Culture

A curtain binding Lebanon and Brazil

BEIRUT: The 20th edition of VideoBrasil commences Tuesday with the opening of its “Southern Panoramas” exhibition at Sao Paulo’s SESC Pompeia. VideoBrasil has long been known for exhibiting new work by contemporary artists of the global south, and under Solange Farkhas’ directorship it’s provided an important platform for Lebanese artists. This year Roy Dib will show two works during the three-month event. “The Beach House,” his debut feature film that didn’t have its Beirut premiere earlier this year during Ayyam Beirut al-Cinemaiyya, will be projected multiple times during the opening week of festivities and daily through January 2018.

The opening day program also includes the premiere of “Here and There – Sao Paulo edition,” a new performance commissioned for VideoBrasil’s 20th anniversary.

The work takes its departure from a pair of works Dib premiered at the Sharjah Biennial in March. The Sharjah edition of “Here and There” was an ornate handmade curtain hung in a narrow passage in the Sharjah Art Foundation’s village-like warren of exhibition halls.

That piece referenced Dib’s theater performance “Close to Here,” starring Julia Kassar at the head of an ensemble cast of actors and musicians. The principal visual motif of that play is a massive curtain Kassar’s character stitches, which is hung near the end of the work.

That motif was inspired by a practice originating during Syria’s civil war, in besieged quarters of opposition-held Aleppo. Residents removed the curtains from their balconies and stitched them together to make huge draperies that, when hung at the end of a street, could impede snipers’ line of sight.

As Dib told The Daily Star, The Sao Paulo edition of “Here and There” is a slightly different work from the Sharjah prototype.

“Once you put up the curtain, there are two spaces – ‘here’ and ‘there,’” Dib explained. “The curtain in Sharjah was a continuation of the [play’s] scenography. Once I decided to take the project in Sao Paulo, one of my main concerns was not to fetishize war objects.

“Solange wanted something related to the curtain [but it made no sense] transporting a piece from Aleppo to Sao Paulo, where there is no war, no snipers, where you’re not preventing anything. To do so would [render] what was happening in Aleppo [banal].”

Dib’s new performance interrogates the premise of the protective curtain. Starting Tuesday Tania Maalouf, a Lebanese-Brazilian, will sit on the ground outside the exhibition for two hours a day, amidst a mound of fabric. Some of this will be the same fabric used for balcony curtains in the Levant. More, decorated with bird and floral patterns, is typically Brazilian.

“Tania sits, surrounded by fabric, sewing,” Dib says. “The object is to sew the fabric together to create a big curtain that she will hang to block the passage where she’s working.

“While she’s sewing, she’ll sometimes invite [passersby] to come and sit with her. She has pieces of paper on which are written sentences in Portuguese, Arabic and English.

“She’ll read the paper to her guest, then cut a piece from the fabric she’s sewing – making a circular hole in it – then she’ll roll the piece of paper into the fabric to make an amulet and give [it] to her guest.

“She’ll sew the fabrics together for three days to make one big curtain while distributing her text-amulets cut from the same fabric. When she’s done, she’ll hang her curtain in the passage to block it, but actually it won’t “block” anything because it will be full of holes.

“This curtain doesn’t pretend to protect anyone, but it does reflect upon those curtains in Aleppo. Those holes that could be bullet holes are in reality the empty space of another protection happening elsewhere.

“In Arabic ‘hajib’ is the thing that protects you from the other, preventing the other from seeing you or hearing you. Hajib is also our word for amulet.”

While adapting “Here and There” for VideoBrasil, Dib was working on an art residency in Salvador de Bahia, a major Brazilian entrepôt for the Atlantic slave trade. There he stumbled across a few facts that anchor the new work in Brazil and in the Arab world.

“In Salvador I discovered the amulet is a [pervasive part of] Brazilian culture. It comes from the Arabs. In the 1800s, a group of black Arab Muslims arrived in Salvador de Bahia among the African slaves. They were Sunni Muslims but practiced voodoo.

“When they arrived in Salvador these Arabs were among the few literate people around, so they opened a few schools in secret. They taught people how to read and write. Part of their business was to make amulets with Quranic texts for people, which they’d sell.”

Called the Males (from “moualim”), Bahia’s Arabs went on to lead an unsuccessful slave revolt. When Portuguese administrators rounded up the rebels and confiscated their belongings, they found many amulets in their clothes.

“These have been kept at Salvador’s archival institute so I was able to examine them,” Dib recalled. “You find texts written in Arabic, Quranic verses, drawings. Amulets remained a part of Brazilian culture, associated with popular religious practices. It’s one of several residues of the country’s Arab slaves.”

“Here and There – Sao Paulo edition” premieres 3 Oct., 8 p.m., with the opening of “Southern Panoramas,” the exhibition of the 20th edition of VideoBrasil at SESC Pompeia, Sao Paulo. For the full programme, see festivalsescVideoBrasil.org.br

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 03, 2017, on page 16.

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