Palestinian-Iraqi artist Sama Alshaibi speaks a unique language of resistance.
The artist talks to Art Radar about her ongoing multimedia work Silsila, her entrancing visual imagery and what it means to resist in today’s world.
Palestinian-Iraqi artist Sama Alshaibi (b. 1973, Basra, Iraq) originally wanted to be a war journalist and began her studies in photojournalism. Now an internationally acclaimed artist and academic, Alshaibi interrogates the brutal violence of today’s world with a uniquely lyrical and graceful sensibility. Her powerfully immersive videos, performances and installations deal poetically and poignantly with war, exile and other complex issues surrounding the Middle East.
Silsila (2009-present), an ongoing multimedia series that debuted at the 55th Venice Biennale, is a work of particularly epic proportions. Based on the artist’s six-year geographical and emotional pilgrimage across the deserts and bodies of water connecting North Africa and West Asia, Silsila (Arabic for ‘chain’ or ‘link’) traces the personal, the political, the cultural and the geographical, provoking reflections on human conflict and the plight of our natural world.
The series was a centre piece in “Collapse”, the artist’s latest solo exhibition at Ayyam Gallery in Dubai, and will next be shown at a solo exhibition at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art in June 2016. Having just travelled to Algeria as a continuation of the series, Alshaibi will next head to to Morocco in March. Art Radar talks to the artist about her arduous yet rewarding journeys and her thoughts about art, beauty, aesthetics and resistance.
My first point of contact with your work was Silsila (2009-present). I was immediately drawn in by the stunning imagery and powerful sense of journey. Can you speak about the motivations and inspirations behind the work?
In simplest terms, Silsila was inspired by the journeys and travelogue of the medieval Moroccan explorer Ibn Baṭūṭah: back in the 14th century he followed his own internal quest of discovery, allowing his imagination and emotional being to rule over his rational mind. But my specific motivation behind the work is more complicated: I did not decide, right at the outset, to spend six years of my life going back to the deserts and spaces that Baṭūṭah visited so long ago.
In fact I was at least two years into making work in the deserts before I realised what Silsila was really about, and what it required of me. I saw Baṭūṭah’s story in the deserts I visited in those early years: the world he encountered, the kinds of people he met. I found myself asking my own questions, and like Ibn Baṭūṭah, I needed my own curiosities fulfilled. The more places I journeyed through, the more I understood about our innate human conditions reflected in the natural world around me, barren as most of it was.
There is a primordial, almost transcendent, sense of ‘flow’ in the work. Can you speak about the concept of flow or continuity?
It is interesting, your choice of the word ‘flow’. I am unsure how you first experienced Silsila – if through my monograph Sand Rushes In or in an exhibition format. The concept of flow makes me think of a river moving in a singular direction: starting with a source that has a beginning and running downstream towards something larger. If through the monograph, which was edited and styled, there is something about books that makes the reader naturally experience a beginning – not because of its linear nature, but because of the starting point of the unknown. As we move page by page, we gather knowledge and understanding towards its eventual end, just like a current ending in a larger body – the height of experience.
To be honest, however, my original work doesn’t function like a book, directed from small beginnings towards an eventual end. My own journey, in life and through my work, is far more repetitive, and at points, arbitrary. It is how I process these points that creates the continuity you ask about.
Actually when I think about ‘flow’ in relation to your work, it’s less linear or unidirectional than shifting and cyclical. Perhaps it’s related to how you use circles a lot – in shapes, frames, rotating patterns.
Yes – the project didn’t flow in a singular direction, but continuity was present, from Baṭūṭah’s’s 14th century travels to mine in contemporary times. Unlike him, I went home to my modern life between the extended trips, which further invoked questions of what creates community and what drives us apart. But I found ways to use the spaces in my journey to reference my questions: I discovered that my body, like his, and like the sand in the wind, or the water that travels, all transgress borders and flow and connect with one another – my life with yours, or with some distant historical experience that I have almost no relationship to.
On conflict and resistance
Speaking of the body, what does the human body – your body – mean to you and your work?
My works are the results of my continued examination of diverse experiences that usually only have one thing in common: my body. The questions and anxieties that distress my being are what motivate my practice.
You personally experienced migration and exile. Is Silsila a kind of deliberate pilgrimage into the natural world, and what is its significance?
Silsila is deceptively serene, in two ways. First, producing it was far more challenging than any other project I have created so far. The majority of images in Silsila are of spaces absent of any trace of man and his presence – no electricity lines, roads or even footsteps. To capture such spaces I had to journey far beyond any Geo-app or map – even the Bediouns who served as my guides couldn’t be sure of where I would locate such spaces. That means I was not only deprived of the technological comforts of modern day life – I had to submit wholly to the conditions of what the land and weather provided me with. Food, water and shelter were literally the main foci priorities in each day of my extended treks. There is nothing serene about such a journey, and I learned to respect the will of nature in its often punishing reality.
Second, Silsila was made, and continues to be made, during one the most complex periods for the Middle East and North Africa. Choosing to depict utopian images and to insist on connections between warring nations and peoples is not a denial of our tragic realities, but rather, a resistance that insists we consider what is at stake. For some, Silsila only operates as fantasy, or escapism – I look at it the other way round: I feel that images of war and violence, even conceptual ones that only allude to them, only satisfies our anger. Anger is the easiest beast to feed, and the most cowardly.
Do you set out to resist, or is resistance a byproduct of your observations and the images you create?
I set out to resist. When I was sixteen, my friend made me a bumper sticker for my car that said “Visualise Armed Resistance”. I don’t have a violent bone in my body, but I have always been the girl questioning conventions and authority. I talked politics through a revolutionary slant and craved any action of strength that favoured the underdog. When I was interviewing for my first job (not where I teach now) I had to field hostile questions from faculty members who felt threatened that I spoke about art as a voice for the oppressed and marginalised – one professor asked me if I would be able to teach a student who was ‘just’ a formalist.
I used to be bored by theory without real world contexts, and dismissed questions in interviews about pure aesthetics and technique that did not have any emphasis on how I employed them to further meaning. Over time, however, I have found my own voice that married theory and aesthetics within the political framework.
You began your studies in photojournalism wanting to become a war photographer. What prompted the shift towards art? Was it a desire to shift from observation to engagement and intervention?
The rules of photojournalism were constrictive. The moral requirement of unbiased objectivity was terribly disturbing to me, because the truth is that all image-making is subjective. While I love the work of the early classic photojournalists, it soon became clear to me that I could speak more about the human experience of war, and its aftermath, from a personal point of view. For me, conceptual art is more able to get to the real experiences of war, when compared to a photograph’s depiction of a fraction of a moment.
So yes, engagement and intervention was very important to me. And the freedom. The freedom that comes with art-making is unparalleled. The permission to fully explore any idea in almost any possible form – that I can afford – makes every moment rewarding and challenging. You reinvent your existence and relationship to the world every day, and at the same time, you build layers over layers of life experiences and acquired knowledge. Actually I don’t know if I really chose to leave photojournalism – I guess I was just always making art, and one day I finally realised it.
Much of art these days is not beautiful in the conventional sense. For me, your work is a potent rebuttal against the unspoken opposition between aesthetics and conflict/resistance.
I reject the idea that beauty is a distraction when dealing with charged subjects. I reject also the notion that beauty can only describe the romantic, the soft or the nostalgic. Throughout history, warriors adorned their bodies, their faces, their weaponry and animals. The earth, flora and fauna can be incredibly alluring and visually sensuous, and yet it floods, poisons or bites. Beauty can be deadly and the deadly can be beautiful: in the same way aesthetics is far from superfluous or passé.
If anything, the ugly, the empty and the banal is the easiest work to create. Maybe it makes it simpler for gatekeepers to separate the contemporary from the modern, the high art from the craft. Or maybe they think that its genius lies in it being deceptively simple. Or perhaps it really does reflect a common sense of worthlessness and alienation, in world where everything is empty, void and frozen. Who knows? My only problem is that so much of it looks like so much of the rest of it. There are those who do it well, but often it feels formulaic – like a mere attempt to articulate a postmodern visual language.
While I’m sure there are good reasons to love this kind of art (and I do respect a great deal of it), I don’t understand sensuality as being less effective in conceptual and political art. I am suspicious that the favoured banality in current trends is just another example of the West imprinting its standards on the rest of the world regarding what is visually important and what is not. It discounts countless years of visual practices outside of the Western centre, relegating beauty as subordinate practices from more primitive cultures. Think about the architecture, everyday objects, clothing and art from cultures that have existed for centuries in China, the Middle East, Africa or South America. How do you compete with so many centuries of cultural, anthropological and historical beauty – except to declare it primitive, ornamental or passé?
You make a good point – but then your works are not just cultural objects. Your aesthetic is unique in that it is both cultural and contemporary, or more accurately, subversive. How do you use the beautiful to deal with the un-beautiful, so effectively?
When I was younger I rationalised my work as a kind of seduction: to seduce viewers through the beauty in order to deliver my socio-political intentions. But as time passed I’ve come to see it differently: as much as I want beauty to come out of exile, it isn’t what drives my work, and if an audience is compelled by my work solely through its aesthetic voice I would feel that my work had failed. Age is a great gift in one’s creative practice: over the years I’ve learned to let go – to just surrender to what comes forward through my imagination and to trust my instincts to deliver my intentions. My particular aesthetic has been largely consistent over the years: I simply have a visual language innate to my practice, and I know how to deliver my meaning through it.
Compared to a lot of the angry voices out there today, yours is a different kind of resistance: subtler, yet just as powerful, indeed if not more.
Perhaps it’s slower. Audiences respond to aesthetics differently, and sometimes I don’t care, sometimes I do. Part of my maturity process was understanding that it wasn’t my job to teach Political Science or the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict 101 every time I was asked to speak about my work. I discovered that there are aspects of my work that resonate across cultural differences and barriers of understanding, creating threads and weaving common languages that gradually open doors to new perspectives. Audiences are then compelled to learn more in their own time.
- “Europa”: Palestinian artist Emily Jacir at Whitechapel Gallery in London – December 2015 – “Emily Jacir: Europa”, running at London’s Whitechapel Gallery until 3 January 2016, is the first comprehensive exhibition in the United Kingdom exploring the output of Palestinian artist Emily Jacir
- ‘I am Baghdad – Shie’i & Sunni’: Ayad Alkadhi video review – August 2015 – Iraqi-born painter Ayad Alkadhi seeks to uncover Iraqi’s post-invasion turmoil with the series “I am Baghdad – Shie’i & Sunni”
- Mona Hatoum at the Centre Pompidou – in pictures – June 2015 – The Centre Pompidou in Paris launches a major retrospective of Mona Hatoum’s 30-plus year-career
- Realism in Rawiya: Photographic (her)stories from the Middle East – in pictures – May 2015 – The exhibition “Realism in Rawiya” reveals a group of female artists’ personal photographic insights into everyday life in the Middle East
- When beauty rushes in: Sama Alshaibi at Ayyam Gallery London – in pictures – March 2015 – Ayyam Gallery London presents “Sand Rushes In”, the latest solo exhibition by US-based Palestinian-Iraqi artist Sama Alshaibi
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