The languages of art, politics and melons

'Never Give Up the Fruit' (2013), glass bulbs, canvas cables, wooden beams, 280 x 135 x 200 cm. (photo courtesy of The Third Line)

DUBAI: Of the dozen-odd objects variously deployed around The Third Line gallery these days, none is more deceptive than “Never Give up the Fruit” (2013).

The piece is part of “Language Arts,” an exhibition of allusively profane multilingual works by Slavs and Tatars – the international multidisciplinary artist collective that has been publishing translations of Central Asian literature and generating thoughtful art since 2005.

Suspended from the gallery ceiling like a mobile, the installation is mostly comprised of glass and wood. Its most prominent feature, 30-odd handblown, green speckled glass lamps, is hung via knotted chords from a wooden latticework.

Thanks to its designlike quality, this piece wouldn’t look out of place hanging over a dining room table.

As Slavs and Tatars’ Payam Sharifi explained at the show’s opening earlier this month, however, the work’s appearance is deceptively simple. Actually “Never Give up the Fruit” is so freighted with meaning, it is the very definition of deception.

Like all the works in “Language Arts,” this one was inspired by the age-old political-linguistic contest for Central Asia. The struggle to assert hegemony over this region has seen various polities impose three different scripts (Latin, Cyrillic, Arabic) on the languages of this region.

Contrary to what you might assume, Sharifi points out, the historically Roman Catholic, Orthodox or Muslim powers that have imposed these alphabetic revolutions from above have shown less concern for what script best serves the needs of the languages in question than raison d’etat.

This particular work grew out of the collective’s work on Xinjiang, the westernmost region of China. The region’s Muslim ethnic Uighurs call it “Uighuristan.”

“Never Give up the Fruit” was commissioned for a 2012 New York exhibition of the same name that, as Sharifi put it, explored Uighur culture’s triangulation between communism and political Islam.

The work takes its title from the legend of the Fragrant Concubine – aka the Uighur Khoja Iparhan, aka Xian Fe. Renowned for her physical beauty and an enticing perfume redolent of honeydew, Khoja Iparhan was kidnapped and bestowed to Qing Dynasty Emperor Qianlong.

During her time in captivity, it is said she never submitted to the emperor’s advances, in effect never giving up the fruit.

The story ramifies throughout the installation.

Its 30-odd orbs have been formed to resemble the Hami melon. Formerly a prized commodity in the Silk Road trade, the Uighur people would send Hami melons to China’s Qing Dynasty emperors as tribute.

The wooden lattice from which the lamps are suspended is not randomly elaborate. It’s been assembled to form Chinese characters. Translated, they spell “dissimulation.”

“Taqiyya” in Arabic, dissimulation is a pragmatic principle in some Muslim practices, a form of deception concerning one’s religious convictions that is permissible if honesty threatens to subject the believer to imminent harm and injury.

Not exactly “Swedish for common sense.”

‘Language Arts’ is up at The Third Line gallery until 17 April. For more information, see

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 28, 2014, on page 16.




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