Anisa Ashkar : In a Twinkling of an eye, 2007
By Neomi Aviv
A performance and an installation in situ with the participation of Michael – the dancer, and Alexia – the great singer
Anisa Ashkar (Born 1979, Acre, Israel. Lives and works in Acre) is a young body artist who arrived at a formulation of her artistic identity right after enrolling School of Art. Already during the course of her studies, she won outside recognition for circumscribing a unique artistic arena and for developing a signature style. Less than two years after her graduation (with honors), Ashkar has been garnering international attention. Her face and her body are the private canvas and exhibition space that she was constrained to define from the very outset of her artistic career; they proudly communicate her definition of herself as a woman, an Arab and an agent of culture, of aesthetics and of the Muslim religion.
In the last year she has been captivated by the myth of Medusa, the terrifying monster. In the exhibition titled In a Twinkling of an eye she will enact a dramatic performance dedicated to Medusa. The performance includes a man – a muscular dancer representing Perseus, the Greek hero who overcame the lethal monster. Ashkar and the dancer will jointly enact her own interpretation of the figure of Medusa, with which she says she is strongly identified. What characteristics does she identify with? Who is Medusa according to Ashkar? It seems that once again Ashkar has taken the liberty to interpret and to provoke; Medusa, according to her understanding, was a smart, proud and invincible woman. She could not have been killed unless she had decided to allow it, to end her life at a moment of her own choosing. Perseus, according to Ashkar, was merely the victim chosen by Athena to perform this act. Perseus, according to Ashkar, is a presentation of Medusa who is in a tragic conflict with her wild side; confronting her strong emotions. The struggle with Perseus is choreographed like an erotic dance of monstrous forces, taking place on a stage; while Athena is sitting in an armchair, her eyes are covered, and she is singing a song of love and lonesomeness as if she has nothing to do with the struggle; Athena can’t admit her motives. Athena is also another representation of medusa. The whole act last 15 minutes.
A forced interpretation? As far removed as Ashkar’s understanding of the story may seem from the classical myth, her interpretation is both precise and faithful – not necessarily in relation to the Greek source, but in relation to herself. That is exactly how Anisa Ashkar perceives of herself: beautiful and dark, strong and bright, sovereign and in total control of her destiny. She will die when she chooses to die, if ever.
Ashkar is a performance artist who discovered, in an entirely authentic manner that the threatened public sphere of the Jewish nation state in which she operates as an Arab does not allow her to formulate for herself a place detached from an identity, or an identity detached from a place. The preoccupation with the question of identity has thus compelled her to adopt a performative strategy. She did not need to read Judith Butler in order to reach the postmodern understanding that the questions “Who are you?” “What is you gender?” “What constitutes your self?” “Where did you come from?” and “Where do you belong?” can only be answered by means of a demonstrative action, or performance, that enfolds within it political, cultural and gender criticism.
For Anisa Ashkar, being Arab has become the capital she has chosen to commit to and which she is proud to declare openly – by means of an aesthetic that draws upon her cultural origins. For the past six years, she has gotten up every morning and performed the same ritual: she ceremoniously faces the mirror and uses Arab calligraphy – created with natural pigments – to paint her face, and to paint onto it everything she is interested in saying about herself. It is in this manner – as a living painting and sculpture, at once a subject and an object – that she goes out into the world and goes about her day.
Ashkar began by framing her eyes like Cleopatra, in a manner inspired by ancient Egyptian makeup: she emphasized their contours by means of lines that gradually began extending outwards and developing into organic or abstract ornamental forms. Yet what is often perceived as a preoccupation with beauty, seduction or femininity was far from fully expressing her needs. She filled her sketchbook with thoughts and epigrams written in calligraphy. She thought about the miraculous quality associated with the very appearance of writing in Islamic culture – noting that the Prophet Muhammad had lived in a cave and did not know how to read or write; his prophecies were disseminated orally from one generation to the next, until the appearance of an angel who transformed his words into a sacred text. According to Ashkar, she discovered that she had an acute urge to clarify her origins for both Jewish and Arab Israelis, who were often unsure of her ethnic identity. Nowadays, when she goes out into the street in Acre or in Tel Aviv, in Athens or in Strasbourg, she discovers repeatedly that her exposed face is perceived as a mask belonging to an incomprehensible drama, thus rendering the enigma of her appearance even more acute. This enigma does not necessarily concern her political identity – people in the street react to her as if she were wearing the veil of a femme fatale, and do not necessarily associate her makeup with Islamic calligraphy. And even if they do, they want to know why she looks the way she does. With infinite patience, she explains: “I am an artist. This is my art.”
Ashkar’s makeup is also a text. It is at once a form of decoration related to the realm of the libido and a traditional form of painting, which Islam cunningly developed in order to circumvent the prohibition on making graven images.
Ashkar’s two eyes, which are lined with a coal-black color like that of a virginal diamond, conquer for themselves any space they gaze upon. Her face accompanies her to work at the schools where she teaches art, and leads the way when she makes an appearance at exhibition openings; it is clear that it functions as an unforgettable means of declaring her presence, allowing her to be located in any place or exhibition space she passes through. When she arrives at a museum for the opening of another artist’s exhibition, she becomes no less part of the exhibition than the works filling the space. This is the power of a face that functions as a surface or a canvas. This is the power of a body that serves as an artistic platform.