The Art of Living of Art: Felipe Ehrenberg

This article was first published at FADmagazine.

To approach a man of Felipe Ehrenberg’s calibre is no small thing. The last of the modernists and the first of the conceptualists, a philosopher who through forms and colours sought to provoke pleasure, and sometimes indignation.

Ehrenberg started his artistic training at a very early age under the mentorship of Mathias Goeritz and José Chavez Morado. Fleeing from dangerous times in Mexico, Felipe arrived penniless in London with his two young children and their mother, Martha Hellion. Behind them, an involvement in a massive anti-government movement brutally quelled by a massacre, and the ensuing witch-hunt launched by the government prior to the Olympics of ’68.

Allowed to remain in England for “attenuating circumstances”, he proceeded to merge into the art scene spawned by the ’60s. Together with Martha, David Mayor, and Chris Welch, he founded the now legendary Beau Geste Press,[1] which was dedicated to presenting visual poetry, conceptual and neo-Dada art, and the work of many artists closely related to the Fluxus movement. Ehrenberg was one of the most important exponents of Fluxus’ principles in Europe.

Ehrenberg returned to México in 1974 and made a significant impact as a member of the country’s los grupos movement. Los grupos artists created socio-political work that addressed oppressive political regimes by combining activism and anti-art.

Indeed, his interest in the socio-cultural aspects of art and the involvement of the community led him to be present as a public figure in the 80’s. Although an unsuccessful candidate for the municipal elections in 1982, Ehrenberg was actively involved in the reconstruction and protection of the Tepito neighbourhood against the real estate speculation after the 1985 earthquake.

In 2001, he accepted to be a cultural attaché in Brazil under then-chancellor Jorge Castañeda. A post of which he was discharged when he appeared naked in Beto Brant’s film Delicate Crime. In 2014, he moves again to Mexico, this time permanently.

Ehrenberg had received the Perpetua Prize and Guggenheim and Fulbright fellowships among others.

Defined a neologist by his friend the writer Fernando del Paso, Ehrenberg adopted this title to describe himself: “the man who studied new things”.

Ehrenberg helped to redefine and claim a social role for art with his career through the adoption of innovative and experimental modes, both conceptually and technically. His commitment to resistance and to questioning any imposed concept is present in all his oeuvre.

All his works evoke an attitude of a constant critical examination of society, which crosses Ehrenberg not only through analysis, but also physically, using urban space as a political gathering place. He was one of the first artists to approach the topic of violence in Mexico. Indeed, one of the most repetitive topics in his production was Death, especially the mixing and adaptation of Mexican indigenous traditions with Christianity.

For Ehrenberg, there could be no division between art and politics, and his goal was to unite his viewers under this line of thought. “Art is only an excuse”, said the visionary artist in his compelling homonymous work… “an excuse to live life, to explore it, to question it, to enjoy it.”

Felipe Ehrenberg passed away the 15 of May from a heart attack in Morelos, Mexico.

Ehrenberg was not only an artist, he was also a traveller, a neologist, an intellectual, a politician, a writer, an actor, a teacher, a tireless traveller, and above all a friend.

He was faithful to himself and to his work, and his work was and will be faithful to him.

 

[1] Currently the CAPC Musée d’Art Contemporain de Bordeaux in France is hosting an exhibition on it.

 

 

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In conversation with Azar Emdadi

(This text was partially published at The International Museum of Women, January 2014)

Azar Emdadi, born in Iran Western Azerbaijan, lives and works in South Yorkshire, UK. She obtained her BA in Multi-disciplinary Design specializing in Photography at Staffordshire Polytechnic in 1989. In 1996 these skills were developed further through a postgraduate course in Gender Studies at Sheffield Hallam University, where Azar majored in the field of ‘Women in Film.’ In 1990 she was commissioned to document the war with Armenia in Soviet Azerbaijan. This extremely sensitive and important work was published internationally in many journals.

Azar’s engagement is with art-based concerns, with particular emphasis on social, political and gender issues.  Her works have been widely exhibited both in the UK and internationally, including a solo show at the World Cultural House Berlin, the Silk Road Gallery in Tehran, Iran, the Homeland Society in Baku, North Azerbaijan and many group shows in the UK, including Stoke-on-Trent Museum, St David Hall Cardiff, the Rose Issa Project, and many more. Azar’s work has been collected by many private collectors, including the Salsali Private Museum Dubai.

Dinner in Tehran is a series of 12 images, inspired by Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting of The Last Supper. These images explore the various paradoxes that exist within Iranian society today; the issue of public and private personas, the fractured identities, censorship, religion and strict social codes, which result in many Iranians living a double life.

All 12 images show the same woman center stage, putting the role of a woman at the heart of Iranian society. In each image the table is properly set and the food is plentiful as it plays a fundamental role in Iranian society; joining people together on a daily basis. These images are of young actors, professional models, friends and family members. Using the perspective of an Iranian woman living in the West, Azar Emdadi reexamines and questions representations of Islamic identity.

The following conversation was conducted by email in December 2013.

Q: You were born in Iran but you are living in the UK. How much and in which ways do these opposite cultures mark your works?

A: Being an Iranian living in the West, I feel myself curiously ‘bound’ equally to both. It is as if being caught between the divergent cultures of both East and West have somehow re-‘molded’ my perspectives, allowing me to appreciate and understand them in new ways. Because of this, I find myself politically, psychologically and emotionally torn. So much so, that even time spent in either sphere is physically disorienting. This continual conflict within my life has shaped – and continues to – my character and personality. Being centered from within, my principles and values clearly reflect these influential conflictions externally through my work.

Q: “The Orient has helped to define the Europe (or the West)” argued Edward Said in his seminal work Orientalism, What do you think in this regard?

A: It is my considered opinion that Said’s critique concerning the media representations of Globalism, West of the ‘Orient’ remain fiercely resilient, and are as applicable today as they ever were. Said himself asserts that in the US little has changed compared to Europe where slight improvements are more visible. But we could argue these factors must be weighed against huge technological advances that have facilitated the peoples of Europe to discern with greater clarity the ‘Orient’ as defined by them. Unfortunately, the dominant discourse remains very much the discourse of the great powers. More than anything else, I am alarmed to note how corrosively this blatant homogenizing of this ‘Orient’ impacts upon all people of various countries within the ‘Orient,’ as Muslims continue to carve out their identity in separatist Islamic terms. In reality, peoples of both the ‘Orient’ and the ‘West’ gathered in Europe live alongside one another, even if in largely segregated worlds. Meanwhile the divisions and misunderstandings of ‘us’ and ‘them’ escalate in an unwavering advance that dominates the European landscape.

Q: What does it mean for you to take a tradition and use it – is this just an endorsement or are you doing something else with it – something unexpected?

A: Contemporary art today explores ideas, concepts, questions, and practices that examine the past. This means using tradition as a vehicle, a visual platform to describe the present, and imagine the future. Often this helps to understand the underlying questions one is trying to answer and the ideology, or label it is subject to. Contemporary art can often seem overwhelming, difficult, or so simple that the viewer might wonder if they are missing something. Sometimes to understand where the behavior comes from, it is necessary to study the values and beliefs of the traditions that underpin them. It is an intensely personal undertaking for any artist to look into their own traditions to seek understanding. So, for myself, I see what is happening today in my homeland, and I ask why certain traditions are disappearing and how these experiences have an impact on how Iranians see themselves on the world stage. It is hard to realise that, because of this, many younger Iranians are losing interest in their own culture and heritage.

Q: Why do you define yourself as an artist? And what is the role that art has in your everyday life?

A: An artist is someone who connects to others emotionally through various media relevant to their creative practice in order to give them pause, to capture the attention of others through word, image, color and sound. I see myself exploring these media in order to grow both technically and emotionally, thereby evolving on a daily basis within the new technology to create dialogue. Art enabled me to find myself and at the same time lose myself; art has helped me transit the displacement process. I owe it to my art practice to continue and to establish a dialogue that is more of a universal language.

Q: Can women do everything?

A: Throughout history women have proven they are capable of doing and partaking in many professions, undertaking a variety of jobs very well indeed. Of course they may be subject to physical restrictions on certain heavy jobs. But this is not a sufficient hindrance to prevent women becoming active members of society and effective role models for the future generations. Today the younger generations of women are striving to perfect themselves. In most underdeveloped countries more girls are able to enroll in schools than ever before, but still women are paid so little compared to men, so that they are frequently dependent on men for their survival. We need to remove a fixed set of expectations, a false objective in that, simply speaking, because we feel we can do anything, we feel we have to do everything.

Q: Do you think it is correct to label the art of Middle East as “Islamic” art? And, do you recognize yourself in these terms?

A: Not really, I come from where the majority of people are Muslim but that does not make my art Islamic. Today the world tends to generalize and package all Muslim artists into one category without regard to their background, culture or politics. We wish to make art like any other Western artist but we are labeled by the religion of the country we originate from; this is a cultural cliché. I come from Iran where there has been a revolution, what was once a secular country is now an Islamic state. This has created many identity issues for all artists alike and, particularly within the younger generation, it has generated tremendous confusion for them. My work deals with such issues as identity crises that result from those acts of cultural prejudice that typify living in modern Iran. Most of my work deals with the issue of East and West, private and public, and the issue of identity and gender issues. My work has many layers and each layer is a moment, another identity. This creates unnecessary complexity and further confusion.

Q: What do you want to achieve or demonstrate with your art?

A: I interpret the world through the window of my art. I make comment about issues that matters to me the most.Through the medium of art, I communicate with my audience. Art is the most powerful medium to communicate in an immediate way the sensitive issues I wish to convey. This allows me to share my vision in an educational or informative manner. Sometimes, the image may simply be appreciated for its own sake, as an aesthetic delight; another time, I wish for the audience to be moved emotively by it as well as conceptually engaged.

Q: How does Dinner in Tehran explore the extant paradoxes prevalent in Iranian society right now?

A: Dinner in Tehran focuses on the desire of many Iranians, especially the young, to free themselves from the social and cultural conditioning of a strict society. The images in Dinner in Tehran explore those subcultures that undermine and subvert their strictures and balk against the autocratic confines apparent in Iran today. I refer in particular to those trafficking in sanctioned banned goods on market stalls,such as medicines, Barbie dolls, dollars and euros. We see older women meeting together to share photographs and to discuss their memories of children no longer with them, who have emigrated. We see women artists, whose works explores their political and social position as women in Iran today. As consequence of this bravery, they are putting themselves at great personal risk, frequently being imprisoned for voicing their creativity.

Q: Why did you choose to use a globally known masterpiece such as The Last Supper? Why did you choose a Western icon?

A: The Last Supper was chosen precisely because it is globally known; and as a universal image its message is immediately understood. This iconic motif – Christ’s Last Supper – I discovered in the house of a friend of my mother, and both women are in their late 70s. One of them is Christian and the other a Muslim. Without any awareness of the narrative behind the image, the Muslim lady loved the image, purely from the emotive beauty it raised within her. From this I developed the idea of using a Western icon within an Iranian setting to create an image of the time and historical period depicted in the painting. It served as the perfect base from which to build a universal message, not bound by culture, fulfilling my own impression of Iranian society in the here and now.

Q: What is the role that religion plays in your daily life?

A: The underlying principal of my beliefs are humanity and human rights, in that context I have defined a system of belief, the values of which will help myself and those dear to me, both near and far, to better understand our world and the people in it.

Q: In what way does Dinner in Tehran represent Iranian society?

A: My work takes into consideration all those layers within Iranian society, breaking these layers down. It depicts the older generation in addition to the younger generation. Many young Iranians wish to represent themselves; they want to be in control of their own identity and to express themselves creatively through fashion, art and youth culture. My images expose all these layers and the paradoxical Iran of today in order to reveal it as it stands.

Q: I would like to know more about the contexts in which you see your art practice as an artist. Who responds to your work?

A: It has been my pleasure to see both young and old respond equally to my works. In Iran I had a solo show where many young Iranians expressed considerable interest in my work, discovering they had a connection to it. This generated lots of stimulating discussion and comments. My mother, who has found herself featured in my work, appreciating her own connection to it through the old ladies depicted there. I demonstrate how older women like her are left behind with no-one to care for them since most or all their emigrant children no longer live near them. My images act as a mirror to our modern society today, right here, right now. The younger generation is rebelling, thus reinventing their own identities. Yet still they are too heavily influenced by the globalisation of Westernculture that suggest plastic surgery and tattooed eye brows for the middle classes. Such controversial imagery finds use within my work, serving to highlight the Westernisation of the East through its emphasis on such ‘fashions’.

Q: What do men make of it and does this vary by class, by culture, by ethnicity?

A: Men have offered both negative and positive comments. In particular, middle aged men do not like a woman being the central focus, replacing that of Christ in the original painting, especially one assuming the role of ‘woman’ as this represents her as constituting the very fabric of Iranian society. Currently there are issues regarding the high divorce rate of the younger generation happening in Iranian society today and where women are being openly blamed for it. Despite this, many young men have expressed their approval and support for my ‘feminist’ presentation of the key figures of this subject as women rather than men. So, I suppose I could say that, yes, the younger generation are very open to it but, not so the older generation of men whose traditional ideas are in open contrast with modernity.

Q: Do you consider yourself a “Feminist”?

A: I was born in a predominantly female family in Iranian Azerbaijan, where having a son meant a big deal. In order for my mother to have the benefits and joys that the treasure of being a boy incurs, I was brought up as such until the age of eleven. So, for myself, I feel this fortunate opportunity gifted me and invaluable experience of life as a boy. This meant having freedoms and privileges denied to my sisters. In particular, this included cycling in public, which is quite common in the West for girls, and playing late on the streets with other boys. This has shaped my world immensely, giving me the insight to better understand and appreciate the strength of a woman, her world and her true value as an equal. Insofar as I believe in the equality of everyone, especially regarding the right to be paid the same amount for their work, I suppose that does make me a feminist.

Q: What was subverted regarding Iranian female identity – if this is not a critique?

A: If I understand your question correctly, there has always been an attempt to subvert Iranian women’s identity but they have fought back. If you want a contemporary synonym for ‘subversion,’ it is ‘Iranian women.’ In response to the subversion of their identity by force they have, in turn, fought back in the darkest corners of their private life and also in the public space to subvert against the imposed desired ‘ideal type’ stereotype of a ‘chaste woman’ proscribed by the state. Every strand of their exposed hair has been a symbol of a collective subversion of a state-sponsored definition of a woman.

Q: What does it mean for you to take a western tradition and use it? Is this just an endorsement or are you doing something else with it – something unexpected?

A: I see myself as part of this culture, I studied the image, I understand this image and live in that culture, although I am neither here nor there; I come from the East and live in the West and both equally feel a part of me. It therefore feels natural to take a Western image and use it in the East. In putting these two together, I hope to make sense of both cultures and to generate a discussion through its dialogue.

Q: All the human figures are depicted around a table, talking in groups of three, with their bodies, gestures and their facial expressions half-hidden by the table. Who are those people? And which roles do they play in society?

A: They are young people under the age of 30, who constitute the largest demographic group in Iran (young fashionable women, young men and children), older mothers, intellectual women and street market holders. They represent all walks of life. Even soldiers who fought in the war with Iraq who are now in their late 40s are represented by real figures. Soldiers that were involved in the war against Iraq have brought their memorabilia from the war. I depict mothers whose children left home and who, even in their country of Iran, live a lonely life. Children are brought up with mixed messages at nursery; young boys and girls with plastic surgery and heavy make-up, and finally, intellectual woman fighting for their beliefs.

Q: Why is food always present in this series?

A: Food and eating plays an important part in Iranian culture, bringing people together on a daily basis. In each image the table is set appropriately for that group of people and the food selected is relevant to the age group. I also use food as a symbol. In the image of the soldiers I use the Iranian delicacy of the sheep’s head uncooked with blood on it as a symbol of violence. In the young men’s party I use fast food to emphasise my point about younger generation being heavily influenced by western globalised culture, and so on.

Q: The city in the background, Teheran, how would you describe it?

A: As a city I no longer recognise that I lived in and went to school during the revolution of 1979. Now it is very overcrowded and pollution is at critical levels. In a city of 10 million, one can easily get lost and forgotten. The gap between rich and poor is vast. Between the richer areas of the north and poorer areas of the south there exists an insidious sense of being ‘within a city’, whereas many high rises induce their own complex ‘large city’ living issues. Here, by contrast, the newly rich are to be seen in their flashy cars.

Q: There is a sharp division between public and private space in Iranian culture. Why? Why do people act differently in these two spheres?

A: In Iran under the enforced rules, men and women lead double lives; one which is private and inside their own homes, another which is public and outside on the streets. Within this society, various sub-cultures have developed exogenous to such hypocrisy. Inside the home, within the private sphere, women can show their hair, people can wear what they like, watch banned TV programmes, drink alcohol and listen to pop music. Outside the contradictions continue. Everybody is expected to wear dark colours and there are strict limitations on the choices of colour worn. Women must cover their hair and wear the hajab. They also experience a segregated civic life at schools, universities and when travelling on public transport.

Q: Do you think judgment is part of your culture/religion?

A: Yes, it is a tragic element that pervades our culture to be judgmental. But that does not mean that I agree with it or practice it, it’s wrong according to my own system of morality to pass judgment on another human being.

There is a famous wisdom verse within the bible, attributed to Jesus Christ and oft quoted being quite well known today, by which I place my own credo of live upon, it is: “Judge not, lest you be judged.”

Q: Can Islam influence and change the life of the people?

A: Yes. Islam can influence and change the life of people, but the change and the direction of that change very much depends upon exactly how one interprets Islam. There are many interpretations and re-interpretations of traditional Islamic Scripture (The Quran). These can vary from the slight to the most liberal. Among all the traditions and religions, none has produced such magnitude in terms of their influence or impacted so dramatically on so many diverse different aspect of human life as Islam has done.

Q: The woman in the centre of your photos is always the same, holding this same position. Who does this woman represent?

A: All 12 images have the same woman centre stage, representing women’s place at the heart of society, keeping the fabric of Iranian life together. I drew on autobiographical experiences for this central image.

The images in the Dinner in Tehran series are numbered 01 to 12. My numbering of the photographs relates to the subtle finger counting that the central female figure is doing in every image.

She represents the mother, sister, wife and hard working woman of Iran who has kept the family together in the last 30 years during the revolution, throughout war and sanctions, etc… She is always composed and calm, sitting in the middle counting her fingers gently. I like to leave it to my viewer to interpret the counting however they like.

Q: Can religion and art be related? And if yes, how?

A: Art and religion have influenced and affected each other throughout all ages. Much of the world’s art was made for or been inspired by religious reasons and ideas. African art is a fine example of this. Ancestor worship, spirits, magic, and other aspects of the religion of African peoples are reflected in their art. Art was also created for marriage ceremonies, for funerals, for honoring leaders, and for celebrations. Nearly all African art has a function. Statues are carved to honor ancestors, kings, and gods. Masks are used in rituals surrounding boys’ and girls’ coming-of-age ceremonies, at funerals, and for entertainment.

Art through the ages has been a powerful voice for secular and religious ideas.

Q: Can art change the world?

A: “There is much wisdom in art, for art is life.” Art is an innovative agent for transformation; art can therefore be a great force for change in the world. Artists bring imagination and new vision to the world. Artists and poets and other creatives are the first to be silenced when governments or other establishments become threatened by such visionary polemics.

Art is the fundamental creativity that inspires every aspect of our lives, whether that be political, or simply for pleasure: art induces evolution of mind and spirit. The purpose of art is to inform and delight. Art is a language that has a direct link to our unconscious mind and emotions.

Q: In the last photos there are only doves. Why? Is because they represent peace and freedom and is this what you wish for your country?

A: I created 12 images for the number of people on both sides of the table, in ten of those images; a table is surrounded by all 12 people on the same side as that of the middle woman. Finally, in one image only there is one person, and in the last image, with no one but doves.

The images of doves represent intellectual freedom and hope, the escaping of social norms, and the creation of new landscapes for Iranians to possess.

Q: In The Last Supper, everybody is animated, using hand gestures for example, to show a narrative that references the parts played out by Christ and Judas. It is evident that the sentence pronounced by Christ (“One of you shall betray me” (Matthew, XXVI, 21) generated all these different reactions. This is Leonardo’s novelty: “shows the effect of the Word, he does not limit to indicate it.” [the quotation here, can you create a reference for it?  We can put it in brackets] What is the sentence behind the movement of your protagonists?

A: We strive to win.

Dinner in Tehran (2012) was exhibited as a solo show in Tehran Silk Road Gallery (Iran), part of it in the London-based Rose Issa Project, and at Art Space London and Art13 London. The last exhibition was held in May 2013 at the Dubai Art Space Gallery.

Ana Mendieta: Traces of Life

(This text was originally published at The International Museum of Women, October 2013)

Whoever is familiar with Hermann Hesse’s book Pictor’s Metamorphoses will see immediately the relationship between the human being and the earth, and will quickly relate it to the Cuban artist Ana Mendieta (1948–1985), the creator of “earth-body.”

Although her short career  – she died at the early age of 37 by falling from the window of the 34th floor-apartment in New York where she was living with her husband the artist Carl Andre – Mendieta left a prolific amount of work.

By joining human features like blood and primary elements such as fire, water, and earth, she creates a unique language which is provocative, impacting, and at the same time intimate and engaging.

Mendieta was born into a politically active Catholic family in Havana under Fidel Castro’s regime. Immediately before her thirteenth birthday, she was sent with her sister to America, where  she studied art in Iowa.

The pain and the separation from her country created a cultural displacement and exile inside her that she used and developed in her creative process, which she named “earth-body.” She perceived this separation from the family (she rejoined her family in Havana after 18 years) as a sort of orphanhood and used this suffering as a driving force for her art — opening a dialogue between the landscape and her own body. This dialogue was the main component of her work and is present in all her oeuvre.

Her performances and sculptures are a combination of the Afro-Cuban ritual santería and a metaphor of death, life, rebirth, and spiritual transformation. Always interested in themes such as identity, female violence, displacement, and physical transformation, Mendieta created work such as Rape Scene (1973), a documentation with slides of violent crime, using her own body and her own apartment. Inspired by santería, a Yoruban-Christian religion practiced in Cuba, as well as by her Roman Catholic education, Mendieta used ox blood in her actions and performances to create stains of her body, to trace the contour of her body or create an image of her body, as in the work Untitled (Self-portrait with Blood) (1973). She stated that the blood was not a negative force.

 

Alongside her interest for the Afro-Cuban spiritual ritual, Mendieta was interested in ancient and indigenous cultures. Witnesses of these interests are works such as Bird Transformation (1972), a performance concerning transmutation in which she is naked and her body is completely covered with feathers.

As an exile from Cuba, Mendieta found solace in Mexico, where she spent a lot of time during the 1970s. The parallelism between Mexico with her native Cuba was an inspiration for her. There she created body-works rooted in the ritual Mexican tradition of the Day of the Dead celebration.

Her most famous work was Siluetas, a series of one hundred works that she created between 1973 and 1981, and that become the center of all her practice.

A special significance for Mendieta was the work Arbol de la Vida (1970) a work that embodies both wisdom and knowledge, a binomial that is encountered in any culture and religion.

All her oeuvre refers to the universal process of life, because Mendieta believed that you cannot separate life from death. As she said: “All my work is about those two things – it’s about eros, and death and life.”

Although Mendieta works were mainly sculptural, she recorded everything in photographs and video. The process and the documentation of the same was essential for the artist.

Mendieta’s relation with the earth was unique and singular; her relation with nature was the source of inspiration for her creativity. Likely, this attachment for the earth derived from her sense of displacement and for her search to find her place in this world. She left us numerous works that are currently being exhibited at Hayward Gallery in London.

Mendieta is only another great sample of a woman, of an artist, of a daughter that dedicated her life to what was most significant for her: earth and body; earth as synonyms of house and body as synonyms of life and death.

Regina José Galindo: El mundo mordio mi corazon y me contagio su rabia

(This text was originally published at The International Museum of Women, August 2013)

Regina José Galindo’s performances reflect the violence that is deteriorating Guatemala.

Born in Guatemala City, her work always makes references to perceived “lower” levels of society, and to women in particular. It also deals with the “other” who has been subjected to violence. Her performances are directly linked to the brutality of the patriarchal society she lives in. Galindo takes the place of the victims, inflicting upon her own body the same violence that she denounces in all of society.

Her works, which are of great visual impact, refer to global issues such as pervasive male violence, marginalization, subordination, and torture. With self-punishing actions, Regina José Galindo transforms a body into a medium that suffers: without losing perception of the reality of the hostile world that surrounds us.

In her work Perra (2005), Regina adopts submission yet desists from the post-modern strategy of seduction, because she carved with a knife “perra, ” an insult and slur on her thigh muscle. In this brutal way, she recalls those women that are on the boundaries of submission, abuse, and denigration.

The artist courageously intervenes in the public realm, in order to show what the powers that be would prefer to keep hidden.

In some ways, Regina’s work can be viewed as a kind of “confession.” Her actions show that the subject can be built up only from trauma, revealing the repressions and turning corporeality into a place where the cruelty of power locates.

Yet her work carries significant messages. Regina José Galindo denounces the truth uncovered, as we see in El dolor en un pañuelo (1999), where she is nude, tied to a small bed in a dark room, with newspaper reports about rape and murder, and violence against women projected onto her naked body.

One extreme form of violence is nudity, which is a paradoxical state of communication, or rather a laceration of being, a pathetic ceremony in which the shift from humanity to animality takes place. Bataille considers that the dialectic of transgression and prohibition is the very essence and condition of eroticism. [1]

Regina certainly uses nudity in a transgressive manner, as we can see, for instance, in her action entitled El cielo llora tanto que deberia ser mujer (1999), in which she immerses herself into a pool and reaches the point of drowning. She goes beyond all limits.

Regina goes so far as to identify us with the very worst when, in No perdemos nada por nacer (2000), she was put in a body bag and thrown almost unconscious into a municipal refuse dump in Guatemala.

However, her work is not just what is shown or the atrocious manner in which it is displayed; in Himenoplastia (2004), she had her hymen reconstructed, bringing into discussion the mythology of virginity, while imposing the present of what we cannot see but only predict.

Regina assaults the viewer, through her voluntary suffering, and as such the artist is consciously entering the range of the oppressed. She gives material form to violence and pain: dragged by the hair, Trayectoria (2008), chained, Libertad conditional (2009). Galindo’s art formalizes the idea that art is the language of suffering and not merely the decoration of bourgeois desire.

Her performances show the painfulness of individual experiences in oppressive political regimes and in social contexts of injustice — unveiling the anti-humanist side of politics and society. As Michaux has pointed out, the artist is someone who resists the urge not to leave traces, leaving his or her materials in a territorial situation that is like that of a crime scene; the trace is what indicates and what cannot be cancelled. It is what is never present in a definitive form. [2]

By showing cruel reality, Regina is trying to redeem.

[1] G. Bataille, El erotismo, (Tusquets, Barcelona, 1985), p.31

[2] Cf. Ralf Rugoff, “More than Meets the eye”, Scene of Crime, (The MIT press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1997), p. 62.

AxME: Ellen Gallagher at Tate Modern

(This text was originally published at The International Museum of Women, July 2013)

Walking into the first room of the exhibition AxME at Tate Modern in London, one cannot remain indifferent when viewing a photo that immortalizes the figure of Freud sketching a model. With a closer and knowledgeable gaze, one can recognize the face of the model as the artist herself posing in an evident Orientalist style.

 

With this short introduction, we are carried into the world of Ellen Gallagher (b. 1965) who is an American artist that deals with sex, femininity, white male artists, couch trips, models, and the male gaze.

The huge exhibition is organized in eleven rooms and presents a number of works from different periods. The following rooms are adorned with her big paintings of women in which plasticine forms their hair and caricatures of big lips and bug-eyes create their features. They are signs; they are signifiers of Gallagher’s own visual vocabulary.

 

Ellen Gallagher has worked with diverse techniques and materials. Her work embraces painting, drawing, sculpture, collage and film — often combining multiple media in a single piece. She became known for her minimalist works, alluding also — with her caricature of lips, hair, and eyes — to the vision and representation of black people in the “others” imagery.

 

The sensibility of her re-appropriation of society’s imagery makes these works more than just aesthetically appealing. They acknowledge the anger and the sense of revenge against a label.

Curated by Juliet Bingham, the entire exhibition is a brilliant combination of politics, social classification, and identity.

In Conversation with Sarah Maple

 (This text was originally published at The International Museum of Women, April 2013)

Why do you define yourself an artist? And what is the role that art has in your everyday life?

I think it is there in my everyday life because I see art in everything…especially conversations. I always pick up on things people say and use them in my work, or they inspire a piece. Everything I see everyday from TV, advertising, the internet, family and friends, all these things influence me and inform the decisions I make as an artist.

Why do you consider yourself a “Feminist?” And what is for you “Feminism?”

To me feminism is a much broader term than what it is perceived. For me it all about equality, equality between all people. It’s funny how so many people agree on these principles but so scared of the word ‘feminism’. In my work I use humour and other ways to getting across this message, like a trojan horse.

I know you use art in different ways: paintings, video, photography, and performance… What work do you most enjoy doing?

It’s hard to say because I love them all, I take joy in them all. I always saw myself primarily as a painter but photography opened up so much for me as well. I love how each media can say and do so much used in the right way.

What do you want to achieve and/or demonstrate with your art?

For me the most important thing about the art is the message, I want to make people think and I want to bring about change. I want my work to challenge what is seen as ‘the norm’. I always aim to make my viewer question the world around them. I’m not sure art has the same power that it used to, but I try my best!

I have seen in your work that ‘Islam’ is a repeated topic, I know you have a mixed religious background , but why for you is it so important to talk about it?

I haven’t made work on this theme for a few years now, it was something at the time that I felt the urge to speak about and comment on. Not only was I commenting on the world around me but on my own life experiences with I felt was a reflection on the current political climate. People often ask if I will return to this theme….as a muslim it is part of who I am so I think I will return to it at some point but not right now. I felt I’ve said what I needed to say.

What do you want to denounce in your performance  It’s just like any other job really – dedicated to world peace?

The piece was inspired by artist Santiago Serra who had a successful show in London at the time. I found the great thing about performance is that you can have an idea about what you want to say and how you want yourself/viewers to feel, but you will only really know the impact when you are performing. In this piece we had 30 girls doing a ‘Miss World’ catwalk and then standing silently against a wall for a whole day. It looked incredible but was very hard work, 5 girls fainted. The gallery was all glass and the viewer had to look from the outside, like we were untouchable in this goldfish bowl. It was a very surreal experience, being watched in this way….definitely an experience I won’t forget!

Can women do everything?

Yes!

“Menstruate with pride” would you talk about it?

This piece was inspired by a group called ‘Adventures in Menstruating’ who I saw perform in New York. They spoke about the shame women are made to feel about this, mainly through the media and advertising. It made me think about this on a wider scale, how women are made to feel bad and ashamed about their bodies. Ultimately it is all to make us buy things. It also reminded me of menstruating in religion and how it is perceived as dirty, especially in Islam. In my piece I wanted to subvert this. The women in the centre is proudly menstruating, whilst all the others around her are shocked and horrified. I also wanted to emulate the classical religious paintings. Instead of mocking her, we end up laughing at the crowd….it makes us question why they are reacting this way. A lot of my work is like this – instead of bringing attention to the taboo itself, we question why it is a taboo.

 

You have been named “The heir to Tracy Emin’s throne.” What do you think about? Are you happy of this title or are you disturbed of being identified with someone else’s art?

It is very flattering as she is such a well known artist however I do find it funny also. They never compare me to a man, I would never be ‘the next Damien Hirst’. They feel they must compare me only to another woman. I always get referred to as a ‘female artist.’ You never hear the term ‘male artist.’

You use your image in all your work. Is that your way to interact personally with the world? Why? Is it a sort of re-appropriation of female figure?

I use myself because it feels natural to do so, I don’t think that a model could put across the things I want to say in EXACTLY the way I want them to be seen….it’s all about the look in the eye and only I can get that perfect because only I really know what I’m trying to say. I love being in the pieces and I suppose it is a personal touch, however I don’t want to be too personal, if I see my own eyes or facial expression in a picture I would never use it. I am always acting in all of my pieces, there is a cool detachment between myself the person and the character of me as an artist.

In Conversation with Raeda Saadeh

(This text was originally published at The International Museum of Women, February 2013)

Why do you define yourself as an artist?

Actually it is very sensitive for me when I say I am an artist, because when I look at the art history for instance Michelangelo, I question myself: who am I? Am I an artist? It is not easy for me to say I am an artist. Though, I have this feeling when people talk about my art, when I do an exhibition and others speak of me as an artist, in those moments I recognise myself as an artist.

I teach in two different universities in Palestine and in Israel, in two different languages, and the students are just starting to study and they already say “I am an artist”. So I think it is not difficult to say, “I am an artist.”

What is the role that art has in your everyday life?

I brief art. I don’t have a studio at home, but I have my sketchbook always with me everywhere I go and I am always writing my ideas. I am always talking about art, through which, with Palestine occupied, we can express our problems through art.

Do you consider yourself a “feminist”?

When I am with other artists, we always talk about feminism. For me there are so many things to talk about before talking about feminism. The right of a woman of being considered a human came before feminism in my opinion. This is the concept I am dealing with. I am talking about women that cannot study or work, because their families are really poor. I am talking about something that is normal in other parts of the world, but that here is more difficult. I am talking about being. Feminism is a further step for me to talk about.

For instance, last week I went to this place and I worked with two women of 60 and 70. They didn’t have food to eat. I guess this is a priority, rather than think about feminism. There are many things to work with right now that I cannot focus on feminism. I am more concerned about the problem of being a human.

You use your image in all your work. Is that your way to interact personally with the world? Why? Is it a sort of re-appropriation of female figure?

The way I do my art it is always with me. I am in my art. I always put myself into it. I use my image. I am always performing. When I take a photograph for example I feel myself as if I am doing a performance. For me my artworks are my babies. I am art myself.

Do you think it is correct to label the art of Middle East artists as “Arab or Islamic” art? And, do you define yourself as “Arab” artist?

I am Muslim, I am Arab, I am from Palestine, but I don’t like being labelled especially as “Islamic artist” as I don’t feel I am showing Islamic art.

I can accept that I am a Middle Eastern artist, and I am happy and proud of it, but how could I be defined as an Arab artist? What does it mean? There are many Arab artists that never lived in an Arab country, but they do art. What to call them? How can you define their art as Arab? This identification is very sensitive.

What do you want to achieve or demonstrate with your art?

I am trying not to be identified with anything. I’d like to be universal and seen as any woman in the Universe. Any woman in India, in the US, so they can identify themselves with my art. I want my art to be for all women. I would like to be successful. To be good at what I do. It is not easy for me as a Palestinian artist to be teacher at the Israeli University, and to teach in Hebrew. But when the students look at me they see a Palestinian that teaches in their language and tries to reach them with their same language. This is a great success for me.

I have seen in your work that ‘virginity’ is a repeated topic, I suppose that is because it is still a taboo in your country, but why for you is it so important to talk about it?

Once I did a project that was about ‘virginity’ in Ramallah. It was a competition and when I told the jury I would talk about ‘virginity’ they told me: Are you crazy? Do you want to talk about virginity in this Country? And I answered: I am not going to do a revolution, but as a woman I feel I need to talk about it. I feel I must talk about it, because there are almost 20 women that are killed each day by their families that suspect they are no longer virgins. In all my art I try not to be “the other” in relation to the public, I always try to communicate, I want to talk, not judge, eye to eye. It is not something I want to change, I do not judge, but want only to show that they are judging not me.

It is not good to point out their mistakes as if I want to teach them, but only try through my art to talk to them and to show them another point of view. I started to deal with virginity in 1998. I conducted a huge research about this concept and I discovered that there are so many girls that die at their families hands for saying they are not virgin, but when the hospital checks the bodies they find they were virgin.

Also I met a lot of girls who lost their virginity, but before marriage do the surgery at the cost of $200.

I met a girl once who divorced the same day of her marriage, because she did not bleed, and her husband did not believe she was a virgin.

They judge whether she is a good woman or not, if she is clean and pure, if she is Tahara(h) طهارة‎ as they say, based on her virginity. But she can buy her purity, and for only $200 she can lie to her husband forever. A woman can buy her purity for the cheap amount of $200.

What do you want to denounce in your performance “The Tree of Wishes”?

I made the dress and it is around 60 meters in diameter and the idea I want to show is that you come to me, I am the God and you make your wish. I am powerful and strong, I am in the middle, I am the God here, and I have the power of making your wish come true. So the role of the women once again, of being only related to a secondary role, here is broken. I want to perform it around the world. I did it already in 4 different Countries: the next will be in Marseilles, and the last show I would like to be in Jerusalem.

It is interesting to see the wishes in the different Countries. In some Countries, the wish of most girls is to get married; but it is very fascinating to see how the wishes change in each country. So I see the differences also in the culture of the Country in which I am hosted.

In Tunisia for example, without knowing I was Palestinian, one of the wishes was: Free Palestine!

Some people take it very seriously, some cry… In Turkey, there is a tree where people make their wishes. Also in Italy, in Rome, at Fontana di Trevi, you throw in a coin and make your wish. It is a belief and a hope.

Speaking about your performance “Dance with me”, you said: “ Women can do everything, the skeleton is alive, I am giving him his life” what do you want to symbolise with it?

I see a lot of young people that say: we cannot! There is a kind of resignation, they don’t believe in the possibility of doing. Many female artists when they get married don’t continue their careers. But I believe WE CAN, for example me: I am a mother, I am a wife, I teach in Jerusalem, I teach in Ramallah, I am also a director of an Art Centre, I do my art, I cook at home everyday, I do the cleaning… You can do everything.

Your work “Vacuum” symbolises impossibility and endlessness. I guess, it has a reference to the political situation in your country, Palestine, if so, how do you feel about it?

(The video Installation was shot in the desert between Jericho and the Dead Sea in Palestine. To create an authentic experience, 400 meters of cable was connected to a generator, so that the soundtrack and the act of cleaning were genuine. This performance aims to recall The Mith of Sisyphus, the condemnation of an absurd endless work, repeated and repeated that has to be done in order to survive in Palestine.) In all my work I usually talk about politics through my female perception, here it is really Palestine I am talking about. The desert is exactly our reality here in Palestine.

Photographer, installation and performance artist Raeda Saadeh was born in 1977 in Umm Al-Fahem, Palestine. She received her BFA and MFA from the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, and spent one year as an exchange student at the School of Visual Arts in New York. She now lives and works in Jerusalem.

A Room of One’s Own: Women and Power in the New America

(This text was originally published at The International Museum of Women, January 2013)

A Room of One’s Own: Women and Power in the New America (2006) by Cuban-American artist Coco Fusco (born 1960 New York City) is a powerful performance inspired by Virginia Woolf’s famous essay, which deals with women and war.

The show begins with the artist wearing the typical U.S. army uniform, and she is on a stage performing the role of an interrogator. The American flag opens behind her and two screens: one projecting the traditional image of the eagle, the emblem of United States, and the sentence: United we stand. The other shows a CCTV live video of a prisoner in an interrogation room of Guantanamo. In this setting, Fusco makes the traditional military salute.

As a whole, the flags, the salute, and the other symbols transmit the same feeling and pride that reigns among the American soldiers, and their belief in a mission of developing civilization and democracy in the name of freedom.

As part of the performance, there is a manual in a PowerPoint presentation entitled, A Field guide for Female Interrogators’ describing the ‘tactics’ of interrogation. The use of this manual is and employs the hegemony of the power. In her speech, she satirically emphasizes the great achievement on the part of women and the use of their femininity in joining the war.

The entire performance addresses the Guantanamo Bay Camp and Abu Ghraib and is focused on the “Arab subject.” The manual refers to Arab inhibitions in relation to sexuality, exposure, homosexuality, nudity, shame, and taboo; and arrogant women half-naked making explicit sexual gestures against the prisoners and violating their “religious doctrine.” The woman is playing the role of a heroine, who triumphs against evil Muslims.

Through her work, Fusco reminds us that the conquest of sexuality has nothing to do with reversal roles of power and submission, and that it is not a competition of physical attributes.

A Room of One’s Own addresses the theme of military interrogations and demonstrates that the mission of civilization hides a policy of oppression, which leaves very little room for the value of democracy, freedom, and respect of cultural and gender diversities.

Coco Fusco is an interdisciplinary artist and writer. Her work combines electronic media and performance in several formats and explores the relationship between women and society, war, politics and race. She is a recipient of a 2003 Herb Alpert Award in the Arts. Fusco’s performances and videos have been presented in two Whitney Biennials (2008 and 1993), the Sydney Biennale, The Johannesburg Biennial, The Kwangju Biennale, The Shanghai Biennale, InSite O5, Mercosul, Transmediale, The London International Theatre Festival, VideoBrasil, and Performa05. Her works have also been shown at the Tate Liverpool, The Museum of Modern Art, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona.

Fusco is the author of English is Broken Here: Notes on Cultural Fusion in the Americas (1995), The Bodies that Were Not Ours and Other Writings (2001), and A Field Guide for Female Interrogators (2008). She is also the editor of Corpus Delecti: Performance Art of the Americas (1999) and Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self (2003). Coco Fusco received her B.A. in Semiotics from Brown University (1982), her M.A. in Modern Thought and Literature from Stanford University (1985), and her Ph.D. in Art and Visual Culture from Middlesex University (2007).

Is Mona Hatoum a Surrealist Palestinian?

(This text was originally published at The International Museum of Women, December 2012)

Mona Hatoum ( b. 1952, Lebanon) was born into a Palestinian family in Beirut. She often explores the danger and limit of everyday objects, giving them a new vision of interpretation. Her poetic and political oeuvre is realized in a different range of media: installation, sculpture, video photography and work on paper can be interpreted as a description of the body, gender and a commentary on politics.

All her earlier works draw a strong link with the condition of Palestine people. Although born in Lebanon, she always emphasizes her belonging to Palestine, but expresses frustration when that of “nationality” is the only interpretation that the audience gives to her works.

One of her most celebrated works is a video “Measure of distance” she made in 1988. Hatoum produced this video of letters written by her mother in Beirut to her in London. The video is a sensual conversation between two women, mother and daughter, in which the former speaks openly about feelings, sexuality and femininity.

“Although the main thing that comes across is a very close and emotional relationship between mother and daughter, it also speaks of exile, displacement, disorientation and a tremendous sense of loss as a result of the separation caused by war.” 1

“View Siege” (1982) was a performance piece in which she was trapped in a large glass container entirely covered in clay. She tried several times to stand but repeatedly slipped and fell as the clay from her body smelted. It was a clear reference to the condition in Palestine as a country living in continuous siege. A collage of sound from different directions and in different languages was the background of the event.
Hatoum’s work is strongly evaluated as existing in the space between the Duchamp’s ready-mades surrealism and minimalism through her way of exploring objects and giving them a metaphoric interpretation via different framework. To explore the way in which she manipulates the object it is interesting to look at “Untitled (Wheelchair II), produced in 1999.At first glance, the object looks unremarkable in its status, but as soon as one looks closer the differences come across: the chair itself is very uncomfortable and the wheels are very small, consequently the object is useless in its purpose and what appeared is different from the reality.
She took part in the Venice Biennale in 1995 and 2005 and has received numerous international awards, including the Joan Miró Prize in Barcelona (2011), the Käthe Kollwitz Prize in Berlin (2010), the Rolf Schock Prize in Stockholm (2008) and an honorary doctorate from the American University of Beirut (2008).
Today Mona lives and works in London and Berlin, exploring daily through her works, the duality of belonging to a Country of Arab tradition as well as to belong at the other, the “adoptive one” in which prejudice is overcome and freedom is a right of everybody.
1. Quoted in Mona Hatoum 1977, P.140
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