Anisa Ashkar: Barbur Aswad
By Tal Ben Zvi
The exhibition Barbur Aswad concluded, in effect, the activity of Hagar Art Gallery1. It opened in July 2003, and in September that same year the gallery was closed and reinstated as a residential apartment on Yeffet Street in Jaffa’s al-Ajami neighborhood. Barbur Aswad was exhibited in the gallery in three parts which differed in their modes of display (performance, installation, and photography), linking the major themes that surfaced in the previous exhibitions: identification of the geographic sphere as part of the postcolonial discourse and in contexts of ethnocracy, Arabic as reflecting an intra-Palestinian sphere, and the gendered body.
The first part, the performance, opened the exhibition on the evening of July 17, 2003, on the gallery’s terrace. The performance included two participants: Anisa Ashkar who was wearing a black dress, and a man whose identity was unknown to the audience2, with a bare chest, wearing trousers, his head and face covered with a black stocking cap. The man sat in a bathtub and read aloud the text “Umha bint el-Khert, advising her daughter on her wedding night – the will as a reminder and warning, marriage as a necessity” in Arabic from the book A Collection of the Arabs’ Speeches in the Golden Age. To the sound of the man’s authoritative voice, the artist was seen pouring bags of milk into a pot, boiling the milk with black ink. She then immersed a bathing sponge in the black inked milk and started rubbing the man’s body aggressively. Throughout the performance the artist bathes the man while giving him orders in Arabic, such as ‘raise your hands’, ‘turn your back’, ‘bend’, etc. The violent ritual is accompanied, from beginning to end, with the voice of the man reading the mother’s advice to her daughter, blending with the sounds of the al-Ajami neighborhood rising from the street. When the bathing ritual ends, the man gets up, turning toward one of the balcony bars. Ashkar sits before him, her head bent on her knees, and he places his hand on her head, praying: “Allah hu Akbar” – Allah is great.
The second part, the installation, spanned the terrace itself, bounded by Tsibi Geva’s iron bars which stayed as permanent bars since his exhibition Lattice. Between the bars, in modern, geometric patterns repeated along the balcony, the artist painted a black arabesque pattern in tar. On the columns she inscribed the Arabic script of the text which the man read out loud in the previous performance.
The third part consisted of a series of photographs depicting Ashkar, with sentences in Arabic she had written on her face and around her eyes, some in ordinary handwriting, others in mirror writing.
The exhibition was centered on the written canonical text “Umha binth el-hert” advising her daughter on her wedding night – the will as a reminder and warning, marriage as a necessity,” where the speaker is a woman (the mother), but the authority embodied in it is essentially patriarchal.
In contemporary Palestinian art, some female artists create a link between the textual authority that constitutes and controls the sexual body, and the figure of the mother. One of the best known examples is Mona Hatoum’s video piece, Measures of Distance (1998)3 which consists of conversations and correspondence between a mother and a daughter in Arabic and English. These bi-lingual texts, maintains Hamid Nafici, represent a dialogue resulting from a conflict which arises between mothers and daughters due to the gap between different generational, cultural, class, linguistic, and imaginative worlds.4
As part of mother-daughter relations, Ashkar, like Ahlam Jomah, seems to respect the canonical text: despite its numerous manifestations (the man holding a book, reading from it as a source; the text handwritten in Arabic on the balcony walls; and the text printed in Arabic on sheets of paper and translated into Hebrew and English), Ashkar does not change a single word in it, so that from beginning to end it appears as a solid system of authority.
Ashkar juxtaposes the solid authoritative language with a theatrical performance based on expressive bodily movements, repeated instructions and splashing of black milk in all directions. The interpretations associated with milk range from a diversity of metaphors pertaining to motherhood, breast milk, and breastfeeding to the image of breast milk which in the writing of 1980s radical feminist scholars is described as a tool expressing the body’s profuse eroticism, and the perception of the breasts sprinkling milk – as an expression of freedom and liberation.5
Throughout the performance, the act of sprinkling (which begins with the opening of the milk bags and continues through the man’s bathing ritual) becomes gradually more violent, as the liquid itself becomes blacker and blacker, all against the background of the text which emphasizes the textual repression of eroticism and its built-in control mechanism.
The subtitle of the text, “The will as a reminder and warning, and marriage as a necessity”, underscores the element of caution and the array of meanings that have already undergone social institutionalization, within whose frame the ritual of the mother’s loving advice takes place:
O, my daughter, adopt ten qualities which would be like a treasure […]. Do not reveal his secrets and do not defy his orders, for if you reveal his secrets, he will take revenge, and if you defy his orders you will awaken his anger and rage. If he is in mourning, neglect all joy, and if he is sad, shed all happiness. The first attests to omission and failure to fulfill one’s duty, the second is a mood spoiler. Praise him often and aggrandize his worth, and he will show you great generosity. The more you concur with him, the longer you will live together. Remember that your wishes won’t be granted, unless you prefer his contentment to yours, and hold his preferences superior to yours, with everything you love or hate. May god be with you.
Roni Halperin6 notes that “Ashkar signifies the mother as a cultural agent. The fact that a man was selected to read the text exposes the real voice behind the maternal text and the patriarchal essence inherent in it”. As for the ritual of rubbing the inked milk into the body, Halperin stresses:
Ashkar exposes the ink as a fluid written into the body; not merely tattooed on it, but assimilated and absorbed into it with a latent text that strives to be impressed as natural. The ink is blended into the milk, and together with the basic primary foodstuff, we are being permeated by these texts. The blackness of the ink and its stamping/staining power expropriate the automatic identification of the maternal milk as something pure, exposing the poisoning potential of the text it inscribes, as well as the voice of the father dictating it.
As part of the dialogue between mother and daughter, Ashkar’s reply to the mother’s advice seems dialectical: she preserves the text intact, yet exposes the positions of the speaker and the text’s influence on her life. In addition Ashkar rejects the text’s identification in a timeless sphere or a space devoid of geographical identification. Through the title of the exhibition – Barbur Aswad – she locates it in a concrete geographic realm. Barbur7 (Heb. for swan) is the name of the artist’s neighborhood, whose Hebrew name was given to it after the construction of a ceramic factory by the name of Barbur in proximity to the residential houses, forming a severe hazard to the environment and inhabitants alike. In the exhibition Ashkar supplements the pastoral name “barbur” with the Arabic word “aswad” – black.
Ashkar rejects the bilingual disposition that has become rooted in her place of residence. She transforms the swan (barbur) into a black swan. Blackness prevails when she paints the “dark” body which is marked by (Arab-Palestinian) otherness with blackness that functions as an immediate stereotypical marker of ethnic and cultural differences.8 This choice generates absolute borders between a system of language and identity which is marked as black, and an entire culture that has chosen to call itself “white” and which associates Ashkar, in terms of identity and identification, with the culture of national ethnic minorities.9
In the other part of the exhibition Ashkar inscribes sentences on her face which are a repetition of linguistic precedents, some historical and cultural extracted from the existent, others – her own creation. The phrases – ‘Freedom guides the nation’; ‘You have betrayed the homeland, and what else?’; I and the Acre sea are alike, we are both salty’; ‘I’m a woman, why?’; ‘Note: I am a free Arab woman’; ‘Take care’; ‘The land belongs to those who respect it’ – generate a continuum between the gendered and the national and personal, and can only be read partially, as part of what may be termed intertextual art. Nafici10 describes intertextual art as textual multiplicity which negates the status of the text as a unique, natural text, since the spectators are forced to engage in several simultaneous actions of watching, translating and reading. However, because these techniques do not necessarily support each other due to their asynchrony and critical juxtaposition, the spectatorial activities do not fuse into an easily coherent interpretation.”
The artist writes on her face in Arabic, a ritual which she performs daily before leaving for her studies at the Beit Berl Art College, an Israeli school of art where studies are exclusively in Hebrew. The Israeli viewer who encounters Ashkar in the public sphere (while walking on the street, in the bus station, and in the art school) identifies and marks her simultaneously as Arab and “other”, but usually cannot tell what is written on her face. On the other hand, the Palestinian viewer encountering Ashkar in the same sphere identifies and even reads the Arab text inscribed on her face, but cannot decode the text in full since some of it is written in mirror image.
The isolation of the text, ultimately introduced as an implicit code, at the same time marks and identifies its writer with an intricate system of otherness in an essentially ethnocratic public sphere, in fact expressing the modi operandi of contemporary Palestinian artists who operate separately from one another, artists whose personal voyage in is at the core of this catalogue.
1 From: Ben Zvi, Tal (ed.), 2006. Hagar – Contemporary Palestinian Art , Jaffa: Hagar Association, 2005, (Hebrew-Arabic-English)
2 Duarar Bachri, a student in the Art Department, Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, Jerusalem.
3 Mona Hatoum (1952), Measures of Distance, 1988. The 15-minute video work projects twelve photographs of her mother taking a shower in the bathroom of their family home in Lebanon. Excerpts of letters written by the mother (in her handwriting, in Arabic script), are screened on the mother’s naked body, while her daughter reads the letters (in English translation) in voice-over. In addition to the letter reading, spontaneous mother-daughter conversations in Arabic about sexuality, familial relations and childhood experiences are heard in the background. The mother’s nude photographs and the mother-daughter conversations were photographed and taped in Beirut, in the father’s absence. For further reading, see: Michael Archer, Mona Hatoum (Phaidon Press, 1997).
4 Hamid Naficy, An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2001), p. 127.
5 In “Coming to Writing” (1976) Helene Cixous identifies the streams of mother’s milk flowing from the breasts as white ink which enables writing against the current, a non-linear writing that celebrates its linguistic otherness. See: Helene Cixous, Coming to Writing and Other Essays (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1991).
6 From a conversation with Roni Halperin, 26 October 2005.
7 The Barbur neighborhood in Acre numbers 130 Arab Palestinian residents who have lived there since 1948. The neighborhood is “unrecognized” and its inhabitants are denied municipal services. It took a lengthy struggle before the Acre Municipality connected the neighborhood to the electricity grid in 2003. The background to Barbur’s neglect is an ongoing struggle against the residents in the desire to evacuate them and transform the neighborhood area into a green area and railway siding. For a discussion of the objection to the municipal scheme proposed for the neighborhood, see: www.mahsom.com, 25 May 2005.
8 Blackness as a visual category was a major theme in the exhibition “Mother Tongue” (curator: Tal Ben Zvi) at Mishkan Le’Omanut, Museum of Art, Ein Harod, 2002. The exhibition dealt with representations of Mizrahi Jewish identities in the work of 22 artists, most of them born in Israel, whose parents’ migration from Arab-Muslim countries to Israel is integral to the definition of their identities. The chapter “Blackness: Recoding Mizrahiness” explored references to Black identity in general, and African-American identity in particular, from Mizrahi perspectives in the work of Zamir Shatz, Netta Harari-navon, Tal Matzliah, Eli Petel, and Miriam Cabessa. See: Tal Ben Zvi, “Deferring Language as a Theme in the Work of Mizrahi Artists,” in Eastern Appearance: A Present that Stirs in the Thickets of Its Arab Past, ed.: Yigal Nizri (Tel Aviv: Babel, 2004), pp. 107-128.
9 For further discussion of the borderlines and intermediate realms of white culture/black culture, see: Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992); Franz Fanon, Black Skin, White Mask (New York: Grove Press, 1967 ).
10 See Naficy 2001 (n. 50), pp. 124-125.
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