The body as political commentary

BEIRUT: It’s common knowledge that body language can communicate as much or more than words. Whether subconscious or intentional, gestures and expressions can convey messages silently, or temper the meaning of the phrases someone utters aloud. For some video artists working in the Mideast, North Africa and South Asia, the human body has become a tool with which to avoid censorship while conveying sociopolitical views.

Silke Schmickl, co-founder and director of Lowave, a Paris-based publishing house for experimental cinema and platform for curatorial research in the field of moving images, drew some deserved attention to the burgeoning regional video art scene at the fifth edition of the Beirut Art Fair over the weekend, with a selection of 16 short works from the MENASA region.

Entitled “Body Politics,” the curated selection was one of the highlights of the fair. The looped sequence of short videos featured work by artists from Indonesia, Algeria, France, Turkey, Palestine, Malaysia, India, Singapore, Germany, Kuwait, Bahrain, Egypt and Lebanon, working in a variety of formats, from animation to documentary to performance.

Although united by a common thread, the works varied enormously, some employing humor and satire, others taking a more serious tone. Schmickl’s says her aim was to showcase the diversity of approaches, rather than to include artists from the widest range of backgrounds.

“I was more concerned with showing the multiplicity of ways in which regional artists are using the body as a tool of expressing a critical thought,” she explains. “The use of the body might vary from a direct and very physical approach to a documentary, poetic or dreamy reflection. We span a wide region, but national and cultural backgrounds tend to become less important in nowadays’ video language, as artists use the same tools and softwares and are inspired by a globalized visual language.”

The variety in Schmickl’s selection provided a window into the breadth and sophistication of video art from the region.

French-Algerian artist Zoulikha Bouabdellah explores culture, nationalism, colonialism and identity in the sublimely comic “Dansons,” a five-minute video of a belly dancer, wrapped in red, white and blue scarves, awkwardly attempting to perform the famously sensuous dance to the rigid strains of La Marseillaise.

In “Sophistication,” Indian artist Sarnath Banerjee’s ironic collage animation combining drawings and photos, the artist uses images of turbaned, mustachioed men and a hilarious, satirical voice-over about the fall of Islamic al-Andalus to frame a serious commentary on political and religious fanaticism.

In Kuwaiti artist Monira Al Qadiri’s “Oh Torment (Wa Waila),” meanwhile, the melancholic strains of a traditional Kuwaiti folk song are accompanied by footage of the artist dressed as a bearded, turbaned man. The surreal video, which features psychedelic colors and a cast of cross-dressing characters, draws links between love and death, exploring gender identity in a 10-minute sequence at once tender and farcical.

“I have been working for almost 10 years on a film collection called ‘Resistance[s],’” Schmickl says, explaining her choice of theme, “dedicated to artists from the Middle East and North Africa ... What fascinated me most about these films were the artists’ commitment and inventiveness. Many of them were working under difficult conditions, facing censorship and a tough production context. With almost nothing they made fantastic works and many of them used their own body to visually express their idea and to make a political or social statement.”

While it’s impossible to generalize, Schmickl said she has observed certain commonalities in the work of artists from particular geographic territories.

“‘Body Politics’ is a striking practice across the MENASA region but not exclusive to it,” she notes. “I have curated several programs with African video art where the body is extremely present, and the same goes for other regions. What is maybe particular about the MENASA region is that the body frequently becomes a sociopolitical tool, [whereas] in experimental cinema in Europe, North America or Asia the body is more often used to express thoughts on transience, wandering or isolation.”

When it comes to artists using the body as a vehicle for evading censorship, she highlights Palestinian artist Taysir Batniji’s 2005 slideshow “Transit,” a slow-paced exploration of borders, exile and belonging. Consisting of a series of clandestine photographs taken at the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza, its hurried, stolen frames capture Palestinians waiting for hours or days to be allowed to cross into their homeland.

“The physical limitation of Batniji’s own movement made him react through this series of still photographs of waiting bodies,” Schmikl says. “This video was always important to me as it shows us a hidden reality that can hardly be seen in the media.

“[Egyptian artist] Khaled Hafez’s ‘The A77A Project (On Superheroes and Presidents)’ is another example of a highly political and subversive work that put him in a difficult situation in his country,” she adds. “The work is based on body images taken from the Internet, an interesting strategy to use foreign bodies to visualize his own critical message.”

In the 12 years since Schmickl founded Lowave, she says video art from the region has been continually evolving and expanding.

“To me, video art and experimental cinema from the Middle East are still as exciting as 12 years ago,” she says, “and the forms of expression have certainly diversified with the development of technology and the democratization of the tools.

“After a generation of major artists working with video such as Mona Hatoum, Jayce Salloum, Walid Raad [The Atlas Group], or Jalal Toufic, a new generation of artists including Monira Al Qadiri, Basma Al-Sharif, Pauline M’Barek, Ismaïl Bahri or Halida Boughriet has arrived. Their practices are still closely connected with the political and social reality, but their approach might be more hybrid, poetic, ironic and less documentary.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 22, 2014, on page 16.




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