Sama Alshaibi is an artist born in Basra, Iraq to an Iraqi father and Palestinian mother and is now a naturalized United States citizen. Alshaibi’s photography, video, film, and performance works evoke the language of suffering, displacement, and loss. She often uses her own body as both a protagnist and a site linking struggles and the way that nations have affected and twisted lives in bodily performances. Her auto-ethnographic approach is informed by her own history of living in war, the double negation to her familial homelands, and her countless encounters with those policing borders from the undesired. An Assistant Professor of Photography at the University of Arizona, Alshaibi received her M.F.A. in Photography & Video and Media Arts at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Alshaibi exhibits internationally, with upcoming exhibitions at Paris Photo, Art Dubai, and solo exhibitions in The West Bank and London.
Baghdad Mem/Wars, a collaborative project by artists Sama Alshaibi and Dena Al-Adeeb, addresses emotional and intellectual concerns surrounding the wars in Iraq and ensuing historical displacements. The series, realized in photography and video, is comprised of three distinct suites that blur the line between art and activism.
Alshaibi’s and Al-Adeeb’s reenactments of the personal signify collective narratives and shared moments. As the artists speak of parallels between their two experiences of leaving Iraq during the Iraq/Iran war, many viewers will inevitably share their memories. (I am, in fact, reminded of my own emotions during that period.) More importantly, the artists deny viewers their comfort zone, forcing all who watch to reconsider political and cultural decisions or otherwise accept complacency.
Baghdad Mem/Wars also explores gender and social issues beyond the wars in Iraq. The two women characters who appear in the videos speak to a multitude of historical and current migratory experiences; personification of wars, loss, and dislocation; while also of melancholia, and at times loss of hope. However, the sheer dynamism of the artists’ performances as well as the rhythmic repetition throughout the work counter these feelings and signal hope and perseverance. While their abstract representation of displacement and the neutrality of their spatial constructions signify the universality of the experience, identity subtly permeates the work through various props, including dress and text.
The notion of fragmentation (of memory, existence, and experience) to the point of disintegration is very strong in Baghdad Mem/Wars. The three desperate yet related moments chosen for the suites, as well as the duality present in their titles, heightens this feeling of fragmentation. Through the vibrancy of their performances, Alshaibi and Al-Adeeb force these dual spaces and concepts to merge.
In Still/Chaos, two iconic figures dressed in black, yet strategically without veils, evoke images of pre-Islamic ritual mourning when women deliberately uncovered their heads and let their hair loose. The artists perform a choreographed dance of agony, where the contrast between their black dresses and white nondescript environment intensifies the tension. The two women are trapped in the same space yet appear isolated; they occasionally touch but never face each other or the viewer. They share and negotiate the dislocation but do not seem to be capable of comforting each other.
Alshaibi and Al-Adeeb evoke the poetry of Iraqi icon Nazik al-Malaika in Efface/Remain. The inclusion of al-Malaika, a female poet, further emphasizes the femininity of the project and signifies a happier, more optimistic age. The artists’ choice of poem, The Strangers, and the words that are most visible in the video—“the hours have passed”—reference the perceived current cultural amnesia and erasure. While the act of writing attempts to record history, the repetition of the few chosen words over and over signifies an obsessive need to remember or perhaps to cover up a memory rather forgotten. In Islamic ornamentation, repetition mediates harmony and contemplation of the unknown. In Efface/Remain, however, it conveys a sense of foreboding urgency. The superimposed yellow color the artists introduce appears to replicate at first what is written in white chalk, but it quickly begins to reference hiding and forced erasure, thus requiring the act of starting over in perpetuity.
In Absence/Presence, the constantly changing horizon line pulls the viewer into the scene as it moves closer and slants, confusing the past and present. A woman (Al-Adeeb) wanders back and forth, alternately disappearing into the horizon and out of the frame, but perpetually coming closer to the viewer. The appearance of Alshaibi to reenact a specific memory (the throwing of water behind Al-Adeeb, which is a cultural superstition performed when loved ones leave wishing them good luck and safe return) implies both absence and the hope of return. The women are dressed in contrasting colors further signifying the binary and duality of the act.
Throughout all three suites of Baghdad Mem/Wars, Alshaibi and Al-Adeeb perform the psychological aspect of dislocation by visualizing and reenacting experiences made distant now by time and geography. Through movements and imagery, they create abstract representations of traumatic visual memories that echo their feelings and position them at once as both victims and witnesses. Ultimately, Baghdad Mem/Wars reflects on the inexplicable trauma of an entire nation as it comes to terms with the aftermath of war rather than turning away.
Sama Alshaibi and Dena Al-Adeeb were Light Work Artists-in-Residence in January 2010. For more information on Alshaibi, visit her website at www.samaalshaibi.com; for more information on Al-Adeeb, visit www.denaaladeeb.com.
Nada Shabout is an associate professor of art history and the director of the Contemporary Arab and Muslim Cultural Studies Institute (CAMCSI) at the University of North Texas in Denton, TX. She is also the president of the Association of Modern and Contemporary Art of the Arab World, Iran, and Turkey (AMCA).