The Closed, Locked Body Speaks
By Aida Nasrallah | 10/03/2011
Anisa Ashkar, Hanan Abu Hussein and Bothaina Abu Milhem, three outstanding women artists, are using video, performance art, installations, photography, embroidery, and ‘body arts' to grapple with questions of gender and national identity. Their layered and sometimes conflicted identities emerge in their strong defiance vis-à-vis the other, as manifested in the male, the different, and the Western
Hanan Abu Hussein 2002-2009
"It is not easy to free myth from reality."
Earle Birney, The Bear on the Delhi Road
Shave me with a golden razor
Over the past decade, Palestinian women artists have proven their ability to challenge and counter the entrenched opinion among the Jewish and Western population, according to which the Arab or Oriental woman is either "exotic," a "victim," or both.
Due to the limitations of space, I will focus on Anisa Ashkar, Hanan Abu Hussein, and Bothaina Abu Milhem, three women artists who convey strength and free expression of self. Using a variety of techniques including video, performance art, installations, photography, embroidery and the human body, they raise troubling topics and questions regarding gender identity, national identity, and their relationship with the "other" represented in the male or otherwise "different," or with the West, as well as the place of the body in the Israeli and global public discourse.
The artist Anisa Ashkar was born in Acre in 1979, into a large family of 13 in the "Barbur" neighborhood (Basateen a-Romel, or "the fields of sand" in Arabic). She studied at the Beit Berl School of Art – Hamidrasha, and even before completing her studies, succeeded in breaking through into the Israeli art arena. In 2003, Ashkar declared that her face was her canvas, and very morning, began writing words or sentences on her face that expressed her feelings and thoughts. Since then, thousands of words and maybe more have been written on Ashkar's face.
Facial writing – in literary and spoken Arabic – grew from Anisa's feeling of estrangement during her studies at Beit Berl:
"I had no friends. They didn't speak with me. I missed the language – because everyone around me spoke Hebrew – I felt that I was in my land but not in my land. A foreigner. I worked as a housecleaner to pay for my studies. I was very alone. And drawing didn't satisfy me. I had a strong physical need to do something on my body." (Gabi Bar Hayim, "The Artist Anisa Ashkar with the Truth Written All Over her Face," March 14, 2009, Maariv online, in Hebrew).
Ashkar drew public attention when she chose to attend school, walk the streets, and patronize cafes with her scripted face; in effect, everywhere she went, the writing aroused questions and conversation about her.
Her daily feelings are translated into art that is easy to present without a gallery or any other institution. Today, Ashkar is considered one of the radical contemporary Palestinian artists in Israel who has brought her art out into the world to Great Britain, Germany, Switzerland, Greece, Italy, France, Estonia, and the United States.
In 2004, Askhar was invited to Strasbourg to present "Journey to Beautification of the Skin." The performance was presented in a museum that was formerly an imperial palace. The museum's entrance is shaped like a basilica, with a baptismal font at the entrance. In the font, Ashkar placed containers of milk, a razor, and a water spray bottle. Behind the font she placed the headless statue of a nude woman, and at the base of the statue, a sculpture of a lion's head. A Frenchman was leaning over the font. The artist entered wearing a hat reminiscent of Napoleon's, and began bathing him in milk, and shaving his face. As she gently nursed his body, began enumerating the places Napoleon conquered in her homeland: "Here is Jaffa, here are Acre and Jerusalem," she declared, erasing from the body of the Frenchman, functioning as a map, the cities that Napoleon had passed through. Ashkar's acts of erasure or physical purification were erasures of prejudice, and at the same time, the imposition of a new thinking.
During the process of bathing, she turned to the Frenchman and said in Arabic, "You are not clean," "Don't open your eyes – it's not good to open your eyes," "He doesn't understand me," "As if speaking to a fence," "My mother told me 'Take care of yourself,'" "Where is your family?" "White on white."
The sentences become comprehensible when restored to the context of the colonialist past, and also when seen in light of Ashkar's previous works dealing with purity: "White on white" refers both to milk and to the skin color of the Western man, who symbolizes the foci of dominating force and the occupier. Similarly, "you are unclean" refers to being cleansed of colonialist power. When Ashkar gently massages the French man, she is contesting brutal colonialism and the distorted thinking of colonialism, which excuses its occupation through the introduction of 'culture' and 'enlightenment' to the "primitives," an excuse that Napoleon also employed.
Ashkar addresses the French fellow, saying, "Where have the men gone to – don't disappear yourself […]" In uttering this sentence, she is referring to the soldiers or to the men who came to conquer the exotic Orient. At the same time, during the performance, a scream is heard, a cry against the loss of men to war.
By beautifying the Frenchman, the artist returns us to the world of Parisian fashion and beauty products. Yet here, in the beautification performance, the beautification is performed by a Palestinian woman, in her language and with her customs. For example, she sings to the Frenchman in the dialect of Acre, the city that defeated Napoleon and halted his campaign. She sings from a wedding song sung to the groom by his mother: "Ho, barber… shave him with a golden blade… shaving is so hard." At the end of the performance, the man emerges completely devoid of hair, and, similarly, "devoid" of any remnant of the historical map engrained on his consciousness.
"Dare to look into my eyes"
Since 2006, Ashkar has worked on a number of projects (photographs and performances) relating to Greek mythology. In a performance piece entitled, "In a Twinkling of an Eye, or 'Medusa,'" performed in Athens in 2007, she played the role of Medusa.
According to Greek mythology, Medusa was the most beautiful of the three gorgons. She seduced Poseidon, god of the sea, and made love with him in Athena's temple. As a punishment for desecrating the temple, the furious goddess turned Medusa from a lovely young woman with golden curls into an ugly creature with snakes for hair, who turns any person who looks at her into stone. The punishment inflicted on Medusa recalls the punishment inflicted on every woman who violates social or political norms, and the Palestinian artist from Acre presented the myth to a Greek audience in order to drive home the claim that woman's inferiority originates in male culture, and began in the West.
As is known, Medusa was defeated and killed by Perseus. The performance begins when Perseus (Greek dancer Michalis Elpidoforou) is about to decapitate Medusa (Anisa Ashkar). At this same time, the goddess Athena (Greek-Cypriot singer Alexia) is sitting on a chair facing them. She is blindfolded and singing a love song. Athena's blindfold is not part of the ancient mythological story, but rather the choice of Ashkar, the artist from the Orient. The goddess of wisdom and war tactics appears in the form of the blindfolded – the absent – Alexia. Ashkar's Medusa is very human. She is both brave and fearful, suffers in pain while cursing and screaming, yet does not surrender. She turns to Perseus and says: "Murder me, but before you murder me, dare to look into my eyes." The gazing into the eyes is an invitation to see the other, but the male, symbol of power and focus of power in the world, is unable to gaze into the eyes of the woman, who symbolizes humanness, the creative power that signifies life and death, for this will turn him into stone.
The performance invites the spectators to cast aside their ancient fears of women, and their prejudices that saw them as dim creatures with consuming genitalia resembling the mouth of Medusa. Like Helene Cixous, the Algerian-born French philosopher who wrote about the topic in her famous essay, "The Laugh of the Medusa," Ashkar's performance is also a protest against the representation of woman through male writing and an insistence on discovering woman as represented by a woman through her self and her body.
"Living within a Circle within a Circle"
The grappling with a tangle of identities is also reflected in the works of a very special artist who is considered one of the first Palestinian artists to have bravely and genuinely dealt with women's sexuality. Hanan Abu Hussein was born in Um el-Fahem in 1972. She studied at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, and works as a sculpting instructor at the youth wing of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. She received the Young Artist Prize from the Ministry of Culture and Sports in 2005, and her works have been displayed at the Tel Aviv Museum, and at galleries in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Paris, and Berlin.
In her works, Abu Hussein dares penetrate forbidden places, such as the topic of women's sexuality. She does this in many works, beginning with her vaginal series 2000-2002 that appeared in exhibitions under various titles such as "Scar" and "Circles," and later in a stunning installation entitled Shadhiyah – Shards. This installation, comprising 4,000 colorful concrete castings of women's breasts decorated with razor blades and hair, was exhibited at HaNamal Gallery in Haifa in 2009.
Most of Abu Hussein's works deal with personal pain and her relationship to the closed and locked body within the patriarchal discourse. Abu Hussein's artistic world is thorny, blunt and provocative. Through ostensibly female materials, such as stockings and sewing threads, she closes up the female genitals, obscuring them entirely and obviating the natural function of the sexual organs. She also attacks the breasts, and in one of her works, she walks on a rug woven from condoms, shaping it into easily walked-over breasts.
In a 2005 video work, recently exhibited in Berlin under the title "Girl Sugar" the artist appears as simultaneously present and absent. Her face is absent while her tortured body is present. The sense of torture is conveyed to the spectator, who sees the strips plastered onto her legs and arms, and ripped off in a strong movement leaving wounds and red marks on her skin. The artist is contesting the "beauty" that is achieved through violence by way of wax or sugar. The video film, which shows the damage to her skin, documents part of the ritual of preparing a bride for her wedding night. The bride is surrounded by relatives and friends who prepare the "girls' sugar," a sticky substance used for removing hair. i.e. "wax" for removal of unwanted hair. Torture and pleasure mingle – the torture of the beautification process, and the pleasure given to the man, who does not like to see a girl with hair on her arms and legs. Abu Hussein's works, which are not pleasing to the eye and are not easily forgotten, can be associated with the idea of "aesthetic disgust," art that arouses repulsion, and at the same time, maintains its aesthetic side.
Some of the works created before 2004 are presented in a video entitled: "A Small Country with Two Big Moustaches," filmed by Haim Adri, a Jaffa-born choreographer and video artist living in France. Hanan speaks of her feelings and struggles in the context of her multiple identities – as a woman who is a Palestinian, an Israeli, and an artist. While she speaks, she moves in dancing steps and the sound of her hands slapping the floor is heard:
"I feel like a log, I say that I am a log, I cannot exit the log, cannot exit myself… I am an object, under occupation, I live in a circle, within a circle within a circle… they treat me like a shadow – I am the shadow of the other. Israeli society has determined that I am the shadow of Palestinian society, and in Palestinian society, I am seen as the shadow of the Israeli […] I myself chose to be absent; even though I exist, I am absent. My absence is the absence of feeling, so that I will continue to create and to work."
In the movie, Hanan expresses painful and bold truths, and speaks clearly, without any glossing over or hesitation. Among other things, she speaks in the movie about her identity as being "stepped on" or as "a floor" – a topic that appears in several of her works, including the project "Floor Tile – Balata": "I invite you to step on my body, to step on me" she says, while jumping on the floor tiles as her childhood hopscotch-like game, known as "al-hajleh."
"One who Removes his Clothes Remains Naked"
Another group of artists that has drawn attention are the embroidery artists. Of these, I choose Bothaina Abu Milhem. She was born in Arara in 1961, and upon conclusion of her studies, she worked as a preschool teacher, first in a private preschool until 1990, and subsequently at "Dar a-Tifl al-'Arabi." Today Bothaina is in charge of pre-school art at this institution.
When she began studying drawing at Naamat in 1995, under the tutelage of Farid Abu Shakra, she claims that she did not even know how to "draw a line." Her goal was to acquire basic knowledge for her work with the children, from whom she learned so much. During her studies, Bothaina proved her determination and uniqueness.
Bothaina had her first exhibition in 1999, entitled, "To Embroider a Knot," which was produced in conjunction with other Arab and Jewish women artists who worked with embroidery and other fiber arts. One of the works Bothaina presented consisted of white dresses hanging side-by-side. Bothaina hand sewed the dresses from ordinary linen, decorating them with strips of traditional embroidery from an old dress that had belonged to her grandmother. She embroidered words onto the dresses in ordinary handwriting, rather than calligraphy. In a manner similar to hand sewing, which takes much longer than machine sewing, the embroidering of words in ordinary handwriting expresses an authentic "handwriting" as if emanating from the soul of the embroidery artist.
Appearing on the first dress are the words : جدتي كحلت عيني بجمال أثوابها (="My grandmother decorated my eyes through the beauty of her dresses,") containing a dialogue between the artist (the present), and her grandmother (the past): the beauty of the past beautifies the present. The words connect the dress to an actual function. Just as eye shadow beautifies the eyes and also protects them, so does the dress beautify the body and protect it. The saying on the middle dress is الشمس بتتغطاش باليد (=The sun cannot be covered with the hand"). The sun, as a symbol of truth, is the truth of the beauty of the embroidered Palestinian dress, the truth of the existence of the people. The third dress bears the embroidered expression: اللي بيطلع من ثيابه بيعرى (="He who removes his clothes remains naked"). Disrobing from this garment relates to a disconnect from history, a nakedness that arises from shedding tradition and homeland. Undressing becomes a symbolic act of discarding one's home and one's honor.
The words are written such that they can only be read when one draws near, and creates a physical connection with them. Then the spectator can, in his imagination, recreate the sight described in the words: the sun covered by the hand, removal of the garment, undressing.
Affixed to the middle dress is the drawing of a mihrab, the prayer alcove facing Mecca that indicates the direction of prayer. The shape of the mihrab recalls the opening of a house, and symbolizes the entrance of the believer into the sanctuary, and the entrance of the Garden of Eden. For Bothaina, the mihrab connects to the physical entity of the garment, home and homeland: one permitted to enter this gate is faced with the obligation of preserving her heritage, her past. The artist signifies the creation as a continuation of the traditional garment: a passage from spiritual non-material speech to life itself, between the physical-sexual existence of woman to the model of sacredness.
Since then, the artist has continued to develop, using thread and needle to weave more complex content. Sometimes her works look like a tangle, and sometimes, they wind like the tiny pom-poms on children's clothes, interspersed with prickly pins. The works that Bothaina created between 2007-2010 developed into a range of breathtakingly colorful surfaces that recall the expressionist paintings of artists such as Jackson Pollack. She has presented these in recent years in Antwerp, Chicago, Paris and other locations.
In some of her work, Bothaina leaves the surfaces empty, evoking a sense of 'coming-into being.' The surface can become filled up, or empty out. There are mystical meanings hovering over the unembroidered background, and the work conveys to the observer a sense of wonder and enables him to consider a range of interpretations. The black stitches can appear as a wave of ants or as thousands on their way to infinity. The part that is empty of threads appears to the spectator as snow-covered earth poking out from under swathes of desert land. The random cutting of the fabric symbolizes a lack of beginning or end. The fabric has no linear starting line, and thereby breaks conventions of artistic work presented on stretched, geometrically coherent fabric. The fabric surfaces become increasingly large, and then heap into piles of abandoned fabric, like a pile left behind by immigrants, an abandoned factory, or perhaps, a world in a process of re-creation.
An Individual Handwriting
I have related to just three artists, but these three represent a wave of Palestinian artists that are achieving success in important galleries and museums in Israel and around the world. Attention to their works is the result first and foremost of the quality of their work, and from the individual "handwriting" that each has developed. In addition, it seems that it is impossible to ignore the fact that after the Oslo Accords, a process of interest in Palestinian art was set into motion. The taking off of this art was always related to patronage and policy, and in Israel of today, the demand for Palestinian arts is considered a kind of affirmative action, and part of the struggle against the neglect of Arab culture in Israel. A parallel process can be seen in the United States and in Europe, where interest in Islamic art increased after the Gulf War and the attack on the World Trade Center. There is an awakening and a desire to know the Moslem-Arab world, and among other things, we are witness to an increase in demand for women's art. This is not necessarily political art, but even if this art does not relate directly to politics, the very fact that these women are exhibiting their works and expressing their "selves" constitutes a change in the basic position and the emergence of a new discourse.