by Sarah Rabea Yeslam

The Middle East in London
June 2007

At a time when simple intellectual dialogues are often met with cynicism, words lose their meaning, impact and eventually purpose. Artists choose alternative creative mediums to express their sentiments, fears, and mostly hope for a better future in an often (mis)represented Middle East. IN FOCUS, curated by London-based artist Predrag Pajdic, is a London-wide contemporary art project bringing works from the Middle East to London and hopes to challenge current representations of the Middle East by showing 65 international contemporary artists whose work relates to the region but defies stereotypes. The project incorporates film, video, digital technology, conceptual work, installation, photography and a number of live art performances and interventions, in addition to more than 100 educational activities that will take place across London during the summer of 2007.

The series was launched by This Day at the Tate Modern in London on May 4th with a live art performance by Rabih Mroué (Lebanon) under the title: ‘Make Me Stop Smoking’. Mroué explained the reasons behind such a title during the performance, namely: archiving. Mroué, a Beirut-based, talented and an engaging artist, is always at loss when it comes to titles for his projects - as most artists are - and keeps an archive for catchy phrases that might make good titles for future projects that may or may not be realised. ‘Make Me Stop Smoking’ explores the essence of archiving, of memory. The artist poses thought-provoking questions through his performance as to what it means for him obsessively to hold on to news clips: images from documentaries; images of dead stray cats or dogs hit on the road, missing people’s faces, and even city sewers, manholes and street lamp poles. These questions posed in the form of images leave the audience in a contemplative mood with only obvious answers. In the Middle East, the answer is always Politics. Mroué explores the individualistic relationship between how one chooses to deal with memory and our own psychological make-up in interpreting our own archives. So how do sewers and manholes relate to politics and psychoanalysis? Mroué offers his insight through an obsession to take photos of manholes across European cities he visited. Comparatively, when he attempted to take a photo of a manhole in Beirut, a man stopped him on the street because under the pretext that he was suspicious of Mroué’s motives. According to Mroué, in Beirut, one cannot be possibly interested in manholes for artistic reasons; there must be a conspiracy behind it, especially after the assassination of the late prime minister, Rafik al-Hariri. Similarly, Mroué touched upon a volatile subject in Lebanon in his performance: the missing people who disappeared during the civil war (1975-1990), amounting to 17,000 persons. Dark and gloomy as the subject may be, Mroué tries to interpret the disappearing faces projected before his audience as a sign of modernity and the birth of the individual in a small country where families know each other and almost everybody knows everybody; in is nearly impossible to disappear in Lebanon. At the end of the live performance, Mroué deleted the images, films and all files that were part of his performance in act of liberation. The personal archive was finally set free to a more public archive, a collective archive.

RABIH MROUÉ @ Tate Modern 4th May 2007
photo by Rachel Wilberforce

From the politics of time and history, to the politics of space; another film which captured the essence of travelling, migration, borders and checkpoints in the Middle East opened with a note addressing the spatio-temporal dimensions of the film itself to a non-Middle Eastern audience who are more often that not unaware of the ‘politics of travelling’ for no-British passport holders. ‘Traveller’s Tales’ is a compilation of works by artists from across the Middle East that explores what ‘travel’ means today. Two works from Egypt explore the dreams of a better life through migration. Hala Elkoussy, in her animation ‘From Rome to Rome’, highlights young Egyptians’ dreams of a better life in Europe that are often crushed on reality’s hard rock through illegal means of migration put of despair, poverty and false promises, which often result in the subject’s accident-prone death or imprisonment and humiliation. Similarly, Doa Aly discusses, in her ‘Chinese Sweet, Chinese Pretty’, Chinese migration into Egypt, especially females who work as door-to-door vendors of Chinese-made clothes from Chinese textile factories operating in Egypt. Enas Muthaffar (Palestine) shows in her witty short film ‘A World Apart Within 15 Minutes’ the otherness of places within places. With a hidden camera in a car, Enas Muthaffar drives around Jerusalem asking for the way to Ramallah; responses vary from expressive hands gesturing towards Ramallah being an hour and a half away at the ‘other side’ to an astounded “I don’t know where Ramallah is’. Sharif Waked (Palestine) elucidates in a very powerful film a reality in the Palestinian quotidian: check points. In ‘Chic Point: Fashion Show for Israeli Soldiers’, Waked satirises what happens at check points when Palestinians wish to cross borders between the Palestine and Israel: security measures force them to undress uncovering their chest and belly areas, sometimes extreme measures force them to strip naked. The last film in the ‘Traveller’s Tales’ compilation is ‘A Few Crumbs For The Birds’ by Nassim Amaouche & Annamarie Jacir (France/Palestine) which takes as its place of interest a town on the borders between Jordan and Iraq, exploring the lives of a small petrol-supplying vendor on the motorway on the border; Palestinian teenage belly-dancers who left refugee camps in Jordan to work in an obscure remote motel across the border; and a home-sick Syrian who works as a cleaner in the same motel.

All these works cleverly and effectively explore the socio-politics of travel, borders and migration through a creative and intense interaction with the immediate, the quotidian and even the prosaic. By utilising modern techniques of filming and art, they were able to capture the absurdity of hard-to-grasp realities and facts in the Middle East. In like manner, other works in This Day film series explore themes such as propaganda, subliminal messages, instinctual drives, psychological scarring as in the film compilation ‘Breaking News’. More personal themes that are bound with the cultural and interrelated with the Middle Eastern socio-politics such as desire, love, seduction, socialising, gossip are investigated in ‘Reality Check’ which attempts to explore profound issues such as intolerance, prejudice and taboos in the experience of pleasure. In addition, Akram Zaatari (Lebanon), co-founder of the Arab Image Foundation, Beirut analyses in his series of short films the role of images in shaping the Lebanese condition. Themes that deal with the nature of memory and its relationship to personal and/or historical knowledge in the form of dreams as sources of information through strange symbols, and how they could be read as a therapeutic alternative are dealt with in the compilation ‘Reply’.

In an interview, Predrag Pajdic posed the following question to his interviewer: ‘Could contemporary art even grasp complexities like these? Should art do that?’ Pajdic is perpetually answering his own question by giving us enough proof through his work with many international talented artists, that while contemporary art’s perceived role is to provoke (mentally and emotionally), it is out of giving us a nudge from our familiar perspectives and comfort zones. Amongst the many dismissive voices of art, especially contemporary art, critics such as the late Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virilio, for instance, who vehemently attack art and view it as a ‘conspiracy’; few voices rise in defence of the artist’s and intellectual’s roles in society such as Edward Said who emphasised the possibility of art in connecting cultures and becoming a creative and socially engaged medium for a discourse of better understanding. Similarly, according to Jennifer Roche from the Community Arts Network, “London-based critic Clare Bishop recently raised provocative questions and poked at the critical status quo about the discourse surrounding what she termed, ‘relational’ practices - socially engaged art, community-based art, experimental communities, dialogic art, littoral art, participatory, interventionist, research-based and collaborative art [where] Bishop argues that the creativity behind socially engaged art is said to ‘rehumanize’ a ‘numb and fragmented’ society.” While words leave much room for (mis)interpretation, images often travel in straight trajectories.

Sarah Rabea Yeslam is a PhD candidate in Arabic Literature at the Department of Near & Middle East, SOAS