Fillip 8 — Fall 2008

Thwarting the Royal Road
Alison Rajah

References to Vienna were unexpected yet conspicuous when I first saw Jamelie Hassan’s Orientalism and Ephemera at the Ottawa Art Gallery. Prompted by a display of items from Café Nil in Vienna, an Egyptian-themed café opened by Luitgard Eisenmeier and Abdel Halim Hassan in 1989, I noticed arrangements of photographs of the exterior of the café, Nil brand cigarette accoutrements, and glassware in and around the many vitrines in the exhibition. Amidst this array of items, the glass mosque lamps— artifacts of secular transformation painted with Arabic script from the Koran and modelled after those used by Fatmids during the tenth to twelfth centuries in Egypt—intrigued me most.

In each of the four galleries the exhibition has toured so far, the lamps were hung in a row with mirrors on either side. In the more compact gallery spaces, the lamps were suspended above a line of vitrines and illuminated their enclosed items. With over 4,000 square feet of gallery available at Centre A, the lamps occupied almost as much area as the entire exhibition had in Art Metropole’s 400-square-foot space. With this additional room, Hassan activates the installation of the lamps in such a way as to reflect and even implicate not just the viewers’ faces as they look up from the vitrines, but their whole bodies in the glow of the lights reproduced within the mirrors. There, being placed within infinity—_mise en abyme_—viewers experience an inclusion into the trajectory of cultural and material histories.

Hassan’s use of items, most notably the lamps, is comparable to an artist working with source material for an installation work. Primarily a curator of the exhibition, Hassan at the same time assumes the additional roles of artist, cultural activist, collaborator, and collector. Owing to this multiplicity of roles, her presence is remarkably visible. The inclusion of her personal correspondences and artwork—a ceramic tile from Palestine’s Children (1991), a drawing from Qana (2006), two poster mock-ups for a 1986 lecture and 1996 conference exploring the work of Edward Said, and a collaborative work with Stan Dennison from 1995—though an uncommon curatorial choice, evinces her continued cogitation on the real and imagined cultural spaces of the Middle East in her practice.

With the accumulating addition of works by local artists and the distinct architectural logistics of each gallery space, the exhibition expands and contracts. Unpacking in varying material, spatial, and in turn experientially nuanced ways, two questions keep surfacing: What is underlying the emphasis on Vienna and its direct relation to Orientalism? And what are the core criteria for the selection of works in the exhibition?

Beyond the attention Hassan brings to Café Nil, she also presents works by Austrian artists and from collections in Vienna. In a recent interview, Hassan explains that Vienna functions as a “nexus”1 for the exhibition—representing a cosmopolitan space and point of contemporary and historical intersections, reaching back seven centuries to the Council of Vienne in 1312. During this church council, a directive for creating chairs for teaching Arabic, Chaldean, Greek, and Hebrew in the main European universities was established.2 This historical directive, motivated by a proselytizing agenda, was retrieved by Said in 1978 to locate the formal establishment of Orientalism as a field of study.3

Orientalism, as a contemporary and comprehensive term and title, suggests a range of colonial perspectives of the many orientalized “Others.” In Said’s Orientalism (1978), however, he restricts his inquiry to the North American and European, predominately British, orientalizing discourse of peoples and cultures of the Middle East. Growing out of Hassan’s reading of Said’s text, in the contemporary context of war with the Middle Eastern “Other” (as seen in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the conflict in Israel, and the War on Terror), the exhibition reemphasizes the significance of his focussed discussion. Most of the objects from the everyday and artwork Hassan selects, including those from Vienna, connect materially and conceptually with issues of colonialism as performed through the orientalizing of the Middle East.

The one instance where Hassan broadens her selection is with Jeff Thomas’ Resistance is Futile (2007). In the print portion of his installation, Thomas juxtaposes two images. One image, a found colour advertisement for “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” performances at the turn of the nineteenth century, showcases “Indians” as unruly aggressors, clad in loin cloths and headdresses. Some of the figures are wielding spears with raised muscular arms while riding on horseback and others, as the copy reads, engage in “weird war dances” in front of their teepees. The “Indians” are the “wild” on display in Buffalo Bill’s western frontier. While the images titillate with the joint “entertainments” of both fear and desire, Buffalo Bill serves to reassure us with reasoned control of the scenario. The other image, a black-and-white photograph, documents sconces of an “Indian” beside an “Oriental” on a building façade on Fleet Street in London. Through the collocation of the sconces and placement of the advertisement and the photograph, Thomas illustrates the analogous colonial gesture of representing two distinct, yet still imagined, “Others.”

Although Thomas’ work is an anomaly in Hassan’s concentration on the orientalizing of the Middle East, I was struck by how germane to other works in the exhibition the duality of the colonial stereotype of the “Other” was. Thomas’ work makes visible the recurring colonial tactic of both awakening fear (through an untamed and armed “Other”) and inspiring desire (through the exotic dress and disposition of their bodies). This representation of the “Other” through the “stereotype as phobia and fetish” is what Homi K. Bhabha suggests “opens the royal road to colonial fantasy.”4 Many of the works in the exhibition substantiate and challenge the circulation of these two distinct aspects of the stereotype and thereby thwart this “royal road.”

At Centre A, with the addition of three Vancouver artists, Abbas Akhavan, Babak Golkar, and Jayce Salloum, it was Akhavan’s vitrined Makeshift objects (2008) that made me think further about phobia. They are a material manifestation of fear: both in (the need for self-protection) and of (the presumed predisposition for violence within) the “Other.” Akhavan “modifies” domestic objects for self-care and sustenance, like a comb, toothbrush, and fork and spoon, into weapons. They suggest that the civilian is required to become like the criminal in order to survive and, at the same time, they materialize assumptions that the “Other” can be violent, like a criminal, with the most basic means.

As the subject of fear recurs in several of the works (like Thomas’ Resistance is Futile and Akhavan’s Makeshift objects, as well as Diyan Achjadi’s See Girl Look (2004) and the display of the advertisement for The Book of Torture), so too does the desire to possess the “Other.” In Ernest Normand’s Bondage (1907), a colour print based on the artist’s 1895 painting, he presents the sale of three stripped female slaves in a pseudo-Egyptian harem. The darkest complected of the three slaves looks directly at the viewer, boldly and lasciviously presenting her body. The viewing of this classical Orientalist image, one that surely captivated the Victorian viewer, is then complicated, even interrogated, by the close positioning in the exhibition of a work by the contemporary Austrian artist Lisl Ponger. Ponger’s black-and-white photograph, from her Made for Europe (2000) series, features a languid woman, reclined against and upon “Oriental” carpets. The marked construction in the positioning of both the woman and carpets and the crude composition of the photograph undercut traditional European artists’ approaches to the exotic figure. Unlike the woman in Normand’s scene, the woman in Ponger’s image denies the gaze of the photographer and viewer and in turn symbolically rejects, in Linda Nochlin’s terms, “the gaze which brings the Oriental world into being.”5

In Orientalism and Ephemera, the positioning of ephemeral artifacts with nineteenth century and contemporary art makes it clear that the “Other” functions here as a representation that circulates in and constitutes Western material culture. Hassan refrains from captivating the viewer with the wonder of the exotic from far away places on the “royal road.” Rather, culled from her archive and collection as well as those of relatives, friends, artists, collectors, and galleries in Canada and abroad (including Alexandria, Baghdad, Barcelona, Beirut, Cairo, Istanbul, Jerusalem, Paris, Vienna, and Japan), the exhibition deliberates on the materiality of our colonial inheritance in the everyday. Drawing on Said’s ground-breaking text, with an inflection of whimsy and weight, Hassan reasserts the current relevance of considering and countering stereotypes of the imagined space of the Middle East and slightly beyond.

  1. Jamelie Hassan, interviewed by Jane Williams, Redeye, Vancouver Cooperative Radio, 20 April 2008.
  2. This directive was initiated by the Majorcan writer and philosopher Ramon Llull. In 1305, he published Ars generalis ultima (The Ultimate General Art), Within this text, he develops a method using logic and reason, based on Arab astrologers’ use of the _zairja_—a device that assigned the 28 letters of the Arabic alphabet to an equal number of philosophical thoughts—to justify and strengthen his argument for the superiority of the Christian faith. Llull argued that the best means for the conversion of the linguistic, cultural, and more importantly religious “Other” was through learning his or her language.
  3. Edward Said, “The Scope of Orientalism,” Orientalism (New York: Random House, 1978), 50–51, 335.
  4. In a section critiquing Said’s Orientalism, Bhabha draws upon Franz Fanon to make this comment. Homi K. Bhabha, “The Other Question,” The Location of Culture (New York: Routledge, 1994), 104.
  5. Linda Nochlin, “The Imaginary Orient,” The Politics of Vision: Essays on Nineteenth-Century Art and Society (New York: Harper & Row, 1989), 37.

Image: Abbas Akhavan, Makeshift objects: toilet paper (modified), newspaper (modified), tea spoon and thread (modified), date box (modified), eyewear (modified), 2008. Various materials. Photograph by William W. Ting. Courtesy of the artist and Centre A, Vancouver

About the Author

Alison Rajah is currently completing her MA in Critical and Curatorial Studies at the University of British Columbia. Her upcoming curatorial project, Shrink-Wrapped, opens in the fall at the Or Gallery.

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