Sama Alshaibi’s powerful exhibit at Ayyam Gallery in Dubai
Sama Alshaibi’s newest body of work from her solo exhibition, Staging the Imagined, reflects the relationships of power and authority between photographer and subject. The work investigates how a particular historical period can alter viewers’ interpretations of photographs. Through various projects, Alshaibi reframes historical photographs and moving images that, according to Grace Aneiza Ali, “reference a grave historic malpractice – the role of photography, both colonial and contemporary, in reducing the body, the life, the desires, the experiences, the hopes and dreams, indeed the very existence of the Middle Eastern woman to a dangerous single story – one rooted in the primitive and in fear, fantasy, inferiority and objectification.”
In her central project Carry Over, Alshaibi alludes to the “Oriental” portrait photographs made of the region’s women by Western photographers in the late 19th and early 20th century. Utilizing historic photographic printing practices of the period, and performing with her constructed headdresses, Alshaibi, who “uses the Arab female body, and always her own body, in her work, is intentional in fashioning the headdresses as vessels that are overwhelming, if not overpowering… Alshaibi interrogates objects rampant throughout the genre of Orientalist portrait photography – the veil, mashrabiya, smoker’s pipe – that have aided a Western gaze.”
Alshaibi continues on the image-history timeline of Middle Eastern women in her video Catalogue. She tackles the earliest moving images made of the region by appropriating the newsreel cinema rushes of the British Pathé, filmed between 1935-1955. The news agency coverage of Middle Eastern women’s lives is composited with a video of the artist performing as a live, human water feature in the tradition of figurative fountain sculptures installed in public spaces. Alshaibi also refers to public space, as well as propaganda and self-representation, in her reconstruction of political posters. These were mass circulated in the mid to late 20th century, made possible by the advances of cheap printing technology. The imagery presented in the project Affiche and the multi-panel mural posters that comprise Generation After Generation further complicate the staging of Middle Eastern women by presenting the female farmer and revolutionary fighter as a gender equal in the people’s popular struggle for Palestine’s liberation. They speak to the illusion of an unmediated feminist expression of these historical posters, while also challenging the construction of the docile Arab female in the imagination of others.
To produce Carry Over, Alshaibi used the same photogravures and albumen historic print process popularized in the late 19th and early 20th century. The albumen printing process was invented by Louis Désiré Blanquart-Evrard in 1850. The technique of making photographic prints is initiated with coating cotton paper with salt and egg whites as a binding mechanism to adhere silver nitrate and other chemicals to the paper’s surface. The photographic negative and treated paper are exposed to the sun to print out the image, followed by development and fixing in a darkroom. Photogravures were invented by William Henry Fox Talbot in 1852 and later developed by Karel Klíč around 1879. Alshaibi’s photogravures uses traditional intaglio printmaking methods whereby copper plates are etched by imaged-exposed carbon gelatin. These resulting image-etched copper plates are then inked and run through an etching press over cotton paper. Framing the photogravures are impressions embossed by plates that were produced from photographs Alshaibi took of wall tiles set in the Great Mosque of Kairouan, Tunisia. Archeologists have concluded that these hand-painted tiles originated from Iraq and were installed at the time of Abu Ibrahim Ahmad (r. 854-863). The embossing plates were inked with transparent ink and printed simultaneously with the photogravures in the etching press.
Ali writes that while the “process essentially erases time through an aesthetic that conveys a sense of the past, the woman in Carry Over is no relic. She is very much part of our present.” Ali suggests that even the title Carry Over refers to multiple readings of the work as it “first signals the burden of all the things we continue to carry as women of this 21st century world – war and conflict, gendered violence, economic inequality, policing of our bodies.” But rather than just reducing women’s experiences to the burden she carries, Alshaibi claims that in the subject’s total isolation, “she is transformed from an object of passivity into an active body that sustains and supplies oneself.” Ali refers to this singular bearer of strength in Alshaibi’s depiction as a “restorative narrative.” Ali states, “While the objects and sculptural headdresses shift, morph and change, it is she who remains constant, grounded, standing, unshakeable.”
Ali continues that Alshaibi’s oeuvre over two decades “graciously makes space for women of the world to see themselves in her images and find their own narratives.” Staging the Imagined is an implicit critique of the social exploitation generated over a century of images of Middle Eastern women, and Alshaibi’s disruptive strategy towards assigning power through the female body and narration of her stage.
“Selection of quoted text from exhibition catalogue: Women’s Work: Art & Activism in the 21st Century, curated and authored by Grace Aneiza Ali (Pen + Brush Gallery, NYC, NY, 2019)
Generation after Generation was commissioned by Artpace International Artist Residency.Carry Over was supported in part by the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture, Arizona Commission of the Arts, the Project Development 1st Prize Award from The Center at Santa Fe, University of Arizona and Artpace International Artist Residency.”
A VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN PRINT IN SELECTIONS, SHOW & TELL #51