Exhibition Abolish 153 at FA GALLERY
May 16 – 19, 2016
Maha Al Asaker
Majda Al Sabah
Thuraya Lynn Al Jasem
Zahra (Zouz The Bird) Al-Mahdi
It would be misleading to use the term turmoil to refer to our current crisis, as if we were addressing a sudden cataclysm or an interruption in the functional cycle of a mechanism, both of which can be halted, repaired and restarted at will. The current state of affairs is far more invasive and deep-rooted than we can account for: A central rupture in the fabric of the possible has taken hold not only of our reality but of our imagination as well. Having abandoned an earlier notion that a better world is indeed possible, the entire structure is drifting not in any specific direction but remains suspended on a new territory beyond risk and uncertainty; the process of deposition in which tenuous and indefinite substances, whose immaterial qualities were previously associated with freedom –society, the global economy, globalism, turn suddenly into heavy solids that enclose and grow into walls. The so-called crisis has shifted from historical circumstance to permanent condition.
Amidst this return of the solid –hierarchy, authority and unilateral meaning, the ultimate consequence of a world turned too vague and too abstract to be rationally understood, a conflict of values emerges in which we want to move in two simultaneous but contradictory directions: We gladly embrace the promise of a global, interconnected and seamless future, but its many risks and uncertainties hold us back in fear, and make us look at the past in a search for safety and wholeness to save us from the complete atomization of the self that the new socio-economic model requires in its most extreme form. The Arabian Gulf, more than any other region in the world, is at the center of this new bipolar dynamic, in a struggle between the unstoppable forces of modernization and the desire to remain authentic –it is but difference, not atomization, what constitutes the kind of plurality necessary for that project of a future world. It is not just a struggle; an enormous imbalance remains.
Underneath the semblance of wealth, stability and progress –a concept always questionable, lurks arigid structure of laws, erroneously associated with Islam and with traditional values, but largely inherited from the Victorian morals of European colonialism, that constantly clash with our external reality and that Europeans have battled for two centuries. In the juridical constitution of a natural person as a legal entity laid out by the Christian Middle Ages, bodies are literally a part of the body politic, and therefore a category of property circumscribed by the powers of the state. Contrary to traditional Islamic law, where there was no distinction between natural and juridical persons, and the unified concept of persona resembled more the Roman idea of citizenship than the feudal subject. The juridical limbo of the postcolonial era has left many young states permanently incapacitated as they enter the modern world without the possibility to adapt their polities for such a world.
The status of women in the Gulf, highlights the need to the revise this anachronistic juridical canon, at odds with the needs of a modern economy. The exhibition Abolish 153, the first iteration of which took place in Kuwait in 2015, brings a new edition to Dubai, as a part of a larger eponymous campaign initiated by a group of Kuwaiti women active in society, business and the arts, calling for the abolition of article 153 in the Kuwaiti penal code.The article condones the murder of women for the charge of adultery by a father, son, brother or husband, and is treated by the prosecution –if a plaintiff happens to bring about a case, as a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum of three years jail and a fine of 225 Kuwaiti dinars (roughly $830). While the participation of women in politics and society across the Gulf has seen an increase across the spectrum in the last decade, with particularly notable examples in the United Arab Emirates, it is but inconceivable that such laws still remain in place throughout the region.
At the heart of the exhibition, consisting entirely of new commissions, artists from the region have reflected about the different ways in which the status of women has affected the order of representation: Invisible or phantom bodies attempt to make themselves manifest, to acquire a voice and a presence and to speak without banisters. In this new territory, in which both men and women are negotiating their identities with themselves and others, authenticity is translated acoustically: Who can hear me? Emerging from a spectral existence, almost at the border of appearance, the feminine is not an oppositional but a disjunctive form: It expresses the mutuality and contradiction as both exclusion and inclusion. This relates to both particulars and universals, so that the condition of woman breaks out of its now proscriptive nature and becomes a metaphor to the human condition not in general terms, but as a condition of vulnerability which translates into discursive capability.
In the photographs of Musa Al Shaheedi, the disappearing woman interrogates art history for its own bearings, and deforms rather than reforms the canon of what is visible to history, of what is representable to history. How can someone’s true presence be narrated through mute signs? What are the strategies available? The truncated existence becomes both form and demand, uproariously overturning a familiar image. Working through Ingres’ historical painting ‘La Grande Odalisque’ (1814), employing cruel means of distortion on the female body, Al Shaheedi returns poignantly to the place of the female body as a private property in colonial law and the very poor updating of that concept in the current cultural application of the norm. As a body, almost without self, the woman loses her identity as a self and transmogrifies into a movable object –the legal term in civil law for personal property, as opposed to immovables, real property or estates. She is not even real yet.
Tagreed Bagshi on the other hand, through figurative forms, offers the woman a first gaze at the world, which she experiences with great curiosity and wonder, navigating a world in which she is herself a stranger, but she is re-establishing her identity in opposition of form and language. Subtle primal metaphors grow into archetypes and invest her with the concreteness of a specific gaze at something, the body becomes independent of the object. Subsequently, the presence becomes augmented and for artists such as Amani Althuwaini or Mehdi Darvishi, the attempt at representation becomes an internal break with the world and the beginning of vociferousness: Rather than longing for or looking at the world, the personal form that the woman takes on issues an impeachment, reclaims a territory, comes back from the dead, and restores a language erstwhile lost. The unredeemed woman, in no need of protection or salvation, enters a world fraught with caveats and misconstructions.
Different artists, such as Zuhair Al Saeed or Tareq Sultan embody the other, representing not themselves but women as a category of external consciousness, drawing lines of inflection on the image, presenting genders as inverse mirrors, cautious and critical of their possibilities. The body as a life form, as in the work of Deena Qabazard, is a fragment in a nascent organism, cognizant of itself. The exhibition, showcasing the work of eleven artists, is not meant as catalog of femininity but neither embodies universal forms. The preoccupation here is with the very particulars of our present condition, and an investigation into how endangered is a social fabric at the mercy of mismatching histories, unable to correlate between experience and reality. At the heart of this modern-day violence against the female body what we find is not a nostalgia over a tradition-ridden past but a defense mechanism against a temporal horizon which promises only the unknown.
It is not difficult to infer at this point how little justice there is in a culture of shame and how little this injustice is related to our traditions, for tradition is always a vessel of wisdom, there is no possible innovation without tradition –a tradition to contest, to challenge, to respond to. We are no longer able to circumvent the risks of personal freedom while at the same time enjoying its many privileges. In a world more and more hostile to dynamic transformations, precisely because of its constant state of transition and change so that it can no longer be stabilized, it becomes necessary to live with different simultaneous points of departure and destination, even at the expense of contradiction. The gendered form is only one point of view among many, in an arena of infinite possibilities, seamless flows and interchangeable identities. So poorly predictable and representable is this conundrum that justice cannot be served through legality or proscription, only through open negotiation.
As the eyes of the planet are set on the Gulf as a territory of futurity, facing the challenges of the anthropocene and the post-oil economies, building today the sustainable societies of tomorrow with the help of the technological imagination, it is important to emphasize the social capital represented by women so that the concept of vertical progress does not turn into a social dystopia that will launch us back into the remote past. An imbalance will always remain, part and parcel of a brave man-made world from which no one will save us; we have chosen it for ourselves. The deciding factor however is whether our imaginary of technology can now match our social structures and prevent the violent conflicts of the past century. As we venture into the best of all possible worlds, ahead of us, and embodied in purely human dreams, we ought to discard social structures from a past that we did not choose, in order to articulate a common future desirable for all.