Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Vaults of Memory

First published on REORIENT
Yasmine Hamdan
The first thing that comes to mind when we think of a vault is a small room, often built of steel, for the safekeeping of valuables. It’s no surprise, then, that the term ‘vaults of memory’ is often used as a commonplace metaphor, implying that memories are somehow safely stored from the passage of time, giving continuity and wholeness to our lives as a result. However, memory is a lot less stable and reliable than we think, and can become easily distorted; sometimes by distance, sometimes by trauma, and sometimes by insanity. It would perhaps be more accurate when speaking of vaults of memory to consider the vault from an architectural perspective; that is, as an arched structure, usually made of concrete, serving to cover a particular space.
Lebanon is one of those places where the recollections of memories serve to cover other memories, rather thanstore them; to cover them with thick planks of concrete and steel. We often associate memories with visible things, such as what we saw, or wanted to see. The end of the Lebanese Civil War – if wars ever end, that is – brought about a visual remaking of Beirut that to date still perplexes both architects and artists. The open wounds of the city were immediately covered with thick concrete and a new Beirut emerged almost magically, giving way to an orgy of opulence and celebration that obscured much of the internal strife still plaguing Lebanon, turning it intoa living contradiction of glamour and danger.
Sound, however, is a different story. Sounds are not easily stored or covered – they occupy entire spaces, travelling back and forth even through mazes of concrete, which may be real or imaginary. That is how Yasmine Hamdan entered the musical scene of postwar Beirut in the late 1990s when she formed the band Soap Kills with fellow musician Zeid Hamdan. The name of the group referred to the imaginary ‘soap’ with which Beirut was so obsessively and glamorously wiping out any traces of its recent history; yet, the Hamdans’ music, through a combination of indigenous and contemporary sounds, evoked a vault of melodies, which while emerging through the intoxicating horror of a history covered in concrete, surfaced delicately as if it were tiptoeing around imaginary checkpoints in ballet slippers.
After the release of the albums Bater (2001), Cheftak(2005), and Enta Fen (2005), Yasmine and Zeid parted ways to work on individual projects, albeit after having pioneered and shaped the identity of contemporary music in Lebanon, and remade pop culture in the Arabic language. For them, it was no longer a matter of rediscovering classics and traditional Arabic music, or remixing and performing contemporary covers of the songs of legendary singers; rather, they strove to discover how music from the Arab world would sound had it been capable of remembering itself with all the burdens of a turbulent history, while navigating in a free arena. The result was a distinctly Arab brand of electro-pop that was at once fragile, dense, erratic, sensual, and melancholy.
Listening to their music, one recalls the most haunting and delicate scene in Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s A Perfect Day. Here, a distraught Malek drives around the streets of Beirut despairingly, in pursuit of his ex-girlfriend Zeina, to the sounds of Enta Fenwhile his mother sits alone at home waiting for her missing husband (as a result of the war), whom she is reluctant to declare dead. The smothered words sung by Yasmine Hamdan become a checkpoint of memory for the listener, implying that it is necessary to live not in, but with the past. Her real artistic talent is not simply storytelling, but the telling of tales in complex musical and visual codes, often intangible, cinematic, and paralysing.

Hamdan’s real artistic talent is not simply storytelling, but the telling of tales in complex musical and visual codes, often intangible, cinematic, and paralysing

Singular transformations occurs in her music, which bring the Arab musical heritage to confront and rewrite itself through a combination of gestures, innovative electronic reverberations, and a density of ‘sound gazing’ into purer spaces untainted by tradition. Yet, there has been an evolution from her Soap Kills days and her solo projects, as she has moved from the confusing, irreverent, and intoxicating sounds of chaos into thinner and cleaner vibrations that do not sway from their origin. In a way, it could be said that Hamdan’s music has passed through a sift bringing more and more crystalline pulsations, making the breathless fog of her early days more of a mirror, and her voice sound ever closer.
Yasmine HamdanHamdan’s first self-titled solo album, released in 2012 after her Arabology project seems less bent ondigging up the spaces covered by vaults, opting to rather open them in affirmative tones, which embrace the musical heritage of Lebanon, Egypt, Palestine, and Kuwait. Traditional songs are sung in different regional variants of Arabic to the sound of folk instruments and electronic compositions and Hamdan’s lyrical adaptations, producing an aura that is vintage, traditional, and contemporary. With arrangements by international names such as Marc Collin and Kevin Seddiki, the album experiments with Arab romanticism, lullabies, and minimal contemporary numbers, creating a unique universe of eclectic sounds.
There is definitely more to Yasmine Hamdan than meets the eye (or rather, ear)The singer is also a unique and daring performer who challenged not only the canons of Arabic music with her humble beginnings in Soap Kills, but also pushed the boundaries of censorship and the roles of women artists in a region ever so plagued by obstacles and restrictions. Last Ramadan, Hamdan performed at a legendary concert in Cairo that defied both the rules of traditional religion, and the increasing amount of censorship in post-Mubarak Egypt. As seemingly unacceptable, extravagant, and contradictory as it may have been, it also sent waves throughout a region in transition, split between liberal projects and traditional values.
Hamdan recently worked on a song with the Lebanese electronic musician Marc Codsi for a film by Jim Jarmusch, and is currently on a North American tour. On her new album, it is possible to observe an increasing self-awareness, a greater sense of elaboration, and a more international outlook, albeit one that is affirmatively Arabic. Yet, despite having been a pioneer at a time when there was no space for alternative music in the region, she still remains somewhat obscure and indecipherable. ‘What are we here for?’ she asks. ‘We don’t know what we’re doing here in this life. Music gave me a lot of sense and courage’.

Friday, January 25, 2013

At Land III

First published on THE MANTLE
“We are not an island,
Except to whoever sees us from the sea.” –Qassim Haddad
The transformation of the place of art that took place in the 20thcentury seems to have been slightly more than a mere transformation of art, and philosopher of art Arthur Danto has called his process the ‘transformation of the common place’. By common place we are speaking here about the relationship between objects and meanings that takes place in the world. The classical idea of art and life, deeply rooted in traditional metaphysics, can be summarized in the Thomistic passage “Veritas est adaequatio intellectus et rei” (Truth is the conformity of the intellect to the things.) According to this re-working of Aristotle and Avicenna, there is an exact correspondence between things that exist in the world and the concepts we have thereof. Although this theory does not account for so much that we ignore about pre-classical art (the royal seals of Dilmun, the frescoes of Knossos or the art of the upper Paleolithic period in Europe), it is relatively consistent with the figurative tradition of art developed in Greece and that sustained itself until the rise of contemporary art, in different variations.
What is striking about this art isn’t only the epic and mythical dimension – that somehow diluted over time and was already considered a luxury by theRenaissance – but the cunning realism that elevated the human figure to a proportion so big as to assume a godly status. The problem with classical realism, however, when seen from a contemporary perspective, is that realism achieves the opposite of what its intention is: Its loyalty to reality, with its concern for representing the real and the actual, carried to the extreme of a mathematical procedure, alters and subverts the orders of reality by applying scientific rigor to art, in such way that it is undistinguishable from surrealism. The “Greek” problem has many ramifications derived from a main tenet and the question of foundations in Aristotle’s philosophy: Firstly, the development of a notion of place based on points in the dotted line or plane, that is, misunderstanding the qualities of space; secondly, and closely associated with the first, the central problem of foundations in the Western tradition: The Greeks lacked not only an idea of time and a linear concept of history, but also a creation story.
The consequences for art – and philosophy – of the poor Greek understanding of time and space, while at the same time being, in retrospective, the founders of aesthetics and the canon of formal procedures to study art – although this is only implied, as the ideas of Plato and Aristotle hardly encompassed anything other than drama and sculpture – were visible already in times of Copernicus, with the discovery of celestial bodies and the astronomical viewpoint, when the first actual concept of space emerged, posing an ineludible challenge to the human condition or, at least, to our perception of its size. A more developed concept of space emerged in the modern era that was coeval with the [attempt at the] conquest of space and the discovery of scientific premises that ultimately challenged not only Aristotle but also Newtonian physicsHannah Arendt answers the question “Has man’s conquest of space increased or diminished his stature?” with singular pessimism: “The conquest of space and the science that made it possible have come perilously close to this point. If they ever should reach it in earnest, the stature of man would not simply be lowered by all standards we know of, but have been destroyed.”
Art from this period – in particular Kandinsky – also reflected on the nature of these new spaces emerging with the particular achievement of science and its non-Euclidean geometries. There seemed to be something primitive about this highlymodernist art: Clear lines, absurd inner lapses of space, as if in some sort of archaic writing, rather than the composite visual topographies of Impressionism. The work of Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum poses a set of important questions about maps and the mapping of subjectivity in general: For Hatoum maps are unstable and boundaries somehow internal conditions summed up in the metaphor ofEdward Said borrowed by Hatoum to title one of her works: “The Entire World as a Foreign Land.” Space is not properly represented by the earthly grid, and her sculpture “Globe” (2007) gives us the impression that the grid, rather than a space for freedom of movement (considered one of the fundamental human rights) is more of an encircling, boundary and metaphor for imprisonment: “You’re still here” (one of her famous works) means also “You’re behind bars.”
[Mona Hatoum, Globe, 2007]
Space – as it can verified through learned astronomical observation – is a complex texture, and if there could be a visual metaphor for it, it would be an ocean reef rather than a flat grid on a textbook.  There are different layers to which different ecosystems belong, imperceptible depths, vast uncontrollable voids out of which vital energy emerges miraculously, the light is always travelling throughout giving an impression of a horizon that yet multiplies in size and surface, depending from where you look at it. That is space.  And clearly place is not space: The earthly grid would be an accurate representation of the planet if only we didn’t live our lives suspended in space and would instead move orderly across a Cartesian plan. But life is terrible, is chaotic, is uncertain, and is beautiful. It is not possible to locate adjectives on the Cartesian plan.
The realities of war, conflict, occupation and post-colonial governance make artists from the Middle East especially preoccupied with the notion of space; how do you make space your own? In the absence of strong state institutions, and the inability to distinguish between power and authority, artists often travel to imaginary lands in their work to find a fence to surround an ever so unstable and yet claustrophobic space. Many contemporary artists from the Middle East that received their art training in Western schools usually take salutary pauses to come out of what is known as the “blind spot” of the Western tradition, or in more sophisticated vocabulary, the tension – out of which the living space known as “Modernity” was born – between types of spaces and types of time: Modernity as an homogenous time, almost neo-Platonic, a “stans aeterninatis” in which paradoxically an ever recurring present swallows all the tenses without an specific geographical topology or destination.
Many of these artists find solace in Islamic art, or in classical cultures of the Ancient Near East, or in early Christianity, etc. The search for an historical home is part of a quest of acquiring an identity – as if such were possible. The challenge of the pictorial space is a crucial element of the praxis of contemporary art in which philosophy, or at least theory and art have become merged. The pictorial space that was born officially born in the Italian Quattrocento with the introduction of the canvas, those close to the revolutions of the Renaissance, still remained a highly conservative notion not only in terms of the demand for realism – that even the Romantics practiced – but also the geometrical uniformity of sources of light. To test the limits of a pictorial space without leaving the margins of painting proper is that Bahraini painter Nasser Al Yousif attempted in his watercolors(*) from 1989, conceived as academic studies on color, texture and balance. It would be a mistake to call these paintings expressionist or abstract, as the painter remains firmly anchored in a tradition in which signifiers are never lost and formal criteria of identity between the painting and its interpretandum are established.
[Rashid Al Khalifa, "Fabric of Society", 2011]
His gesture here is not the sublimity of the gaze, as much as it is a lens – or a microscope – into what color fields would have appeared as in the architectural configuration of unstable spaces. Although the concept of color fields – a technique that has been practiced in Bahrain only by Rashid Al Khalifa and Nasser Al Yousif – is indebted to abstract expressionism, the watercolors of Al Yousif rescind abstraction in such a way that the clear lines of Kandinsky become concave and oblique surfaces that overlap with each other in the manner that a tapestry is woven rather than a lacquered painting. There is an overbearing presence of human limbs-like contours and rough-edged symbolic forms that yet aren’t archetypical or geometrical but somewhat tilted volumes. The small size of these works might be disappointing for the viewer, but that only reinforce their microscopic quality; a lens is necessary to view it properly, but the lens isn’t necessary one of the kind that enlarges images as much as one that expands signifiers until the point they become entirely palpable; this is what takes place in the rest of his paintings.
The random exercise in consciousness or the lack thereof – the myth of a disembodied self which art somehow espoused until Structuralism and that somehow has been inverted now into its total opposite – that established itself as a tour de passage from the symbolic order to the figurative order to the abstract order or that of the Absolute spirit – using Hegelian terminology – is looked upon with suspicion by Al Yousif, safely anchored in a two-fold paradox: The theme of Islamic harmony also inherited from pre-classical art thrives side by side with the doubt over the uncertainty of place and the risk of dislocation that resonates throughout the turbulent and nomadic history of the Arabian Gulf. But the Arab peoples are a consciousness without a body, and in spite of the geo-political facts, this consciousness extends beyond know borders and screams out loud in the soft quarter tones of Al Yousif’s watercolors that somehow resemble the oil paintings of Lebanese artist Mouna Sehnaoui but replacing her symbology with a full display of iconography, as if it were an Acadian syllabary.
These watercolors are often translated into the rich backgrounds that permeate his land paintings as if it were necessary to deconstruct the entire range of formal possibilities in order to arrive again at the cleanest form of presentation that is not representation: Representation – as in classical figurative painting – closes the orders of interpretation of reality, replacing them with the formal principles of art, in a dialectical relationship in which the imaginary and the narrative is absent.  What does Al Yousif do if not represent? What kind of painting it is that refuses to represent?  There is a search for truth here which resembles cartography, the cartography of truth! Not truth conceived as in the Western Thomistic fallacy but in the way that theologian Philip Goodchildproposed: Truth as a shared form of public power. Thus, as a vehicle for memory. Hannah Arendt insisted that it is a fallacy to believe that Truth is a result which comes at the end of a thought-process but rather starts with an experience of truth as both the beginning and a priori of all thinking.  But visual thinking is different because the process – lasting just one second and a lifetime at the same time – requires wholeness and unity of experience rather than broken units; Al Yousif’s cartography maps lands in a way that access is not denied – what usually happens in abstract painting.
The modern transformations of the place of art – and of common relationships between objects and signifiers – are not forgotten in his paintings, but rather, are dealt with in a way that does not accept at face value the rupture between symbols and signs that characterizes modern art and semantics, and this relationship re-emerges in a comprehensive narrative that evaluates critically the transformations of art with the radical openness of the bard that has been silenced nowadays by the contradictory tensions between the Greek model of representation and the aesthetics of silence – or of shock – that characterize contemporary art. There is a land, bleeding itself out of the canvas in greens as in a dance of fabrics coming out of their own margins; this land is not invisible or abstract, it is named being, with faces, with names. His cartography does not recreate maps, but a simple under-title: Bahrain is here. It will not go anywhere. A poem of Dan Pagishas a line that asserts the obvious: “Travel, travel far. You are not permitted to forget.”

(*)Watercolors by Nasser Al Yousif, Color Composition (Sleeping Feline), 17x28 cm; Color Composition #3, 10x18 cm. 1989.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Curator's View

First published on THE MANTLE
[Installation view, "Soft Power"]
The discussion about whether art in the Gulf is to be considered “meaningful” as art is not just endless but plagued with a number of crucial misunderstandings that apply to other aspects of the general picture about the Gulf region. It is said often that there is no real art from the Gulf region, and that the art movement is mainly comprised by cultural underpinnings imported with the aim to brand cities for investors and tourism; while there is a degree of truth to that, the birth of a small home-grown artistic scene dates back to the middle of past century particularly inSaudi Arabia and especially Bahrain (See Robert Kluijver’s essay in the Gulf Art Guide about Saudi Arabia and mine about Bahrain in the same publication) with painters, more or less in the tradition of Arab Modernism and Expressionism, some of which are still active today.
Although the identity of Arab art was shaped to a greater degree by the pictorial tradition of Egypt and Lebanon (an identity formed in the course of the Arab El-Nahda – awakening – in the 19th century rather than by Islamic art sensu stricto; considerations at the heart of Nada Shabout’s 2007 book Modern Arab Art: Formation of Arab Aesthetics), visual culture wasn’t exactly forbidden in the Gulf, while its progress was steadily slow. The genre of abstract painting has been always popular not only because of the traditional religious taboo on representation of images, but also because of increasing censorship; nevertheless the Shiite traditions at home in Bahrain and Oman present a different picture. The lack of an institutional museum culture makes these efforts seem now scattered and difficult to categorize within an art history.
But art history itself and the increasing thematic and technical globalization of the art scene in the West and elsewhere does not make it any easier for the Gulf to develop artistic movements or tools of art history in the traditional sense. Donald Preziosi argued  a few years ago that more than recording trajectories – long abandoned by art historians since the collapse of metaphysics and the grand historical narratives – art history is the Latin of modernity, and that the most observable result of art history is actually modernity itself. The availability of modern technologies and new media has made the world of art more democratic but also more homogeneous, so that local narratives become more than often embedded in global vocabularies.
An example of this is the exhibition Soft Power that inaugurated a new gallery slash art space in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, last October. Alaan Art Space, one of the few curated venues in the region – the proliferation of commercial galleries is a different topic altogether to which specialized magazines have devoted enough space – opened its doors in October with this exhibition featuring the work of three Saudi artists, Sarah Abu AbdallahSarah Mohanna Al-Abdali and Manal Al Dowayan (whose solo exhibition, A Journey of Belonging opened on January 15th, at Athr Gallery in another Saudi city, Jeddah); seeking to explore in nuanced ways the position of women in contemporary society using non-traditional formats, seeking to overturn traditional narratives not only narratively, but aesthetically as well.      
[Sarah Abu Abdallah's "Recommence"]
In October, arts magazine REORIENT spoke with Neama Alsudairy, the founding director of Alaan, about the role of the gallery and their inaugural exhibition, and their multi-layered role as both commercial gallery, non-profit and educational space. After the introduction of the collective Edge of Arabia in 2003, contemporary Saudi art has captured international attention and more women have come forward not only as artists but as first-rate cultural entrepreneurs, replicating a trend that is now well-established in Kuwait and Bahrain. While strong art institutions grow parallel and quite independently of home-grown artists, together with the visibility of contemporary art from the Middle East, often anchored in sharp socio-political contexts, there is a growing need and demand in this home-grown scene for higher-quality curatorship, publications and criticism. We spoke about this in the end of last year with Sara Raza, the curator at Alaan.
The Mantle: Why is it important to have a curated art space in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region? Recently, for example, I recall reading an editor of Canvas Magazine complaining that there were so many exhibits in the region that weren’t properly curated and that greatly lessened the value of certain pieces, while at the same time, being a curator is becoming a sort of handyman-do-everything-job. How do you reflect on the importance of curators in developing an authentic art scene in the Gulf outside the museum scene?
Sara Raza: Curatorial shows give a lot of premise to artworks and exhibitions allowing them to be properly contextualized. In the context of contemporary art from the Gulf, where everything is very new and art histories are also new, it requires a curatorial responsibility. That the curator is a handyman is a misconception and a funny one at that; curators should be art historians by discipline and this is very different from let’s say, being art dealers. A curator’s relationship with an artist is that of reciprocal exchange of ideas from the conceptual to the realization.
TM: The greatest challenge in Gulf art (and Arab art in general) seems to me not only the lack of art spaces and trained curators (there’s somehow progress in both fronts, of which Alaan is a proof) but that there are hardly any critics and writers approaching regional art beyond merely descriptive approaches. It is hard to think that art can really mature without critics, although art criticism in general is also undergoing profound transformation in the global scene. Where do you think we’re going with this in the Middle East?
SR: This needs to be approached and introduced within fine art curriculum at university level. There are certain journals dedicated to the Middle East but the practice of art criticism is still not on par with Europe and North America. There are definitely efforts underway and Alaan Art Space does want to host education programs. Also Maraya Art Center and the UAE National Pavilion are implementing educational programs.
TM: We’re living in a time in which there’s a certain decline of fine arts in favor of performance and digital media, and here we can recall Arthur Danto’s prediction about the end of art: “Art will have a future; it’s only that our art will not.” He was probably referring to the tradition of Western painting and art history. In the Middle East and especially in the Gulf, contemporary art is taking on a very similar path in which figurative and fine arts are a bit left behind, also for the kind of choices that galleries are making (and probably the market overall); where do we go from here?
SR: Perhaps this is a rather subjective point of view and perhaps it is not even exclusive to the Middle East but can be applied to various geographies. This is perhaps not the end of art, but the beginning of a new chapter. With the advent of new media art (video) and performance in the 1960s and 70s, artists found new artistic vocabularies to articulate their ideas. This is not necessarily a purely market-based trend, and as artists have evolved, so have collectors’ tastes and galleries’ remits. This is an evolution that is based therefore on more than one factor.
A lot of challenges remain for artists and independent cultural institutions in the Gulf region, and there is an obvious imbalance between the institutions and the local artists, also in broader contexts that significantly affect the commissions and the reception of works of art; nevertheless as time goes by, interest in the arts grows driven not only by commercial motivations, artists receive attention from abroad – as for example in the Greenbox Museum of Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia, established independently by a Dutch collector in Amsterdam – and new initiatives emerge that place regional art from the Gulf, and the larger Middle East, in more ubiquitous positions, under ever more rigorous standards. 
[Sarah Abu Abdallah's "Untitled 3" from the series "Misfits"]
Photography courtesy of Alaan Art Space.

Saturday, January 19, 2013


For A.A.

"While standing on the sidewalk
waiting for someone or something,
a man I do not know comes from behind.
He stabs me in the back with no reason or motive.
Breathing my last breaths,
I beg him not to reveal my secret.
My life was a well-known game,
so my death must be a mystery
this is how I long to die." -Qassim Haddad

"Have you ever seen the sun?" No one has truly seen the sun. No one that hasn't been here before. "The place where the sun rises", they say. "Do you still remember that?" It wasn't him who told me, but Khaled, the artist from Aleppo, on a very cold night in Istanbul, standing right outside Cevahir, smoking, waiting. Waiting to be saved. Waiting to wait again, for anything. But unlike Omar, Khaled never smiled, he was like the burning oaks, outside his parents' home, fading away so dryly. Tonight though, while preparing dinner - a dinner I did not attend -, Omar told me bluntly that it is the saddest people who make you laugh the most; it is like a reflex. And while all our cities are burning, there we were, thinking about seeing the sun; it was perhaps the smoke rising out of the buildings, rising out of the wet earth, coming out of the mouth like foam, what reminded us, what made us look up with fascination. But it was nevertheless true, no one had seen the sun before. Cézanne had clarity about this: "No one has ever painted the landscape. Man entirely absent but within the landscape". But Cézanne had never been there. I wondered about this there only, that had Monet been called up for military service here rather than Algeria, the whole Impressionist movement would have looked so different. "Light spread throughout!" was the demand of the painter; but he would have been blinded by the light! The light was uniform and transparent, and it was only after it entered the bones that it became yellowed and withered, like everything else. Every morning I walked, armed with nothing but a briefcase, along Al-Fateh into Bani Otbah, pretending not to look at the hotel tower where my life was supposed to begin, and took pleasure in the agony of the cars, wondering why people wouldn't simply stare for a moment into the horizonless transparency, as I found my way through Osama Bin Zaid into the road 3601.

Once I lost myself into Muharraq on the way, and what could have taken fifteen minutes, it was an long journey on foot back into a Manama I no longer wanted to see; finding it overblown with memory checkpoints. And had I been careful about details, I wouldn't have failed to notice the green gate of the painter's house where I eventually would end up that same day. But there was no way to get possibly lost in this island, because in order to get lost, you must know what you're getting lost from. I was simply travelling. That is what I told myself under the vague illusion that you simply need to continue walking ahead, because mathematically speaking, straight lines will always meet at some point. The realization that he would never enter the tower, after travelling for three entire days and three entire nights, taught him the disadvantage of travelling without maps. All the indications were vague; a picture taken years ago in the United States, some old paintings, and the address of a woman on road 3601. But Abdulrahman said that he would come too. And what a surprise it was to me to discover that he would stay in Adliya, even though I hadn't chosen to stay there. But in the garden, there were other colors, especially in the early morning, and one was still surprised to see trees blossom, rising out of nowhere, like topographical mistakes. He remembers the violet leaves, that grew into the palms of his hand, encrusted in a painting that he never meant to paint. I had to leave it in the island. No one would have believed him that he traveled all the way there just to make a painting. And I began to look for Abdulrahman in Adliya, by day but also by night. He put a scrap of paper in his pocket, with his words jotted down. His sayings. His laughter too. That was the map. Some books contain maps, like Mrs. Dalloway: "He would be back from India one of these days, June or July, she forgot which, for his letters were awfully dull; it was his sayings one remembered; his eyes, his pocket-knife, his smile, his grumpiness and, when millions of things had utterly vanished - how strange it was - a few sayings like this about cabbages." And indeed, all those things had utterly vanished, but the sayings.

But the more I looked for him, in the big restaurants, and in the smaller ones, the more I began to realize that I had prevented him from coming to Adliya after all. He wanted to come, but I didn't let him. And there was one fine morning, when Abdullah wasn't there, that the morning was pink, and the palm trees seemed to be waving their hands, that he took the scrap of paper and put it on the table, lying next to the wet canvas and glued it on it. And from the words, an ailing waterfall began to form; first it appeared like foam and then like little rivers, covered with leaves, from a nearby within. I was afraid that he would see me across this one painting. "Did I tell you that he loved Istanbul?" And he did love it, with the eyes of a child, as if meeting love for the first time. I would like to repeat certain mornings. Not the entire day, not even an hour. But the moment itself. There was a morning when I went on a boat trip with a stranger, across the Bosporus and the Marmara, from Europe into Asia, admiring little things. Looking at them the way they would be looked at for the first time. This is how Monet saw everything, in full wakefulness. But this wasn't enough. It was as if you began to see things immediately after you wake up, like Magritte. And Abdulrahman might have been there. The words encrusted in the painting repeated themselves, out loud, in the mouths of other people, in the flash lights of tourists, and in other languages. He didn't see himself as a tourist, but as a refugee. I wanted to write you a letter saying, "Don't come to Istanbul! There's no Istanbul. There's only Syria, Syria is here. Syria is everywhere." But I didn't have an address to send the letter to. And you know why I left half my books at 3601? It was the only possible way to promise that I would ever be back. And it was Syria everywhere, in Istanbul. Just like it is there, every time he spoke about her. The woman. How can you return to places that you never left?

And so it is with the Syrians. The children weaving their passports, as a flag-post of disaster. But when you ask around in Istanbul, no one has seen the Syrians. Only we see them. In a secret language of lips and eyelids, we recognize each other. The language is primitive and evasive, doubtful, but we already know all the answers. Just like no one has ever seen the sun. How could they? The Bible says that no one will see God and live. And this is perhaps what exile really means, to finally see, to finally see the limits... "You're not permitted to die, you're not permitted to die, you're not permitted to die". The boundary, in which death does not spell the end of life, a marker, but simply nameless extermination; transformation into nothing but bodies, no history, no memory, no voice. What is to lose your voice? This is the biggest crime. When you're robbed of the possibility to tell your own story. And they're voiceless. Worse than dead. There was another time when I met Abdulrahman, even though I had already lost the scrap of paper. It wasn't far away from here. There was a day when I was at the museum, looking for Amal. And so it was that I didn't find her, so I started exploring all the cabinets, tilting my head around the cigarette butts, and the sounds, the newspapers cuts from a military coup, cups of tea, old soda bottles, imaginary advertisements. "This is his Istanbul", he thought. And when he sat on the top floor with her, next to the bed of the novel's protagonist, he realized that they didn't share Istanbul. Abdulrahman's was magical, melancholy, whimsical and covered in thick layers of imagination; huzun, they call it in the Turkish language. His was but a train station. Everybody is going somewhere else, for years already, going somewhere else without moving, without leaving their crowded rooms, their basements. And they're all lying. Making up fantastic stories about the jobs they have, the friends they have made and the beauty of life they have experienced, while they're waiting to go somewhere else. All the signposts have only two directions: Aleppo, Adliya. Adliya, Aleppo. There are no other destinations. "You're not permitted to leave, you're not permitted to leave, you're not permitted to leave", scream the naked bushes of the garden, before they wither in the summer.

"When were you happiest?", I asked a soldier defected from the revolutionary guard in Iran, who was given shelter in Istanbul by a Syrian, by the Syrian I loved most, and that eventually would leave again for Aleppo, without me knowing whether he would return. Let go, let go, let go, says Amal. But the young Iranian no longer knew when he was happiest. He had forgotten already. And I had forgotten him too. When people leave Istanbul, you know they either found a safe escape or are jumping into their deaths; there's no safe middle way. But I remember the moment I was happiest, it wasn't years ago. She drove him to Seef, in another corner of the island, and he wore that jacket in opal grey that a tailor had made for him to enter the tower between Al-Fateh and the road 3801. They had lunch for many hours, and spoke pausedly about things that were like secrets, scandalous, and incomprehensible, almost in whispers. All friendships are like that. A new tower was in construction, like a palace, with secret rooms and walls papered with linoleum prints. He had seen them before. He didn't want to leave. How to make sure that the empty space carved around my presence isn't forgotten? How do you leave traces? How do you leave traces without leaving pain? It was all part of this enormous mystery that without a map led someone from country to country, looking for that one friend, based on a recollection of words. I should never let him come to Istanbul. I am afraid that he will come and then I will find out that he is gone the next morning, perhaps to a church or a little shop, in the Asian side, and I will find myself entire alone. There are other ways to remember, without touching, without holding; he knew them well, they were all painful. At some point it occurred to him that he was a refugee too. There're different kinds of refugees. Refugees from war, refugees from religion, refugees from being themselves, refuges from being others.


Ali I loved too. I had detected in him some of the qualities associated with the scrap of paper and the list of words. But this he realized only much later. Memories have a tendency to expand, to make someone beautiful, when he is no longer reachable, when he has entirely faded from view, become a body independent of cognition. But Ali would never know this. How do you go into the world and search for somebody based on their words, full well knowing that they are not there or in them? He wasn't troubled by the question, at least not for as long as there would be voices, noises, crowds; the words would repeat themselves. Ali's too.  Had all these things really happened? Had he traveled for three days and three nights to find the gates of all the towers locked from inside? This is the problem of traveling without maps; you don't receive updates about the local weather conditions, which he had tried to make up for by taking pictures of everything. "You're still here!", everything screams out loud at him from a distance too vague to be considered exile, too close to be considered the past. I imagined that I was being awaited in Janabiyah, and that those paintings spoke to me directly, saying, don't go without taking me! And slowly, when no one was looking, I carefully cut them out of the frames with a little knife and rolled the canvas and inserted them into my mouth rapidly until they were entirely swallowed by my throat and I began to choke. That was the moment when I said, "Now I can't speak. I have no voice, you painter, you will speak for me from now on!" And so it was. "Write everything away!" they said to me, we're yours now, just write everything away, and don't stop for one second, don't look back. Let go. Let go of everything. Lose everything. Burn everything. No one in his right mind would choose to write. Not here. But sometimes writing eases anger, eases hunger. Helps in growing older.

"Mafi 7ada 2a7la menak... mafi 7ada 2a7la menak..." That is what he wanted to tell the gate-keeper. But no one was listening. No one was listening in the entire island. They didn't know what I had come for. The secret was well-kept in Beirut. "Why did you believe in words?" was the reproach. But what else are people supposed to believe in? The course of our catastrophes is delineated in the shapes of the alphabet, and that is why the Syrians spoke only with their eyes, with their laughter, with a door that is always open. Why would people ever choose to leave places? That was another question that Istanbul helped in resolving. Have you tried writing in different alphabets simultaneously? That's what happens. Days get confused into nights and nights do not come out of themselves; they become comfortable shelters, that prevent decisions, and keep entire lives hanging in suspense. What if I had been there? What if I left before? What if I stayed? But those questions are usually not philosophical, but rather, of the moral kind. They are tied to the lives of other people, and how we've kept certain memories intact, before we even lived them. We spared ourselves the end. But this is what living without the right to death means. We will never know or see the end. Not in our beds, not through clean memories of having lived, but rather in transfiguration, restless and unusually free from all the debris that accumulates over time atop the clearest mornings, and in spite of them. The writing of invisible dust. There's no such a thing as moral seriousness, we would like to say. We're all innocent, pawns in a bigger game, victims of circumstances; we would like to say. Futureless we stand, us, this people without past. Dwellers of the city, experts in soaping and washing memories, replacing them by fresher ones, newer, and more understandable. Looking for the tree that is still standing, for the building that is not shelled, for the spot where the sun still shines, to take our family picture; our postcard.

There's a room of one's own, carpeted with nothing and with clean plastered walls. "You're not permitted to bring anything!" and that's how we accept our refugee fates with glee; thanks God we're not permitted to bring anything! What would we bring anyway? I would like to bring him with me from the debris of the tower that I never entered, but I can't. The tower is still standing, and this invisible dust created out of an earthquake that shattered bricks of glowing light, exists only between us. There are no faces. There are only pulsations, half-vibrations, thorough-ways that lead nowhere. There's no other place to meet again, but at the very end. It's the only reservation available. A place without all the signs. "Did you give anything that was not everything?" will be the only question, the definitive question, in that place. And there's no real place to go, you realize in Istanbul, for every place looks barely the same, for the Syrian. We're all listening to the music, one parable broken off after another, in a long sequence of rhythms without vague notions of themselves. But when the music stops, we all occupy the same places in the chain... The excess of movement equals no movement at all; it goes just too fast for us to be able to catch our breath and exhale. No one exhales. No one exiles. We live with certain illusions, above all the illusion that we will be able to stop all this, or that it will stop by itself, that it will never take us on, not us. Everything is placed in a museum-like display, and the indications are provided in notes that we have taken from the experts. I haven't washed my hair, I'm not prepared, I need to buy a suitcase, a phone call is in order. That's how traveling always begins, in reluctance. Reluctance to admit the fact that leaving is in itself illusory. But the break comes afterwards. You can never turn back. You can never return. Even if you never left. You can't bath in this river twice, says one philosopher. The other philosopher responds, you can't bath in this river even once, you fool!

But so lucky we are to have no rivers, although it is said that "For Dilmun, the land of my lady's heart, I will create long waterways, rivers and canals, whereby water will flow to quench the thirst of all beings and bring abundance to all that lives." Long time has it been since the sun rose from here, for it is nowhere to be seen in this pallid violent morning, squirting out icy bits of heaven onto the faces of the sleepers, recoiling from this land, forever unseen, and unnecessarily trodden. What is it that we're trying to build here? What is it that we saw? The distance helped a lot, to magnify the lens over the edges of decaying coastal sands being replaced by the grayer muds that still had a lightning vibration of their own and seemed beautiful to the eye that imagined them as palaces of rest for the mind, things that could never vanish, things that could never end, things that you could never be robbed of. But the waters are brighter and wiser, and with them, goes everything, nothing is ever had, nothing is ever returned, nothing is ever lost; everything keeps circulating around you without ever touching you. So many unpronounceable names, written on the walls of the forehead, blown to bits so many times, crushed, then written over, without even notifying the previous owners, while moss was growing on the skull. Make sure not to die, not before you reach the end, the very end, not before you live your very last day. Make sure not to live, no, no, never, until you live your last day. These are different times, when none of this can be taken for the granted; there are no securities, there are no safe passages, there is no determent. Sometimes we speak as if we knew things to be otherwise, and the truth is, that as the great men of religion knew, knowledge is a form of hope, the most ultimate and hopeless form. There was a day in central Manama, completely lost on purpose, when despair looked at me in the eye and said to me, "Run, run faster, because you can never run fast enough."

And a letter came too many months too late, when it was no longer necessary, like salvation. Flowers didn't wither that morning and the morning itself was not late, everything proceeded as usual, and nothing was even minimally changed. Those were just words, he thought, and we're like them, a fleeting presence leaving no traces; our traces are desires, anxieties, sometimes guilt, but they're not footsteps, unless we are being literally run-over. No one can be asked to change a feeling, not even the asker to himself, in the best of cases. The scrap of paper was still sewn to this painting, and though the painting was forgotten in an island, it was sewn to the corner of his mouth; the same one with which he smiled when the eyelid agreed and the light penetrated deep enough to reveal a dark green. There was no travel after all, no motion, no change of scenery. The boat trip along the Bosporus was not an experience as much as it was the sighting of a maquette at a museum; a museum of the mind that displayed day after day the so many ways in which it was not possible for him to die, so that others might eventually appreciate life more. All these threads are so invisible, that their reality depends not on what is possibly remembered, on a smell, the touch of a hand, the texture of war, but on the aspiration, the sole aspiration, that we didn't come into this world if only to be lost in it. We find each other along the way, mostly without maps and without instructions, so that the song never ends. Nothing ever ends in disappointment, it is us who end, nothing but us. He keeps traveling, on and on, without ever leaving his room, jotting down notes, listing words, familiar words, recognizable, so that he will turn around each time he will listen to them in the street and think of a way to circumvent them again, in a way that he will never stop listening to them, that he will never recognize the face, never touch the hand, never feel the enclosure, of the arm, of the hand. And maybe to remember, one day, where he first heard these words. "You know all the secrets / Now, tell me what to ask for in the last day. / Nor the reason for my life / Neither the reason for my death / Will I learn in this world."  

Will you ever come to Istanbul, Abdulrahman? No, don't come. I'm still in Adliya.


"I do not regret
A paradise lost.
I regret
A lifetime 
In its anticipation." -M. Mojabber-Mourani/A. Yacoub-Haddad

"Reclaim Bahrain", by Camille Zakharia

Thursday, January 17, 2013

At Land II

First published on THE MANTLE

[Unity, 1982]
“I long to hear the story of your life, which must captivate the ear strangely.”-William Shakespeare, The Tempest
A land is more than a geographical encircling or an extension. Living in an island constantly challenged by the marker, the boundary, the danger of the waters, gives you a better sense of perspective connected to disruption: Islands dispel the myth that surfaces of the earth are continuous and the geometrical idea that extension is infinite. Boundaries transform an encircling into a locality, specificity and entity. But a boundary is human as Julia Kristeva explains: Corporeal inscription is unstable and the body emerges only when we begin to recognize a boundary between “me” and “another”. The new proportion is not geographical but anatomical: Islands as bodies.
A body is a consciousness, a consciousness of the boundary. Bodies of earth, bodies of sand, bodies of soil, bodies of mud. Inundated bodies too. In her experimental film from 1944, “At Land”, avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren is metaphorically re-born in mermaid-like form on the waves of a beach in an island (in this case Long Island) and begins a strange journey in the format of a dream, encountering different versions of herself and others, in what is said to be a struggle to maintain personal identity throughout the instability of freedom. A land is also that, a sense of safety. This safety comes not through dwelling alone but through the umbilical cord of communities of memory that are permanently eroded by time.
A short film from Bahrain, Mohammed Bu Ali’s 2009 “The Good Omen”, poetically narrates the struggle of Mohammed, an old Bahraini fisherman from the island of Muharraq who refuses to part from his old house and cross the bridge into the now modern main island of Bahrain, as he is awaiting the return of his long-departed wife and in the traditional local ritual of the good omen (al-bishara) he hangs the highly elaborate woman’s dress (thobe al-nashal) over the roof of his home as the joyous announcement of the return of a family member after a long absence. In his refusal to cross the bridge – a metaphor for modernity – he is binding himself to the memory of the island rather than letting it become diluted by time. There is a safety of space.
The film opens with the question, “Who would leave the sea and build his house in the desert?” that brings to mind the disappearing fishing huts along the coast of Muharraq documented in recent years by Bahrain-based Lebanese photographer Camille Zakharia. It is also in Muharraq where the painter Nasser Al Yousif stages his childhood memories before crossing into Manama at the age of eight, and the house with a large gate, the wooden cylinders in green and yellow, green and red, and the textures of bamboo and wicker; all of which entered his paintings dealing often with traditional society and architecture, Islamic concepts of harmony, the life of pearl divers and fishermen. The brush of Al Yousif never left the contours of the land, the body of wholes.
A parallel trend emerges here between the young filmmaker and the legendary painter, with the former’s films “Absence” (2008) and the latter’s masterpiece “The Wait” from 1979. Bu Ali’s “Absence” makes a reference to “The Lonely Alone” of celebrated Bahraini poet Qassim Haddad, with a score by the composer Mohammed Haddad who in 2009 collaborated with the poet Ali Abdullah Khalifain the recital "Washaej", setting to music some of his poems, in the same way that Al Yousif inscribed onto oil on board a poem of Ali Abdullah Khalifa back in 1968. Haddad and Al Yousif also meet at the intersections of poetry and music, having long established the strong relationship of Al Yousif’s work to folkloric music as broken parables and myths.
[Memories of a Pearl Diver, 1977]
It is Kafka, Al Yousif’s fellow traveler in the grammar of soundless music who best interprets the paintings of the Bahraini master that attempt to grasp the inner life of the land:  “Art flies around truth, but with the definite intention of not getting burnt. Its capacity lies in finding in the dark void a place where the beam of light can be intensely caught, without this having been perceptible before.” It is also the colors of this body, absorbed in the early days of Muharraq and Manama, where Al Yousif’s palette is indefinitely formed: Muds, earths, soils, clays, sands, woods. Those are his basic colors. One is reminded here of Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest”, in which a magician is stranded on an island for twelve years; the painter is that magician, observing life day after day in the way of Monet, but depicting it in the way of ancient frescos, miniatures and murals.
In his watercolor “Memories of a Pearl Diver” (1977), he begins to depict the pearl diver’s longing for home in the dangers of the sea, far away from the marker of territory into a freedom too vertiginous to be controlled and recalls the long pearl hunting trips, often lasting months at a time, and that at the end of the 19thcentury, long before the oil era, constituted the backbone of the working class economy, risking their lives for the precious keep. The pearl diver is afraid of not returning, as in Bas Ya Bahar (The Cruel Sea, 1972), that little known Kuwaiti film and the first made in the Gulf, in which the young son of an impoverished diver is forbidden to go to the sea by the father, but as he falls in love with a merchant’s daughter he goes into the sea looking for pearls for a dowry and is ultimately killed as she is forced into marriage to an older man.
In picturesque manners that almost resemble comic strips, cut into frames, the painter aims to delineate the land with his brush, and to delineate here means to appropriate rather than to set in free motion. As is for Maya Deren, the painter looks at the barren land of the developing country and finds under the void the true raw materials of the land, and to be at land here is not a question of memory as much as it is a matter of identity. But to have an identity is not really to know who we are, because that privilege is probably barred from this earth, but rather, to establish a community of the future, of the not yet, a community of hope. This is what is achieved in his painting “Hope” (1978) showing the struggle between danger and reconciliation, and the reconciliation comes not from living in the past, but with the past. Be as it might.
But it is difficult to be at home as a painter and even more as a human being. The temptation of exile is given in to easily. Exile is always the unfamiliar territory, the minimal distance, any discontinuous moment, every rupture in the boundary; yet Nasser Al Yousif refuses to be in exile, vehemently, and as a painter he returns to a time that is not past but primeval, a time that speaks in archetypes and basic forms, in the way a child dreams of the world before he has entered the linguistic code, free from abstractions. Like him, the writer Hélène Cixous, resists exile:“Exile makes one fall silent/earth. But I don’t want exile to make silence, I want it to make earth; I want exile, which is generally a producer of silence, extinction of voice, breathlessness, to produce its opposite… I lost Oran. Then I discovered it, white, gold, and dust for eternity in my memory and I never went back. In order to keep it. It became my writing.” The painter wants to make earth.
And a painter that wants to make earth needs to leave a land in order to never forget it. He needs to enter it through the backyard of the text and the brush, to reach a place not susceptible to the dangers of the present while looking at them straight in the eye. The umbilical cord is never broken that way. In his painting “Unity” (1982) he discovers not what is absent now but that was never completely present; the warmth and harmony between the old society that disappeared with the huts and the dancers and the drums. White, gold and dust. It is this memory, primal and timeless, what in words of Hannah Arendt, gives unity and wholeness to their existence. When the dangers appear, the earth leaves no empty spaces, there is an enclosure, and the land becomes a hand that becomes a body that becomes a home. Home never is; it is always becoming.
As Bahrain dissolves into an abstract mass of conurbation, planks of concrete cover the land and shape the earthly palette of memory into vague, very vague soundscapes, confusing memory with the past, and conversation with controversy, the painter Nasser Al Yousif left behind the open text of a contemporary mythology that can be read not as a lamentation but as a museum of the mind in which everything can be touched, everything can be heard, everything can be told. The train of modernity has taken off and his world is to remain unavailable for us but it is up to the viewer to decide how far he wants to travel. As Hungarian philosopher Agnes Heller remarked, “Where are we then at home? Each of us in the world of our self-appointed and shared destiny.”
[Hope, 1978]

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Hussein Madi @ Albareh Art Gallery

First published on ArtClvb

Text: Arie Amaya-Akkermans

The self-titled exhibition of Hussein Madi at Albareh Art Gallery in Bahrain, brings together a select collection of sculptures, collages, limited lithographs and prints by the prodigious Lebanese artist whose body of work, encompassing almost every medium available in fine arts, unfolds as an intriguing journey from the world of observable living things towards clean lines arranged in almost alphabetic manner, expressed in almost mathematical terms.

A closer look, or, in the case of his sculptures, a closer touch, reveals that the operation at work here is not the abstraction of known objects and living structures but rather the interiorizing of lived experience and the intimate expression of what objects would look like if we were capable of looking at them as pictograms: Objects that become symbols that become signifiers without losing their quality as either objects or symbols. The careful observer will not fail to detect the reverence of the artist for the rich visual codes of Assyria and the Ancient Near East.

The basic procedure of lines and curves does not give into abstraction but retain a substantive quality in drawing unlimited space around vital symbols and archetypes that manifest as wholeness rather than merely as figurative representations. While the surfaces are almost always two-dimensional the lines meet at an infinite number of junctions that smoothly blend into each other creating the illusion – visual, tactile, emotional – that one is entering a world that he perhaps left at birth: A composite universe inhabited by basic forms and sharp colors alone.

Madi’s expressionist technique seen in a variety of formats that overlap with each other – drawings that sculpt themselves and sculptures from raw materials treated as delicately as paper – bear testimony to the primeval character of his work. The artist is seemly prepared to consume the material entirely before bringing the work to life: “I make art to empty the overload of emotion within me, to lessen that inner burden of spiritual debris I carry. I look at the paints and other materials before me and I want to touch them, taste them and totally consume them.”

All his subjects are not yet subjects but living unnamed things: Women, bulls, birds, trees. Mythological creatures merge into each other but yet remain wholly autonomous as symbols that signify cycles of life and death, transience, above all, transience. The colorful and playful nature of the exhibition hides the almost religious seriousness in which static objects are set in motion through rituals that transform ideograms and pictograms into everyday objects. Flat surfaces elevate into depth with nearness and concave surfaces flatten with distance.

Critic Joseph Silvaggi approaches the complex semantics of Madi’s work: “His drawings are filled with symbols and rich artistic conventions in simplified forms; they are an enchanted script, a resume of figurative art, the art of modern man.” Madi’s mythology, though safely anchored in the Near East, is nowhere near legend or epic; rather, it approaches objects as they would be approached if we had access to a mythology of our own times. The colors and forms might seem simple but their operations become more and more complex as we begin to interact with them.

About Hussein Madi

Hussein Madi was born in 1938, in Chabaa, near Mount Hermon in Lebanon. Trained as a painter, sculptor and engraver, first at the Académie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts, and then in Rome at the Accademia di Belle Arti and the Academia di San Giacomo (now Scuola Arti Ornamentali). During his stay in Rome, Madi pursued intensive research on the cultural heritage of the Ancient Near East and Egypt.

Upon his return to Lebanon, he taught fine arts at the Lebanese University and at the Académie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts and lived in Beirut and Rome from 1973-1986. Since 1986 he has been living permanently in Beirut. Madi is considered one of the Arab world’s leading contemporary artists and his work has been admired by thousands of people in prestigious venues in Europe, Asia and the Middle East since 1965.

He has been the recipient of several prizes in Europe and President of the Association of Lebanese Artists. His work has been exhibited recently by Aida Cherfan Fine Art in Beirut, Art Space, the Venice Biennale and Menasart Fair. A book about his work, “The Art of Madi”, was published in 2004 by Al-Saqi.

The exhibition will run through February 15

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

At Land I

First published on THE MANTLE
[The Land of Peace, 1979]
“And the lesson is: One does not paint ideas. One does not paint “a subject.” One does not paint water lilies. And in the same way: No writing ideas. There is no subject. There are only mysteries. There are only questions.” –Hélène Cixous
Art history does not designate places or outline maps. What do you see in a map? Coastlines, water depths, or other information of use to navigators.  They serve to create an optic illusion about the world: Space is built strictly along geometrical lines and from here we derive the notion that all space precedes us. “It has always been there”, one would be tempted to say. There was a time when art history mapped certain things of the world; species of spaces, trajectories, traces of physical places. These apparently linear sequences can be easily replaced with dots – moments in time that emerge sometimes simultaneously in different places, defying the traditional notion of geographical mapping.
The question of how space is really configured when we dwell in it isn’t only a metaphysical commodity, but rather, it provides a framework for art and history to occupy a room of their own. French writer Georges Perec asks the obvious: “What does it mean to live in a room? Is it to live in a place to take possession of it? What does possession of a place mean?” And perhaps the answers are not necessarily satisfactory.
For Perec, acquiring or appropriating space is a form of knowledge, a making sense of the world, and one could say also, bridging the gap of the Kantian distinction between knowing the world and having a world. Space appears and manifests in its reality as our gaze travels through it and gives us the optical illusions of distance. In Perec, “The surprise and disappointment of travelling. The illusion of having overcome distance, of having erased time. To be far away.” But he is also audaciously careful to note that, “My spaces are fragile: time is going to wear them away, to destroy them.” The arresting sense of time that we derive from his proposition is a warning for the instability of geography.
When you travel to a country without an established art history that can map the contours of modernity, how does art help you to make sense of the world from that place? If you want to really absorb a place, to take it as a whole in one stare – in the same way one admires paintings, without “reading” – and circumventing the illusion of historical knowledge, one needs to learn how to stare rather than simply seeing things ordered hierarchically and chronologically. Susan Sontag instructs: “A stare is perhaps as far from history, as close to eternity, as contemporary art can get.” Eternity here is not identified with the unrestrained and total consciousness of God but with a distinction between memory and history. In the words of Pierre Nora, “memory as a perpetual actual phenomenon, a bond tying us to the eternal present and history as a mere representation of the past.”
The Kingdom of Bahrain is one of those fragile places where the historical viewpoint only distorts visual possibilities: Even a brief contact with the land will show you the extent to which a map is only an enclosure rather than merely a physical boundary. Whatever is understood as memory in the visual culture of Bahrain is more often than not a strict framework of reference not to the singular ease with which tradition overlaps with lived moments but rather to the enormous burden of an abstract past that needs to be immortalized, memorialized and monumentalized. This dislocation of time finds its shape in the spatial topography of art as a fast-forwarding movement rather than as a self-reenacting remembered present.
A singular exception to this practice is the work of early painter Nasser Al Yousif(1940-2006) who is to be counted among the pioneering figures in the art movement in Bahrain and in the Arabian Gulf. The Muharraq-native artist whom I discovered while researching the early beginnings of art movements in the Gulf region represents what is now absent from the visual culture of the Arabian Gulfand one of the explanations for the cultural crisis that plagues the identity of local artistic production, perhaps not in terms of galleries, collectors and exhibitions but in the making sense of local space (what is one’s own?) and appropriating it, to which Perec refers.  Space in Bahrain remains not only an unstable notion but an unfinished patchwork in which different types of modernities, histories and counter-histories convene chaotically.
Todd Reisz speaks about space and public space when trying to visualize Bahrain:  “Even while it has urbanized, Bahrain has consistently challenged the legitimacy of architecture. Its urban centers remain defiantly stretched out on plains of un-delineated space. Open space is not park or public space. Open space is vastness, non-distinction, void. Bahrain expresses a resistance to fill every void.” Space is not an orientation or horizon of the gaze as much as an amorphous field of ungraspable geometric isonomy.
There’s an obvious question for the visitor to Bahrain: What is it that this island wants to tell us? One is looking for the story-teller. Could it be this building? Could it be that enclave of palms abandoned in a corner between traffic junctions? Could it be the reclaimed land? Is it the void? Walk from Juffair to Adliya on a warm day and interrogate the absent signs. The visual presence is overbearing, geometric and flat. All the lines are clean and clear. No symptoms of history, which is usually rough-edged, circular, humorous and frantic. But Nasser Al Yousif is one of such story-tellers. Words of caution are necessary. Sarah Kofman warns us that: “And so it is not the painting that speaks. A painting does not mean to say anything. Were speaking in fact its aim, it would certainly be inferior to speech and would need to be sublated by language to receive meaning at that. Between the figurative order of the painting and the discursive order of language there exists a gap that nothing can bridge.” Being a story-teller here, as a painter, comes in two different forms; first there is the detective work, second there is the assembling of the signs.
The painter as a detective: Nasser Al Yousif has gone to the coastlines, to the water depths, and he has heard the soundscapes; he has seen what no one else remembers. He has seen the houses, joined to one another by threads of color and form, long before the void began to appear. And then there are the signs. He paints through epiphanies as Hélène Cixous has told us about Monet: “I would like to break your heart with the magnificent calm of a beach safe from man. But I can’t do it. I can only tell is. All I can do is tell the desire. But the painter can break your heart with the epiphany of a sea. There’s a recipe: ‘To really paint the sea, you have to see it every day at every hour and in the same place, to come to know the life in this location.’ That’s Monet. Monet who knows how to paint the sea, how to paint the sameness of the sea.” What is it that the painter is seeing here every day and in the same place? He sees through concrete walls, finds a land sometimes ancestral and sometimes mythical; bathed in green and coated by the traces left in the air by a mirwas and a jahlah.
Even in his later years after he went blind, it was in his linoleum prints – in black and white, and the first of his works that I had the opportunity to see in Bahrain – that he depicted traditional life in the island in the way that music would do it, and to borrow an expression from Adorno, treating the meaningful content of orality and signifying language as if they were broken off parables.
But it was that painting that I eyed in Janabiyah, “The Land of Peace”, hanging from a rather rustic wall in the home of a collector, what opened my eyes to the Bahrain that I had always wanted to see.  Taking a bird’s eye view from above, the neighborhoods of an old Manama unfold in a convex nearness that reflect the nature of a society very closely knit together as if one could hear – from the painting – the interwoven stories that are now silenced in the formal principles of abstract art. The careful observer will notice that the houses are tied to one another in the form of a verse from the Surah Al-Fatiha, the first chapter of theKoran expressing the greatness of God and that plays an essential role in daily prayers, swirling out of the center to form the community.
There’s little doubt that this is a Bahrain that few have had the privilege of seeing and it is not a matter of nostalgia over the loss of the traditional home for the more homogeneous living spaces of modernity, but rather, a radical openness towards what Pier Paolo Pasolini called, the scandalous and revolutionary force of the past. The past is in his paintings, a lived memory, as if it were something one can still hear, and not merely dead historical time but what is most absolutely present: The signs, the loud absent signs. One can almost hear the stories and the drums coming out of the painting in wholes.  Historical paintings, just like historical novels, are no longer what we demand from art, now we demand more, in fact, we demand everything. As Cixous puts it: “I want to take hold of the third person of the present. For me, that is what painting is, the chance to take hold of the third person of the present, the present itself.”
And why would one travel thousands of kms to an island in the Gulf armed with no other navigation maps than some vague indications about its art history to hear the stories of Bahrain from a painting hanging on a rustic wall in a house in Janabiyah? To take hold of a present that is not a historical tense but something concrete: What is present, and what is present, never ends. Or, in the words of Perec, to remember that the earth is a form of writing, a geography of which we had forgotten that we ourselves are the authors.
[Our Green Land, 1977]