Orientalist fantasy meets 21st century

"The Caravan 1," mixed media collage triptych, 60x360cm, 2014. (Photos courtesy of Art Factum Gallery)

BEIRUT: Since the publication of Edward Said’s critique of Western cultural representations of the Middle East, “Orientalism” in 1978, Westerners seeking to depict “the Orient” in words or imagery may approach the task with a hint of trepidation.

In “I am the Two Moons,” a solo exhibition of work by Claudia Scarsella that takes its inspiration from Beirut, the Italian artist addresses the elephant in the room head on. She includes a literal representation of an elephant and rider in her tongue-in-cheek collage “Cycling Caravan,” in which people camels, elephants and a giant tortoise are pitted against old-fashioned penny farthings, bicycles, tricycles and even unicycles, ridden by men in top hats and acrobats in circus clothing.

Currently up at Karantina’s Art Factum Gallery, the show stems from the artist’s attempt to create “a romantic encounter” between herself and the Middle East, based on a single visit to Beirut. The work in the gallery’s ground floor space explores what happens when Orientalist fantasy and contemporary reality collide.

“The Caravan” consists of a triptych of digital collages, a traveling train captured once upright and once in reflection. It’s a self-consciously exoticized caricature of the Middle East, the Orient of “The One Thousand and One Nights,” in which warriors with long spears ride galloping camels and swarthy, bearded men in robes converse in market places.

Scarsella might have picked elements of her composition straight out of 18th- and 19th-century Orientalist paintings by the likes of Eugene Delacroix, Jean Auguste Ingres, John Frederick Lewis or Alberto Pasini. She pairs these apparitions with elements of Italy’s rich cultural heritage – clowns and jesters in the costumes of archetypal Commedia dell’Arte characters such as the Harlequin and Pantalone.

This fairytale procession is juxtaposed with jarring elements of contemporary Beirut. A covered wagon emblazoned with the legend “Birds, Beasts and Reptiles,” idles behind a group of camels lead by men in white caps and robes. Behind this incongruous pairing rises the imposing form of downtown’s Ottoman-inspired Mohammad al-Amin Mosque.

Scarsella studied fashion design in London and textiles play a strong role in her work. The collages are overlaid with translucent cotton, on which the artist has picked out details of the black-and-white scene in colorful embroidery.

If Scarsella’s work is obliquely humorous, the exhibition text that accompany it is part of the joke, a list of Orientalist buzz words with little or no connection to today’s Beirut.

‘The Caravan’ is transhumance, procession, vision, safari

“‘The Caravan’ is transhumance,” it reads, “procession, vision, safari ... Laden with passions, goods and spirituality, it brings with it musical bands and harlequin dances, camel circuses, mosques and Maronite prayers. Gypsies and Pierrot, gendarmes and stilt walkers. Femininity, tribe. Silk.”

Exhibited on the gallery’s upper floor are framed prints that the artist has replicated and transformed into wallpaper. In “Flowers Know that Spring is Coming,” Scarsella brings together a shell-scarred concrete tower studded with arrows, minesweepers searching for unexploded ordnance, cartoon-style shooting stars and the curled bodies of Chinese dragons, clutching Greek urns in their coiling tails. She adorns this strange collection with the words “Beirut” and “moon,” written in Arabic.

The pieces function better as wallpaper than as framed prints. Scarsella studied architecture as well as fashion design, and in her wallpaper these two elements come together to form an interesting tension between function and form.

Downstairs are a series of four sculptures that conceptually surpass the remainder of the work on show.

Entitled “The City,” the wall-mounted sculptures are part of a larger series called “Produce Life.” Each captures a small section of Beirut’s streets and buildings in a series of blocky, vertically hung cityscapes formed of canvas covered with printed fabric. Next to each work, a square printout from Google maps shows the section of the city replicated in the sculpture.

What gives the work impact is the symbolism of the materials used in its construction. The fabric that covers the canvas framework was exhibited in 2012 in a 16th-century Italian castle. During the exhibition an earthquake destroyed the castle and the nearby town. Scarsella’s work was buried under the rubble, where it lay for months.

Salvaged from the aftermath of a natural disaster, the fabric takes on new import when applied to the framework of Beirut, often said to have been destroyed and rebuilt seven times. The gesture pays homage to Beirut’s “leathery soul,” the artist writes, comparing her work to the “sculpted features of the Lebanese character:” softness, solidity, fascination, fragility and resistance.

Locals who have limited patience with the idea of Beirut as a phoenix rising from the flames may find Scarsella’s exhibition somewhat trying. Much like the work of Europe’s 19th-century Orientalist painters, however, the work is interesting not for what it says about Beirut, but for what it says about the artist.

Claudia Scarsella’s “I am the Two Moons” is up at Art Factum Gallery in Karantina until July 26. For more information please call 01-443-263.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 09, 2014, on page 16.




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