WATER / ماء: Trespassing Liquid Highways
Updated: Sep 23, 2019
By Ikram Lakhdhar
This essay originally published in "WATER / ماء: Trespassing Liquid Highways" exhibition catalogue.
“Sea Is History.” ― Derek Walcott
With hurricane Maria sweeping up the Caribbean and the current migration crisis in the Mediterranean resulting in increased deaths, slavery, and xenophobia, WATER /ماء : Trespassing Liquid Highways underscores the geographical pull of the Caribbean and the Mediterranean seas as spaces of contested movements, as liquid highways, and as sites of violence. The exhibition employs Édouard Glissant’s Archipelag thought as an analytical framework to investigate the relationality of the Mediterranean and the Caribbean seas. Through painting, collage, sculpture, video, poetry and performance, the artists examine movements within/inside/under/around the body of/and water from multi-layered perspectives—questioning colonialist and orientalist notions of paradise and uncovering forgotten transnational entanglements.
WATER / ماء : Trespassing Liquid Highways employs Édouard Glissant’s Archipelag thought as an analytical framework to perform an intricate disclosure of the intimacies that bound the seas’ shared history. Glissant writes, “Peoples do not live on exception. Relation is not made up of things that are foreign but of shared knowledge. This experience of the abyss can now be said to be the best element of exchange.”[i] Archipelagic thinking opens up new possibilities of interpreting the ways in which the works in the show help to think through issues of racial subjugations, colonialism, imperialism, and misremembered histories of slavery. The entanglement of the Caribbean and the Mediterranean undergird Sylvia Wynter’s depiction of “the archipelago as a structure that has come to define the organization of the “captive populations”[ii] of the modern/colonial world.” In her dissertation on the entanglements of the four continents, Lisa Lowe laments how little we know about “matters absent, entangled, and unavailable by its method”[iii] despite available knowledge. Within this vein, this exhibition crystallizes the theory that both the Caribbean and the Mediterranean are key centers that shaped the creation of the Western world and its unfurling history—looking into the political impositions of colonialism, the fluid economy of slavery and the exploitation of black and brown bodies in the creation of white wealth.
WATER / ماء : Trespassing Liquid Highways examines migration routes as political demarcations, sites of violence, and porous exchanges. Ellington Robinson, a US Virgin Islands native, explores how economics and culture are used to create political containers that we call states and countries. His work critiques the world map as a constant division of these territories in favor of a world united by its singular origin as proved by the big bang theory. Robinson questions why geographical divisions are necessary. MATTER, MATRIX, MOTHER, 2016, is a network of meditative graphite marks indicating mountainous locations where the Maroons (African slaves who escaped slavery and mixed with Indigenous people of the Americas), live, plan their strategy for independence, and practice their traditions. An oil-painted, collaged panel sits within the drawing, and acts as a portal to an abstract world that attempts to embody cosmic enrichment, a gesture to a way out and a peace of mind, recalling Édouard Glissant’s urgent reminder that “borders must be permeable; they must not be weapons against migration or immigration processes.” [iv]
Where the historian sees devastation, the artist sees ample imagination and poetics. Scherezade Garcia, a Caribbean artist from the Dominican Republic, grapples with contemporary allegories of history and processes of colonization through paintings of black figures during the transatlantic slave movement. Her painting series, Super Tropico 2017, evokes memories of a faraway home and the hopes and dreams that accompany planting roots in a new land. She examines quasi-mythical portraits of migration and cultural colonization whose fate doesn’t always end up safely off the shore. Her work explores the notion that “the Caribbean is the starting point of the genesis of Western modernity. And it is also the ground zero of sorts of struggles for decolonization” [v] Her layered colorful surfaces, elusive images, surrounded by mesmerizing calligraphies create waves — dancing, welcoming and also horrifying and roaring, tokens of the voyage of uprooted Dominican communities. Garcia calls her sculptural floats abundant oceans ‘the liquid highway,’ conjuring a space where bodies dissipate into the unknown abyss.
Ilyes Messaouidi, a Tunisian artist who lives and works in Paris, uses the traditional Tunisian aesthetic found in everyday material like a scarf as a background onto which he lays complicated issues and plays with the complexities of Tunisian identity formulations, awakened by the Arab Spring cultural revolution. Through an adaptation of tales of One Thousand and One Nights, he digs, exploring a thousand and one taboos, a thousand and one doubts, a thousand and one emotions, the ones that keep haunting us. His featured series illustrates the journey of North African migrants throughout the shores of the Mediterranean, while raising attention to Europe’s recent, problematic immigration policies.
The show creates a vivid visual narrative and opportunities for discourse that reconsider differences and commonalities between distinct but intertwined communities. These shared borders bear a brutally racialized history, yet also persist as a space of cultural fluidity and creative dialogue. Helen Zughaib, a Lebanese-American artist, whose paintings focus on the victims of post-Arab Spring revolution displaced by war, addresses the ways in which the current anti-immigration sentiment has impacted women and children. Her paintings deal with the bias and negative stereotyping that this wave of refugees, seeking safety through crossing the waters, has brought to much of Western Europe and America. Her Syrian Migration Series is inspired by the Migration series of Jacob Lawrence, who documented the movement of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North in 1940-41. This is an ongoing project, beginning with the protests in Syria, resulting civil war, and massive migration and displacement of refugees. With Another Brick in the Wall, 2018, Zughaib uses conjoining panels of paintings, which resemble a pattern of traditional Palestinian embroidery pattern, many of which do not exist anymore, to symbolize bricks and turn a heartbreaking subject into a beautiful monument.
Sama Alshaibi is a Palestinian/Iraqi multimedia artist who unveils negotiations in spaces of conflict: the causation and aftermath of war and exile, the clashes between nation and citizenry, the vexatious dynamics of humans competing for land, resources, and power. Silsila Arabic for ‘chain’ or ‘link’— is a multimedia project that uses the concept of migratory practices within bodies of water found in North Africa and the Middle East to salvage a story of continuity within the context of an endangered future. In Together Apart, 2017, the artist is a migrant whose journeys are symbolized by garlands– redemption tokens from her exile and the burden of displacement.
Rex Delafkaran is an Iranian-American artist, based in Washington D.C. Commissioned to create a site-specific performance, Delafkaran embarked on a task to conceptualize water as border and exile, but also redemption and ceremony. Delafkaran explores the notion of being submerged as a means of both acknowledging exile and separation as well as a metaphor for moving through/under/around to get to a place of serenity/understanding. Delafkaran elaborates,
“There’s a sense of violence and tenderness explored in The way you say I’m trying, 2018. Influenced by the experiences and critiques of the artists in this exhibition and my family, I am exploring the polarization of homelands, the volatility of borders and the language of such issues. Utilizing the tension of a voice muffled by water, and movements that are illustrating a conversation difficult to have in spoken language, the work embodies elements of resistance, security, and un-safety. What languages do we have at our disposal to contend with such prejudices, violence and displacement? The way you say I’m trying expresses a confusion and feeling, and moment of response.”
Ani Bradberry, an Iranian-American artist, based in Brooklyn, NY, created a commissioned sculpture. The sculpture consists of a hanging piece of neon that dips into a clear aquarium filled with water, creating a sense of tension and danger as the glowing and flowing mercury beads are immersed in water. The water refracts the form of the neon, distorting its image. Bradberry explains,
“Floating and sinking are sensations that are often difficult to differentiate. Surface Tension refers to the state that lies in the space in between — a dangerous suspension within uncertainty. Surface Tension, 2018 is alive, pulsing with limited energy, experiencing a pull from all sides. The entry point into the nebulous liquid is elastic, close enough to touch. The faces that surround the scenario appear clear, yet the liquid holds only illusion at all angles when gazing from the outside. The luminous path is refracted in all directions, speaking many different languages. The light itself is a reaction: the result of forced power through a closed system. Thousands of volts hang peacefully at the mercy of a single line, safe only until the live wire touches the water. This destructive potential energy defines the chaotic experience in the aftermath of war and conflict. Despite the vulnerability as it hangs by a thread, Surface Tension offers comfort within an ocean of risk. We watch the vessel from dry land and try to determine if the water holds the form up or draws it deeper.”
Colonial and Oriental representations of the Caribbean and Mediterranean lands, especially former colonies, are portrayed through a Eurocentric lens of the West vs. the Rest. By placing these artists side by side, WATER / ماء : Trespassing Liquid Highways is challenging the western gaze and reclaiming representation of their identities. Beyond white liberal narratives of the exotic paradise, the artists featured in the exhibition present work that binds beauty to social issues, and traditional aesthetics to contemporary inequalities.
[i] Glissant, Édouard, “Poetics of Relation”, p 23
[ii] Wynter, Sylvia “Rethinking Aesthetics”, p 243.
[iii] Lowe, Lisa, “The Intimacies of Four Continents”, p 208
[iv] Glissant, Edouard, “Poetics of Relation”, p 169
[v] Flores, Tatiana, and Michelle Ann Stephens. “Relational Undercurrents: Contemporary Art of the Caribbean Archipelago”, p 254