The manipulation of media imagery and a manufactured portrayal of the East has often led to incorrect and naive views of non-Western cultures. The current exhibition at Manchester’s Cornerhouse entitled ‘Subversion’ is a collection of works by several Arab artists who explore their cultural identity and a historical struggle for acceptance, in several thought provoking mixed-media pieces. The artists use dark humour and play with stereotyping to portray the problematic nature of mass media culture and politics. Many of the pieces resonate with a longing for cultural acceptance and a desire to break free from such engineered stereotypes, and invite the viewer to look beyond the violent connotations associated with some Eastern areas, welcoming a modern Arab identity.
Palestinian artist Larissa Sansour has contributed several pieces for this exhibition, one of which is her installation of little model astronauts, which she has cleverly renamed ‘Palestinauts,’ and emblazoned with the flag of Palestine. This installation coincides with Sansour’s video ‘A Space Exodus,’ from 2009, using adapted clips from Kubrick’s ‘A Space Odyssey.’ The space helmets worn by the people in this video seem indicative of barriers that Arab cultures have had to hide behind for social and political acceptance. As the famous proclamation “one giant leap for mankind” is spoken, a Palestinian flag is placed on the moon, signalling a kind of achievement of equality between Eastern and Western cultures, whilst also mirroring a well known piece of media footage. The use of dark outer space in these pieces however also seems to suggest society’s fear of the unknown, and past labelling of Arab people as ‘outsiders,’ stemming simply from a lack of both education and firsthand experience of such cultures.
Many of the artists in this exhibition appear to have used the medium of film as a way of commenting on the influential nature of televised material. Tarzan and Arab’s ‘Gazawood Project’ (2010) consists of a small movie theatre installation in which a wall is lined with gory film posters. Here the artists appear to be playing up to stereotypes in their film, portraying the East as a place fraught with violence and desolate war-torn villages. Several of the artists within ‘Subversion’ have centred their work on the way their home countries are portrayed by the Western media, focusing on issues such as suicide bombing and terrorism. Far outside such places, we can often only form a view via what is shown on the news, but this exhibition evidences another side to Arab culture; not one of violence, but one which is constantly searching for acceptance.
Akram Zaatari’s ‘Red Chewing Gum’ (2000) is a heart-warming video letter from a man to his lover, using the colour red not as a colour of blood or violence, but of love, personal emotions and memory. This thought provoking short film provokes empathy in the viewer and is a reminder of just how problematic and hurtful living in war-torn countries can be on a personal level, as well as on a wider social scale.
Within many lesser known cultures there can certainly be a feeling of isolation and a longing for social equality and acceptance, and what the artists have created within this exhibition is not only a cultural commentary personal to them but also a modern Arab identity, one which is better accepted and understood. Joanna Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s piece for this exhibition is a large scale puzzle covering a mirror, entitled ‘Circle of Confusion’ (1997). The puzzle makes up a photograph of Beirut, however sections of the puzzle are missing to reveal the mirror beneath. This is indicative of both physical and metaphorical ‘cracks’ in society, and perhaps a lack of knowledge of some Arab cultures. As the viewer looks in closely they are confronted not only by their reflection but by their own personal ideas about such places that have been constructed by the media, and often by the ease of cultural generalisation.
‘Subversion’ presents both Arab places and cultures on another level, allowing the viewer to obtain an altered and contemporary perception of these Eastern civilizations. The artists’ mockery of stereotypes and subtle commentary on the influence of the media is clever and thought provoking. The use of film and popular culture such as soap operas and video games addresses the mediated representation that both the people and their regions have faced for a long time, and contains a personal narrative from some of the artists. This exhibition demonstrates perfectly the roles that society has had Arab cultures perform, as well as the duplicitous nature of a modern Arab tradition, as they continue to face both struggle and growth in the modern world.By Liz Buckley
Image: A Space Exodus, by Larissa Sansour, 2009
First published on http://www.artface.co.uk/ - give it a visit!