In this episode of the Gallery Girl podcast we are joined by Tamara Al-Mashouk, a London-based artist and curator. Through multi-channel video, performance, and architectural installation, her work explores the epigenetics of place and the movement of people across societal and geographic borders with particular focus on the intersectional body. She engages with decolonial feminisms and explores resistance as a site of potential.
Tamara’s art career began with an interest in spaces. “When I was little in Saudi we lived in a compound and there was a haunted house in the squash court”, she explains, “I was obsessed with the fact that they would turn this box into an experience that you would walk through and weave through. It felt so expansive and enormous and out of this world. It made me obsessed with designing.” She went on to gain a BA in Architecture but her advisor told her thesis looked more like an art thesis, so she embarked on an MFA where she discovered video. “I sat down to think what would crystallise these experiences that I was trying to design the most,” she explains, and the image that came to her head was of a person sitting inside a cube where every surface was projections, thus her work bounces between architecture, installation and performance.
One of Tamara’s most recent projects titled Can You Die If You Don’t Exist centered around a list of the names of over 34,000 refugees who had lost their lives on their way to Europe that was published in The Guardian in 2018. This project began during a residency with Deep Lab, resulting in a video piece being projected on the facade of the York Art Museum where Tamara scrolled through the list. But she had an impulse to put her body in front of the list and “humanise” the work, and the work morphed into a performance where she read the entire list of names from start to finish against a backdrop of the video, a list that encompasses names, ages and places of death. The day-long performance saw people completely moved, though Tamara recalls one negative viewer. “It really speaks to how people digest other people’s trauma”, she explains, “Of a need to bury your head in the ground because you have the privilege to bury your head in the ground.”
After initial reading of the list, there were a number of other iterations where others were invited to join in. This first happened at the Centre for Art Design and Social Research (CADSR) in Mexico in collaboration with Dalida Maria Benfield, who gathered data on deaths between the US-Mexico border. Tamara then selected pages of the European list and translated it into Spanish. Together, Tamara and Dalida asked 18 artists from 9 different countries to read with them. The performance lasted 18 minutes, beginning with Tamara and Dalida’s voices and followed by a chorus of voices reading simultaneously. “It was deafening”, says Tamara, “It was so much louder than I anticipated it to be.”
The third version was performed at a fundraiser for Lebanon that Tamara co-organised with poet Lisa Luxx in February 2020. At this iteration Tamara asked the audience to read with her, with audience members reading at different times to see what would happen with different volumes. She allowed her readers to stutter and cry, with the main focus being for people to read and hear the names so that the list would be humanised. And in the future Tamara plans to keep working on the project, looking to see what would happen when the entire list is read by a huge group of people. She also aims to travel to the places on the list, to volunteer, cook Arabic food and also to gather ocean water, soil. “To talk about the epigenetics of place”, she explains, “Epigenetics is a theory of inherited trauma in our DNA. If trauma changes our DNA, what’s to say it doesn’t change the DNA of matter?” And speaking of trauma, Tamara was particularly moved by the explosion that hit Beirut on August 4, 2020, explaining that she felt like she became Arab on the day that Beirut exploded. “Something happened in my body and it’s kind of inexplicable”, she says, “It was a rush, it was in my skin. I felt my DNA heave inside of my body. There is no rational reason why…my parents grew up there and it’s very close to my heart.” Since the explosion Tamara has been writing and is working on putting those words to video. She explains that she was particularly surprised by a mundane social media timeline following the explosion. “I realised that we are not the same and that we as Arabs are not afforded the same thoughts and the same care and the same intention of learning and being a better ally”, she explains, “People are used to our cities turning into rubble. People are used to seeing brown bodies in violence.” Tamara thinks the film will focus on her skin as well as the Mediterranean and bodies of water, with some of the film touching on her grandmother’s house in Palestine, which she had to leave by boat.
As the lockdown in London eases, Tamara is putting herself on a self-imposed lockdown and tackling video content that she’s been sitting on. “It’s all video material that I made in relation to thinking about home and writings I had done about thinking about home”, she explains, “Where I am now mentally and with my writing it just feels like this is the time.”