Iraqi-American artist Sama Alshaibi explores war, displacement and mass migration through deceptively beautiful photographs, videos and installations
At first glance, Iraqi-American artist Sama Alshaibi’s photographs are arrestingly beautiful, like something from a particularly off-beat fashion shoot. These decorative aesthetics are deceptive. Through artfully composed shots, Alshaibi uses the human body as a conduit to address complex, bleak themes relating to power struggles and the relationships between citizen and state. Working in photography, video and installation, she explores the causes and aftermath of war, displacement, exile and mass migration.
To understand Alshaibi’s oblique approach, it helps to know a bit about her background. Born in Basra in 1973 to an Iraqi father and a Palestinian mother, herself displaced during the Nabka, Alshaibi grew up in Iraq. In 1981, her family was forced to flee due to the Iraq-Iran war, which propelled them into a nomadic existence in exile. After moving many times, she ended up in America, where her family lived illegally for years before she was finally given citizenship in 2004. “I couldn’t move,” she recalls, “so when I started to make work my body was the only authentic way to reference a condition or an issue or a concept.”
Alshaibi’s father was an avid photographer and taught her to shoot and process black-and-white film at a young age, even as her mother impressed on her the importance of images. “My mother was born in Jaffa and she would always talk about how devastating it was not to have their photographs,” she recalls. “That was a very big thing when we left Iraq. While we might have left all of our materials possessions, she took all of the photographs that we had of our childhood… She sewed that all into our clothes as we were escaping because she felt that was the only trace back to memory.”
Alshaibi studied photojournalism at university, hoping to be a war photographer. But she soon realised that American audiences, desensitised by images of violence, didn’t want to look at photographs depicting war and suffering. “The depiction of violence was very problematic… I felt like it wasn’t ever appropriate to be capturing someone else’s story in the moment that they were most victimised and vulnerable,” she says. “I had a feeling that this wasn’t the way to go about it, that the story was much larger and had more layers.”
Alshaibi began creating staged portraits, in which her own body served a metaphor for a people or sometimes a country. “I felt it was approaching the truth by being more allegorical, that people would also find their own stories or experiences and it wasn’t so exoticised,” she recalls. “I became more cognisant as time went by that this was a powerful tool — the complexity that people would feel when they thought something was stunning or gorgeous or beautiful and then it’s also sickening and sad. That’s haunting. It’s what makes you think.”
In her solo show at Ayyam Gallery Dubai (Al Quoz), running from November 15 to January 14, Alshaibi and curator Maymanah Farhat present several series of works that exemplify the diversity of the artist’s approach to the human body and themes of war, displacement and man-made environmental disaster.
Catastrophe, from which the exhibition takes its name, is a split-channel video work. On one screen, a book burns down to a pile of ash in the middle of an expanse of dry, cracked earth. On the other, a child plays an eerie, wailing melody on a violin. “This was all about the mass migrations that we’re seeing now on TV every day, the eco-refugee,” she says, “with the bee colony collapse disorder as a metaphor for the collapse of community and country based on ecological factors.”
The major draw of the show, for local audiences, is likely to be Silsila. Alshaibi spent five years working on the series, consisting of 40 photographs and eight videos, the latter of which were first shown at the Venice Biennial in 2013. Linked to the travels of the 14th-century explorer Ibn Battuta, the series explores desert regions and the dwindling bodies of water in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as the threat that rising sea levels pose to the Maldives. Photographing herself and a series of models on location, Alshaibi captures beautiful, meditative images and surreal film sequences with a grim underlying message.
“Ibn Battuta’s writing is considered absolutely, without a doubt, as the birth of the travelogue,” she says, “which is what the Westerners later took up to oppress Arabs, North Africa, Berbers, black people. Writing, painting and the camera were used as instruments of othering, and the travelogue genre was somewhere between this fetishized desire for a fantasy place and a way of categorising and placing power over people… For me Silsila is a critique of the travelogue and also an embrace of the travelogue.”
A third piece, a new installation entitled Exodus, unites the themes explored in Collapse and Silsila. Exploring mass migration as a result of conflicts rooted in ecological factors, the installation reprises the theme of disappearing honeybees through a sculptural representation of a magnified bee’s wing, in which videos explore the patterns being etched across the globe by refugees fleeing conflict.