By Hannah Salzer
I Bear Witness, on display at the Asian Arts Initiative, explores connections between the history of Japanese internment in America and the present marginalization of Muslim Americans. The exhibit was envisioned by curator Atif Sheikh, of Twelve Gates Arts, as a palimpsest: a manuscript on which the original writing has been effaced by newer writing, but where traces of the original remain. It brings together work by contemporary artists reflecting on and reacting to shifting racist discourses. The aim of the exhibit is not to suggest a one to one equivalency between the internment of Japanese Americans and Islamaphobia. Rather, it seeks to create space for a dialogue between different aesthetic forms and marginalized communities. The wide-ranging works put forth the world-building potential of radical aesthetics, especially in this current moment of heightened political urgency.
The exhibit includes two prints dealing with Asian American identity and the history of Japanese internment: Hasan Elahi’s Fifth Horseman (2016) and Patricia Wakida’s print I Am an American: Family No. 25344. It also features excerpts from Matthew Hashiguchi’s documentary project, Good Luck Soup, about the post-camp lives of Japanese Americans following WWII. Set in relation to these works are Josh Begley’s digital collage of photographs from NYPD surveillance of Muslim American businesses, Profiling.is; paintings from Ambreen Butt’s series “I must utter what comes to my lips”; Saba Taj’s The Return of Hazrat Isa, Queer Remix, a queer reimagining of the return of Jesus; and Sham-E-Ali Nayeem’s poetry-art installation In the End We All Become Stories (2016).
Cutting into the middle of the gallery is We are all Witnesses (2008, revisited 2016), a mixed media work by Kutchi Turk Indian artist Amina Ahmed. Ahmed describes her work as a “geometric drawing in three dimensions.” Below, four ribbed bundles of red cotton yarn punctuate the floor, evenly spaced and aligned; above, a red yarn noose hangs. Just under the noose, a white panel is propped against the gallery wall with a graphite inscription signaling that the dead still witness the devastation of their death. Emotionally, We are all Witnesses is very difficult. The objects are reminiscent of butcher-cube blocks of flesh, with braided tendons made up of sinewy fibers. From afar, they appear as the raw musculature of one body’s vertebrae. Up close, they dissolve into many bodies, many blood red tendrils bound together by twine. The bloodiest strand of all hangs above at eye level in a violent loop that bodies forth the cry of Billy Holiday’s Strange Fruit. At once, the work is full of suffering and organically beautiful. The vibrant red seems to go on forever to form a pool of infinite depth. It is difficult to look away, making the viewer a witness to the grave.
Ahmed explains that she is “trying to make work that is beautiful and transformative, but also a response to the world.” She identifies the genocide in Darfur as the initial impulse behind the project. She revisited the project recently with the renewed relevance of the Syrian Civil War, which she calls a “continuation of suffering.” “When Syria was a tomb, there was a noose over it,” says Ahmed. “How could one have a noose over a tomb?” Thinking about the sheer number of lives lost, Ahmed asks, how does an artist process this? As people bound together by bearing witness, how do we grieve?
At the exhibit’s closing reception on January 13th, Ahmed’s art merged with the words of Syrian poets Hussam Jefee and Alma Nizam, sounds of Philadelphia-based Syrian cellist Kinan Abou-afach, and video art of Syrian visual artist Khalil Younes . Jefee and Nizam are members of Ta’sheeq, a Syrian poetry collective formed in May 2016. For Jefee, performance is “an act of bearing witness.” Collaboration with visual artists and musicians is central to Ta’sheeq’s practice. Ahmed met Jefee at Ta’sheeq’s performance in New York City and suggested they collaborate as part of I Bear Witness.
First Jefee, and then Nizam, stood to the left of Ahmed’s red grave. Abou-afach sat with his cello to the right. Jefee and Nizam spoke primarily in Arabic. English translations were projected onto a screen against the gallery wall, spliced by the dangling red noose. Their elegiac poems wove together with the cello’s lament in an improvisatory back and forth between forms. Some phrases that linger: “this is how the years of war pass” (Jefee, “Cloud Cafe”); “flesh lying next to you” (Nizam, “Eulogy 35”); “the city awaits the day that never comes” (Nizam, “October 30th”). Ta’sheeq’s articulations of suffering resonated strongly with Ahmed’s work; at moments, it seemed that their words became enfleshed by Ahmed’s textile bodies.
The emotional and material density of the performance thickened with the addition of Khalil Youne’s film, Syria (2011), at the end of Jefee’s reading. Not much happens in the film. It shows a finger tip being pricked and stitched with a needle and thread. At the end, a button is sewn onto the flesh. But it is shot so close up that the fingertip becomes a vast textured world in which the viewer can almost feel the image with their eyes. It’s painful to behold (“A box of pins guarantees a nice flow of pain,” Jefee read in English, “marry a European and you can go home.”) The pain of the prick gets rearticulated and remixed in the soundtrack of gunshots and cries. Though the soundtrack was dropped in the performance at the reception, to better hear the cello, it can be heard in full online.
The closing reception concluded with a testimonial from local activist Hiro Nishikawa, whose family was interned in Poston, Arizona during WWII, followed by a moment of silence in the spirit of solidarity.
“I Bear Witness” will be on display at the Asian Arts Initiative through Friday, January 20th.
Thanks to Max Dugan for sharing with me his research and thoughts on the exhibit.