‘Punching holes in the darkness’ : Leading Middle East female artists light up London

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CARAVAN artists Mayasa Al-Sowaidi and Marwa Al-Khalifa.
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Artist Sheikha Lulwa Al-Khalifa. (Photos by Marc Gascoigne)
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'From the Outside' by Lulwa Al-Khalifa.
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Palestinian artist Manal Deeb’s painting combines the abstract with traditional cultural elements.
Updated 20 July 2017

‘Punching holes in the darkness’ : Leading Middle East female artists light up London

A powerful exhibition of the work of 31 contemporary female artists from 12 Middle Eastern countries is now showing in London.
Among the artists are Ahaad Al-Amoudi from Jeddah, Sheikha Lulwa Al-Khalifa from Bahrain and Shereen Audi from Jordan.
Each work shows a different aspect of women, and collectively they demonstrate a great range of emotions, insights and life experiences as interpreted by the artists.
The work “Land of Dreams” by Al-Amoudi makes the viewer stop and stare because it is so unexpected and unusual.
It shows a desert landscape filled with images of the popular Emirati singer Ahlam Al-Shami. She appears to emerge from the sand, dominating the landscape and blotting out everything else you might expect to see in this setting.
The artist chose Al-Shami as her subject because she is so prolific on the Internet and social media. Her public image also challenges perceptions of the submissive stereotype.
“I wanted the viewer to come with their own notion and interpretation of their land of dreams, then be subjected to Ahlam scattered across an empty plot of land,” said Al-Amoudi (“Ahlam” means “dream” in Arabic).
Al-Amoudi obtained a bachelor’s degree in graphic design at Dar Al-Hekma University, and is finishing her masters in print at the Royal College of Art in London.
Al-Khalifa has a thought-provoking image of a woman staring out through a barrier of white lines that resemble a blind. Just as her view of the world is distorted, so is the view of those looking at her from the outside.
“Middle Eastern women are an integral part of the world community,” she said. “They’re woven into the fabric of humanity that we’re all part of. We have more that unites than separates us. We just have to remove the barriers to obtain clarity.”
She added: “I really believe in the message behind this exhibition. It tries to bridge the gap between East and West; this is especially important now when there are so many misconceptions and so much misinformation around. Art is a perfect vehicle that can deliver a different message.”
The “I AM” exhibition, organized by CARAVAN and guest-curated by Janet Rady, a specialist in Middle Eastern contemporary art, premiered in May at the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts in Amman, under the patronage of Queen Rania. It is showing at London’s St. Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square until Aug. 20 and will then tour North America until the end of 2018, premiering in Washington.
The founding president of CARAVAN, Rev. Canon Paul-Gordon Chandler, told Arab News: “The core message of this exhibition is about tearing down walls and building bridges. We’re doing this through the lens of Middle Eastern women. The artworks reflect and celebrate what Middle East women contribute to global peace.”
CARAVAN, which originated out of Cairo, is an international peacebuilding NGO that focuses on building bridges between the creeds and cultures of the Middle East and the West through the arts, which it sees as one of the most effective mediums to enhance understanding, bring about respect, enable sharing and deepen friendship between those of different faiths and cultures.
Chandler believes that everyone can play a part in breaking down walls of prejudice.
“It’s not always about big projects; it’s also about one on one. We each can do something to change the perception of the other. That’s our responsibility,” he said.
He recounted a story from the childhood of the famous author Robert Louis Stevenson to illustrate his point.
As a young boy, Stevenson used to watch from his window every evening as the lamp-lighter made his way down his street. One day, his mother asked him what he was looking at and he replied: “I am watching a man punch holes in the darkness.”
Washington-based Palestinian artist Manal Deeb’s painting “Golden” illustrates such a transformation from darkness to light. Her work combines the abstract with traditional cultural elements.
Helen Zughaib from Lebanon uses the outline of a woman in an abaya to reflect on the lives being lived behind the concealing garment.
Speaking of her work “The Secrets They Carry,” she said: “I thought about a woman caught up in war and displacement. What has she seen and heard? I thought about her strength as a woman. I thought about her protecting her children, wanting only peace and stability for them. I thought about her ability to persevere in any circumstance she faces.”
Audi said her work “Dreams Give Hope” reflects “the burdens and frustrations often experienced by women in our society and, in spite of everything, their continual optimism for a better future. Beauty and fragility belie the inner strength and determination of women to confront new challenges. The roses reflect the beauty needed in our world, while the wings represent the capacity of women to fly above conflict and tragedy, with a view to a more peaceful future.”
The launch of “I AM” was attended by Mazen Kemal Homoud, Jordan’s ambassador to the UK.
In his address to the packed audience, he said the exhibition was an innovative way to raise awareness of the women of the Middle East and their role.
He spoke about the importance of people standing together with mutual tolerance and respect to overcome differences.
The atmosphere at the opening reflected the optimistic, inclusive mood, with peoples of many races and faiths coming together to appreciate the art and dwell on the messages being conveyed.
Rev. Sam Wells, a vicar at St. Martin-in-the-Fields — an Anglican church that opens its doors to all — said it was a wonderful gathering of truth, beauty and goodness.
The blending of the voices of East and West was beautifully articulated by the talented Jordanian and French sopranos Dima Bawab and Margo Arsane, who gave memorable performances.
The music sponsor for the event was the Peace and Prosperity Trust.
The reception was sponsored by the Jordan Tourism Board, the program sponsors were the Arab International Women’s Forum and the Jonas Foundation, and the program partner was the Arab British Center.
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‘It might be our destiny to have Syria only in our imagination’

Syrian band Tanjaret Daghet (which means ‘pressure cooker’ in Arabic).
Updated 19 April 2018

‘It might be our destiny to have Syria only in our imagination’

  • Syrian artists-in-exile discuss their absence from their homeland and its impact on their work
  • For many exiled Syrian artists, their work is an expression of grief

DUBAI: “Being away from Syria is difficult,” young poet Maysan Nasser said. “Seven years later, it still feels like a phantom limb. It feels like the echo of white noise that is reverberating louder by the day.”

Nasser, a Beirut Poetry Slam champion, was talking separation: The idea that the loss of Syria is like an amputation. After seven years, she is still looking for answers to questions of home and belonging.

The first time I saw Nasser perform was last year during Zena El Khalil’s ‘Sacred Catastrophe: Healing Lebanon,’ a “40-day intervention” designed to permanently kick open the doors of Beit Beirut, a museum to the memory of the city in Sodeco. Her performance was raw and emotive.

The second time was in the basement of Riwaq Beirut, a coffee shop, cultural center and bar all rolled into one. She was addressing a small but appreciative young crowd and looked nervous. It was just a few weeks after she had launched the open-mic night ‘Sidewalk Beirut’ and the anxiety and jitters remained. In reality they shouldn’t. The crowd loves her.

“In this enforced distance from Syria, such communities have become my anchors,” she admitted. Yet her work, although deeply personal — sometimes painfully so — never directly discusses Syria or her home city of Damascus.

“I believe the distance of separation was the birth of my work,” she said. “It was in this distance that I was able to reconsider who I am, what my relationship to my family is like, what my relationship to my body is. I believe my poems to be attempts at understanding myself and my surroundings, but also my past.

“So when I speak about my mother and my relationship to her, I am also considering my mother’s past and the traditions she has internalized and passed on to me, which inevitably cast light on a time and place in Syria, and which inevitably expose my own connections and roots — or lack of, at times. This separation, in a sense, has coincided with a coming of age.”

At the same time as Nasser was hosting her early edition of Sidewalk Beirut, a mile or so away at The Colony in Karantina Zeid Hamdan, a pioneer of Lebanon’s underground music scene, was preparing to perform at Sofar Sounds. The venue —hidden up three flights of stairs in the Dagher Building — was little more than two empty rooms and an adjacent terrace. With him were the Syrian band Tanjaret Daghet (which means ‘pressure cooker’ in Arabic).

Hamdan has been performing with the trio since they left Damascus in 2011. Theirs is an energetic, sometimes harsh, alternative-rock sound, although that is changing. Their soon-to-be-released new album, “Human Reverie,” is as much about electronica as it is guitars and vocals.

“This pressure we’re living is kind of unique,” said Tarek Khuluki, the band’s guitarist and sometime vocalist. “You see people who are nagging about it or who are trying to use this pressure as a tool to escape the reality we’re living in, which can lead to unbalanced results. At the same time, you see people who are making the best they can with the little amount of nothing that they have. All they want is to see their ideas manifest themselves in art or in any other shape. 

“Psychologically, we’ve learned not to think too much and not to play the role of victims, but to focus on our own language, which is music.”

It’s hard to discern whether the war in Syria has had a direct impact on Tanjaret Daghet’s work, or whether the wider woes of the Arab world are partially responsible for their sound and lyrics. They sing of political oppression and societal pressure, the absence of feeling and the loss of voice.

“We do not live the state of war in the real sense of the word,” says Khaled Omran, the band’s lead singer and bassist. “What we’re living is a kind of internal war, which has arisen from our instincts as humans. It’s our right to express ourselves through art and music because it’s more humanistic, and this has allowed us to meet several artists and to exchange expertise. Who knows, maybe if we had stayed in Syria, none of that would have happened.” 

Outside of Beirut, up in the mountains of Aley, a series of old Ottoman stables have been converted into a residence for Syrian artists. Since it was first opened by Raghad Mardini in May 2012, Art Residence Aley has hosted numerous artists, including Iman Hasbani and Anas Homsi. Both now live in Berlin. Beirut, for some, is only transitory. 

“It has given me a wider vision of the world,” says the artist and film director Hazem Alhamwi of his own exile in Berlin. “Maybe it’s more painful, but it’s more real. It is training for how to change pain into creative energy. Since 2014 I have been painting a collection I call ‘Homeland in the Imagination’. It might be our destiny to have Syria only in our imagination.”

Alhamwi is best known for “From My Syrian Room,” a documentary in which, through art and conversation, he attempts to understand how Syrians have learned to live with the distress and anxiety caused by war. It was while editing the film in France in 2013 that he realized he could not return to Syria, he said.

“I feel tired,” he told Arab News. “I feel as if I have one leg here — where I have to integrate, and want to — and the other leg in Syria, where I cannot stop being interested in what is happening. My family, my friends and my memories are still there. On the other hand, I feel like I am discovering another kind of violence, moving from living under a military dictatorship to the dictatorship of money. It’s a smooth violence written on smooth paper and put into a clean envelope. I feel myself in the stomach of the capitalist machine.”

For many exiled Syrian artists, their work is an expression of grief; a way to portray an overwhelming sense of loss. For others, those expressions are more subtle.

“We watch so many lies on TV, that it looks like art could be the only honest witness to modern times,” said Alhamwi, whose next film, produced by Zeina Zahreddine and Florian Schewe, will examine issues of identity. “Even many people’s facial expressions are not real. But good art is not only a mirror of the artist, but also of the spirit of the time they live in; or it’s at least the result of this reaction (of) the artist (to) the era.

“Art always tries to get people to pay more attention and not to repeat the same mistakes, but to learn from them instead. In wars, where the feelings of people are ignored and all the focus is on weapons, killing, fire and iron, art protects people’s real memory, away from any agenda or propaganda. It is this complicated memory that reflects the events, the emotions and the point of view of the artist. That is why art is needed in war as a special documentation. To tell the stories of people who didn’t get involved, because of position or fate,” he continued. “Art is a way for artists to survive in a world controlled by violence.”