A unique group show of new and recent contemporary art that explores and rethinks modern Arab identity, Subversion featured work from eleven emerging and established artists who use autobiographical narratives combining fiction, popular culture and subversive parody to express the divisions they face as they perform multiple roles in a society which is frequently represented to the outside world in a contorted and mediated manner.
Spanning an array of techniques including installation, video, photography and sculpture, the work illustrates fragments of the distorted imagination that often preoccupies the Arab world. Curated by Omar Kholeif, artists included Akram Zaatari, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Khaled Hafez, Larissa Sansour, Marwa Arsanios, Sharif Waked, Sherif El-Azma, Tarzan and Arab, and Wafaa Bilal.
Artist Wafaa Bilal’s featured work, The Night of Bush Capturing: A Virtual Jihadi, is an adaptation of the widely promoted viral video game, Quest for Saddam, in which players gun down stereotypical Iraqi terrorists, in doing so acting out patriotic affiliation. In this further remodification, Bilal casts himself as a suicide bomber within the game that the player can recruit and send out upon a kamikaze mission.
Following the death of Bilal’s own brother and father during the occupation of Iraq, both innocent citizens caught up in the airstrikes and surrounding violence while he himself had long since become a naturalised American citizen, the work is intended to draw attention to the vulnerability of civilians and the broad brush-strokes used to paint/exaggerate racial division that have very real and devastating outcomes.
The presentation of this work to date had been in a white-cube gallery environment; a large wall projection of the game accompanied by a keyboard. As producer of the exhibition, I approached the artist to propose an alternative method of display, the better to encourage multiple, simultaneous audience participation and discussion. The result, pictured on this page, is a battered, rundown Arabic internet café of non-determined origin with three operating terminals (a fourth is designated permanently ‘out of order’ in keeping with the theme), allowing visitors to interact with the piece.
Designed and built in collaboration with scenic artist and set designer, Kev Thornton, with whom I’d worked previously for Blood Tea and Red String and The Call of Cthulhu, the wish was to provide a more immersive environment, crossing from a place of safety in the West to a zone of danger in the East, thus drawing a more distinct correlation between a supposed bout of quick-fix entertainment with the consequences for those for whom imminent and pressing danger is a daily reality.
We were aware that this itself is a projection and fiction, further blurring the perceived-to-be and actual lived reality, us versus them, but Wafaa Bilal understood our wish to negotiate audience experience and generate debate; agreeing that it complemented his intentions by enabling the game to bleed from the screen into the room itself. The result was a magnified, sensory space, the audio from Tarzan and Arab’s adjacent pop-up cinema broadcasting the heavy sweep of helicopter blades and tense, drum-thumping soundtrack.
Over the course of the exhibition over 12,000 visitors attended, with the café being the most commented-upon work in the show. Oddly, a good number claimed to have visited the ‘actual’ café in a dozen different countries and cities, congratulating us on our attention to detail, when it was in fact a montage of unverified picture sources coupled with the scenic artist’s own imagination. Subsequent exhibition reviews include The Guardian, Creative Tourist, Ibraaz, Jadaliyya and Electronic Intifada.
Images 1 – 9: WeAreTape.com
Image 10: Paul Greenwood