By Ossian Ward
28 August 2007
August 29 - September 4 2007
A group show by Middle Eastern artists avoids cliché says Ossian Ward, who finds Osama bin Laden’s obituaries, Baghdad babies and blasphemous takes on Islam aplenty in ‘Recognise’
Red light district, Nada Prlja, 'Tomorrow Is Mine', 2007
Finsbury Park is not known as a hotbed of contemporary culture, unless, of course, you are an Arsenal fan who believes the gleaming Emirates Stadium to be a theatre of footballing artistry. Yet lurking behind the metal shutters of a disused warehouse, alongside the Ethiopian restaurant and Turkish kebab shops on Seven Sisters Road, is an intriguing, eerie installation of recent art focusing squarely on the troubled Middle East. The 30 or so works that make up ‘Recognise’, are displayed among old wire shelving units and are roughly tacked up or projected onto bare brick walls.
‘Bin Laden is Dead’ screaming a row of black posters. The debates and wishful thinking surrounding the Al-Qaeda leader’s whereabouts and physical condition since 9/11 have made him a mystical, almost unreal, bogeyman. A pile of these provocative posters, made by Nada Prlja, a Macedonian artist living in London, is also stacked on a trolley to be taken away or distributed, their reverses printed with some of the propagandistic and downright false pronouncements of the Saudi extremist’s untimely death, appearing on newspapers and websites from Washington to Warzisten (his current supposed hideout).
‘Tomorrow is Mine’, says a sizzling red neon light down a dark corridor, although unless you can read Arabic script, you have to take translator’s word for it (much as anything we see or read needs to be questioned, or at the very least, taken with a pinch of salt). This work is also by Prlja, so it would seem she either wants to invoke the vengeful spirit of Osama bin Laden through her ominous words or, more menacing still, wants to brand the whole Arabic world as unscrupulously power hungry. But, as I have just learnt from her posters, nothing written is as straightforward as it seems, and besides, the fluorescent red-light glow is also located cheekily next to a back door, hinting that beyond the exit are new, tantalising pleasures to be had.
The position of artists living outside the region making work around the conflict in Iraq or Afghanistan is inevitable more problematic than the stance of those struggling to produce meaningful statements within a war zone. So while Rachel Wilberforce’s ‘Mirage’ landscapes littered with destroyed white goods are beautiful images of the desert, they don’t engage at a deeper level. On the rest of the evidence here, however, the successful pieces don’t have to be made by ‘embedded’ artists at all - Paul Ryan’s Powerpoint presentation, called ‘The Point of Power’ gets to the heart of the topic by shunting through slide after slide of pie charts and statistics revealing levels of inter-ethnic violence in Iraq and quantifying the countries with the biggest oil reserves.
Many of the artists in the show who are from Jordan, Syria, Iran, Israel or Palestine have been forced to continue their careers in exile, where the material means and lines of communication needed to make and show their work are more readily available. One such example is Nedim Kufi, an Iraqi-born artist who appears in a yellowed photograph as a smiling boy, clutching his brand new tricycle. In the next - an identically composed photo of the same street - Kufi is gone, because as an adult he left Baghdad to pursue his artistic dreams in the Netherlands, Faced with a lack of celluloid proof of his Lebanese heritage, filmmaker Rabih Mroué tries to reconstruct his past through a montage of childhood pictures accompanied by recordings of his voice at the time, supposedly taped and then delivered to friends across town as a means of communication when telephones were either not working or deemed too risky to use.
Some in this show, like Emily Jacir (who was born in Bethlehem, raised in Saudi Arabia, trained in Italy and now splits her time between studios in Ramallah and New York), have gained considerable fame as artist in the West. Her contribution to ‘Recognise’ is a skilful, miniature version of the kind of luggage carousels usually found in airports, except its puny diameter would scarcely be able to convey one suitcase, Instead, this futile, endless, travelator condemns its user to a rootless life of displacement and missed connections.
Even though the Middle Eastern voice is far too rarely heard in mainstream cultural circles, tales of immigration and emigration due to war or unsavoury regimes are not the most original of subject matters, so it is refreshing to see work that depicts the more mundane aspects of everyday life, albeit with a twist. Egyptian artist Ayman Ramadan has filmed a typical Iftar (the feast following the fast of Ramadan) in which a dozen workers have downed tools to gorge on one of the public tables of free food. The assembled mechanics, welders and carpenters are arranged in a horizontal frieze of reaching arms and nodding heads that recalls Leonardo’s famous depiction of the ‘Last Supper’, down to the atmospheric lighting and traditional dress of the disciples.
Although two millennia and a religious chasm separate them, Jesus might not have looked that different from the poor Cairo Street worker in the centre of this slow moving film.
Ramadan’s compatriot, Wael Shawky, gained some notoriety for his video, ‘Cave’, in which he walks around a brightly lit supermarket breezily reciting the Koran like a breakfast TV reporter. His latest work is even more blasphemous - or celebratory, depending on how you view it - presenting as it does the famous A-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem as a computer animation, rotating on its axis and rumbling menacingly like a CGI space station. This representation is no more offensive than a nearby plastic alarm clock version of the same holy mosque, but presents an altogether darker vision of the Muslim behemoth spinning out of control. Quite why the exhibition has this portentous and foreboding atmosphere is unclear, although the shadowy industrial surroundings provide no end of edginess. Without many moments of hope or light in the show, we can only trust that the non-indigenous curators have portrayed the artistic mood of the Middle East accurately, just one of many elements here that have to be taken on good faith.