Review

Traces of Exile, Somewhere Elsewhere: Homage to Edward Said

Somewhere Elsewhere
Worth Ryder Gallery
University of California, Berkeley, CA
October 19 - November 5, 2004
Laura Kuo

Where should we go after the last frontiers, Where should the birds fly after the last sky? – Mahmoud Darwish1

 

The recent passing of Edward Said has left communities of activists and cultural producers mourning the loss of one whose legacy embodies four and a half decades of scholarship, creativity, and resistance. Said’s work has inspired an intellectual terrain of path-breaking scholarship that has shaped the evolution of theory, politics, and cultural production. His vision continues in the work of those who endeavor toward justice and peace, and those who draw upon these themes of difference, interdependency and transnationalism in their intellectual and creative practice.

 

Since the 1978 publication of Orientalism, Said’s work has complicated postcolonial politics by providing critical frameworks in which to consider the underlying complexities of postcolonial representation. The 25th anniversary edition of Orientalism was published in 1993, and included a preface by the author that addressed the continued currency of this material as it relates to US/Middle East politics. Said was particularly concerned with contextualizing this work in relation to the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and the ongoing US occupation of Iraq. Underlying this preface was a hope for human freedom through diverse networks of transnational communities around the world. An edition of Orientalism published in 1994 included an afterword by Said addressing a series of debates generated around his work since 1978 and linking his subsequent publications to a larger context of postcolonial resistance. The notable relevance of a single text over the course of two and a half decades speaks to the complex processes of a historicism in Orientalist praxis as well as the impact of Said’s influential contributions to the critical field of Postcolonial Theory.

 

Exile

Said’s oeuvre has given critics and practitioners a context in which to engage what he calls the “worldliness of the text”— that is, the interconnectedness between the text, or work of art, and the material conditions that influence its composition. This idea has provided a context in which to consider the multiple ways in which struggles for decolonization are embodied and expressed in contemporary art within a transnational frame. Exiled from Palestine, Said contemplated the complexities of postcolonial subjectivity and its relationship to exile in his life and work.

 

Diverse experiences of exile are linked to processes of diasporic migrations—and the communities that are formed—and become sites where artists use the visual arts sector to engender consciousness and develop alliances of solidarity. These issues resonate in the artists’ works of Somewhere Elsewhere, an exhibition organized by Bay Area curator Saná Makhoul, who foregrounds post-9/11, Arab and Iranian contemporary art.

 

The artists—Rheim Alkadhi (Iraq), Khalil Bendib (Algeria), Doris Bittar (Palestine/Lebanon), Ali Dadgar (Iran), Abdelali Dahrouch (Morocco), Taraneh Hemami (Iran), Annemarie Jacir (Palestine), and Haleh Niazmand (Iran)—reside in the U.S. and each represent the liminality, ambivalence, and contradiction shaped by the politics of cultural displacement that Said spent his life engaging. The artists, who meaningfully chart alternative spaces of transnational subjectivity and resistance, explore Said’s work on Orientalism and Imperialism in relation to the production of knowledge and its affiliation to the life of the stereotype. Within these fractured spaces, transnational identities are formed from heterogeneous cultural contexts, where their realities are marked by difference.

 

For the artists of Somewhere Elsewhere, contradiction and ambivalence need not be reconciled. Difference is highlighted through intersecting but distinct histories of alienation, marginalization and imperialism. At the same time, solidarity is invoked by the artists’ shared commitment to decolonization. Said spent his life addressing “the problems of geography,” where the borders are drawn and boundaries are embodied.2 However, these problems of geography also designate another reality—the space of transnational difference, where diasporic communities find another notion of belonging, that of existing in-between. Within this space of liminality, these postcolonial subjects assert their incommensurable realities of exile between geographical and cultural regions. Their lives reveal the discursive construction of self/other—a binary that, in their experiences, has no legitimacy. Said’s work on Orientalism has endeavored to examine the character of difference that pervades the experience of the diasporic subject and to “challenge the notion that difference implies hostility, a frozen reified set of opposed essences, and a whole adversarial knowledge built out of those things.” (Said, Orientalism, p. 350) In the process of returning the gaze, transnational artists recognize another space that re-imagines the “unbridgeable chasm separating East from West.” (Said, Orientalism, p. 350) The artists of Somewhere Elsewhere situate themselves in this space of fluidity, exposing the inconsistencies between narratives of cultural memory and those of the nation-state that are at the center of these questions of representation.

 

Somewhere Elsewhere speaks to the legacy of transnational Arab/Iranian/Muslim cultural production, invoking, among others, the insurgent work of Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum, whose 1988 video, Measures of Distance, engages the simultaneous and paradoxical convergence of intimacy and alienation caused by war, terror, and colonial occupation. In 1975, at the time Said was writing Orientalism, Beirut-born Hatoum arrived in London for a visit. When the outbreak of civil war in Lebanon prevented her from returning home, she was effectively exiled from her family there. Measures of Distance represents a love song to her mother, whose letters to her daughter are narrated by Hatoum in a linguistic play that at once reflects the closeness between mother and daughter and the violent separation that bleeds into the fragmented existence of a nation and people. The textual, visual, and linguistic palimpsest between Arabic and English underlies the family’s enduring dislocations from Palestine to Lebanon to Britain.

 

For diasporic communities, transnationality is marked by fractured spaces wherein cultural identity is constantly negotiated, and new affirmations of nation, family, and community continually evolve. Musings of home and foreign land together articulate different economies of subjectivity and national politics, while fostering an imagined community of transnational oppositional struggles. For Hatoum, displacement and separation engender agency and resistance, where mother and daughter—stateless—find home, nation, and sanctum, in her video, in the liminal space between text and screen. Hatoum’s art was critical for Said. He found affinity with the interstitial space in her art that cultivates meditative spaces to engage the relentless dislocations wrought by mythologies of identity, culture, and nation. In the catalog for her 2000 exhibit, The Entire World as a Foreign Land, Said writes,

 

Hatoum’s art is hard to bear (like the refugee’s world, which is full of grotesque structures that bespeak excess as well as paucity), yet very necessary to see as an art that travesties the idea of a single homeland. Better disparity and dislocation than reconciliation under duress of subject and object; better a lucid exile than sloppy, sentimental homecomings; better the logic of dissociation than an assembly of compliant dunces. A belligerent intelligence is always to be preferred over what conformity offers, no matter how unfriendly the circumstances and unfavorable the outcome. The point is that the past cannot be entirely recuperated from so much power arrayed against it on the other side: it can only be restated in the form of an object without a conclusion, or a final place, transformed by choice and conscious effort into something simultaneously different, ordinary, and irreducibly other and the same, taking place together: an object that offers neither rest nor respite.3

 

Orientalism

The enduring and pervasive paradigm of Orientalism continues to frame the collective consciousness of the West as it mythologizes the other, whose “resistance” to modernity and “proclivity” to violence “compels” the West to intervene in the troubled region of “the Orient.” As Said writes, “The modern Orientalist was, in his view, a hero rescuing the Orient from obscurity, alienation, and strangeness which he himself had properly distinguished.” (Said, Orientalism, p. 121) Within this cultural imaginary, the Muslim woman becomes representative of the barbarism of the East, and the victimization and oppression it exacts upon “its own.” She bears the burden of identity in the Islamic world, symbolizing the passive and meek nation run amok by barbarism. Her life behind the veil entices the Westerner into journeys of exoticism, rife with fantasy of rescue and empire.

 

In her four-part wall installation, Dressing the Part: Exotic and Alien; Dressing the Part: Fit; Virgin; and Gotcha, Haleh Niazmand lures the viewer into the unsettling space of voyeurism established by the quest for the Orient. On one wall hangs a series of round sculptured frames of pristinely painted female body parts, bound by black material. On the second wall, diagonal from the first, is a sculpture of a woman’s head with a sheer black veil, revealing only her mouth in full laughter, and a woman’s forearm in black clothing in the thumbs up position. Both protrude from the wall. Niazmand captures the voyeur and coaxes him/her into what seems like private space, encouraging him/her to peer into these fetishistic keyholes created by the sculptured frames and to see something s/he should not. Her work emphasizes the notion of framing, creating an illicit window into a world of sexual fantasy and exoticism, not unlike Delacroix’s much celebrated paintings of the Orient.

 

It is clear that the women of Niazmand’s installation are not wallflowers; they are powerful, as if undeterred by the invasion and violation of their bodies by the lingering gaze. This resistance is particularly well captured by Gotcha. The position of the woman’s hand is thumbs up, which signifies “good job” in America, while it means “fuck you” in Iran. Virgin is equally defiant and features an anatomically incorrect rendition of a young girl’s vagina. Encapsulated in the fetishistic imaginary, Virgin shows the disconnect between fantasy and reality and the manner in which the Orient can only be conjured through fantasy, because it is does not exist in reality. In this space of transnational feminist resistance, Niazmand draws upon the interrelatedness of gender, race, and sexuality in relation to Islam and Western Imperialism. She critiques the manner in which the West strategically stereotypes representations of veiled Muslim women as a means to demonize Islam. Muslim women become emblematic of victimization and Islam’s “other” who are in need of liberation by the West. These representations of “difference” create a system of apartheid that neglects the multiple ways in which Muslim women negotiate their own relationships to the veil, which are marked by both agency and resistance. Niazmand’s frames are deliberately hermetic, offering no context or reference; they are void of history and its multiple articulations. They function within the ideologies of Orientalism as Said has described it, “Orientalism with magic and mythology the self-containing, self-reinforcing character of a closed system, in which objects are what they are because they are what they are, for once, for all time, for ontological reasons that no empirical material can either dislodge or alter.” (Said, Orientalism, p. 70)

 

Imperialism

To Said, Orientalism continues to represent a field of knowledge that is instrumental to the colonial apparatus. Knowledge, in its affiliation to power, establishes the gaze of imperialism and legitimates conquest.

Orientalism describes the various disciplines, institutions, processes of investigation, and styles of thought by which Europeans came to “know” the “Orient” over several centuries, and which reached their height during the rise and consolidation of nineteenth-century imperialism. The key to Said’s interest in this way of knowing Europe’s other is that it effectively demonstrates the link between knowledge and power, for it “constructs” and dominates Orientals in the process of knowing them.4

 

This context of colonization is a discursive one, and it comprises historicity and its employment of hegemonic narratives. These frozen categories of representation decontextualize knowledge and memory. Abdelali Dahrouch addresses the resilience of hegemonic scripts and the narratives they obscure in his video installation, Yellow Citizen. The work features the interrelated histories of Japanese Americans during World War II and Arab Americans post-9/11. Archival footage of Japanese Americans being carted away on trains and buses to internment camps is interwoven with close ups of Arab and Muslim men, women, and children. These histories converge in relation to the systems of color-coding devised by Homeland Security in 2003 to mark those citizens who pose a threat to our national security creating, in effect, the new “Yellow Peril.”

 

On the projected surface is a band of yellow paint that sweeps across the faces of those in the video. This band recalls the devastating history of color-coding, reminiscent of Nazi Germany (when Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, and the mentally ill were forced to don color-coded bands), and connects this “branding” with the post-9/11 climate of fear and terror. On the floor lies a 5’x15’ rectangular configuration of loose yellow tempera powder, which echoes the yellow band on the wall. The floor piece gives the illusion of being set; however, a toe print of a shoe reveals its fragility. Much like the stereotype assumes fixity and authority through repetition, each particle of yellow paint connotes this function, and the specter of terror only gains credence through being multiplied ad infinitum, until it achieves the illusion of a threat, materializing into the yellow band. In the darkened installation space, the viewer is captured by the moving images that lull across the expanse of yellow. S/he reconciles the seemingly disparate communities of Arabs and Japanese as their faces, memories, and histories fade in and fade out seamlessly.

 

Engaging critiques by Antonio Gramsci and Said, Dahrouch considers how “history” is traced without leaving an inventory of forgotten moments and events experienced by subaltern communities. Said quotes Gramsci: “The starting-point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is ‘knowing thyself’ as a product of the historical processes to date, which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory. Therefore it is imperative at the outset to compile such an inventory.” (Said, Orientalism, p. 25)

 

Yellow Citizen comprises one such inventory. These narratives link the current Bush administration to the vestiges of imperialism, while at the same time fostering vital ties across disenfranchised communities of color. Yellow Citizen speaks to the collective alien who shares the harrowing pain of suspicion and confinement. In speaking to this interdependency of history and its narrativization, Dahrouch writes, “Yellow Citizen positions Japanese Americans and Arab Americans at the threshold of peace and devastation, representing solidarity in the struggle for recognition and restitution from a nation that consists of so much more complexity and diversity than conventional representation would otherwise presume. It hopes to remind us of lessons that should have been learned so that they will never be repeated again.”5

 

Identity

Said’s engagements with historiography have created liminal spaces in which to acknowledge the nuances of difference and their impact on postcolonial identity. Ambivalence and ambiguity converge in the identity of the postcolonial subject, whose life of contradiction represents the postcolonial condition. In her work The Satellite Shooters, Annemarie Jacir appropriates the genre of “The Western” to satirically frame the story of Tawfig, “a young Arab boy in Texas trying to find his place in America.”6 Jacir’s single channel installation, a 16-minute, 16-mm film, depicts Tawfig dressing and posturing as the Marlboro Man. She writes, “I wanted to tell the story of a character whose world has been shaped by racist images from popular American culture, in this case that of the Western film as well as that of Orientalist ethnic fantasies.”7 Depicting fantasy and resistance as complexly embedded, Jacir engages the contradictions that underlie subjective identification, when “the other” desires to manifest “the self” within Western models of heroics and valor. The story plays on a silent screen as the viewer watches Tawfig assume the symbolic stance of the perpetrators of American manifest destiny. As the viewer studies Tawfig, s/he sees both the “cowboy” and the “Indian” (or the “native”), and is forced to contend with two conflicting identities converging in one character. Perhaps only then can s/he recognize the irreconcilable fantasy for young Arab boys identifying with tropes of masculinity constructed by a Western gaze.

 

Jacir brings the idea of the American West into dialogue with Zionist manifest destiny in the creeping annexation of Palestine, as land is confiscated, and olive trees, orange groves, and communities are gutted and settled by the homesteaders. While Zionist imperialism has forced millions of Palestinians into exile, these nomadic citizens manifest their destinies in a plurality of ways, embodying the necessary contradictions that mark their lives as refugees and prisoners. Jacir is an Arab and Christian Palestinian in a predominantly Muslim Middle East. Her “worldliness” embodies the complexity of globalized subjects, in an increasingly migratory world, who negotiate ever-fleeting prescriptions of self and other, citizen and foreigner, insider and outsider. Like Said, Jacir is caught between a “Palestinian colonial past and an American imperial space” (Ashcroft, p. 6). She addresses the plight of a people, while creating a textual/visual counter text to engage and reframe hegemonic scripts. Their lives of exile mirror millions who also exist in-between. They weave seemingly bifurcated narratives, refuting the formation of identity as static and monolithic. As Said writes,

 

All cultures spin out a dialectic of self and other, the subject “I” who is native, authentic, at home, and the object “it” or “you,” who is foreign, perhaps threatening, different out there. From this dialectic comes the series of heroes and monsters, founding fathers and barbarians, prized masterpieces and despised opponents that express a culture from its deepest sense of national self-identity to its refined patriotism, and finally its coarse jingoism, xenophobia and exclusive bias.8

 

Humanism

Said’s work was inextricably bound and inspired by consciousness. His profound faith in humanism was the cornerstone for his creative genius and the motivation for the diverse kinds of work he has continued to inspire.

 

…Humanism is the only, and I would go so far as to say, the final resistance we have against the inhuman practices and injustices that disfigure human history… The worldwide protests before the war began in Iraq would not have been possible were it not for the existence of alternative communities across the globe, informed by alternative new sources, and keenly aware of the environmental, human rights, and libertarian impulses that bind us together on this tiny planet. (Said, Orientalism, p. xxx)

 

The works of the artists of Somewhere Elsewhere form an intertextual dialogue with Said where art and text converge in the field of cultural production. Exile has engendered new spaces of resistance, creating an imagined community of Arab/Iranian/ Muslim/Americans who endeavor for social justice and progressive change through their art. Each artist explores alienation and difference in his/her work, in relation to living between worlds, and the simultaneous sensations of displacement and belonging these experiences engender. Their work converges in meaningful ways, even as the subject matter, vision, and medium through which they convey these issues remain distinct. Together they represent an imagined community of Southwest Asian and North African oppositional resistors. This scenario is “imagined,” Chandra Mohanty writes, “not because it is not ‘real,’ but because it suggests potential alliances and collaborations across divisive boundaries, and ‘community,’ because in spite of internal hierarchies within third world contexts, it nevertheless suggests a significant, deep commitment to what Benedict Anderson, in referring to the idea of the nation, calls ‘horizontal comradeship.’”9

 

The textual and visual contrapuntal work of Said and the artists of Somewhere Elsewhere complicates notions of borders and homelands and creates alternative realities in their collective struggle against legacies of colonization. Niazmand, Dahrouch, and Jacir, as well as the other artists of the exhibit, reframe national and cultural identity from the fluid and fractured spaces of “citizen,” “refugee,” “immigrant,” “foreign national,” and “expatriate.” They erode fixed boundaries and categories of identification and engender a consciousness of difference, social justice, and equality, as well as the recognition of history and international law. The reductive homogenization and classification of “The Middle East,” especially in relation to post-9/11 politics of preemption, the protracted war on Iraq, and the Bush Administration’s policy of unilateralism, have created the specter of the alien-subject, who exists elusively— but nonetheless definitively—in the US nation-state’s collective imagination. Across and within vast geographical regions—including the US, France, and Britain—each artist represents communities composed of diverse populations, who together experience the ignorance of fear and suspicion. Their art provides a context to realize another possibility and a site to redefine the parameters of international relations as world citizens living interdependently in a realm confined by the disavowal of history and hegemony. Embodying the vital heterogeneity of US art practice, Somewhere Elsewhere honors the legacy of Said and reminds us that his work lives on in the spaces of consciousness that he engendered and the multiple articulations of those spaces that continue to evolve in creative practice.

 

Dr. Laura J. Kuo is Assistant Professor and Program Director of Theory as Practice in the Department of Fine Arts at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, California. She received her doctorate from the History of Consciousness Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her research has been supported by the Whitney Museum of American Art Independent Study Program Fellowship in Critical Studies; the Bolin Predoctoral Fellowship in Women’s Studies at Williams College; and the Institute of American Cultures Postdoctoral Fellowship in Asian American Studies at UCLA. Kuo’s current research explores the transnational underpinnings of activist art. Her articles have been published in journals Third Text and Estrago, and she has published numerous reviews in art catalogs and magazines. Kuo is currently developing a manuscript entitled, Contested Visions: Transnational Cartographies of Feminism, Multiculturalism, and Postmodernism in Contemporary Cultural Production.

Footnotes

  1. Mahmoud Darwish, quoted by Edward Said in After the Last Sky: Palestinian Lives (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), p. 2.
  2. Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 2003), p. 350.
  3. Edward Said, Mona Hatoum: The Entire World as a Foreign Land (London: Tate Gallery Publishing Ltd., 2000), p. 17.
  4. Bill Ashcroft, Edward Said (London: Routledge, 1999), p. 49.
  5. Abdelali Dahrouch, Artist Statement, www.birwaz.org, 2004
  6. Annemarie Jacir, Artist Statement, www.birwaz.org, 2004.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Edward Said, After the Last Sky: Palestinian Lives, p. 40.
  9. Chandra Mohanty, Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), p. 4.
Further Reading