Ayyam Gallery London presents “Sand Rushes In”, the latest solo exhibition by US-based Palestinian-Iraqi artist Sama Alshaibi.
The exhibition also marks the UK launch of the artist’s eponymous monograph, entitled Sama Alshaibi: Sand Rushes In.
Born to an Iraqi father and Palestinian mother, Sama Alshaibi (b. 1973, Basra, Iraq) is an internationally acclaimed multimedia artist whose lyrical, evocative works deal poignantly and powerfully with war, conflict and exile. Her latest solo exhibition highlights the piece Silsila (2009-present), an ongoing multimedia project that was first shown at the 2013 Venice Biennale.
Click here to watch excerpts from Silsila’s premiere in the 2013 Venice Biennale on Vimeo
Silsila is Arabic for ‘chain’ or ‘link’: Alshaibi’s project is a poetic evocation of geographical, cultural and emotional linkages. Geographically, Alshaibi’s lyrical photographs, video and performance works chart her cyclical journeys through the deserts and bodies of water that connect North Africa and West Asia to the Maldives. Conceptually, the artist’s unique visual imagery provokes contemplation of deeper cultural, historical and spiritual pilgrimages.
The exhibition’s press release (PDF download) states:
Alshaibi connects North Africa and West Asia – where water sources are threatened and Bedouin life is disrupted by encroaching environmental and political crises – with the Maldives, where rising waters stand to swallow its coral atolls.
Silsila first premiered at the Maldives Pavilion of the 2013 Venice Biennale. Alshaibi’s artist statement reads:
By linking the performances in the deserts and waters of the historical Islamic world with the nomadic traditions of the region, and the travel journals of the great 14th century Eastern explorer, Ibn Battuta, Alshaibi seeks to unearth a story of continuity within the context of a threatened future.
Melancholic, menacing beauty
Alshaibi’s visual language is singular and multi-faceted. Immersive landscapes ebb and flow into each other in sweeping, hypnotic tides. Snow white feathers float and drift, skimming the surface of crumbling desert sands. Barren terrains shift and splinter into rotating kaleidoscopic patterns; panoramas and performative gestures alike integrate and disintegrate according to the artist’s masterful, trance-inducing choreography.
The beauty reaches deep: at once immersive and intimate, Alshaibi’s flowing imagery reminds us of our shared histories, interdependence and search for connection. Her artist’s statement reads:
Silsila takes its inspiration from the Sufi poet Assadi Ali, who began each line of his poems, ‘I, the Desert.’ An excerpt from his poem calls for us to recognise our common identity: ‘the grains of my sand rush in asking / begging You [Allah] to keep my descendents / and nation united.
And yet a sense of unease and foreboding pervades, as Alshaibi is an artist whose work “disinters negotiations in spaces of conflict”. While other pieces in the artist’s oeuvre are evocative in a more direct way, the tranquil imagery in Silsila belie multi-layered warnings: man’s uncertain ecological future, for one, as well as our vulnerability in the face of power.
According to M. Neelika Jayawardane, who wrote an essay accompanying Silsila‘s 2013 Venice debut (PDF download), the piece is a reminder for us
to remain reverent of powerful natural entities beyond human control […] always, the desert and the ocean remind us: they are in charge of our survival. Inevitably, Alshaibi’s focus is on the impenetrability of power, as well as the ways in which people circumnavigate those impenetrabilities.
The body as messenger and time-traveller
Alshaibi often uses her own body in her works; in Silsila, her figure acts as the poignant link between the viewer and the vast, uninhabited landscapes. It is her journey that we are witnessing; through hers we imagine our own. The press release says that Alshaibi’s gesturing body
becomes a visually anchoring force that seems to move in unison with the shifting surfaces of her surroundings.
In a particularly entrancing sequence, Alshaibi’s silhouette paces the shallow waters of a riverbank while blurred desert-scapes hurtle along the horizon. The artist’s movements and gestures are minimal yet graceful, and her intense introspection evokes a sensual, melancholic physicality that soothes even as it probes difficult questions. Alshaibi reflects in a video interview about her book:
The body is a messenger […] it emulates a traveller, a border-passer, trespassing artificial lines and national spaces and begging basically for acknowledgement of community.
According to Jayawardane, Silsila transports the viewer through time as well as space, by linking narratives and histories. Analysing the site-specific installation set-up of Silsila in Venice, Jayawardane writes that the piece is
an archway that connects history with the present – a time traveller on which we can journey from past to present and back.
About the artist
Born in Iraq and subsequently educated in the United States, Alshaibi has over ten international solo exhibitions under her belt. Her works are widely exhibited in prominent international biennials, film festivals and institutions, including the 55th Venice Biennale, 2014 FotoFest International Biennale (Houston), MoMA (NYC), Edge of Arabia (London, Paris Photo (Paris), among many others.
In addition, Alshaibi has participated in numerous art residencies. She also teaches at the University of Arizona, where she is currently Chair and Associate Professor of Photography and Video Art. Alshaibi was awarded two national teaching awards as well as the 2014-2015 Fulbright Scholars Fellowship to the West Bank in Palestine.
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- 8 Palestinian video artists to know now – December 2014 – MADATAC’s film event “Unexplored Territories” featured exciting new and established Palestinian video artists
- Palestinian photographer Steve Sabella declares independence through mental images – book review – September 2014 – Steve Sabella, a Palestinian photographer in exile, is releasing a monograph documenting an innovative body of work
- Traces and Revelations: Identity, home and diaspora in Palestinian art – in pictures – June 2014 – The Oriental Museum at Durham University explores the intersections between conflict and art through notions of home, identity and diaspora in the works of two Palestinian artists
- In the shadow of war: Photographer Jamal Penjweny on Iraq today – interview – February 2014 – Iraqi photographer and filmmaker Jamal Penjweny speaks about his art projects and the everyday life in Iraq that they portray, a side of the country not often seen in the media
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