Saturday, March 20, 2010

the black silk of dreams

Homes for the Disembodied, 50 continuous yards of silk, 2000 by Mary Tuma

I was searching for the text of a spoken word poem by Nathalie Handal that she read at her performance at Arabesque at the Kennedy Center last year (type her name into Archives to watch it), which led me to an art exhibit that was held in the US in 2003, Made in Palestine.

Looking through the list of contributing artists, I randomly clicked on a female name, Mary Tuma, and found the above image of her installation. I find her visual text interesting to read on so many levels. It could be read as re-signifying the black abaya as seen from behind the Western gaze that homogenizes the diversity and wipes out the agency of women from the Middle East, Arab world, and Muslim world. It could be read as a comment on the silk industry that had been introduced to parts of the Levant, directing us to think about women's work within it, and how the introduction of the mulberry tree led to many new cultural forms (like making toot juice!), but also how the collapse of the silk industry lead to economic difficulties, struggles, migrations, and other social changes. What was women's role in the silk economy? How were their lives affected by the introduction of mulberry trees and silkworms? I do not know about the impact of silk in Palestine, but Tuma's use of silk provokes questions for further thought.

The dresses are tall, suggesting standing tall. The strength of Palestinian women to continue to persist, resist. Adapt to whatever life and occupation throws their way. Long dresses. A long time. 60 plus years of dark dreams.

That all the dresses are made from one continuous piece of silk, joining the forms, speaks of the connections between women; how taken together, these 'bodies' make a meaning beyond their individual forms. The dream of the collective -- yet in black, in mourning. Although the text beneath the image of the installation says that the bolt of silk is 50 yards long, in Tuma's artist's statement she states the dresses are made from one 48 meter long roll. That the black river of cloth streams for 48 meters may refer to 1948, the year of the Nakba, the catastrophe of dispossession and death.

Of course, the dresses have no bodies. They hang in the air like ethereal ghosts, wafting in the air. The installation is of Palestinian women specifically, of that there is no question. So, the forms are a haunting of bodies that no longer exist, of women who have been killed, murdered, dispossessed, expelled from neighbourhoods, exiled and forbidden to return, thrown into solitary confinement for years with no windows, no doors.

Women who we, the people of the Western world and of Israel, continue not to see.

Mary Tuma links her installation with the displaced of Jerusalem specifically as noted below in her artist's statement. Her work is prescient; what have 7 years brought the people of Palestine? The situation in Jerusalem is getting worse, Israeli encroachment into East Jerusalm through more illegal settlements displacing more Palestinians, sending the youth out into the streets with stones in resistance to their disappearance.

Homes for the Disembodied
This is a tribute to Palestinian women who provide strength in terrible circumstances, but who receive little recognition. A place for the spirits of those forced out of Jerusalem to dwell. The dresses are sewn from one continuous 48 meter length of fabric. Mary Tuma

The description of her installation states:

Mary Tuma’s dresses make notice of the absence of the human form, and by so doing, provide a metaphor for the status of a people who are known more for the shadow they cast on current events than for their own personalities and culture. Tuma teaches art at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

one of the images from the series Negative Incursion (2002) by Rula Halawani

One of the other names I clicked on was Rula Halawani. I was stunned to see how her words echoed the text of the poem by Handal that I had been looking for. In Handal's poem the line between dream and reality is ambiguous -- is her poem a reflection on a dream she once had? -- yet the nightmare of reality for the Palestinian people is unmistakably clear: it is negative.

Negative Incursion

"Ten years ago when the peace process first started, I like many other Palestinians was ready to give peace a chance. As the peace process developed, the events that followed filled me with worry: the worry of losing my city, Jerusalem, and the right of exiled Palestinians to return to their home land. The days went by and in my eyes things only got worse: more of the land was taken; more Israeli settlements appeared on Palestinian land, more killings.

On the 28th of March 2002 I was in Ramallah when the major Israeli Incursion happened, I was shocked; everything around me looked so different. Every street and square I visited was dark and empty; no one was in the streets that day except the Israeli army and its tanks. I felt depressed and cold. The only Palestinian I met on the road that day was an old man. He was shot dead. I never knew his name, but I had seen him walking around those same streets before. That night I could not take away his face from my memory, and many questions without answers rushed inside my head. It was that night that my hopes for peace died."
Rula Halawani

Here is the text of the poem by Nathalie Handal that I was searching for:


Secrets live in the space between our footsteps.
The words of my grandfather echoed in my dreams,
as the years kept his beads and town.
I saw Bethlehem, all in dust, an empty town
with a torn piece of newspaper lost in its narrow streets.
Where could everyone be? Graffiti and stones answered.
And where was the real Bethlehem--the one my grandfather came from?
Handkerchiefs dried the pain from my hands. Olive trees and tears continued to remember.
I walked the town until I reached an old Arab man dressed in a white robe.
I stopped him and asked, "Aren't you the man I saw in my grandfather's stories?"
He looked at me and left. I followed him--asked him why he left? He continued walking.
I stopped, turned around and realized he had left me the secrets
in the space between his footsteps.

About dreams and reality, for more about the exhibit, here are some excerpts from Santiago Nasar's
The Stuff of Dreams…The Stuff of Nightmares

It is said that dreams represent the mythology of the individual and that the mythology of a people in its different cultural forms, i.e., art, literature, and music represents the dream of the collective. This cannot be truer than in the case of Made in Palestine, a group show at the Station in Houston, Texas, comprised of Palestinian artists from across the world, currently the homeland of their Diaspora. True, but for an exception, and not a minor one at that. The exception being that the art presented in the show does by no means reflect the dream of the Palestinian collective. To the contrary, it reflects the nightmares of a people that have been disinherited and subjected to occupation and humiliation since 1948. 1948 is when the Palestinian people were uprooted from their land to make room for the European Jews to have a country of their own in the land and in the very homes of the Palestinians who had lived there from time immemorial.

The Palestinians call the events of 1948 Al-Nakba, the catastrophe. And can there be anything more catastrophic than waking up to find that you have no home, no country and no means for subsistence? .....

This dream is entwined with the nightmare of an occupation. An occupation that wants to make sure that, now that the land has been taken, the people and all that belongs to them, including their very way of life, cease to exist. ....

The world is divided into three camps: the active participants in the Palestinian tragedy, the zealous supporters and the silent majority. The show at the Station is meant for all three groups. Look into any of the works and you will see yourself somewhere. Whether you look away or you look down or you just stand there and stare through the work and into the vast space above or into a mental image of your grocery list, you are there. .....

We are there. We are here, on the web, looking at the dream/nightmare dresses hanging behind Emily Jacir's tent.


marja-leena said...

Well-written review, Taina, of some amazing political art!

Merche Pallarés said...

Curious exhibit but with your explanations, I understand it. Hugs, M.

20th Century Woman said...

This is a moving, though provoking post. I imagined how I would feel if someday I awoke to find my home taken from me.

The past cannot be undone, but we must not stop hoping and working for peace and resolution. Even when the prospect looks hopeless.

northshorewoman said...

this is only one reading of this art; there are many more.

art exhibits such as this one are one way that issues that are too often invisible or worse, misrepresented and denied, surface to create hope. at the least thought in viewers' minds.

i don't believe it's hopeless, although it seems so; i believe that once more people realize the truth of Israeli apartheid and injustice, and the ruling powers are truly held responsible to peoples, the land of Palestine / Israel can be an exemplary place of peace, an example to the world.