The mixed feelings of national identity

BEIRUT: The images are simple, neither formally complex nor conceptually grounded. Along the staircase entryway and around the two-room gallery space of Dar al-Mussawir, a series of classic portraits by photographer Marta Bogdanska are hung at eyelevel. Each of her subjects, photographed against a white backdrop, looks directly at the viewer, their expressions candid or smiling, coy or playful.

“They are straightforward and energetic, good portraits,” says Bogdanska.

“You don’t need to oversell when the work is good,” adds Nisreen Kaj, the photographer’s collaborator on this project.

The power of the duo’s work lies in uncovering the three commonalities linking their 30 subjects. None looks classically Lebanese, yet all bear Lebanese names and hail from Lebanese towns.

The images themselves reveal the first of these; each portrait’s exhibit tag discloses the context.

Scattered between the portraits are prints of the same size bearing unattributed quotations collected by Kaj, who works as a copywriter and activist.

The texts reveal the subjects’ experience of otherness, exclusion, racism and stereotyping. “They used to call my mom a monkey,” one quotation reads. “They always make you feel different and a stranger,” remarks another. A third recollects an inquiry – “Sorry I want to ask you: We need a maid to clean the house, can you ... are you free?”

In “Mixed Feelings,” as Bogdanska and Kaj’s exhibition is titled, portraits of people of African- or Asian-Lebanese descent become a conduit for questions of race, racialization, other-ing and, ultimately, identity. What does it mean to belong or not belong in Lebanese society?

Speaking to The Daily Star the morning after the exhibition opened, Kaj explained that in Lebanon the debate on racism is focused on “binary lines of opposition.”

When racism is addressed in society, she says, the discussion centers on migrant domestic workers, usually comprised of individuals of African and Asian origin. In relation to this group, it’s easy for Lebanese to draw an “us and them” distinction. “We are what they are not,” says Kaj – namely, Lebanese.

Kaj and Bogdanska first met two years ago, and last year Kaj invited Bogdanska to join her in exploring a third facet of the racism issue in Lebanon: the group of Lebanese citizens who are linguistically and culturally at home in the Levant, but who find themselves eternally labeled and ostracized as different.

Upon embarking on the project, the duo quickly discovered that their target group contained a wealth of frustration and anger. Meeting their subjects and taking their portraits, the pair found they were also giving individuals the “opportunity to discuss what they were feeling.”

Some were shy at first, but slowly their stories, and the patterns shared among those stories, emerged. The conclusion was apparent: It’s not easy being Lebanese if you don’t look Lebanese. Indeed, the artists say that living here is so challenging that some participants expressed a desire to leave Lebanon as soon as possible.

In Lebanon, Kaj explains, “classism is tied to negative stereotyping and becomes an excuse for racism.” For example, a Lebanese will claim that they treat their Sri Lankan maid in accordance with how they would treat a person of any race or nationality working in that profession. Putting aside how domestic workers are actually treated, this attitude easily elides with racism, when South Asians are automatically treated as maids.

The exhibition’s strength lies in its sheer simplicity, yet it doesn’t overlook the complexity of racism, in both its active and passive forms.

A three-page text, distributed at the exhibition’s opening, breaks down the experiences of Bogdanska and Kaj’s subjects into three themes: Racism by youth against youth; boundary building and identity fetishism; stereotyping, racialization, racism. Each of these themes is illustrated with quotations from the subjects.

In the “identity fetishism” theme, for instance, one participant is quoted as saying, “True, Lebanese are dark ... but your darkness is different than their darkness.”

Kaj can personally attest to such experience. She is Lebanese Nigerian, but she looks more Nigerian than Lebanese, meaning she is regularly identified as the former and treated accordingly – as a domestic worker or a sex worker, for instance. Yet, as family members have pointed out, her skin is no lighter or darker than that of some of her Lebanese cousins.

Lebanese-Australian scholar Ghassan Hage has worked on developing a theory of identity fetishism, Kaj says, using the Lebanese Maronite community in his research.

Within this community, whiteness is often a common identifier among people who are not typically white, adds Bogdanska.

Regardless of their profession or class, members of the group use their aspirational whiteness to separate themselves from groups that they consider beneath them.

“Racism is not about color,” concludes Kaj. “It’s about processes assigned to that color.”

“Mixed Feelings” aims to explore and break down such notions but, while the collaborators were thrilled by the turnout at the show’s opening and the panel discussion that followed, “we’re preaching to the converted,” Kaj acknowledges.

As is oft typical at such events, those attending the show’s opening included an assortment of conscientious NGO workers, United Nations agency representatives, activists and journalists. Some of the friends and families of Bogdanska’s subjects were also present, which pleased the artists.

The objective now is to build on the momentum. Kaj and Bogdanska describe the Dar al-Mussawir exhibition as “phase one,” but they’re still unsure what form “phase two” will take.

Stay tuned.

“Mixed Feelings” is up at Dar al-Mussawir until July 18. For more information please contact 01-373-347.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 05, 2012, on page 16.




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