Thwarting the Royal Road
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
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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.