future projects.
The Young Arab Theatre Fund is an international association “designed to benefit young Arab artists.” Today, the staff of YATF consists of four people, who try to keep the inner strings of the fund untangled and oversee its operation. The fund offers financial backing, accompanies productions through to performance, and offers advice and support to the young dramaturges, actors and directors. However, one of the most successful programs remains the idea of transforming “misused” open spaces for independent artistic projects. These are not only happening in Egypt and Tunis, but in the near future, will also take place in Jordan and Lebanon. How did it all start?
Cairo. End of the ’90s. City centre. Cube-like festival tents, held aloft with 10x10 wooden stilts instead of ropes, offer areas for weddings, opera festivals and other forms of festivities — open spaces that change shape for a short period of time, thus creating a new location. With simple, precise construction, they can be quickly built and used flexibly. Already during his architectural studies, Tareq Abou el Fetouh was interested in these tent localities, and worked on the idea of transforming the cubic construction into a larger, connected spanned area. In this way, he helped the first mobile theatre space come into being. “I was fascinated by the idea that people transfer a public space into something new for a temporary time period,” say Fetouh, sitting across the table and playing with his cigarette packet. “And I followed that idea, looking for a way to make those tents suitable for performances.” He found a way: the largest tent construction contained an area of 23 x 15 meters. That was in 1999. And the start of an idea.
The practical sequel to this idea occurred in converting the garage of the Jesuit Cultural Centre in Alexandria, Egypt. In 2000, under the title It Is Happening in the Garage, the Jesuit Order’s garage was transformed into an alternative theatre space, becoming one of YATF’s first interdisciplinary art events in the process. The concept was a success. “Everything ran surprisingly well,” says Fetouh. “We were completely taken aback by the success. None of us had expected it. We thought that only the ‘usual suspects’ would come — those who spend their days in intellectual cafés and their evenings running from one performance to the latest opening.” Instead, young people in particular filled up the space. However, the opening of the theatre project Garage signalled not only the beginning of a series of space re-creations but also an attempt at practicing contextualization.
“Under the title ‘Cities Before the War,’ we organized a launch event, creating an interdisciplinary program with visual artists, architects, actors and filmmakers,” says Fetouh. “For example, we invited visual artists from Marseille and Alexandria to create installations on the subject. One of them was used as a stage set; the three others stood in the foyer. A few days before the theatre premiere, the visitors were already able to see and discuss the installations. In this way, we achieved a link between the architectural scene and the cinema and theatre scenes. The people who were interested in visual arts became interested for the first time in plays. When they saw the play and the film, they were able to get an idea about the background,” says Fetouh. Then, somewhat lost in his own thoughts and peering into his coffee cup, he adds, “Actually I do think that these kind of concepts should be taken on more and more, especially when we are presenting Arabic pieces in Europe.” All at once, he gathers up his thoughts and places the spoon next to his cup. Leaning forward, he continues: “But we discovered something else about those rehabilitated spaces after the Garage experience. They stimulate ideas. The idea of transforming. So that the space stands not only for distribution or presentation. They open up not only the walls in stones — but also those in the head, and show how spaces can be transformed and used for new ideas. They show that this is possible.”
The interdisciplinary idea has been carried into YATF’s latest program, the forum “Roaming Inner Landscapes.” Begun with a preparatory meeting in Tunis in January of this year and developed with performances, readings and discussions in Alexandria in February, Arab writers and dancers were given the opportunity to meet their African counterparts. Included in the program were Karim Mansour, Iman Smaoui, Joumana Mourad and Malak Sibai, just to name a few. During the discussions, what was most interesting was a certain confrontation on the “issue of the freedom of the body and dancing.” Most of the Arab artists pointed out that despite the new ways of restriction in society, Arabs are still an expressive people: “We wave our hands when we talk — not like them,” Fetouh says. “I stopped them at this point and asked who their counterpart in this comparison is. Silence. For the first time, they realized how much they are addicted to comparisons with European artists, due to the fact that 90 of them had been educated in Paris or London. They realized the diversity of existence and their own prejudices. That was one of the very strong moments,” he adds and crumples up the empty cigarette packet.
Like some other colleagues and organizations from the public art scene, Fetouh has set the highest priority in integrating local partners and communities. “I think it is very important to keep the independence of every space,” he says. “Each local partner has its own direction. So the townhouse gallery, for example, has a policy of open doors. Whatever theatre group arrives has the chance to perform there. This is a very good strategy, but the Garage, on the contrary, has a fixed program. They have to select which performances they want to put on. And there are so many factors that influence this choice — the city, the kind of audience they have been building throughout the years, and so on,” he adds pensively. “Of course, there are sometimes differences in opinion or developments in the locations that one had envisioned otherwise. But, by and large, this procedure has proved to be the right way. What’s more, we’ve secured our existence. We have a kind of deal with them. We got our productions in — for each space we have been given 29 nights a year, for three years. This deal gives us the guarantee that we can show young, unknown productions. The independence of the local partners therefore also means independence for us and prevents a situation in which we end up as a stiff institution with loads of permanent employees that no longer have reference points with the original basis. In this way, there is still enough energy to follow new developments and extension programs. Like the residency and touring plan. The latter is a kind of package program that tours all the spaces,” explains Fetouh.
With another cup of coffee shortly before the performance the relaxed attitude suddenly disappears. Fetouh runs back and forth between the theatre and café in ever-decreasing time periods. His expression turns subtly inwards. The number of cigarette puffs double. In such moments, the amount of energy and strain hidden in his work is obvious. Much later, after the end of the performance and after the small talk and the cheering, the Fetouh’s calmness and infectious laughter return once again.
“During the first year, we will have a pilot project for this with a small program of theatre, dance, visual arts and lectures. Next year, we will try to make it bigger,” he adds confidently. When asked how he can coordinate this extensive program, Fetouh only laughs and cleans his glasses. “How? Now there are four of us.”
YATF Young Arab Theatre Fund 19 Square Sainctelette 1000 Brussels, Belgium Tel/fax : +32-2-203.12.95
A young man sits in the last of the downtown cafés that serve both ahwa sada (Turkish coffee) and beer, putting back Egypt’s own version of the latter (Stella) and taking in his surroundings. This is Hassan Khan and this is Cairo — a city marked by the occasional money-laundering sheikh, Prada hippies sipping Italian coffee at the American University, polyester-ed civil servants who swear by Sonallah Ibrahim (Egypt’s Kafka), and the ever-present, meticulously sifted refuse dump. Contradictions and hypocrisies abound as little is transparent or one-dimensional in this city of theatrical, oft-exaggerated proportions. Khan’s particular un-vision of Cairo defies prevailing representations — whether romantic Flaubertian images of the Orient or equally seductive images of extremism that figure prominently in Fox News-isms. His audio-visual and performative work deals with neither the veil nor the legacy of colonialisms. His art reveals nothing about his status as a Young Arab, nor a Contemporary African (he just turned down Africa Remix to tour the Pompidou Center and the Hayward Gallery among other blue-chip venues), a Post Modern Southern Male, or an Americanized Youth for that matter — despite the ceaseless labeling tendencies of the international Art Market in which he has quickly found his place as a rising star.
It is the force of the city that is a central preoccupation of Khan’s. He perceives the power it holds in structuring lives, framing narratives, positioning identities. But rather than contesting that power, he taps into it, explores its nuances, exploits it — in as far as he can exploit something that is in turn exploiting him every minute of the day. Sitting through any one of Khan’s video installations, one is immediately involved — never as a passive recipient, but rather as an active participant in the propagation of the very representational systems Khan is exposing. In this neighborhood, everything is loaded. Public media is potentially dirty, deceptive, catering to a grand mandate designed by invisible Thems. Cities are replete with institutions charged with production and dissemination, while subversiveness is the rule of thumb — embedded within the architecture of place and intimately linked to the powers that be. Khan invites his audiences to realize the disseminating potential of the mediums that he employs (video, sound, performance), while he makes it clear that he manipulates them in the same manner that they are in fact manipulating you.
Enter i am a hero/you are hero (1999), Khan’s ode to notions of heroism within the city — both of the official and unofficial variety. Quotidian stolen moments — a man watching lions at the zoo, a soldier at the October war panorama, two veiled girls shopping and looking at mannequins, a teenager going to the cinema and a man working out at the gym — are placed in the wider context of state-sponsored notions of heroism, therefore both a rigid nationalism and the good citizen template that is presented care of Official Channels. Khan’s suspension of a hammer in the middle of the exhibition concretizes the reality of the viewer’s presence within that particular space, in that particular city, through its simple insistence on the tangible. Whether the viewer will take up Khan’s veiled offer to go beyond the frame of that institution, that set of agendas, remains up in the air.
Interestingly, Khan first presented hero at the Gezira Arts Centre in Cairo, an “official space” under the mandate of the Ministry of Culture — and thus part of a system that has its own brand of heroism, Important Art, and the like.
Indeed in the context of his native Egypt — a country in which the divide between the official art realm (i.e. the purveyance of the Ministry and company) and the Independent Others is significant (though admittedly exaggerated at times to suit certain interests) — Khan resists categorization. His works are as at home in the halls of the Ministry as they are in the city’s independent spaces. While he acknowledges that the state art realm is at times ideological and intimately linked to questions of politics and the propagation of certain privileged identities, he also recognizes the potential wealth within — once their halls are infiltrated (his own militaristic term).
Last year, Khan performed tabla dubb (2002) throughout Cairo—an audio-visual piece built around a foundational element in popular Egyptian music (the tabla), and featuring both the spoken word and the projection of images connected to the city (from President Mubarak making a brief debut to shots of towering, baroque high rises). Venues included the semi-official Film Palace, the very official Cairo Book Fair (sandwiched between a ’70s nationalist singer and a really bad poet, Khan was questioned as to the nature of the brain damage he was inflicting), the American University, and even a dilapidated working garage in the city’s dusty downtown mechanics district. In the latter venue, well-heeled gallery-going audiences mixed with car mechanics, students of the state’s official art colleges and even a group of critics from Art in America and the New York Times who had just taken part in a panel discussion at the nearby Townhouse Gallery of contemporary art. The pounding rhythm of the tabla and the scale of the imagery projected onto a screen suspended in the middle of the space seemed to level distinctions of class and place, even if for a moment — rare in a city as stratified as Cairo yet fitting given Khan’s own intention to destabilize prevailing notions of self in relation to the urban topography. While he has performed tabla dubb in cities across the world, from Stockholm to Beirut, he insists that the work means little if not performed at the source, as it were.
In a related vein, Khan’s Reading the Surface: 100 faces, 6 locations and 25 questions (2001), collapses identity and geography through the exploration of discourse generating-centers: the mall, a football stadium, a mosque, a currency exchange and a Mercedes showroom. Presented in five separate rooms, 100 portraits of individuals from within the city are projected onto a wall against an aerial shot of the city, with each person stating where they make their home within a heterogeneous, hyper-stratified urban space. The banality of questions Khan poses to subjects in an adjoining projection (How do you know the person in front of you is weaker or stronger than you? Why do you live where you live? What is money?) tends to abstract his subjects into social products, codified by their consumption patterns and geographic placement, while in another space audio repetitions from public discourse (love songs, political speeches, religious sermons and the like) fade in and out of range. In the end, the exhibition space itself becomes part and parcel of the identity-making processes within as the viewer is himself confronted with questions while being simultaneously projected onto the screen — a meta-experiment in the politics of self-representation.
While Khan resists the persistent rubric of video-artist, his work inevitably raises questions internationally with regard to the place of video in the Middle East. Most notably, are there others like him? While video in Egypt may not have been as pervasive as it has been in other countries in the region (Palestine, Lebanon), it is increasingly making inroads as a vehicle for self-expression. Importantly, the Middle East has long had a problematic, oft-contentious relationship with photography and visual representation at large since little of the early body of visual documentation of the region was born at the hands of a homegrown Gaze. Perhaps a legacy of the picture postcard, there remains a narrow, particular definition of what is worthy of representation. Khan’s photograph of an unsmiling, turbaned Upper Egyptian (as it happens, the subject was Indian, but in the sometimes myopic context of Egypt, he qualified as a simple Egyptian) was forcibly removed from a public bus last spring in a project curated by Mai Abu Eldahab. Rather than a simple (and far less time/resource intensive) vandalization, the culprit bothered to forcibly bring down the large-scale placard, as if to say that representation of this kind will not happen here.
And so while the region’s experience has been marked by the use of the camera as a fetishizing tool of the Occident, narrowing its gaze to the photogenic, Khan and his contemporaries, from Akram Zaatari in Beirut to Alexandria-based artist Wael Shawky, have moved beyond such parochial frameworks. Their use of the camera, while well-informed by those historic tropes, represents a paradigm shift of sorts.
But what of the image and its historic relationship to representation(s), independent of national boundaries? In 2002, Khan debuted Transmission at Paris’s Poste de Louvre, a three-channel video installation in which inhabitants of one city (Paris) are confronted with the reality of inhabitants of another (distant) city (Cairo). Projected onto screens installed within the post office were images of Cairo at the margins — where the urban becomes desert, or vice versa. Intermittent self-portraits of Egyptians taken with a hand-held camera broke up the static landscapes, while in the backdrop, a series of statements are whispered — nothing short of existential in their frustrating open-endedness. Here, within a site of hyper-commerce, and global exchange (the post office), Khan brought into question constructions of geographical Other(s) in our surrounds, exposing the possibility of self-representation in the no-man’s land of transitional space (the desert/urban margin) and its relation to dominant representational methods at large, such as the studio portrait, the television screen, the picture postcard, the stamp.
Perhaps more than anything, Transmission was an attempt at fashioning an organic vision of the city — an attempt to unhinge dominant paradigms that firmly place the camera as a threatening representational tool, a system of dominance. For his part, Khan deems the work a subtle attempt at imploding predetermined relationships. Since the Poste de Louvre, he has installed the work in Barcelona, Bolzano, Lyon and Rotterdam — doubtlessly creating additional novel relationships between incongruous spaces.
When asked about the alleged democratic nature of video and the camera at large, Khan attacks me for (naively) using such a “destabilized and loaded” term as democracy (I should have known better, acknowledging Said’s Culture and Imperialism and remembering that we do live in the Middle East). Regardless, Khan once offered that it was the absence of a rigid art history behind the video medium that further renders it a potentially powerful, accessible tool for both artists and audiences. And there is little question as to the power of the television in Egypt, its ubiquity (every coffee shop and living room in the city) and the prevalence of its overwhelmingly soap-operatic codes. Khan calls it the baroque of image culture, and having watched hours of melodramatic Ramadan serials that put Mexican soaps to shame, it is hard not to agree.
Back at Horreya, the downtown café at which we began, televisions flicker at dazed, red-eyed sheesha smokers. Here Khan is creating scenarios for his next project: a solo exhibition at Galerie Crousel in Paris in September featuring a number of past works, a new wall text/image piece, as well as a yet unnamed new video piece. While he is not forthright about details (the project is still in progress), he does admit that this work will be about a process rather than latent meanings therein. His four-channel video installation will feature a number of fictionalized narratives — scenes from a non-film — with no apparent connection between them. And so a businessman wakes up in his posh Zamalek apartment and reads nine quotations from the book of quotations, foreign tourists stand on a Cairo street against a blue-screen background — as if surrounded by black halos — Attaba street sellers cry out their wares, ships flow through the Suez canal, and Egyptian actors play foreigners on Egyptian TV, accents and all. Khan asks us to resist the temptation to make connections between the sequences, to categorize, to discern, i.e. young Arab male simultaneously decries the legacy of imperialism (Suez reference) and makes judgments with regard to morality and commerce (the book of quotations, the posh surrounds). Instead, he asks audiences to throw away their Art History, their gallery-savvy born of hours of pounding Chelsea pavement and perhaps most importantly, their conceptions of Self. Instead, engage with this moment — because it will only last that long.
Shirazeh Houshiary’s latest project Breath, a collaboration with architect and husband Pip Horne, climbs up out of the stone plaza in front of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Battery Park in Lower Manhattan. The work echoes Houshiary’s recent delicate drawings and video work. Her grids, which have a presence that elegantly suggest vaporous breath and activities on the cellular level of life, are made solid in a twenty-foot tall tower of enameled bricks with a humming soundtrack that resonates from within its interior. The masterfully engineered column is made to resemble the twisting double helix of DNA, among other things, while the soundtrack loops four different religions’ spiritual invocations together.
In the context of Battery Park, the intended message about the basic similarities of humanity is apparent almost immediately. In front of the sculpture, the park offers views of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty while the eternal flame commemorating September 11th is a block away. These monuments provoke an instant feeling of compassion and set a contemplative tone for the park and for Breath. While the sculpture’s message relating shared experience peters out with a disappointing kind of “can’t we all just get along” feel, the most interesting aspect of the project is the path it traces through different geographies, religions and public and private worlds.
Houshiary’s choice of source material for the audio of the sculpture helps to define this space. Spiritual music from Islamic, Jewish, Buddhist and Christian traditions reference not only the specific religions, but also gesture generally toward various geographies. The songs also traverse public and private space. The most public is the Azan, the Islamic call to prayer which is broadcast from speakers from the tops of mosques five times a day in places as disparate as Amman, Jordan and Hamtramck, Michigan. The most private is the Buddhist monks’ tonal breathing exercises—an almost completely personal and internal expression of meditation. The other two songs, the Jewish tribute to the invisible god and “O Jerusalem,” a historical Christian chant by 12th century nun Hildegard von Bingen (a song that often shows up on New Age Gregorian chant compilation CDs), fall somewhere in between the two extremes. Both are “public,” though within much more intimate contexts than the Azan.
The subtly undulating column itself is a conceptual armature waiting for a range of meanings to be hung on it. Its form calls to mind not only the double helix, but also the surrounding buildings, a smoke stack lifted from a boat in adjacent harbor, the pillars of a Baroque cathedral’s baldacchino, or an ancient Greek column with a narrative frieze spiraling up the body of the column. With this last reference, the sculpture opens up another side of itself.
It seems when New York’s preeminent nonprofit public arts presenter, Creative Time, curated this round of their Art on the Plaza sculpture series at the Ritz-Carlton, they intuitively channeled the original Ritz. Paris’s Ritz Hotel sits at the corner of Place Vendôme, a plaza whose focal point is a 140 foot column erected by Napoleon to commemorate his continuing invasion of Europe. Its spiraling frieze depicts the story of France’s conquests. So from Place Vendôme to Battery Place, Paris’s monument celebrating its empire is recast as a call for humanity from the epicenter of a globalizing country.
Houshiary’s abstract drawings evoke a range of references without overstating their influences. Yet this delicate ambiguity is trampled when the references become so specific. Stacking basic geometries hummed with symbolic subtext in her past sculptures, even without a soundtrack. With Breath, the subtext becomes deafening.
Breath is presented by Creative Time, World Financial Center Arts & Events Program, The Ritz-Carlton Hotel and The Hugh L. Carey Battery Park City Authority (BPCA) and is on view until January 2005.
Mohammad Shirvani’s first feature film is an intimate diary that mixes real life and screen life with experimental abandon. Welcome to Big Brother, Iranian style.
I am born I shall die I think that maybe I was dreaming I was dreaming I was asleep
As Nahf (Navel) comes to a close, the great Iranian singer Farhad’s voice drifts in, lending an ethereal ambiguity to the urbane DV imagery. Director Mohammad Shirvani, who compares Farhad’s gravely tones with Tom Waits’s, signs off his audacious debut feature with a return to the lyrical style of his award-winning shorts
Shirvani made a name for himself when his first film, Dayeteh (Circle), was selected for Cannes Film Festival in 1999. In The Cherries That Were Canned (2002), which played at festivals around the world, his sensual style came of age; in 2003, master filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami described Iranian Conserve as “the best Iranian short since the Revolution.” In Navel, his first feature, Shirvani sought to break with tradition by making an “independent and ‘underground’ or experimental” and “deeply personal” film, one that expresses his mood of the past two years. Perhaps it goes someway to describing Iran’s, too.
The feature opens with a baby being “unborn” back into the mother’s womb — grisly footage that sets the avant-garde tone. From then on, the imagery is shot on DV and night-vision camera, around the streets of Tehran and in the house that the five characters — four men and a woman — share. There’s plenty of standard DV red-eye and shaky camerawork, but the footage is surprisingly restrained, from the green-tinged night shots to the sepia-toned DV work; this was the result of weeks of test shots plus color correction in Paris and transfer to 35mm in Switzerland. Iranian-American Mana Rabiee plays Chista, a young woman recently returned to Iran after years abroad, whose Farsi is less than perfect. Chista is reeling from a break-up with ex-love Arshi; feted as a single woman, she at times “plays” with her housemates, who are variously awkward, affectionate or flirtatious in her single-woman presence. Mani (Ali Hooshmand), the central character and owner of the DV camera with which the five film themselves, is nostalgic about life’s lost opportunities. He (unsuccessfully) competes for Chista’s affections with laid-back billboard artist Khosrow (Khosrow Hassanzadeh), a divorcee with a young son. Meanwhile, Reza (Reza Hassanzadeh), a former cleric, struggles to come to terms with his faith in this very modern kind of Tehran. All four attempt to protect Aboozar (Aboozar Javanmard), a young innocent from the country completing his military service.
The boundaries between life in the house and on the screen were blurry to say the least — indicated by Shirvani’s tendency to refer to the actors by their on-screen names. “[The actors] didn’t know each other beforehand,” the director explained to Bidoun. “Everyone first met Mani at a party and Chista came from New York, and was faced with us accidentally.”
The actors’ lives fed into their on-screen personalities: “I found Aboozar during a trip to the north of Iran. Reza Hassanzadeh joined us after leaving his studies at a religious school. We created a [real] ‘home’ for four months before shooting began. The actors brought some of their personal belongings to their rooms, and they gradually came to ‘believe’ their new life.”
Mana Rabiee concurred: “Navel was a sixto eight-week-long commitment that turned into a ten-month odyssey. We really did live together, complain about household issues together, forge alliances and enemies and all of the ensuing gossip, and bond over an endless stream of cigarettes.” As could be expected, improvisation played a pivotal role. “We never presented any dialogue on paper to the ‘actors,’” Shirvani said. “They would repeat dialogue several times on set and become ‘conscious’ of their role.” From an actor’s point of view, Rabiee elaborated, “it’s fair to say that we went into each scene in the dark. To a large extent we co-opted those characters into our own personalities and life realities.”
The result is an unusually intimate diary in which the characters share songs and poetry, discuss their lives and loves, and touch on “taboo” subjects such as sin and relationships. Navel has no plot or storyline as such, but is more a series of conversations amid symbolic, stylized sequences. One scene places Chista, dressed in white, among a sea of black chadors, emphasizing her difference and loneliness as an “in-betweener.” Mani, nostalgic for bygone days as a deep-sea diver, dons his underwater gear in the bath. Shirvani manages to convey the hopes and desires of each of the five housemates; even though the cameras flit from scene to scene, it’s possible to develop a depth of sympathy — particularly with Mani and Chista. This familiarity is aided by “interviews” the characters do with each other and with themselves, and by the close camerawork: we feel we’re there, sharing their secrets.
Shirvani describes the camera as having a “multiple personality”: “The camera ‘befriended’ [the five] and became another housemate, it’s like the sixth member of the household and allows [us] to see the other five’s private moods. They don’t know each other [very well] and the handycam helps them become closer to each other.”
This produces a layered effect: we watch them watching each other. In one scene Mani films Khosro, up on scaffolding, about to paint one of Tehran’s infamous political billboards; we watch through the camera’s viewfinder. The camera also acts as a confessional tool, Big Brother style, culminating in an intense scene in which Chista addresses a love (and loss) letter to her ex-boyfriend Arshi. Rabiee told Bidoun that she shot the scene alone in the room, with only the barest script to follow. Mani refers to her ajar door as a “veil” between them but alone, Chista removes her hejab and directly addresses the camera: this is as far removed from traditional post-Revolutionary filmic grammar of the “averted gaze,” long shot and modesty required by the “presence” of unrelated spectators (as described by scholar Hamid Naficy) as it is possible to get.
Navel attempts to paint a complex picture of modern Tehran — a city in which, as Shirvani points out, young people are beginning to live together, away from the family; marriage is being left later and later; and divorce rates are shooting up. Despite their openness, the men are shocked by the young Aboozar’s furtive filming of women in a private garden while Reza, the ex-cleric, is troubled by the presence of Chista, a single woman in a house of men. Mohammad Shirvani set out to make “a simple film that didn’t adhere to general rules” and is disappointed — although he cannot exactly be surprised — that it has been banned in Iran. Not that Navel breaks entirely with Iran’s illustrious film history: it lies within the genre of fictional documentary, of a film-within-a-film, and refers to the neorealist style of Kiarostami. “It’s not enough to say it’s an Iranian ‘film within a film,’” counters Shirvani. “But it does refer to the Iranian version of ‘reality cinema’ in that it tries to create a ‘second reality’ without descending into simple reportage.”
Due to its experimental nature, Navel is as unlikely to be picked up for distribution in the West as it is in the East. But it should get some airtime in international festivals — at least, in those bold enough to diversify their image of the “traditional” Iranian festival film. Indeed, Shirvani’s film couldn’t present any greater contrast to the whimsical tales featuring children and the countryside that made Iranian cinema the darling of the festival circuit.
Nahf (Navel), 2003. Directed by Mohammad Shirvani (Iran). 85 min. Contact Robert Richter (email@example.com) for further information.
Summer may have the big mama of film festivals — Cannes, or in the Arab World, June’s Biennale des Cinemas Arabes in Paris — but spring saw Middle Easterners scoring a few hits at outings at home and abroad.
Back in February Tehran welcomed international film festival directors to its annual Fajr Film Festival. Now in its twenty-second year, the festival is a showcase for the latest homegrown talent, plus features and docos in an international competition. These gongs went to Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s Bright Future and Michael Winterbottom’s In This World while Andrey Zvyagintsev added Best Film to his Venice Film Festival Golden Lion for The Return.
Tehranis enthusiastically queued for tickets for films such as Ahmed Reza Darvish’s war film Duel the most expensive film since the Islamic Revolution and Masoud Kimiai’s Friday Soldiers, despite the derision of many local critics.
Unfortunately, Bidoun has to side with the reviewers: 2004 is not shaping up to be the best year in Iranian cinema — at least in terms of “official” films. The conservatives are dominant in cinema as well as in parliament and in short, art and experimentalism seem to be out in favour of melodrama and indulgence.
Even Dariush Mehrjui — whose Mama’s Guest won Best Film — and Rakhshan Bani-Etemad struggled to live up to their esteemed reputations. The latter’s Mother Gilaneh, set on the eve of the US invasion of Iraq, featured a superb Fatemeh Motamed-Aria as an old woman struggling to cope with her disabled war veteran son. Bani-Etemad is now re-making the short — part of a trilogy of war films as a feature.
And so it was a relief to come across a good old-fashioned love story. Tears in the Cold match-made a Kurdish separatist fighter-shepherdess with a sensitive, mine-clearing soldier in the dramatic mountains of Iran’s western frontier. Filming was apparently something of an adventure as real-life Kurdish guerrillas joined in the shoot. Literally.
Abbas Kiarostami failed to turn up to receive his lifetime achievement award but his influence was everywhere, especially in the work of young directors screening their wares in one-off shows and in their homes. Hassan Yektapanah’s follow-up to his Camera D’Or-winning Djomeh was the quirky fictional documentary Story Undone about a group of illegal emigrants. Mani Haghighi’s fast-paced Abadan is a warts-and-all portrayal of middle-class Tehranis.
Iranian film was given the welcome it deserves across the Gulf a month later with a selection of shorts from the Iranian Young Cinema Society at Abu Dhabi’s third Emirates Film Competition. This five-day festival directed by cine-specialist Masoud Amralla Al Ali screens videos by young Emiratis in competition alongside a packed sidebar of Arab documentaries. Annemarie Jacir’s like twenty impossibles, Eliane Raheb’s thoughtful Suicide and Nizar Hassan’s Ejteyah (reviewed in these pages) led a strong selection of films about Palestine and Iraq. Another brave screening was Head of the Jury Mohammed Malas’s dramatised film about the torture of political prisoners in Syria, On the Sand, Under the Sun.
As for the local fare, well, in a country dominated by Hollywood-driven multiplexes, it’s still extraordinary to see Emirati films play the big screen, cheered and clapped by capacity local audiences, even though film production here is in its infancy. Waleed Al Shehhi bagged the Best Fiction Film prize of Dhs15,000 ($4,000) for his subtle Aushba’s Well, the mystical tale of a desert man’s dreams to bring water to parched land. Best Screenplay went to Haifaa Al-Mansour for The Only Way Out, one of several films exploring divergent political allegiances. In this intriguing short, three young Saudi men — one fervently Islamic, one moderate, one pro-US — were forced to explore their differences when stuck in the desert. “You’re either with us or against us,” said the bearded one, ironically quoting George W. Bush.
Amralla had also collaborated with film festivals in Scotland, France, Portugal and Lebanon (Docudays) to bring a huge selection of animation, plus quirky fiction and political documentaries, to the arthouse-starved UAE.
Meanwhile, over in Europe, Middle Easterners were scoring a few hits abroad. Bidoun reviews both Fatih Akin’s Head On, which was awarded the prestigious Golden Bear at February’s Berlinale by a jury that included Samira Makhmalbaf, and Myrna Makkaron’s BerlinBeirut, which took the Berlin Today award for younger filmmakers.
Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni’s Mongolian documentary The Story of the Weeping Camel grabbed all the headlines at Rotterdam, also in February, and Cannes Prizewinner Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Uzak got another outing. The Dutch festival displayed its usual support for young filmmakers by premiering Mohammed Shirvani’s first feature (see our interview with the 30-year-old director in these pages); Navel then went on to have its US debut in the feisty Tribeca Film Festival in May. Also in New York, Armenians paid tribute to filmmakers from its nation and diaspora in a dedicated Armenian Film Festival that included world as well as US premieres.
Check in again in September for news from Cannes, Edinburgh, Paris, Ramallah and a few other stops in between on Bidoun’s film fest tour…
This winter, Myrna Maakaron entered her film BerlinBeirut into the Berlinale, an international competition of young filmmakers. Her poetic reflection of two broken cities, Berlin and Beirut, convinced not only the jury but also the audience. BerlinBeirut was awarded the Berlin Today award this past February.
Bidoun: Why have you chosen to compare Berlin with Beirut?
Myrna Maakaron: Because I visited Berlin in February 2003, and discovered that it has the same vibrations and spirit as Beirut. Berlin touched my heart, especially since I was missing my city very much at this period (still now). I often look for places and faces similar to my Beirut. I found some in Berlin. Berlin was bringing Beirut to me. This is how the idea of the film was born.
Bidoun: What is the main story behind your film? What is the key idea behind it?
MM: The main idea is to show how much Berlin and Beirut are similar to a certain point, but of course through my personal experience. Berlin and Beirut become one city in the film. A third space. One space. In which I move and lead the viewer by telling stories, memories and facts.
Berlin and Beirut are two magical, strong and charming cities, full of mystery, wounds and beautiful people. Twenty three minutes were quite short… We could say so much about these cities. Also I realised that we know so little about each others, Beirutis and Berliners.
Bidoun: Did you have any examples for the “language of pictures” you have chosen?
MM: No, I didn’t have any examples for the language of pictures. It was just born after finishing the last script draft. And the approach became more definitive and clear during the editing time.
During my script developing period I watched some Agnès Varda films and read “Threads of Time” by Peter Brook. Somehow these two artists gave me power to work and a certain inspiration.
Bidoun: How was the film screening in Berlin?
MM: The premiere was on the 10th of February at the Berlinale Talent Campus. The film was warmly received and many people came to shake my hand after the screening saying that they loved the film. I didn’t expect this and today I am happy that BerlinBeirut touched some hearts.
Bidoun: Did the press in Lebanon react after you won the Berlin Today Talent award?
MM: Not really. Al Hayat was always following the steps of the film. They were one of the first to write about the film and later about the Berlin Today award. Noun Magazine wrote an article before the price. L’Orient Le Jour also got in touch with me lately and did a good article about the film and the prize. The German press was much more interested than the Lebanese one. Some Arabic journalists got in touch with me but they work mostly for Arabic newspapers not published in Lebanon. I don’t blame the Lebanese press; maybe they just didn’t know about it.
Bidoun: Real fiction seems to be the right description for the style of your film. Do you agree? If yes, why?
MM: The style of the film is more a narrative poetic essay, with some naïve tendency. It’s a mixture between reality and fairytales… I tell very sad and dramatic stories in the film, and since it’s very personal, the film took a positive, dreamy and fairy approach, very similar to how I am in general.
Bidoun: What are your future plans?
MM: I am trying to write my first feature films. I would love to continue acting too.
Bidoun: Will you show the film in Beirut?
MM: Yes, of course, we just have to fix a date and a place with the Goethe-Institute, Beirut.
Director: Myrna Maakaron, Germany/Lebanon (2003), short experimental documentary, 23 minutes, Super8 and Mini-DV. www.berlinbeirut.de
A man in his mid-forties sits behind the wheel of an old Mercedes Benz. His expression is both lethargic and empty from alcohol. Cut. The camera follows his excursion from a bird’s eye view. Then — without warning — he drives full throttle against a wall. Head-on collision.
This opening scene of the new film by Fatih Akin, a Turkish director who lives in Hamburg, sets the overriding theme of the story: the lack of a way out. Cahit drives against a wall because he cannot come to terms with the death of his wife and no longer sees a point to life. Sibel, a young Turkish woman with a hunger for life, wants to free herself from the reins of her family. Her mother watches passively as her father rejects his own daughter. In the hospital, Sibel meets Cahit. This chance encounter becomes the twist of fate which connects the two. Sibel and Cahit enter into a marriage of convenience, sharing a flat together which inevitably has its consequences.
In Akin’s film — winner of the coveted Golden Bear at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival — the inability to articulate one’s innermost feelings, results in several incidents of violence. Love only becomes apparent when expressed in terms of jealousy, fear in the form of rage, and the desire for closeness in sadomasochistic love scenes. One of the strongest episodes in the film takes place at the end, when one night in Istanbul, Sibel takes out her pent-up rage and despair on some male passersby, who in turn beat her to the point of nonrecognition. But she continues to stand up, screaming after them in a rage, before finally collapsing after being stabbed by one of them with a knife — a proud, honest yet bitter declaration on the bankruptcy of life.
But despite the dramatic storyline, Head On never loses its light touch. Instances of slapstick and even burlesque appear frequently. One may regard Akin’s filmic language and ostensible superficiality as critically as one likes, but there is no denying that he has achieved an entertaining film which effectively paints a portrait of the young Turkish generation shuttling between Hamburg and Istanbul — a generation caught between family tradition and the search for individual expression and the blueprint for life. And he does so without ever pointing fingers.
With tongue firmly planted in cheek, he tracks macho behavior while examining themes of honor and family. And without offering explanations, he blends the brutal reality of the alcoholic Cahit with the lulling, lyrical melodies of a Turkish music group posed in front of a picture-postcard idyll in Istanbul. Over the course of the film, this group and their music are periodically spliced into the action, like short pauses. Their songs carry Head On up to its timeless final moment in which tradition and modernity seem to touch one another at a point where it is no longer possible to differentiate one from the other.
Head On, 2004. Directed by Fatih Akin (Germany). 121 Min._
Yuval’s body language speaks volumes. The Israeli soldier stares ahead, clearing his throat; his jaw is tense, his hands clenched in his lap. “If I don’t do it, someone else will. These things must be done,” he says, attempting to explain his role in bulldozing Palestinian houses during the siege of Jenin and parts of Nablus in March 2003. The camp’s 14,000 residents — around 500 of them armed with weapons ranging from British World War I guns to pistols and kalashnikovs, the rest relying on homemade mines — held off the Israeli army for 12–15 days.
Palestinian director Nizar Hassan’s potent documentary flits between a cinema, where Hassan discusses footage of the destruction of the camp with Yuval, and the camp itself, where he interviews Palestinian survivors. It’s a neat premise and one that works; Ejteyah depicts the devastating detail of everyday Israeli aggression.
Western audiences may well be shocked by the vitriolic and wanton destruction inflicted by the invading forces. “Thank you for your warm hospitality see you at the peace talks” reads the graffiti scrawled in Hebrew on a grandmother’s bedroom mirror. The Star of David — once such a potent symbol of victimhood — has become an emblem of invasion, plastered everywhere from public walls to private homes. Hassan brings home the terrible mundanity of war: how homes are commandeered as a base for snipers; how Israelis, working 24-hour shifts in their D-9 bulldozers, deposit their bodily waste in newspaper and bottles.
Euphemisms abound: Yuval talks of “preparing a workspace” and “opening up streets” as the camera focuses in on piles of rubble or houses left naked by missing walls. Around 200 apartments were demolished and another 300 made uninhabitable.
Hassan knows when to push his interviewees, when to flit uneasily using DV, and when to let silence reign. As a young mother returns to her home a few days after the soldiers have left, Hassan simply lets the camera slowly pan the smashed possessions, settling on her still, stony face, squashed with emotion. Speaking to the soldier in the cinema, he pauses the tape and gently, in Hebrew, pushes him to question his role. “If you want to fight the Israelis, then it’s necessary to portray them as human beings,” Hassan told Bidoun.
“The Palestinians in Jenin were talked about as being heroic for the first 15 days, then as a massacre,” the director continued. “This didn’t make sense. At the end of the day it was simply resistance. A minor part of resistance is military, the rest is human, and this spirit of resistance, of people protecting their dreams, defeated the Israelis — they left in a spirit of defeat.”
Ejteyah had its debut in Jenin last year, projected against the last remaining house in that camp’s “Ground Zero” to an audience of over 10,000. “Every single day the Israelis occupy and kill, but to defeat them we must defeat the ideology [of occupation],” says Hassan. “Film is the medium with which we fight.”
Ejteyah (Invasion), 2003. Directed by Nizar Hassan (Palestine) Documentary. 60 min.
Egyptian-American director Noujaim moved into Al Jazeera’s Doha offices as the US prepared to invade Iraq and stayed for the fall of Baghdad, documenting the knife-edge lives of the media folk and their relationships with the nervy US spokesmen at CentCom, the US army’s media barracks. Noujaim manages to keep her bug’s eye view throughout, remaining firmly behind the scenes and allowing the various characters to reveal themselves in all their complexities. Highly recommended: catch it if you can. (AC)
Control Room, 2003. Directed by Jehane Noujaim (US/Egypt). Documentary, Arabic and English. 83 min.
Sakenine Sarzamine Sokoot
(From the Land of Silence)
Saman Salur settled on the bleak Iranian desert for his first feature, describing the lives of two brothers who survive through keeping camels — contraband carriers addicted to opium — and stealing fuel from lorries and then selling it back to the drivers. The boys — real-life brothers — appear to act themselves, and Salur ably depicts the harsh, unrelenting light of the desert, but the narrative meanders and gradually appears to lose its way. Keep an eye out for the young director’s next project. (AC)
Sakenine Sarzamine Sokoot (From the Land of Silence), 2004. Directed by Saman Salur. Feature, Farsi. 70 min.
Beauty Academy of Kabul
Over a period of ten weeks, Liz Mermin and her crew followed the progress of a beauty school set up recently in Kabul by six American and Afghan-American hairdressers. The acclaimed documentary director simply observes, letting the exchanges between the teachers and their bevy of eager pupils do the talking. At times, the gulf between the new-age Americans and beleaguered, practical Afghans seems almost droll — if only Mermin had sometimes stepped in to draw out this theme further. The beauty action is interspersed by interviews with pupils: these, and the emotional observations of the returning exiled beauticians, lift this ultimately moving film beyond the ordinary. (AC)
Beauty Academy of Kabul, 2004. Directed by Liz Mermin. Documentary, English and Pashto. 74 min.
Oday Rasheed, the writer and director of Underexposure, the first Iraqi feature movie after the war, has a thing about Baghdad. The city of his childhood and youth is ever present in this first uncensored film from Iraq in 30 years. The story ties friends, lovers, strangers and family members together in a complex and vivid world set against the real backdrop of war and upheaval. Oday is proud of being a film school dropout who was unhappy making films under party guidelines and rebellious against a state controlled film system. Early he decided to create experimental symbolic films avoiding intrusive censorship. In his work he confronts his reality and guides the viewer’s conception and perception into understanding the world of Iraq’s society and culture through the eyes of the film director.
The title Underexposure is reminiscent of the condition of the expired film rolls produced by Kodak between 1975 and 1983, which the director bought on the local black market after the fall of Baghdad. Today the film is successfully developed at The Gate — Kodak Cinelabs in Beirut — Lebanon and is now in search of a co-producer to finalize its journey to the theatres of the world.
Again and again Underexposure has proven to be a challenge not only for what we will see on screen but what has happened behind the scenes of relentless efforts, only comprehensible with a look behind the camera with this email by Oday to his friend Furat in Berlin.
Underexposure. Directed by Oday Rasheed (Iraq). Documentary. Details TBA.
The year is 2002. The place, Beirut. Three young men are standing in an open-air car park in the depths of the city’s Achrafieh neighborhood. Two of them are rapping to the sounds of the other’s spectacular beatbox. One is bodypopping.
It is late at night. The weather is warm and the rappers, dressed in baggy pants and cut-off shirts, heads ensconced in caps and bandanas, are spitting out Arabic slang in complex rhymes and rhythms, in between toking on joints and sipping cheap beer.
A crowd of young boys surrounds them, occasionally cheering and clapping when one of the rappers, collectively known as Kitaa B, or Sector B in English (the B stands for Beirut), sounds off on a point they can all understand: displacement.
Their lyrics are bitter and angry.
“We are angry because at every turn we find walls put up to block our progress,” RGB, real name Rajab, a 22-year-old stunt Rollerblader, tells me before breaking into some more beatbox for his friend and fellow band member, Waldo, 24, to rap over.
“The government needs to start looking out for the poorer classes. The kids who don’t have jobs, and can’t get them because they have no education. The ones who come out from their army service and don’t know what to do,” says Waldo, a Sudanese man who, despite living in Lebanon most of his life, has suffered continual harassment from the local security services for being black, eloquent and having no permanent Lebanese citizenship.
“This is what we rap about,” TMC, a.k.a. 23-year-old Thomas, chips in, his dreadlocks dangling around his shoulders. “The issues that affect us. The way that we have to live.”
The jam in the car-park feels like a scene from Eminem’s movie 8 Mile, a Beirut far closer to the Detroit of the Middle East than the well-trodden Paris reference.
But it is a scene that Kitaa B, arguably the most fluid Arabic rappers ever heard in the city, are no longer part of. The year 2002 is long gone.
Soon after this rap session, the three boys from the streets — Waldo, TMC and RGB come from the poorer classes of Lebanon and met while dodging school and Rollerblading on Beirut’s Corniche, the wide promenade by the sea — traveled to France where they were invited to perform a concert at a Lebanese arts festival in southern French town of Cahors.
The three skipped out on their return ticket back to Beirut, to risk staying in France illegally where they felt they had a chance of building a better life for themselves and where their music would be appreciated more. Not a rhyme has been heard of them since.
Kitaa B’s harsh, heavily-accented rap spoke to many but failed to appeal to the more populist music-buying public or commercial radio stations in Beirut, which can only rotate a play-list of such manufactured pop as Britney Spears and mainstream “safe” artists like Dido. The resistance and provocation of their words often led to harassment from the General Security forces who would shut down performances and hassle them for criticizing the society and the regime who run it.
Ultimately, Kitaa B were the pioneers of Beirut’s underground hip-hop scene — a scene born in the streets and poorer suburbs that sometimes touches with visionary independent producers leading to concerts and occasional records. Kitaa B’s rapping was lyrically skillful and flowing, intertwining words in unobvious connections.
In the last issue, Bidoun introduced a series focused on hip-hop from the Middle East — explaining how the genre had traveled to the region, and been adapted by local bands from Egypt to Algeria, and Lebanon to Turkey, and in the Arab Diaspora.
But there is a difference between the rap of those born into relatively privileged backgrounds, like Iron Sheikh in the US, and Clotaire K who is Lebanese but was born and raised in France and those who are living in the midst of their native countries.
Will Youmans, a.k.a. Iron Sheikh, is a Palestinian-American rapper hailing from Dearborn, Michigan, where his parents immigrated from Palestine in 1973. He raps on political issues with Arab-influenced music but in English. Clotaire K — his real name — who has been making waves in Europe with his heady mix of tarab (traditional music from the Middle East) and hip-hop beats, raps in French and English. Their audience, of course, is European and American and thus they push their politically loaded messages in a language that the audience can understand.
Back in Lebanon, and further south in Palestine however, is perhaps where the most fascinating adaptation of the rap and hip-hop medium is happening — and it is happening in Arabic, a language so rich with variation and possibility. A language by its very nature, perfect for rapping.
Kitaa B left behind the remnants of a scene that some others have stepped into. Their natural successors are the relatively untrained Kitaayoun, three teenage boys who named themselves after Kitaa B, managed by Zeid Hamdan of Lebanese trip-hop group Soap Kills.
They, like both Rayess Bek — real name Wael Kodeih and one half of the Lebanese rap duo Aks’ser with Houssam Fathallah — and Palestinian rappers MWR in Israel, have used hip-hop and its attitude of resistance to carve out an identity for themselves and for Arab youth in a region which has otherwise witnessed a sense of increased disenfranchisement among young people from the mainstream of cultural and normal life.
MWR, the initials of Wassim Akar and brothers Richy and Mahmoud Shalaby who founded the group in 1999, are one of the most militant local bands. They spit out angst-ridden rhymes in Arabic, telling of life in the bleak suburbs of Israel’s Arab neighborhoods in towns like Acre and Haifa — dark landscapes of drugs and crime, poverty and discrimination.
Like Kitaa B, but in the even more politically charged environment of Israel, they have used the medium of rap, born originally of inner-city poverty and the struggle of black Americans for equality, as a weapon for the embittered younger generation of Israel’s 1.2 million Arabs.
Hip-hop for them is a new form of protest but one that follows an old Arab tradition of passing down history and folklore orally and rhythmically, through stories and music. It is almost natural then that it should have been adapted so well in the Middle East region as a whole.
And now, after a long time of waiting, and despite the lack of label interest in Kitaa B and MWR, major record companies are beginning to take notice, seeing the ability of Arabic rap to reach the masses.
Rayess Bek has recently been signed to EMI Middle East — no small feat for an Arabic rapper who often ironically attacks injustice and whose 2003 self-released album “3am behkeh bil soukout,” a mixture of serious rhyme and humorous piss-taking on Beirut society, sold well in local record stores.
Perhaps the most important point to be made about Arabic hip-hop and the speed with which new young groups are emerging, resisting and speaking their minds in their own language, is that it may just be the savior of the medium, the one that moves it forward while simultaneously taking it back to its beginnings.
During a time when hip-hop in America (apart from progressive independents like Mos Def and Talib Kweli who attract little mainstream attention) is suffering from over-commercialization and sanitized polemics (see acts like Sean Combs and Black Eyed Peas), the new Arabic hip-hop culture is quickly overtaking it in terms of quality, ingenuity and thought-provoking lyrics.
The dance floor has long been a site for the fast flow of cultural exchange: it seems like there the music can always get along. Egyptian-American DJ Mutamassik, on the other hand, collects the worldly sounds that are meaningful to her and makes music that doesn’t always get along. Egyptian folk beats, hip-hop and Sun Ra all get their lip service in her latest CD mix, The Bidoun Sessions. The album is a split with DJ/Rupture documenting their performances at the Bidoun parties in Dubai — an earlier incarnation of the Bidoun project by MIS in Dubai.
Labels can only give you a superficial impression of her music so bear with me as I say that from her turntable-based free-jazz to drum-and-bass smoothing out into multilingual head nod mash-ups, her layered mixes are a bit weightier than your average beat juggler’s. She sits down with Geoff Albores from Other Music in NYC and tells us what it all really means.
Bidoun: Can you name your major influences?
Mutamassik: Well, I can say, Sun Ra, just off the bat. That was definitely huge — just the swing, he can be totally out, totally in. There’s a soul around him: his sense of time, his melodies, playing style, his touch. When I write keyboard lines I think of him and also when I first heard his stuff with the Cairo jazz ensemble it totally blew me away. It’s from the 50s or something?
Oh yeah, that stuff is just amazing; it’s a huge swing orchestra. He really had a sense of purpose. What else?
I would say, definitely punk rock, you know bands like The Dead Kennedys. But it wasn’t so much about their playing as it was about their politics. It was a huge influence on me.
Bidoun: So it was more the ethos than the music?
M: Yeah. The playing, the attitude, Crass, Bad Brains — there’s so many — even Sonic Youth, even though they were after. I would also have to include classical European music, Baroque music. I didn’t like that sweeping romantic 1800s stuff, besides Beethoven of course. Renaissance or Baroque music, basically, that was DANCE music. It was rhythmical. That’s why I started playing the cello: it was relentless and rhythmical.
Thinking about specific influences is really hard. Growing up in Ohio, I listened to everything from free jazz, to top 40 radio, to The Cure. The Cure is how I got into existential literature. That song “Killing an Arab” — which is so inflammatory — which is actually based on Albert Camus’ The Stranger which takes place partly in Algeria. The Cure was a major influence on me when I was 13, 14.
My mom’s Egyptian music was always around the house. And I guess I was consciously rejecting it at the time, especially Oum Kalthoum because it was the “old peoples music,” but the folky wedding music, and the funky dance stuff, that was a great influence for me. We lived in south-east Africa for a while, so that was always present, and my brothers loved hip-hop…
Bidoun: Can you talk a little bit about how these influences have manifested in your music?
M: They are all there, without a doubt, I don’t try to deny all those influences. It comes up a lot, especially in New York, talking about progressive music, but in the modern world in general there’s all this pressure to make something that has never been heard or something. Like now, all of a sudden, improvisation — the most progressive music out there — now is going back to a reductionist kind of thing where we only play two notes an hour. That’s become the standard of progressive music, but I can’t really stifle all those different influences.
That’s what happened in the drum and bass scene. I was heavily involved with Konkrete Jungle in the early days: ’96, ’97, ’98, and I was mixing hip-hop with jungle and even that was insane. People were like “What are you doing?!?” Just that purist mentality, these cliques. It was the same thing when I was 15, and listening to classical music, and punk rock. That’s why I was a loner because there was no clique that incorporated the two.
Which is so ironic, because punk rock’s foundation is entirely based on breaking down rules and stereotypes…
Exactly, and those same movements that were revolutionary and reactionary become a mould in themselves. Like what’s happened to hip-hop now: it’s unbending. The most stalwart fascists in hip-hop are white dudes from Middle America who have become the authority on hip-hop… And keeping it real!!!
Bidoun: How was your experience in Dubai?
M: Dubai was really surprising. When I made the mix CD for the Bidoun party I was very conservative. I didn’t want to be too abstract, I didn’t know what to expect. My only experience playing in “Arab” country was Egypt, and that was a total nightmare. I was playing in the mountains and in Alexandria at these big nightclubs filled with the worst kind of stereotypes: rich Arabs, eurotrash, …
[Egypt] was so decadent and Dubai is very decadent also, but you find pockets of these great people, like Shehab Hamad from Kitsch 22 and the Bidoun people. But other than that it’s a very strange decadent Las Vegas type of thing. I had preconceived notions of it, but I really enjoyed playing there. There was this breakdance crew that came out to the party as well. They were one of the best things about it. But in comparison, the people in Egypt were not as international as the people in Dubai.
I found out that [in Egypt] a few hundred of my promo CDs were held in customs and the officials wanted $1,500 for them. A year later my friend told me they were being played as the intro to a news program on Nile TV! My music was hated while I was there, and then it ends up being on a TV channel.
Bidoun: Are you interested in doing live PA stuff?
M: Well the next record is totally different from the first. It still has live elements, but it’s not improvised at all. I’m playing drums and Morgan Kraft is doing his stunt guitar. There’s a lot of riffing. He comes from heavy metal — Minnesota heavy metal, which is the land of the Vikings. I think there’s more Vikings there than anywhere outside Scandinavia — and I come from Ohio punk rock, and somewhere in between there are bands that meet in the middle, like Black Sabbath. That was the main idea behind the album. It’s a studio record where we overdub electronic stuff on top. I love to play the turntables like a percussive instrument.
Bidoun: So not just like a linear instrument but as a textured rhythm.
Well the first time I saw you perform it was with Burnt Sugar, and you played a DJ set before the band came on. But when the band came on you became an instrument, which was really amazing to me. I know you’ve collaborated with people in the past, are there any people that you’d really like to collaborate with now?
Well that’s really tough. As far as working with someone in the studio, I would say the Egyptian string musicians and percussionists to have a more orchestral sound.
You can get someone over here in America that has studied the music and understands it in an academic context, but the Egyptians have SWING, a lot of funk. People talk about Oum Kalthoum’s orchestra and say oh, the cello is off, the sound is flat but to me, that’s the kind of shit that can make you cry, there is so much feeling there. It’s that kind of thing that I’ve seen in Cairo that I would definitely love to work with.
Bidoun: Do you feel pigeonholed or typecast as an Arab-American musician?
M: Absolutely. It’s been both a blessing and a curse. In the past, people have heard that I do certain things and they would like to rent that fantasy for a night. I’ve dispelled that myth now though. I don’t play into Orientalism: 1001 Nights and all that kind of shit. On the other hand I feel like it’s impossible. As much as I have promoted Arab culture, in a way, I am not fully Arab. I’m half Italian, half Egyptian.
Bidoun: If someone asked you for a mission statement for your music, what would you say you are trying to do?
M: Well, my general mission in life is to take as much inspiration as I can and reflect that back, whether that be through art or music. I want to educate people about these cultures that are out there that people might not know, and let people know how funky and how mind blowing music from this culture is. Specifically, my roots, my culture, which is the Sa’adi culture of southern Egypt. It’s a very specific type of thing but if you listen other music like folk music from Japan you can find similarities; there is a heavy drum sound. I’m relating to this music that is going on halfway around the world, and it sounds like hip-hop from the Bronx, there is really a deep connection.
This is my mission because I’m pissed off at the world, and anger can be sublimated through the music in a non-violent way. You can hear the urgency in the music but it doesn’t necessarily have to reflect violence. The world of transcendence is about letting go of all the negative stuff.
Bidoun: What are you upcoming projects?
M: The High Alert project, Rough Americana 2 with Morgan Kraft. The album that should be out this fall on Sound-Ink which is more like a collection of my work including previously unreleased stuff. I’m also working on some new stuff and looking forward to a full length album.
Mutamassik’s latest EP High Alert is out now on Sound-Ink records and her collaboration with DJ Rupture, Shotgun Wedding Vol. 1: The Bidoun Sessions is also available on the Violent Turd label.
Nearly ten years ago, the movie Smoke, written by Paul Auster and directed by Wayne Wang, was the project to launch a thousand pretensions and ambitions of would-be indie filmmakers everywhere. But who knew the loosely structured, heavily improvised little mood piece would inspire a music shop to open up as far away from Brooklyn as Beirut? Like Auggie’s cigar shop, Tony Sfeir wanted CD-Theque to be a place where people would slow down, take stock, and talk for hours. It didn’t pan out exactly.
Eight years and twenty-eight employees later, CD-Theque has boomed into a full-blown cultural institution, a three-tiered music, movie, and book shop with a record label, a publishing imprint, an events-promotion business, a magazine, and a de facto gallery space all existing in the wings.
“Sometimes I’m nostalgic,” says Sfeir. “Sometimes I just want to have fun in the shop.” Instead, he and his cohorts consistently work a hectic schedule of CD release parties, music festivals, exhibitions, and more. They are currently in the process of opening a second shop in Beirut, so there will be the original CD-Theque in Achrafieh and a new one in Hamra, near the American University of Beirut. Add to that a series of concerts by Soapkills, Clotaire K, and Étienne de Crecy and the imminent publication of a book of comics by Chadi Aoun and Jad Sarrout and you have a bunch of very busy boys (the staff retains that typical record store vibe of being largely male). About all this, Sfeir is circumspect. “We cannot be very picky in Lebanon,” he says. “There is a lack of creativity because of lots of contingencies; the war, good people traveled, because art is a luxury, because only if you’re rich do you go to festivals and buy paintings; all these things smashed away the possibility of an underground cultural scene.
“What we began to have about four years ago was some middle class people, some people coming back, some foreigners, all interacting together, going out to the same three or four clubs where some professional DJs were starting to play, and because we have all the bad globalization things we get some of the good.”
Despite the competition, Sfeir maintains that the arrival of Beirut’s very own cookie-cutter Virgin Megastore and BHV were among the city’s best developments.“All these things created people who are excited to do things and have good ideas. And we are trying with these people to arrive somewhere. But really where we want to arrive is to level zero, when you can create music and have a space free from everything, to make music, literature, art.”
Still, “there’s no minimal guarantee,” he adds, that CD-Theque will even reach level zero. Perhaps the best they can hope for is to provide a steady source of encouragement. But the place has certainly accomplished a lot in its first eight years, even it didn’t, perhaps thankfully, ever manage to gel a vibe like the one seen in Smoke.
moi, je veux ascii.disko
we maurice fulton
pleasure from the bass tiga
dreampeople anthony rother
macho boy adriano canzian
dal’onah (instrumental) El-Funoun
liebe schokolade Blah Blah Blah
destroying human nature mu
keep on richard bartz
sayfon fal youch’har fairuz
Name: Shareef Zawideh
Place of Birth: Detroit, MI.
Work: Music Curator & Resident DJ at Oslo, Detroit
Booking & Management at Submerge, Detroit
New Media Director for Movement (Detroit’s Electronic Music Festival)
After leaving school I spent roughly three years traveling overseas — the majority of it was spent in East Asia. I did a lot of odd stuff. I taught kindergarten in Taiwan, managed a roadhouse on the Lao/Thai border, rode my bicycle from Hong Kong to Bangkok.
One night in Australia a friend asked me what I really wanted to do; I realized I wanted to go back to Detroit to become more involved with the music that had left such a deep impression on me in the early nineties.
For the past six years, I have been throwing underground parties in Detroit. Recently I have found a legitimate venue for my musical tastes in the newly established Oslo, a sushi bar and nightclub in downtown Detroit.
I continue to work for Submerge, which is the most essential manufacturer and distributor of electronic music in Detroit and I am also the New Media Director for the Movement Festival (formerly known as the DEMF), the largest free festival of its kind in the world. Occasionally I travel beyond Detroit’s borders to DJ, with upcoming dates that include Den Haag & Berlin.
If you went to school in Dubai anytime between 1985 and 1995, chances are you’ve at least heard of Mani and Nima. If you have, you already know why they need their own article. If you haven’t, it’s safe to say that your childhood wasn’t as good as it could have been. Polar opposites in almost every way, the Iranian brothers with the comic-book names and equally animated personalities, managed to have one thing in common: they always had something to say about everything and it was usually funny, if not amusingly annoying. Mani was the colorful master storyteller, known as much for his elaborately exaggerated tales of his own and others’ life adventures, as he was for his sporadic, critical rants on everyone else’s view of the world. Nima, on the other hand, was the nonchalant smart ass with the razor sharp wit (and a wisecrack always at the ready), who was the go-to guy for unorthodox advice on life.
We tracked the boys down 10 years later, and they’re all grown up! Mani helps run the family business, constantly traveling between Los Angeles and the Middle East and no doubt picking up fodder for future stories along the way. Nima lives in Brooklyn, New York, running his own business (an online fashion retail site) and studying at NYU part-time for his master’s in business administration. Yup, things have changed, but as we discovered, the brothers still love to sound off about anything and everything, so that’s exactly what we let them do. Lisa asked them to comment on a few topics. Here’s what they had to say.
DubaiLand, “the biggest, most varied, leisure, entertainment and tourism attraction on the planet.”
DubaiLand is going to be the greatest thing ever. I’m sure it will be the biggest and tallest amusement park thing in the world. I really can’t wait to be able to ski in the desert and walk among the dinosaurs, but let’s hope that they don’t stop there and get carried away. God knows my life wont be complete until there is Ferrari Village and Shisha World and Chai Halleeb Universe and midgetland with tiny houses and cars. They should build a giant lake and put replicas of all of Dubai’s islands in it and call it DubaIslandLand.
Dear Dubai, You are crazy. I went with it for a while, you know. You were like the rich uncle, who had the ill house, and all these fancy cars, and me, I was like, “Hey, what do I care? No sweat off my back! Servant boy, put some petrol in my jet ski!” But seriously, how crazy are you now? I think you are one thousand crazy. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I’m against ski slopes in the desert, or Space Hotels embedded in sand dunes or even raising Dinosaurs from the dead to put in an enclosure. Quite frankly, that shit is so crazy, I almost feel like I came up with the idea myself. I’m just a little confused as to why we even need this thing. Is the idea like “You know what Dubai needs? A place where people can relax!” because last time I checked there was a whole lot of nothing being done by anyone not wearing rags, dangling from half constructed buildings and sweating it out in a heat wave. How about instead of DubaiLand, we make EffortLand and everyone at the beach club can go there after Pilates class to help dig some of those ditches and put up some more orange cones around town?
Palm Island: the eighth wonder of the world. http://www.palmisland.co.ae
Is it really this easy to build islands? Dubai is now on its third island project. Let’s see we have Palm 1 and Palm 2 and then of course there is the World Islands. It is only a matter of time before these islands take the form of ocean graffiti. Giant islands that say, “Abdulrahman was here,” or “Satwa G’s for life” will soon be visible from overhead planes. Or let’s make this whole island building thing into a fun game and build a group of connect-the-dots style islands, that way a map of Dubai becomes more than a map; it becomes a pastime where you can connect the offshore islands to form, say, a picture of a camel or a Ferrari, you know, the important things. To help guide planes we can build a group of arrow islands pointing to different countries below which will be island writing saying “Iran 2053 km” or “Bahrain 3429 km.” The possibilities are endless. I can’t wait.
Hey, why the hell not? You know what, build 2 of them. Oh, you already did? Fantastic. Build 3, build 5, build a hundred. Cover the whole coast with Palm Islands for all I care. You know what, build a Horse Island, a Falcon Island, a Bedouin Island and a Teapot Island too. That way, when aliens look down at the UAE from space, they’ll know what we’re all about and maybe they’ll want to come visit. Hey, they can always stay in the Space Hotel at DubaiLand and we can charge them double for the “at-home feel” we provide. If they act up, we kill ’em and make some Alien shwarmas and cash in on that too. Damn, you just can’t lose in Dubai… Mo’ money, mo’ money, mo’ money!!
See also: http://www.hydropolis.com
US’s plan to turn power over to Iraq
Why should they turn over the place they just took it over? I think that both Iraq and Afghanistan should both become new states in the good old US of A. They would sort of be like Alaska and Hawaii. I mean what happened to that good old world domination mentality. Wouldn’t America become a better place if part of it was in the Middle East? Then we could look for some mean European countries that are hiding weapons and take them over as well.
This one time, we woke up on a Saturday morning to find that our sewer had backed up into our basement, which basically means we had about 2 inches of poo water covering the entire floor. Pretty image, I know. So we called our landlord, who in turn called a plumber. Way too long later, this Vin Diesel looking thug-plumber shows up and I’m being Mr. “Let me tell you exactly what’s going on here with our plumbing problem” and he’s being Mr. “I don’t need to listen to you because I have muscles and all this equipment and I’m the best plumber in the world and I already know what’s wrong so get out of my way.” Anyways, thug-plumber gets this giant metal “plumber’s snake” outand starts sticking it waaaaaay down the sewer hole, all the while I’m helplessly trying to explain to him that nothing’s stuck down there and that the sewer just backed up. So finally, the “snake” is all the way down there and he flips a switch that makes the “snake” twist and turn at incredible speeds, and all I see is this flood of the blackest, shittiest water start spilling out of the hole and covering our floor with even more of our neighbors’ turds. Thug plumber suddenly gets really angry at us for giving him too little information and he just throws up his hands and says “I can’t do this, you have to call the city”. Then for some odd reason he just goes and sits in his truck and sulks for about an hour. He comes out of the truck eventually and forces our landlord to pay him and then leaves. So long story short, the plumber got paid, our situation got even shittier, and many, many hours later city workers showed up and fixed everything. In conclusion, me and my roommate = Iraq, poo water = Saddam, thug plumber = Bush, nonexistent thing stuck in sewer = weapons of mass destruction, and city workers = UN. So yeah, Bush, get the hell out of Iraq, you’re a sucky plumber and the shit water is rising.
Mani’s joke about all Iranian janitors and taxi drivers being the Shah’s first lieutenant in the 60s
As a group, we Iranians are obsessed with titles. We all seem to want to be important. What we don’t seem to understand is that to gain this we have to have some sort of merit, skill, talent or education. Unfortunately, a lot of us do not have this, so what better way to cover this up than by making it up. There are Iranian janitors and taxi drivers the world over that will swear that when they were in Iran they were not only doctors and lawyers but the best doctors in the hospital and the best lawyers in the country. They will tell you with a straight face that in their former life back home they had penned out new laws and decrees, or swear that as chief surgeon of the main hospital in Tehran they supervised the life saving efforts of a team of subordinate doctors. If you ask them “Well, why are you driving a taxi now or stocking shelves at the local supermarket?” they will say that this country did not allow them to work or give them the same opportunities and so on. Yeah. Uh-huh.
Hmm, I’m not positive I’ve heard this joke, but it sounds pretty awesome, sorry I missed it (Hey Mani, we should hang out some time, huh?). Anyways, the closest experience I have to this happened last year when my friend Karim came to town and he took a cab from the airport with an Egyptian driver. Right away, the guy tells Karim that he used to be a doctor… a gynaecologist no less! So Karim, who actually is a doctor, starts asking this guy some scientific gynaecological questions, and much to his surprise the driver gets all the questions right! I’m not quite sure what the moral is here, but I think it’s this: “Just because your cab driver can’t speak English, doesn’t mean he’s not a cunning linguist.” I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist. I have no class, I know.
What is wrong with this guy, could he be any stranger? It’s as if he is doing all he can to prove to the world that he really is nothing more than a circus freak. What happened to the old Michael, the one from Thriller and Billy Jean and Beat It. The first time I started to realize that something was wrong was the “Bad” video in the subway. That’s when I first thought Michael is looking a little bit special this year and it was all downhill from there. I mean his nose and the hair, how is this acceptable? The only thing that is freakier than Michael are the parents that leave their kids with him, how is this a good idea?
Everyone’s always talking about how crazy Michael Jackson is. That’s completely untrue. Michael Jackson isn’t crazy, he’s retarded. You know what I mean? It’s not like he’s Hitler-ish, just a little Forrest Gump-ish. So the dude likes climbing trees, playing with monkeys, riding llamas, making his nose tiny and speaking super soft, who the hell cares, let him have a good time. I mean take any retarded kid, give him millions of dollars and complete autonomy in spending it, and see what happens. My bet is: the exact same shit. “Hey, let’s buy a monkey!” says the retard, “Larry Llama need a friend-friend!” See what I mean? Cha’mon people, let’s leave MJ alone. He invented the Moonwalk, damn it, you owe him big time. Am I saying that I don’t think he did naughty things to those little boys? Nope, I’m pretty sure he did it. All I’m saying is: if you tuck your kid into bed with a 40 year old retarded man, switch off the lights and say, “You kids have a good time now, ya hear?” you gotta expect at least some tushy touching and pee-pee showing. It’s standard stuff, really.
The television’s role in the modern day household
Mmm, television. Television, I love you. I want to grow old with you and watch you with my grandchildren. I can’t imagine my life without you. I knew it was love the first time that I turned you on and felt my brain go numb till drool began to crawl down the side of my mouth. Last week, when I was sad, you soothingly guided me to an episode of The Simpsons and everything was better again, and when I was feeling dumb you shared an episode on the Discovery Channel with me. We have been through a lot together, like the season finale of Friends (thank God that Ross and Rachel will finally be happy together) and Seinfeld. You were there with me the time MacGyver almost didn’t make it, when Gilligan finally got home, when Bart won the elephant on the radio, when Lucy and Ricky went to Hollywood and when JR got shot. Don’t ever leave me, I love you.
I love television. The second I wake up, I turn on the TV just in case I missed something when I was sleeping. The second I get home from work, I turn on the TV just in case I missed something when I was working. If I’m home alone, I’ll turn on the TV in the living room and the TV in my bedroom, so just in case I have to get up and do something, I don’t miss anything. And please don’t get all new-agey on me with that “TV rots your brain” crap. TV doesn’t rot your brain, you’re just stupid. Not only is it not a brain-rotter, I think TV is the most effective educator we have. Have you ever noticed how kids won’t listen in class, but they’ll watch National Geographic underwater movies and be glued to the screen on some “this fish is crazy” shit? You know why that is? It’s because school is taught by former nerdy folk who never watched TV. They’re boring and they don’t know how to keep people captivated. You have no idea how many times I’ve been sitting in my grad school classes wishing MTV would just make a show about Global Macroeconomics, so I would get what the hell the drone at the front was talking about. There would be lots of fast cuts, visual effects, hot chicks holding charts and examples like “Yo, check it, if 50 Cent sold mad albums his first week and you were a record store owner, would you restock or what?” And I would say, “Hell yeah, I would restock, biaaaaaatch!”
The best vacation ever
I’m going to have to get sentimental here. The best vacation I ever had was when I went to climb Mt. Elbrus in Russia, with some friends and then flew to Norway and drove with my girlfriend to different cities across its coast. There is not enough space to tell all of it so here are the highlights: 1. Watching a thunderstorm from our camp on the mountain where lighting was striking at least 25 times a minute. 2. Getting to fly Siberian Airlines. 3. Red Square. 4. St. Basils Cathedral. 5. Being so high up on the mountain that although it was night where we were, I could still see places in the distance that were sunlit. 6. The feeling of being so disconnected. 7. The humbling effects of altitude. 8. Midnight sun. 9. Eating fresh-caught shrimps. What can I say, I’m a lucky guy.
For the millennium, we were in Dubai and some friends and I somehow got ourselves on to some important person’s private island. It was all pretty amazing. All my friends were there and we had this whole island to ourselves to ride John Deeres and jet skis on. It was so beautiful and the ocean was so aqua. Anyways, I was never really into the whole private island scene before that, but I could definitely go for one now. So if you’ve got a private island, holla at yo’ boy! You bring the island, I’ll bring the handsome.
Hairy or not hairy
This is simple: hairy man good, hairy woman bad.
I don’t 100% hate being hairy, but really, what’s the point? I mean, why exactly do I NEED back hair? Am I in dire need of some insulation in the dorsal area? Nah, I’m feeling pretty warm, thanks. I’ll tell you what really creeps me out though: it’s that chest hair that flows over your t-shirt collar like a mini follicle fountain (Mani, you know something about this, right?) That’s my least favorite, followed by shoulder hair and ass hair? That’s just inappropriate I think. The real clincher here though is that I’m probably gonna go bald on my head and get even hairier on my body. Nice joke, God… real nice. I feel like I’m going to be forced to pull my back skin all the way over the top of my head just to have a hairstyle.
Hey, if it wasn’t for arranged marriages, fat hairy bald women with limps would never be able to get married. The entire circus freak industry was born out of the inbreeding that occurs from arranged marriages. Come on people, how many generations do cousins have to get married before their offspring have problems breathing and walking at the same time? But hey, if you think your cousin’s hot, tell your parents, I’m sure they’ll hook you up.
I used to really be against the idea of arranged marriages but the older I get, the more I’m for them. I mean, you eventually learn that all girls are pretty much crazy, so you probably have the same odds of getting along with one that you choose as you do with one that your grandma chooses. Plus, Middle Eastern families are pretty shallow, so at the very least you’re guaranteed a hot wife that comes from a rich family. Once you’ve got that down, you’ve got a whole lifetime to teach her to appreciate the Wu-Tang Clan and The Simpsons.
The state of Dubai in 10 years
10 years from now Dubai will have the biggest and tallest anything in the world from the biggest man-made islands to the tallest buildings. The city will be full of strange architecture and will have so many islands that you could drive to Iran via bridge. Once the land and sea have been conquered we will build Stiltland, a giant city in the sky, and Undergroundland which will have buildings so tall that they stick out of the surface. The new mall will be so big that you will need a visit visa, but no one will come. No one.
In 10 years, Dubai will actually be the world’s biggest coffee shop and the flag will change to the Starbuck’s logo. People will wear miniature models of their cars as hats so other people know how rich they are at all times. Jumeirah 12 will be the new Jumeirah 1 and only poor people will live in the Emirates Towers. They’ll run out of cool license plate numbers, so the use of negative numbers in license plates will be legalized. I will live on Teapot Island and everyone will continue to think that they are rich because they are smart, not lucky.
Rami Kashou is loaded. Not like that — not in terms of affluence or inebriation — but to be a Palestinian Angeleno involved in cultural revolution today means you are about as loaded as an Operation Iraqi Freedom rifle. The relentlessly humble, soft-spoken 27-year-old would deny fashion was his chosen instrument for revolution, but it’s there. After all, Kashou’s forthright flair for an everyday ready-to-wear iconoclasm has been getting its fair share of buzz in the New York and European market, but it’s more LA and the Middle East that he has to worry about mastering — and interestingly worry is the last thing on his mind.
As the fashion-prodigy story goes, the Jerusalem-born Kashou spent his early adolescence sketching designs for his mother to take to a seamstress, then moved to the States for fashion school at 18, dropped out, bought some sewing machines, and got the ball rolling from there. He was able to sell a few of his pieces among the mostly-Miss Sixty hangers of Super, the now-defunct Melrose megaboutique where he was an early employee. Kashou’s aesthetic then developed with an innovative T-shirt line, which manifested early symptoms of his soon-to-be-trademark delicate deconstruction streak. Soon his one-of-a-kinds were snapped up by Los Feliz fashionista-fixture Aero & Co., and was featured for their 2001 trunk show. Being showcased by Gen Art in 2001 gave him the confidence to self-finance his first show in his dream location: the historic Los Altos building (“where Bette Davis used to live,” he gushes — not to mention Greta Garbo and Judy Garland). Acoustic it-girl Nikka Costa showed up, pre-Versace Christina Aguilera planted herself on a front row seat, and trend-lusting celebutante Tori Spelling took her already-warm spot as a Kashou regular. Kashou’s initiation was finally cemented with a runway shot on the cover of Women’s Wear Daily in April 2002.
Kashou is not one to namedrop, but once you fish it out of him he reveals that Pink was one of his first clients. Erykah Badu, who’s bought over 18 pieces, sported a Kashou kaftan through much of her last tour. Portia de Rossi and Amy Smart are devotees. Winona Ryder has — legally — nabbed a few pieces. He even designed a high-end-jersey wedding dress for Dixie Chick Martie Maguire. Kashou leaves it up to them to come to him — as someone who hasn’t owned a TV in years and who considers the opera as a satisfying nightlife pastime, he clearly isn’t one to lust after the celebrity circuit.
But one can’t help note the star-power equation in the way Kashou can merge strength and sexiness. What could be more ideal for spot-lit alpha girls than pairing almost baroque Grecian drapery with a subdued material minimalism? Kashou’s slit-sleeved blouses are sharp not cute, his wrap-jackets are striking not silly, his gathered blouses and pleated skirts are regal not just flirty, and his signature jersey dresses insist on total form and functionality. “My work expresses confidence — an edge without being obnoxious. It’s between vintage and progressive,” he says. His recent Fall 2004 collection adds even bolder pieces to the wardrobes of handsome urban femmes, rather than just easy-breezy Kashou-belles. You can expect a palette that’s darker, stronger, just barely accented with whimsical touches like gold threading and muted metallics. “It’s more masculine, less drape-y, with simpler lines,” says the designer. “More construction as opposed to the early era.”
What gels well with Kashou’s non-derivative reinventions is his distinct maverick streak — Kashou is obsessed with existing outside of convenient identity politics. He’ll go as far as featuring a cutout peace sign on the back of a dress, but he isn’t seeking recruitment to save the world. Whereas one might imagine a Palestinian designer could get a lot of bang out of playing the politics buck, Kashou won’t rush to claim his Middle Eastern heritage as a vehicle behind his inspiration. “I think there is a Middle Eastern element — how I drape my fabrics maybe — but it’s also European,” he explains. “I don’t cater to a specific ethnicity. I don’t let that limit me. I don’t think as a Palestinian as I design.” However he knows his fame can contribute to changing any ignorant misperception of Middle Easterners: “That’s how I want to give back somehow.” Kashou isn’t sure how his work would be received in the Middle East, but, as he notes, “in [some countries], women who wear veils, underneath they’re sometimes wearing the shortest, tightest Gucci miniskirts!”
Kashou is also somewhat ill-at-ease in his transplanted LA, where the answer is not to claim the culture either but to develop it. Like many hipper Angelenos he’s gravitated towards the East Side, like his own Echo Park neighborhood: “It’s very real. And I’m inspired by anything away from Hollywood and Beverly Hills!” he says. But he still has to deal with L.A.’s frustrating aspects, most notably how Angelenos appear stunted when it comes to sartorial savvy-ness. “‘Sexy’ is a little too pornographic in some people’s thinking in LA. People tend to be more followers and so body conscious. I’m trying to open people’s minds in identifying sex appeal in a different way.” How to teach the left coast Juicy-Couture-fiending and eternally-J-Lo-ing masses? “I might expose a woman’s back instead of breasts,” he says. “You know, being sexy… without being obnoxious!”
While Kashou still isn’t affiliated with a showroom, and has pieces only in Aero and Co., one gets the feeling things will soon take off for him. But for now, he’s happy to be living in the same studio he works in — where he toils alone and does all of his own patterning, cutting, measuring and fabric dying — for exclusive special-clientele commissions. After all, he’s mastering the trickiest part of any creative profession: wholly living one’s art. He does it so well that when he rattles off a favorite visionary cliché, “It’s more of a lifestyle than a job,” you actually believe him.
1-RED AND BLACK LONG-SLEEVE DRESS WITH MULTICOLORED
STONES, EGGPLANT LONG-SLEEVE OPEN ROBE AND PURPLE/GOLD
WRAP ALL BY NIKKA, BURNED COLLAR SCARF BY
BOBBI@LITTLECAKES 212-979-9736, METRIC BRACELET,
EARRINGS, GOLD BELT AND RINGS BY NOIR, SHOES BY MIGUEL
(PHOTO # 1 of Narelle in purple holding a
2-COLONIAL STYLE WHITE SUIT AND HAT BY MIGUEL ADROVER,
SANDALS BY MISS TRISH OF CAPRI
(PHOTO #2 of Narelle looking in the mirror as the
stylist puts a shoe
on her, DOCUMENTARY)
3 & 4-BLACK TOP WITH FLOWER PRINT, BENJARON MADAM TEE
AND CHINOISERIE ALL BY ISSEY MIYAKE BY NAOKI TAKIZAWA,
WOODEN BRACELET BY NOIR, SUEDE BRACELETS BY UGLY HATES
BEAUTY @SEVEN NY 646-654-0156, SUEDE FLAT
SHOES BY MIGUEL ADROVER
(PHOTOS #3 AND #4 of Narelle standing, holding fake
[STUDIO] AND of Narelle laughing on the floor
surrounded by clothes
5-ON HER: BULE DENIM WEAVE JACKET AND SKIRT BY
DIMMER/D'VRSI, GREEN PAISELY WRAP BY NIKKA, TURQUOISE
BLUE BLOUSE WITH POLKA DOTS BY ARLEQUIN, INSECT BAG BY
ISSEY MIYAKE BY NAOKI TAKIZAWA
ON HIM: DJELLABA, SHORT BLACK PANTS AND WHITE
LONG PANTS ALL BY MIGUEL ADROVER, RUBBER TEE BY
ALEXANDRE HERCHCOVITCH AT OPENING CEREMONY
212-219-2688, PURPLE TEE BY EDUARDO INAGAKI@OPENING
CEREMONY, NECKLACE BY UGLY HATES BEAUTY, HEAD CHAIN BY
(PHOTO #5 OF Narelle standing above Raad with fake
6-ON HER: DRESS BY AS FOUR, ETHNIC SLIPPER BY NIKKA
ON HIM: WHITE DJELLABA AND SHOES BY MIGUEL ADROVER,
NEON-COLORED PATTERN SHIRT BY ALEXANDRE HERCHCOVITCH,
PANTS BY GARY GRAHAM, BRACELET BY NOIR, SCARF BY
(PHOTO #6 OF Narelle taking a photo of
7- BURNED DRESS BY MIGUEL ADROVER, BOOTS BY
(PHOTO #7 OF Narelle with a leaf OR a silver
8-BLACK DOUBLE-BREASTED NEHRU JACKET BY DIMMER/D'VRSI,
DRESS BY AS FOUR, CAP BY MIGUEL ADROVER
(PHOTO #8 OF Narelle sleeping next to a makeup
PHOTOGRAPHY KETUTA ALEXI-MESKHISHVILI
ART DIRECTION SAMEER REDDY
CONCEPT SAMEER REDDY AND KETUTA ALEXI-MESKHISHVILI
STYLING MASAYO KISHI
HAIR & MAKEUP JANEEN WITHERSPOON
MODEL NARELLE AT Q MODEL MANAGEMENT
Far Near Distance
House of World Cultures
March 19–May 11, 2004
The word eikon, which simply means image in classical Greek, can now refer to almost any sort of vaguely emblematic representation. The fact that “icon” also signifies a graphic symbol on a computer display screen aptly reflects its usage in discussions of Globalization, where it’s shorthand for something appropriated simultaneously in radically different contexts, suggesting an intrinsic power within the artifact per se: Islamic veils, Arafat, Sid Vicious, etc. The older, Orthodox-Christian denotation is also relevant, not only in terms of transcendence and aura, but also in that the churchly icon lays no claim to verisimilitude. The difference between the sign and the real thing was underlined by way of, among other things, an aggressively anti-realistic use of perspective. This was not, however, to the benefit of the artist’s personal style; on the contrary, the more uniform and derivative the icon, the better.
At the exhibition Far Near Distance: Contemporary Positions of Iranian Artists at Berlin House of World Cultures, SHAHRZAD placed an icon in a glass display case (Jamaran, 2004). Initially, photographer Shirana Shahbazi — one of the three members of SHAHRZAD, besides designer Manuel Krebs and myself — was invited to participate by herself, but her artistic proposal, offering no reference to Iran, was rejected. Shahbazi made a second proposal, this time as SHAHRZAD, to reconstruct a glass display case at the Khomeini museum in Tehran, which includes slippers, a Qoran, clerical robes, official documents and a bottle of Chloë, by Karl Lagerfeld. This, we hoped, might allude, among other things, to the reduction of artistic efforts to symbols of regional realities, to state-sponsored games of representation in Berlin and in Tehran and to the prerogative of curating entire regions.
Other works at the exhibition included Farhad Moshiri’s Living Room Ultra Mega X (2004), an overwrought, hyper-aestheticized homage to post-revolutionary nouveau riche aesthetics, consists of gold-colored, kitsch knickknacks. A number of other works equally gain in undermining their own documentary potential by leading not simply to national tokenism and testimony, but to a potentially ornamental or iconic reading, a sentimental safari through a gaudy peepshow extravaganza dubbed “Iran,” e.g. Mehran Mojaher’s photographs Traditional Photography Studios (2003), Shahram Entekhabi’s colossal, glittering key to paradise (Kilid, 2004), or Ali Mahdavi’s mummified animals draped in pompous religious robes (2000).
As many a museographer has pointed out before, the teleological underpinnings of Western museums mostly suggest that Euro-america is what history was striving for from the start, culminating in the happy Here and Now of women’s rights, parliamentary democracy and post-Duchamp standards in art. Any frictions or oppositions stemming from an Outside are cast as something Not Quite There Yet, as epistemologically belated guests, sure to join us at the dinner party in due time.
In this sense, the glass display case is a useful tool. It underlines the crass measures of de-contextualization and iconification that are glossed over in regional exhibitions, and echoes the art exhibition’s historical roots in the Gruselkabinett and the Museum of Natural History, but also brings analogies with cultural merchandising into play. Further, the glass case epitomizes the Western claim to superiority qua higher museum standards, where security and climatic conditions are guaranteed. (Interestingly, the latter-day version of the vitrine was introduced only in 1929, by pioneer ethno-museologist Henri Rivière, prior to whom the cases on display were original transport boxes.)
Following the opening of Far Near Distance in Berlin, the Iranian PEN Association quickly launched an online protest, claiming SHAHRZAD had assembled original items from the Khomeini museum, but then withdrew the petition after some of its leading members resigned over that very document. A host of other associations took up the cause, showering the Berlin House of World Cultures with anti-Khomeini leaflets, draping our installation with an adhesive black foil brandishing political slogans, besmearing and ripping up catalogues, then demonstrating outside the institution, threatening to storm the events at the museum and prompting a sizable police presence, as the online debate among expat Iranians spread from Berlin to London and on to LA. Luckily, the debate did not overshadow the exhibition in its European reception, which was, in any case, lukewarm and subdued.
The debate over the SHAHRZAD project has raised questions far more subtle than anything our collective or any other protagonists could claim to have intended. Must an art installation be politically called to account for the pictorial denotations the audience sees as pertinent — and what are the criteria that determine this political pertinence in the first place? What is, say, more fundamentalist or reactionary: an Ayatollah Khomeini display case, or a photo of a veiled broom, which artist Shadi Ghadirian sees as a sincere homage to women’s place within the home — or philosopher Daryush Shayegan’s ruminations on the “poetic Iranian psyche” (to name two other contributions to the event).
For an earlier exhibition which was held at a gallery space within a Hamburg nightclub, the SHAHRZAD collective printed posters with the slogan “Death to America” garlanded with collages of pop icons such as Mandela and the Dalai Lama. The work drew all sorts of commentaries, the most remarkable of which was the accusation of pandering to trite, middle-of-the-road Euro-liberalism, such as juvenile anti-Americans in black-and-white Palestinian neck scarves. The said critique came from a DJ who used to play what he called International Dance Music, but now only plays Western material, since he got tired of people clasping their hands above their heads and wiggling about in mock Bollywood gesticulation, or indulging in improvised belly-dancing and such. His critique touched a nerve at the very core of SHAHRZAD’s preoccupations: the enticing malleability of iconic images and slogans in an international context, i.e. their role in the construction and domestication of the exotic — and their potential to transcend that very dynamic of cultural tokenism.
The question, then, is how to participate in an exhibition which caters to the very cosmopolitan spirits that prompted our DJ friend to refrain from internationalist aspirations altogether — without repeating the patterns one set out to expose. One of the ideas behind the SHAHRZAD project, in any case, is to pinpoint and re-contextualize icons that draw attention to patterns of truth production, and sometimes even offer ornamental hues of truth of their own, but without laying claim to any unambiguous, didactic frame of reference. But that aside, it’s also a question of strategies of critique: must the most pessimistic, devastating reading prevail — perhaps in the name of one’s postcolonial credentials — or should possibilities of irony and subversion consciously be placed in the foreground?
HKW (Haus der Kulturen der Welt) www.HKW.de Many thanks to artist Andrea Thal for her helpful references to vitrine history.
March 20–April 21 2004
A man in a gray suit and white shirt stands somewhat remotely at the edge of a weekly market and allows the crowd to push by him. His attention is drawn to one of the passersby who bears a surprising resemblance to him. In a hectic, tense fashion, he begins to pursue the man, which leads him through streets, tunnels, house entranceways — until he arrives at his own doorstep. Has he followed himself?
Shahram Entekhabi quietly watches the video projection i? a work in ten episodes which depicts the everyday life of the protagonist “O,” played by Entekhabi himself. A game of perception and observations of the self. The plot of the video by Shahram Entekhabi is not only reminiscent of the film classic “Film” by Samuel Beckett with Buster Keaton — it can also be understood as a reference to the subject of interpretation from the viewpoint of a migrant.
Entekhabi is one of ten artists with a commissioned work in the exhibition Far Near Distance — Positions of Iranian Artists (Kilid). Concurrently, a solo exhibition of his video work is featured in the Play gallery in Berlin Mitte. Bidoun met the artist in Berlin and spoke with him about his video work i?, the accompanying workshop for young people from Berlin and the exhibition in the House of World Cultures.
Entekhabi belongs to a generation of exile artists that haven’t been back to Iran in 25 years. The 47-year-old projects an air of relaxation and ease. A prominent pair of black glasses dominates his face. His look is perfectly suited to the style of Berlin Mitte. Outwardly political, his artistic work concentrates on themes of the human microcosm. “In the film, I observe myself,” Entekhabi says. “My ‘self’ is separated into two people. One is fully integrated and involved with daily happenings. The other always arrives a bit too late — stands in front of locked doors, gets lost.”
Even if Entekhabi is clearly recognizable as the protagonist “O,” his face is always partially concealed and remains in obscurity. A blade scrapes across O’s face. One can hear the breathing, the water and the scratch of the sharp edge. Despite being shot in close-up, the viewer is held at a distance.
“I am interested in exactly that moment in which you are at one with yourself; when you have no gender, no nationality, no age,” Entekhabi says. “I was looking for moments in which one is completely alone; for example, the sound of the shower or the scrapes of the razor. Then you suddenly notice something which brings you back to reality. At this point, you are once again confronted with your physicality, with the location, the environment. My work i? revolves around this search, the search for a ‘self.’”
At first, the nine young people in the workshop could relate neither to the subject of “identity” nor to a film language à la Beckett. According to Entekhabi, only during the practical realization were they able to display their true strengths. “Without consciously doing so, in the end they chose a similar film language to that of Beckett,” Entekhabi says. “In the process, an authenticity was created which some video artists are able to hide behind. However, these films don’t have anything to do with the subject of migration or being on the outside. These young people haven’t yet been confronted with their own ‘difference.’ Many are already from a fourth generation of immigrants and approach this subject in a very different way.”
Though he was happy to contribute to such a project, Entekhabi wonders if an exhibition such as “Far Near Distance” does the artists justice. “Naturally, at first it is nice to have the chance to meet so many artists from various branches. But something was missing,” he says, then with a sweeping arm movement, adds: “I think the reason was the composition. This is difficult. Artists who are completely different are suddenly thrown together in a show, in a room — and the only thing in common is nationality. But what does that actually mean? Examining this point could have been an interesting topic. But it didn’t take place. This isn’t a critique of the curator’s work, but more of a general problem with national-themed exhibitions.”
In these circumstances, Entekhabi feels that artists and curators tend to pander to societal expectations, rather than try to break new grounds. “If at all, I think such concepts should be taken on by several curators so that their various backgrounds and directions can influence the show,” he says. Entekhabi believes that when artists appear in a national exhibition there is always the danger that they will be pushed into the role of representatives. For him, it was important to transfer his connection to Iran as authentically as possible.
Entekhabi’s contribution to the show — an oversized, illuminated key in the colours of the Iranian national flag — provoked much discussion. The text next to the piece contained a misleading explanation, and many interpreted the work as the desire of a war refugee to return home, something that Entekhabi denies. “The explanation that I left Iran 25 years ago because of the war is false,” Entekhabi says. “At that time, I received a scholarship for my studies and simply happened to be in Italy when the revolution took place. Then there was no chance of my return.”
The oversized plastic key, according to Entekhabi, is actually an allusion to the promises of paradise. “I wanted to cite the idea of martyrdom, which exists in numerous ways and is used in political contexts,” he says. “The responsibility for this provocative cult of martyrdom is passed back and forth between Western and Oriental governments. Even if one can interpret different forms of sacrifice for a ‘good or holy thing’ or justify them, in the end it all comes down to forms of manipulation, symbolized by a promise. On the one hand, for a paradise in the life hereafter, and on the other, an ‘earthly’ paradise.” In Entekhabi’s video projection, a cacophony of pecking pigeons fills up the screen; the sequence lasts for a relatively long length of time. “For me, pigeons are the perfect example of being forced to adapt and of the ability to do so,” he says. “They are always there, yet have nowhere to which they really belong.” Does he see himself as a pigeon? He pauses, looking solemn, then says: “There are two people in me. One side constantly has the feeling of never really being part of that to which he could belong; the other is fully integrated. I never gave up my Iranian passport. Even after being married to a German. After 25 years in this country, I could have obtained a German passport, but I know that I will always be seen as an Iranian so why not officially remain one?”
20th Century British Sculpture
Museum of Contemporary Art
February 25–April 16, 2004
Tehran seemed the most unlikely of locales for the much-anticipated debut of Damien Hirst’s Resurrection, a life-size human skeleton impaled on Plexiglas and suggestively suspended in the form of Christ’s crucifixion. But it happened that way. Along with a number of trademark Hirst pieces, the works of fifteen British sculptors made up Turning Points this past spring at Tehran’s Museum of Contemporary Art (TMCA) — a massive ode to Britain’s contribution to the form that was perhaps unprecedented in scope, and certainly never seen in the 25-year history of the Islamic Republic.
Recognizing the contributions British sculpture has made to 20th century art, the exhibition was an ambitious homage to multiple evolutions of the sculptural form over three decades, subtly tracing its influence on other mediums. Needless to say, an exhibition of this variety would have been distinguished in any European capital — the fact that it was situated in a country readily associated with popular stereotypes surrounding its icy receptions to outside influences at large makes it all that more poignant. As does the fact that Tehran is hardly habituated to such blue-chip art in the flesh. By all accounts, Turning Points, a joint project of TMCA and the British Council, was effectively a mini — though by no means insignificant — revolution in and of itself.
Hirst, for his part, was in good company, with canonical pieces from pioneers of abstraction John Moore and Barbara Hepworth to contemporary works by artists such as Bill Woodrow, Anish Kapoor and Mona Hatoum. A selection of Woodrow’s works exhibited the artist’s preoccupation with notions of history vis-à-vis the contemporary. His Car Door, Ironing Board and Twin-Tub with North American Indian Head Dress (1981), fashioned out of industrial and consumer tins, manifests the human capacity to package human narratives as consumer goods — perhaps holding increased resonance in Iran, a country whose own history of revolution continues to be aestheticized and marketed in popular fashion.
Kapoor’s void pieces — ruminations on the ambiguous creation/removal of space, as well as his pigment sculptures, where shape and pure color become one in a near-scientific continuum — were installed in the depths of the museum’s subterranean exhibition halls. Lebanese-born Palestinian Hatoum had a broad range of her works on display, from the disconcerting Incommunicado — a baby cradle fashioned from steel and wire and decidedly penitentiary-esque — to a vertigo-inducing Deep Throat, a video documentation of an endoscopy in the artist’s own body, projected from an LCD screen embedded on an innocent dinner plate. Hatoum’s refusal to abide by the neat conventions of the quotidian object and its associated functions raised more than a few eyebrows at the TMCA, where conceptual art has rarely assumed such aggressive, if not unpleasant, forms.
Importantly, several works exhibited the wide parameters of the sculptural form. Hatoum’s graphic work, as well as Hirst’s drawings and pharmaceutical posters, managed to extend definitional notions of sculpture while displaying the rich diversity of the medium. Gilbert and George’s sculptures on video, Portraits of the Artist as Young Men and In the Bush, were perhaps the most mind-bending. It was not uncommon to see slightly dumbfounded viewers situated in front of the pair’s works. Perhaps only in Tehran could viewers openly question Art in a manner that is haram in the Western art world. Naiveté is certainly out in London, but may have occasionally found a (refreshing) home within the halls of the TMCA.
While an exhibition of this ambitious nature and scale would be noteworthy independent of venue, the temptation to examine the exhibition through the lens of politics is admittedly irresistible. After all, the British in Iran occupy a singular position, as years of quasi-colonialism via significant influence over the running of the country has left a chronic outsider wariness in some circles — particularly official ones. Complicating matters, the onset of war in Iraq raised questions surrounding the appropriateness of such an exhibition, while diplomatic squabbles between Tehran and London with regard to the arrest of an Iranian diplomat tied to the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Argentina pushed a revised date back once again (the original opening was meant to be five months earlier, in September).
Turning Points opened in February, arriving on the heels of one of the most contested parliamentary non-elections since the 1979 Revolution, one in which over 2000 candidates were disqualified by the hard-line supervisory Guardian Council. Making the confluence of time and space perhaps even more loaded is the fact that the TMCA exhibition took place in the midst of the 25th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution — a revolution that deemed Western influence a categorical evil.
Andrea Rose, Director of Visual Arts at the British Council, who along with the Council’s Richard Riley led the Turning Points curatorial team, considered the seductive question of politics, cultural imperialism and the rest: “I don’t think that it is possible to do anything in Iran without it being considered in political terms. This is a sine qua non of the situation there.” She continued: “I do think that there are many Iranians who would like to have contact with Western ideas and that this exhibition provided them with that in some measure… This is surely the value of cultural exchange, where one is able to talk to people about common cultural concerns, free of the pressures of established government positions.”
And importantly, Iran has changed considerably in the 25 years since its Revolution, most visibly with the election of decidedly reformist President Mohamed Khatami in 1997 — a poster boy for a new generation seeking change, especially the roughly 70 percent of Iranians who are under the age of 30. Though many today deplore Khatami’s failure to deliver on the enormous expectations pinned to his election, his presidency has coincided with a period of increased dialogue with the outside world, and presumably created an environment in which such exchange initiatives can take place.
“It is no coincidence that Iran’s relations with Europe are good at the moment. This particular exhibition would not have happened amidst the climate of five years ago,” adds Yaghoob Emdadian, a long-time TMCA curator who, along with museum Director Ali Reza Sami Azar, was part of the local curatorial team.
As with many countries in this region in which self-expression is placed at a premium and censorship is a rule of thumb, politics and the arts are often linked in intimate fashion. Nevertheless, within the Turning Points selection, only two works from the original lineup were removed, and those at the behest of the British Council rather than Iran’s governing Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. It was neither sex nor revolutionary politic that offended the sensors but a wheelchair and a prayer rug (suggestively with needles emerging erect at the point where one would usually lay one’s head down), both pieces by Hatoum, that did not make the cut. Both were deemed potentially insensitive in light of Iran’s predominantly Muslim population, as well as the significant contingent of veterans care of a grueling eight-year war with neighboring Iraq during the 1980s.
And while an impressive crash course in art history for Tehranis, Turning Points was not the alien imposition on a tabula rasa many have imagined. On the contrary, young Tehranis are savvy and well versed in the arts. It is perhaps decades of isolation that have given rise to an exaggerated knowledge about the surrounding world. In this neighborhood, it is not uncommon to encounter art students deconstructing the history of the realist tradition in French cinema or the influence of Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas on conceptions of contemporary photography. While access is limited, a hyper interest in the surrounding world, combined with enhanced access to Internet and satellite television, have further tied Iranians into an international fabric that defies trite images of isolation and naiveté, artistic or otherwise.
Dr. Stephen Deuchar, director of the Tate Britain, attended the opening of Turning Points and remarked at the potential of Iran to become a serious venue for the arts — particularly amidst post-modernism’s legacy of inclusion and the advent of alternative urban venues such as Johannesburg, Ljubljana and most recently, Istanbul: “The level of intellectual and cultural stimulation is significant, and I would be surprised if the heights scaled by Iranian cinema were not also reached eventually by other art forms. Iran can become a big player in the international arts scene.”
Indeed, beyond the international festival-heavy cinema realm, a generation of young Iranian artists are part and parcel of a remarkable movement in the arts. Novel expression via photography, installation, performance and beyond are defying the dictates of the local market’s decorative and/or religio-nationalist tendencies, as well as the ethnic marketing efforts of the West (i.e. Iranian art has to necessarily address Islam, the veil or the geopolitics of oil). Exhibitions in official and non-official spaces take place much and often, while art, architecture and design magazines are ubiquitous, as are festivals of both Iranian and foreign film.
And so in the end, Turning Points was not an extraordinary gesture in isolation, but rather, perhaps an extension of movements already in progress. The TMCA, for its part, is in the process of planning a retrospective of the works of both Gerhard Richter and Turner Prize winner Rachel Whiteread for the coming year, while rumors abound that there are a number of treasures within the museum’s underground collection that may get some playing time (a gem of a Pollock and trademark Warhol among them) in the near future. It seems that Tehran may be turning traditional notions of center-periphery on their collective heads.
Poetics of Proximity
February 7–March 20, 2004
“Poetics of Proximity” opened on February 7, 2004, at the Guggenheim Gallery, Chapman University, and ran until March 20. Featuring the work of transnational artists from Afghanistan, Algeria, Iran, Morocco, and Turkey, this critical exhibition was the first in Southern California to feature artists from these countries and address the complexities of living as Arabs and Muslims in the West.
Curators Lida Abdul and Gul Cagin — two installation artists whose work also appeared in the show — had envisioned an exhibition that would complicate stereotypical readings of “Islam” and “Islamic Art”; the diverse range of Central and Southwest Asian/North African work was presented within the broad scope of culture and representation and politics, unrestricted by any one category, ideology or aesthetic.
Poetics of Proximity sought to re-establish borders and homelands, and create alternative realities of worldwide struggles against colonization. The artists — Moroccan, Turkish, Iranian, Afghan and Algerian — eroded fixed boundaries of nationality, re-imagining their various national and cultural identities from the fractured spaces of “citizen,” “immigrant,” “foreign national,” and “expatriate.” The homogenization of the Middle East — especially in relation to the post-9/11 politics of preemption, the protracted war on Iraq, and the Bush Administration’s policy of unilateralism — has created the specter of the alien-subject, who exists elusively but nonetheless, definitively, in the US nation-state’s collective imagination.
Artists Lida Abdul, Gul Cagin, Abdelali Dahrouch, Taraneh Hemami, Masood Kamady, Habib Kheradyar, Arzu Kosar, Serkan Okaya, and Zineb Sedira addressed how politics of distance have been enforced by exile and imperialism; these historical forces have created new spaces of resistance and new communities that endeavor for social justice and progressive change. The artists’ works converged in meaningful ways even though their themes, visions and media were distinct.
Habib Kheradyar’s performance White on White, Even, consisted of two nylon white cloth panels, between which the artist was confined by an assistant in a silhouette of staples, which contoured his body, and suspended him for an hour and a half. Appropriating Russian Constructivist painter Malevich’s White on White (1918), Kheradyar physically interjected himself between the white frames thus, one could say, creating a third space of belonging, and forcing whiteness to contend with transnational difference.
Abdelali Dahrouch also explored the impact of hegemonic historical narratives in Yellow Citizen. This compelling video installation features a montage of scenes of Japanese Americans being carted to internment camps during WWII, combined with images of Arab Americans post 9/11. Dahrouch painted a yellow band onto the wall across which the video is projected; this band of color swept across the faces of those in the video, and reflected a 7’ by 11’ rectangular floor piece of powdered yellow tempera paint. Yellow Citizen appeared to link the current Bush administration to a legacy of imperialism while at the same time fostering vital ties between disenfranchised communities of color.
Lida Abdul’s Tales from Bacteria featured a prayer rug soiled by a pile of ash, within which a child’s toy is buried, with red lights flashing, “fire, fire.” In a play on words, the title recalls the ancient name of Afghanistan, Bactar, and refers to the West’s erosion of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage. Wrought by imperial invasion and domination, Bactar has evolved into the post-9/11 imaginary of a diseased nation in need of salvation through obliteration.
Zineb Sedira’s Mother Tongue is made up of three 20" television sets, featuring conversations between the artist and her mother, the artist and her daughter, and the daughter and her grandmother. With dialogue in Arabic, French, and English, we find that these women are unable to communicate in a single language. Sedira’s triptych created a moving portrayal of cultural displacement, and the ambivalence engendered by these women’s proximity to and alienation from one another.
Taraneh Hemami’s Hall of Reflections: Remembrances of Iranian Immigrants depicted a collection of her family photographs on mirrored surfaces that occupied a corner of the gallery space from floor to ceiling. I found myself drawn in; the images coax one to negotiate multiple representations of the “Iranian” in relation to the overwrought history of stereotypical images of Muslims in the U.S.
Gul Cagin’s installation, Landscape Mimicry, featured alien-like bodies: a three-dimensional seven-foot stuffed animal covered in tin foil; a graphite drawing of a similar form on paper; a single channel video screen; and the physical body of a female dancer. Together these elements came to represent alternative space, and the potential to consider community affiliation across difference. Cagin’s assemblage of esoteric forms visualized a notion of plurality that neither demonizes nor dehumanizes, but rather offers a range of realities, and their proximity to one another.
It is interesting to consider the greater consequences of how Arab/Middle Eastern/Islamic contemporary art is conceived at this particular moment in time, given these provocative works and the curious reception this critical exhibit received. According to co-curator Lida Abdul, the exhibition only received two reviews (including this is one). Both were in magazines based abroad. To the artists, this could suggest a kind of indifference or apathy towards cultural forums that challenge monolithic representations of “Islam.” At a panel discussion, one audience member commented on how surprised she was to see that the works featured could be displayed in any contemporary art forum, rather than being the ornate or exoticized images so often associated with Islamic art. Her comments resonated heavily for the artists who were quick to assert that there is no single, reductive prescription for “Islamic art.” Certainly, Cagin and Abdul’s objective in conceptualizing “Poetics of Proximity” was to precisely undermine such simplistic and erroneous perceptions, but their vision does much more. The exhibition moved beyond narrow representations of “Other” to address cultural specificity in a way that garners a consciousness of diversity and social transformation. As Abdul eloquently said, “‘Poetics of Proximity’ brings about a more reciprocal dialogue not so much between some monolithic ‘East’ and multifaceted ‘West,’ but between different styles of thinking and seeing the world.”
January 21-22, February 3-4, 2004
The exhibition helped people come to terms with the disaster: it was like a mourning session after the death of a loved one. I have to be honest, we tend to forget what has befallen us. For me, the show was a reminder, a way for us to show sympathy.
In late December 2003, a massive earthquake destroyed eighty per cent of the ancient Iranian city of Bam and killed some 50,000 of its residents. The news-watching world was stunned, almost unable to comprehend the scale of the disaster. Unwilling to sit back and do nothing, actor Atila Pessiani and artist Amir Mo’bed, along with around 18 other Tehran artists, sprang into action. Within a week, they had sought the necessary permits, found a suitably haunting venue (a cold, dark former military depot), and curated an exhibition of original installation, performance, painting, sculpture and video to reflect on the tragedy.
Renowned installation artist Bita Fayyazi got together with a group of younger practitioners — Maryam Amini, Nargess Hashemi, Alireza Ma’soumi, Ramin Haerizadeh and Rokni Haerizadeh — to create a moving installation of “fallen angels,” their clay forms twisted in grief under a blue neon arch. The same group of painters and photographers also performed a poignant shadow play behind a screen on the top floor. Meanwhile, down on the ground level of the warehouse, visitors watched Atila Pessiani’s band of keen performers, eerily shuffling their way around the gallery, plucking instruments, their faces wrapped in shrouds or bandages.
Barbad Golshiri, working in collaboration with Golnar Tabibzadeh, Ali Shirkhodaie and Yalda Mo’ayer, covered the bare concrete walls with disturbing large-scale slide and video projections. Their work, titled “The Incredulity of Saint Barbad,” alternated footage of Bam residents digging through the rubble with an artful shot of a blinking eye clogged with mascara, and a still of Caravaggio’s “Kiss of Judas.”
Grief was further laid bare in Mourning for 100 corpses, an installation by rising Tehran art star Shahab Fotouhi, who presented forensic photos of unidentified people dragged from the rubble, with each tiny, vivid portrait illuminated by a single, naked bulb. And down in the dank basement, while visitors lit candles in Amir Mo’bed’s long, soft terra-cotta memorial, filled with the heady colour and scent of carnations, Jinoos Taghizadeh’s camera, set up opposite a slide projection of a mass grave, cynically flashed away, forever shooting the dead.
For Bam was a threefold rarity among contemporary art shows: it was a swift yet pensive response to a current tragedy; it brought together disparate visual and performance artists in a tightly-curated, innovative and collaborative show; and it reached out to viewers, providing them with an opportunity to reflect and grieve.
Farhad Moshiri: Rogue
Kashya Hildebrand Gallery
April 29–June 5, 2004
Farhad Moshiri betrays no sign of roguish humor as he discusses his recent New York exhibition. But the 40-year-old Iranian’s work has consistently and subtly played with topics Iranians rarely treat with irreverence: their history, their identity and their contemporary culture. Rogue, the artist’s first solo showing in New York, delivers a group of large, delicately textured calligraphic paintings and a dazzlingly brutal installation of golden weapons. Iranian pop art is repackaged and reoriented for an American art public; the result is a deliberately fabricated “Middle East” that challenges the fears and fantasies of the recent postwar climate with lighthearted grace.
Taking his cue from the 75th Exploitation Task Force, sent by the US on a mission to uncover weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Moshiri has impishly recreated the justification of the Iraq war—rows of weapons laid out as if just recovered in a desert ambush, a sobering assault if it weren’t for their bizarre gilt sheen. The artist explains: “Coming from an Eastern nation with a pending proliferation issue, I decided to take the term ‘rogue nation’ as the subject for my Chelsea show; the fantastic Indiana Jones idea of finding a hidden vault in the desert filled with loot.”
After an unsuccessful first mission, the 75th was dispatched to recover looted Iraqi artifacts. Moshiri follows suit, giving us the precious fragility of ancient pottery and cracking scrolls. The iconic forms and lovingly-crafted surfaces of his monumental jar paintings are covered with lines of familiar Persian calligraphy. Yet this is not the high lyricism of Hafez and Rumi, nor is it a rousing Koranic verse—the titles read as frothy lyrics from popular Iranian love songs, pop music that has only recently been allowed limited production and distribution rights in Tehran.
The art may play with orientalist expectations and media hype, but like the artist himself, it is anchored by a quiet dignity. Moshiri is a master at his painterly craft, layering and peeling away surfaces to create contrasting impressions: menacing danger, cherished antiquity or sugary sentimentality. The CalArts graduate has lived in Iran for the past 14 years, and is skilled at navigating the landscapes of both cultures. He also knows how to take us along on the journey, to a strange East where expectations are subverted and the rogues are good-humored.
For more information on Farhad Moshiri’s brilliance, go to www.kashyahilebrand.org/newyork.moshiri
Ms. Setareh Shenas delivers the astrological goods this season, direct from Tehran. This summer is bound to be interesting, if not tumultuous, says this classy clairvoyant.
The collective impulses of the spring equinox flow into a transitional phase during the summer months, bringing disintegration, and with it, a refulgent rebirth. Keep cool and accept the onslaught of potential (read: likely) relationship severances to come. Ruptures abound, volcanic in nature.
Taureans this month will be marked by sluggish planetary movements as Pluto chugs disheartened into the lifeless sphere of Mars. As temperatures top 40, embrace the summer heat and surrender to the slump. Doubtless, you will rise invigorated, emerging as a sun-kissed phoenix amidst pasty compatriots.
Mars has burst into Gemini, foreshadowing imminent collisions. After a month of tormented vegetarianism and/or self-imposed dietary restrictions, Mars returns to its astral nemesis Taurus and your waste line breathes again. Prune juice is a rule of thumb.
You are on the verge of a four-year cycle of prosperity and productivity. While your days are fruitful, accept that nights of frivolous hedonism are coming to an end as Venus wanes. Wave goodbye as dawn choruses sidestep into the sunset. Look on your early coffees as a sign of newborn diligence.
While you exude authority until late November, the alignment of Mercury and Venus in the summer months may spark bouts of foolish exhibitionism. Save political impressions for later and watch for clandestine fundies of every hue. Temperance and patience paddle you safely through the jungle of discontent and disarm your enemies. Defend the middle ground.
The nine-fold Rahu enters Leo, spawning chaos as friendships strain and work teeters nervously over a gulf of failure. Hold your nerve and don’t be a prisoner to expectations. Rahu passes and old comforts return to cushion the banal, quotidian rituals. Relax with friends grateful for your company.
Kala Sarpa Yoga begins bringing reconciliation to bitter conflicts. Accept apologies from former sparring partners and rescind the high ground in favor of peace. Heed homespun advice. If you swallow your pride, you will unlock the gateway to new levels of realization.
The Uranus-Jupiter ninefold quincunx pierces the orbit of Mars dissecting logic and reason. Take chances, look beyond the expected and reap the rewards. They outweigh the specter of failure. Don’t look back at the black clouds gathering. With determination you can stay one step ahead.
Uranus spins out of control and bellyflops onto Mercury, heralding an excruciating month of embarrassment and financial loss. Expect the death of a pet or a loose corollary. Stoical perseverance will prove futile against the onslaught of this month’s unmitigated awfulness. Hotheaded romantic miscalculations may scar you for the next year. Sorry, Sagittarius.
Retrograde Neptune loops-the-loop and parallel parks next to its celestial sister nine-fold Saturn as it glissades into Pisces. Lock horns with your past and dredge up memories. Confront lurking fears and move beyond your irrational self.
Pluto dives into its conjunction with Saturn, splashing Aquarians with debt and disaster. Collections threaten but sit out the bad times. Blind optimism will be rewarded against the odds. Breaks heal stronger second time round.
Shatter the Jupiter/Saturn sextile with a bold approach to potential objects of affection. Fin through the sexual politics and get to the point. Haul in your catch with determination, but remember, only a fraction of them are fit for the pot.
Maha Alusi is an architect and an artist when it comes to food. Her mission is to always find new ways to celebrate art and the senses. “Art should be consumed in all means, and food is the best way to honor all senses.” Maha is interested in transformation, in describing movements. “Well, I see food creations as the most consequent form of presenting the circle of life: the growing, the emerging and the falling into pieces — birth and death at once. Art should not be seen as something static. I proved this way of capturing the environment and the senses also in my work as an architect — e.g. the construction for the German pavilion at the EXPO 2000. I searched for forms that allow the ‘elements’ (materials) to move, to change. It is much more interesting to discover new ways of seeing a building or a construction than simply trying to serve the comfort or common way of design. Lately, I am very much into the idea of layers, the development and the deconstruction of layers. That’s why I have chosen to transform the traditional Iraqi dish makluba into a modern version,” she says, laughing.
Today, the architect and designer Alusi lives in Berlin, Germany, in one of the city’s famous flat-roof bungalows built in the 1950s for US embassy employees and left vacant after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Located in the far west of the city, these cool Bauhaus bungalows were lost to history — forgotten in the green, ready to be discovered. Alusi and her husband did just that three years ago, and restored the structure into a spacious, open place to live.
Her newest project is a construction out of wax — a sort of candle that takes its form while melting. “The full experience with this candle only takes place if you destroy it by burning it down — deconstruction and creation in one moment,” she says. The procedure is unique and Alusi is applying for a patent. Till then, you can try her makluba creation and her dream of a cake recipe! Sahtein!
1 liter mineral water
1 spoon syrup of orange blossoms
Stir gently and serve cold. A fresh welcome drink for the summer.
2 eggplants (sliced a quarter of an inch thick, lengthwise)
1 bunch parsley (flat-leaf, chopped)
240 ml (1 cup) basmati rice
30 ml (2 tbsp) olive oil (for the eggplants)
30 ml (2 tbsp) olive oil (for the rice)
240 ml (1 cup) Mozzarella cheese (grated)
2 fresh tomatoes
15 ml (1 tbsp) tomato purée
2 kilos (4.5 lbs) minced meat (lamb)
Chop the onion and sauté in a pan until they are translucent. Add tomato puree, take and then add the minced meat. Stir gently on low heat.
Wash the rice, and then boil with enough water to cover it. Don’t cook for too long, as it will be baking later.
Lay the eggplants on a sheet of tin foil and brush them with oil. Bake at 180°C (350°F) until they become light brown. (This is a good and easy way to avoiding to frying eggplant — which often leads to an unromantic smell in your flat.)
Prepare an angular baking dish (6 cm deep) with a bit of oil.
Now the fun starts. Layer the rice first, then cover with a layer of eggplants, the meat and tomato mixture, and a layer of chopped parsley. Repeat. Top with lots of cheese and bake in the oven for 30 minutes at 180°C (350°F). At the end broil for 2 minutes to brown the cheese and make everyone love you.
Cut into quarters. Serve with sauce and fresh tomato on top.
600 g (21 oz) plain yoghurt
40 g (3 tbsp) parsley (finely chopped)
40 g (3 tbsp) fresh lemon juice
3 cloves garlic (crushed)
Salt to taste
Strain the yogurt. You can do this by putting a paper towel or Kleenex in a sieve and pouring the yogurt in to it. Leave for about an hour. Add the remaining ingredients to the yoghurt and serve.
Bustan is the Arabic word for garden. Our cake came decorated with edible chocolate leaves.
125 g (9 tbsp butter)
80 g (1/3 cup) sugar
15 g (1 tbsp) baking powder
200 g (1 cup) flour
50 g (2 oz) candied orange slices
100 g (4 oz) dates
100 g (4 oz) dark chocolate
For the crust
150 g (¾ cup) flour
50 g (¼ cup) sugar
100 g (7 tbsp) butter
15 g (1 tbsp) cocoa powder
Make the crust first. Mix flour, sugar, butter and eggs in an electric mixer until it is soft. Divide the mixture in half. Leave one as it is and add the cocoa to the other.
Soak the dates in warm water for about 15 minutes.
Mix the butter and sugar until foamy. Add the eggs, flour and baking soda.
Cut the dates, chocolate and orange slices into small pieces and add to the dough.
Grease the baking dish with butter and then sprinkle with flour.
Roll out both crusts. Spread the plain one to cover the bottom and the sides of the baking form. Pour the dough in.
Bake at 180°C (350°F) for one hour.
Use the chocolate crust to design flowers, leaves, or garden animals. Its up to you, after all, it’s your cake. Bake the decorations next to the cake and then arrange on top before serving.
Weaving through the claustrophobic streets of Lower Manhattan, with the towering skyscrapers of the Financial District that loom overhead getting seemingly closer and closer, the journey to the headquarters of Alwan for the Arts, the Middle East arts-and-culture organization, is a comforting reminder of New York’s interminable possibilities. Housed on the forth floor of Sixteen Beaver Street, Alwan’s very location stands testament to the city’s continued duality as both a financial and cultural hub. The large loft space — still a work in progress — always seems to bubble with energy and enthusiasm.
The brainchild of Alex Khalil, Alwan was first conceived in Houston where Khalil was based. When he relocated to New York in 1997, so too did the nonprofit organization established to promote arts from the Arab world and Iran. It was here that partner Ahmed Issawi came on board and, for a while, the two ran the operation from a small space in Midtown.
The primary focus during the early days was on film; the duo organized a number of film series and larger festivals at New York University’s Cantor Film Center, which showcased what the Middle East had to offer on the big screen. Such events represented one of the earliest conscious attempts to expose the city’s cinemagoers to work from this region. Alwan’s efforts were met with significant success.
Khalil and Issawi had clearly identified a larger interest group whose curiosity in the Middle East and its cultural output was not being catered for. They began to branch out and explore possibilities beyond the screen including music, literature and visual arts. Consequently, the initial space could simply no longer contain the organization and its growing potential, and in June 2003 Alwan took up residence in its current location.
With this move came a shift in focus, one in which film continued to play a role but not the definitive one it once did. Now the program includes language classes, concerts, poetry readings, lectures, art exhibitions — and this list is by no means exhaustive. Recently, Alwan has hosted the likes of Marcel Khalife, Michel Khleifi and Tariq Ali. Poetry readings — in which the verses are recited in the original language as fragments are translated into several others to the accompaniment of music — have been a surprising success. Even audiences who don’t understand Arabic attend. “They give people the opportunity to enjoy the lyrical quality of Arabic,” says Issawi. “Most people are only exposed to the language in political or religious rhetoric. This allows them a different experience of the language.”
Despite the fact that much of the work they show is politically or religiously loaded, Alwan tries as much as possible to take a backseat. “We are not ADC (American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee). As much as possible, we try not to take overtly political stances,” says Issawi.
With the ever-growing strength of Alwan one is almost in awe to find out that this project is the effort of so few and runs solely on the donations of supporters. The question of sustainability is an important one, and something that Alwan’s board is well aware. Despite being well connected in the various echelons of New York’s culture scene, the organization is very much one of the most dedicated at promoting Arab arts in the United States.
Alwan’s scope has broadened geographically as well as in terms of medium; audiences are being exposed more and more to production from South Asia and Africa, both for the sake of variety and in the hope of drawing in a wider audience. The organization’s public is not confined to the physical realm but also inhabits a virtual one — in the form of a list serve through which its own, and numerous other events across the city, are advertised. Sign on to their mailing list and you will be almost overwhelmed with news of the constant array of events which hit your mailbox. With much the same spirit, the physical space is offered to groups for fundraising and other activity.
It seems that if Khalil and Issawi have succeeded in doing something, they first and foremost created a community which brings together people from diverse cultural backgrounds and encourages the possibility of dialogue and exchange which, in the light of international events and the current political climate in the United States, is more crucial than ever; it makes facing the onslaught that little bit easier.