Thread of Light @ P21

Light is everywhere. Even in the darkest of places, tiny glimmers of brightness find their way through the cracks to let us know that it is dark. In a two-week group exhibition of art at P21 gallery in London inspired by the Middle East and North Africa, Thread of Light addresses topics of interests that are universal to everyone; including archaeology, current eventd and the environment.

Art can communicate to people who don’t speak the same language, don’t share the same culture, know the same religion and still get its point across’, says curator, Asmaa Alanbari. In Hassan Hajjaj’s Little Hindi Odalisque, 2013, a woman stares at the viewer inside a frame of traditional textiles and a Michelin car tire. In reference to the orientalist odalisques by western nineteenth-century painters, the voyeuristic narrative is subverted. Hajjaj’s woman is looking towards the camera. She knows she is being watched and moreover, with her gentle smile, it would appear that she consents to her image being taken too. Unlike the odalisque stereotype, the sitter is clothed, shielding her body from the viewer.

Born in Larache, Morocco and moving to the UK at a young age, Hajjaj’s work mixes his North African heritage with influences from the London club scene to create a dialogue between eastern and western worlds. In another gallery Le Salon comprises a table with exit written across its surface in both Arabic and French script, besides two chairs covered in Louis Vuitton’s signature LV print. The artist’s use of brands here echoes the tire used to frame his odalisque and is a comment on high and low branding, the effects of consumerism and global capitalism.

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On an adjacent wall Donald Trump’s face appears. His is probably the last visage that you would expect to see in an exhibition made up of artwork inspired by the MENA region. Since 2002, Kennardphillips have been working in response to the invasion of Iraq, a focus that has evolved to confront power and war across the globe. In So Called President, the profile of President Trump is shown shouting with a torn up American flag flying out of his mouth, the stars falling away from their fabric. The work is a protest against the increasing limitations of civil rights, and its inclusion in Thread of Light reemphasises its stress on shedding light on issues that are universal.

In a more optimistic work, viewers are presented with reminders that peoples and cultures can connect rather than oppose in Helen Kirwan’s video transcend borders, 2017, which comprises an assemblage of photographs. The images taken display friendships made from a trip to Syria in 2011, while the civil war was beginning. The work asks what memory is and how it might function and be represented. “The exhibition tears down socially constructed borders and dichotomies, while offering a fresh perspective on an otherwise frequently misrepresented region”, adds assistant curator Joud Halawani al-Tamimi. As well as holiday snapshots taken at restaurants and cafes, Kirwan also includes images of ancient monuments both in situ in Damascus and Palmyra, as well as in museums in Berlin. Similarly, Hanaa Malallah’s film contribution shows a drone in dialogue with a Ziggurat in Iraq, illustrating how modern technology can interact with ancient structures. Both pieces thus go beyond the clichés of war and conflict to add another dimension to cultures that are often misunderstood or oversimplified.

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While Kirwan and Malallah illuminate relics on monuments that are hidden because of war, Estabrak Al Ansari’s photographs display light in places we don’t often search for it: under the sea. In the Omanis Under Water series, 2015-2016, the figures of Omanis are photographed neck down, walking along the seabed. The subjects’ look like they are walking in a dreamland, but the fact that their faces are hidden causes the viewer to question what they are doing or where they are going. Perhaps the piece is asking about the relationship between the Omani body and water, as the Sultanate is surrounded by the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman.

Nearby, Jo Scorah’s Moments of Expulsion, a mix of fabric and metals emerge to form an installation that explores notions of displacement and exile. The haggard tent-like display is on the verge of collapse, with painted cloth manipulated and hung over metals that tell a story of migration, exile and self-protection. The sentiment that carries through the work is a serious one that is echoed in the calligraphic pieces of Dia Batal. Homage to a Homeland, 2015, references Arabic language posters used by students to learn the alphabet. However, the text is not didactic in the academic sense, but in informing the viewers of the names of villages and towns of historic Palestine, some of which have been destroyed. Batal’s work appears to enlighten the viewer of news that may not always grab the main headlines in the printed media, or fails to have a global reach. Spelling the issues out in an artistic format thus allows her to reach a wider audience.

Thread of Light’s interest in the relationship between the global, the local and the personal is probably most explicit in Alanbari’s own work. In Dawn, a nude woman sits on top of cattle, breastfeeding her child, whilst typing on a laptop. The figures lack of clothes strips her of any identity or affiliation, highlighting a human commonality. Moreover, the connection to her infant and the animal she sits herself on roots her to nature, whilst the act of using a computer might suggest that she is using the Internet to look up news stories. The laptop may be used to read the news. The use of newspapers in Alanbari’s mixed media work is key to her practice in its ability to exercise a universal affiliation with the general public regardless of cultural barriers. This interest in printed news is most apparent in About Charlie Hebdo, 2009-2017, where Alanbari mixes paint and newspaper clippings to form a woman’s body.

‘The Middle East is full of exciting contrasts and subtle nuances’, says Alanbari, ‘I’m interested in how art can shed light on peoples stories, reveal truth on perceived cliches.’ Thread of Light encompasses many different strands that entwine to create discourses on several different interests concerning the Middle East and North Africa, resulting in a complex and multidimensional portrait of the region.

Thread of Light is on display at P21 until 31st May

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Lizzy Vartanian Collier is a London-based writer with a special interest in contemporary Middle Eastern Art. She has a BA in Art History and an MA in Contemporary Art and Art Theory of Asia and Africa from the School of Oriental and African Studies. She runs the Gallery Girl blog and has written for After Nyne, Arteviste, Canvas Magazine, Harper's Bazaar Arabia, Ibraaz, Jdeed Magazine, ReOrient and Suitcase Magazine. Lizzy is also curator of Arab Women Artists Now - AWAN 2018 (London).

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