Sednaya to Rio Abajo, and beyond

SHARJAH, United Arab Emirates: A portrait-shaped slab of wood is the canvas for a map of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The piece, which sits upon the gallery floor, leaning against one wall, has been placed upside down, with the territory’s northern border near the floor.The map is rendered by hundreds of finishing nails, each partly driven into the wood and bent parallel to the surface to form a metallic bramble. The nails demarcate the territory’s borders with Israel and Jordan, and coat the 60 percent of the West Bank corresponding to “Area C” – which the Oslo Accords gave to the Israeli military to administer, where Palestinian construction is severely restricted and the construction of illegal Zionist settlement is concentrated.

Areas A and B – which Oslo ceded to Palestinian and Palestinian-Israeli rule – are literal gaps in the cartography, existing only in terms of the occupied regions, multiply subdivided by tangled rows of nails.

This work is part of Khalil Rabah’s mixed-media installation “Palestine after Palestine.” The resonant title evokes the expression “time after time” – here, the banal persistence of the Israeli occupation and the resilience of the Palestinian bodies it occupies – while proposing its opposite. What will Palestine be after it ceases to be?

The subtitle, “New sites for the Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind Departments,” grounds the work within Rabah’s practice, which since 2003 has used the institutional discourse of the European museum – stock-in-trade for any successful nation-state – as mise en scene to stage the Palestinian condition.

Much of the power of Rabah’s work resides in the brochure-like language of the installation – a hodgepodge of sketches and photos, maps and play-toy figurines, percentages and arte povera-inspired pieces – and the narrative of human evisceration this language both implies and ignores.

“Palestine after Palestine” is among the dozens of new works the Sharjah Art Foundation commissioned for “Tamawuj,” the 13th Sharjah Biennial (SB13).

“Tamawuj” boasts work by 80-odd artists arrayed over six venues around greater Sharjah. The art on show is varied enough to consume a springtime vacation – especially for those whose appreciation of appropriately spiced, affordably priced South Asian cuisine outweighs their desire to wash it down with lager.

While on the subject of fluids, “tamawuj” is an Arabic noun for wave action, fluctuation or an undulating outline or form. There are works in this biennial that somehow suggest wave-sustaining liquids – water, say – but “Tamawuj” curator Christine Tohme has not been fundamentalist in demanding doctrinal conformity from her artists’ work.

The volume of intelligent, cleverly devised art on show – both newly commissioned work and less-new, critically lauded pieces – and the thought and labor that’s gone into staging them – makes “Tamawuj” an art-lover’s biennial.

“Palestine after Palestine” occupies a gallery in Al-Mureijah Square, a villagelike warren of indoor and outdoor exhibition spaces that (like those of Calligraphy Square and Arts Square) are all in SAF precincts – the once-neglected old town center that’s now being gentrified.

Al-Mureijah’s 13 exhibition sites are staging work by 20-odd artists, whose practices reflect the formal and discursive variety of SB13 as a whole.

While a few pieces are aesthetic reflections upon political themes, politics (indeed narrative) is indiscernible in others. Witness the much-admired decision to deploy Mariana Castillo Deball’s 2016 installation “Hypothesis of a Tree” alongside Monika Sosnowska’s 2013 work “Facade.” Both massive mobiles, “Hypothesis” (a spiraling structure of bamboo rods hung with flag-like strips of Japanese paper inked in abstract patterns) could be a formal metaphor for fragility, while the black steel structure of “Facade” hangs like the abandoned chrysalis of a creature from Ridley Scott’s nightmares.

Though many artists have taken up traditional forms of figuration and abstraction – printed cloth and tapestry are as ubiquitous as fabricated forms – there are several strong works of electronic art.

Anyone with a taste for amusing incongruity will be delighted by Inci Eviner’s contributions to SB13. Most memorable is her 2015 video installation “Runaway Girls” (Sharjah Calligraphy Museum). Here, the camera pivots through a three-minute loop of 360-degree rotations around a warehouse-sized space within a construction site, littered with whimsical sculptures from Turkish popular culture. During this panning shot, the lens encounters an absurd, mutable tableau featuring female actors attired in pajamalike prison garb, a sheep and a pair of seriously mustachioed, cross-dressing riot cops, dancing.

More understated is the 2017 video installation “Extended Sea,” by Nesrine Khodr, one of 20 international artists showing work at Al-Hamriyah Studios – a state-of-the-art-looking facility situated in the desert, on a Lost Highway some distance from the city.

Shot in a single 12-hour take, Khodr’s two-channel work projects two separate images – one above the horizon line, the other below. In the lower projection a swimmer, the artist, repeatedly enters and exits the frame as she laps a pool. Though Khodr (who traveled over 9 kilometers that day) didn’t swim 12 hours straight, the installation faithfully reports the progress of this shard of time, from predawn darkness through sunset.

A few pieces, like Joe Namy’s SAF commission “Libretto-o-o: A Curtain Design in the Bright Sunshine Heavy with Love,” try to mingle traditional and electronic media.

Naturally much of the work in SB13 has emerged from discursive explorations and, while some pieces are refined enough to stand free of textual trellising, it’s wise to keep your reading glasses handy.

Lodged in Calligraphy Square’s SCAACO space, Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s “Tamawuj” commission “Saydnaya (the missing 19db)” responds to this region’s lamentable political realities.

Prefatory texts locate the piece in the artist’s work with Amnesty International and Forensic Architecture (Goldsmiths, University of London), during which he interviewed several survivors of Sednaya prison, north of Damascus, where it’s believed over 13,000 people have been executed since anti-regime protests began in 2011.

Because detainees were blindfolded or held in darkness, their sense of hearing tended to sharpen during captivity. Consequently, informants’ testimonies were based on aural (not visual) recollection.

Abu Hamdan presented his fieldwork during an artist talk at the Sursock Museum in late 2016 and the artist has labored to shape his research into a thought-provoking audio-visual installation.

The gallery interior is completely dark during the piece’s 12-minute cycle. It commences with a series of tones to acclimatize listeners to the decibel range of communication – from normal conversation, to the muted tones of Sednaya detainees before 2011, to the 19db drop after 2011. The artist’s voiceover describes the circumstances of detention and the silencing of Sednaya that marked its transformation from detention center to execution facility. Testimonials (in Arabic and English) augment this narrative.

On the floor in the center of the room sits a soundboard, automated so that its dials rise and fall to reflect the decibel levels at which detainees could communicate without the guards overhearing, beating and killing them. Near the end of the work, a narrow, wall-length light box blinks to life, visualizing the decibel levels of detainees’ whispered communication.

A technologically enabled, spatial emersion within political prisoners’ sight and sound world, Abu Hamdan’s work is ultimately a lyrical gesture to the proximity of silence and death.

Across the square in Dar al-Nadwa, Jonathas De Andrade’s 2016 video installation “O Peixe” (The Fish) sits in documentary and formal opposition to “Saydnaya.”

Shot on 16mm film in Brazil’s northeast, De Andrade’s 37-minute film is a series of documentary-style vignettes of several lone men fishing from canoes. In each episode a fisherman hooks a sizeable fish, which thrashes violently to evade capture, but is ultimately pulled aboard. There each man embraces and tenderly caresses his catch until it dies.

Documented or staged, “O Peixe” suggests an interspecies affinity that – alongside the expressions of reckless cruelty that preoccupy most media these days – might be sweet, were it not so perplexing.

De Andrade’s piece is nicely complemented in Dar al-Nadwa by two works, Nida Sinnokrot’s classic 1998-9 16mm film installation “When Her Eyes Lifted” – in which viewers’ footfalls trigger mechanisms that accelerate and decelerate the projector’s frame rate and actually gouge into the media itself – and a very different type of moving image experiment, Ismail Bahri’s 2016 video “Revers.”

Though the Tunisian artist’s work runs 45 minutes, it makes its point quickly. Two hands (invisibly fitted with microphones) reach from the darkness toward the camera lens, holding a glossy magazine page adorned with photos of some celebrity or other. The hands crumple the page into a tight wad. Then, careful to not tear the paper, they straighten it out. Again the paper is wadded up, then straightened again. As this wrinkling continues, the paper’s image fades to near erasure, while the ink from the printed page blackens the actor’s hands. “Revers” is an elegant gesture to the transience of the image (here the industrially rendered image) and its tendency to imprint itself upon the body.

Every biennial has a work you want to revisit. Among these is Allora & Calzadilla’s 2014 three-channel video installation “The Great Silence.” The three screens capture two vistas. One is Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory, the world’s largest single-aperture radio telescope, which transmits and captures radio waves to and from the edges of the universe. The other is Rio Abajo forest, which surrounds Arecibo, home to the last wild population of critically endangered Amazona vittata parrots – which share humans’ rare faculty for vocal learning.

Co-written with science fiction author Ted Chiang, the work’s narrative subtitles chronicle our efforts to find intelligent life in the universe. The narrator, a parrot, reflects upon how humankind’s search spans the distant reaches of time-space while, just beyond the observatory compound, a species quite close to humans’ spatial and cognitive abilities nears extinction.

The work’s three screens form an alcove where the public must stand or sit. As our heads pan the 180 degrees needed to follow all three tableaux, it’s impossible to appreciate the work without seeing its real subject – ourselves.

“Tamawuj,” Sharjah Biennial 13, runs through June 12. For more information, see:

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 27, 2017, on page 16.




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