De-briefing Dar’a/Full Circle
April 3, 2017 Laura Horne-Gaul & Lee Gaul
Are Arab and Muslim artists inextricably tied to their politics? Are these artists forced, by their circumstances, to utilize transhistorical references? London Ontario based artist Jamelie Hassan is not limited to a single medium. Instead, the material practice is a utility which is secondary to her overarching goal; the improvement of the arts and, by extension, the improvement of humanity. “Hassan’s art has been consistently propelled by highly charged social and political subject’s, which in a profoundly interdisciplinary manner, insists on complicating any separation between subjectivity, culture, politics and art.”* Take, for example, Hassan’s 1991 billboard installation, Because… there was and there wasn’t a city of Baghdad. A billboard displayed in various Canadian cities in response to the Gulf War. Or Aldin’s Gift, 1996, a collaboration between The Art Gallery of Windsor and The Gallery of York University which focused on identity and cultural displacement. Hassan explains that “art now is more in response to the political reality and social dynamic around it”.
Throughout her body of work, Hassan bristles against the grain and the conservatism in Canada’s commercial market and reflects on how difficult it can be to have experimental work represented. Like so many other art markets of the world, Canada’s is tight-knit and for some has been perceived to rely on personal relationships in unequal measure to the value of the artist's contribution to art and art history. For Hassan and other Arab and Arab-Canadian artists like her, it has proven to be more difficult to find commercial galleries that are interested in the work in and of itself. Hassan expands, “Perhaps there will be a greater understanding and recognition of the cultural work being done which enhances all our lives rather than the artist “star-model” which dominates today's mainstream art world.”
In contrast to the finite nature of ‘the Masterpiece’ which is accepted as final and quintessential, Hassan’s work seldom remains untouched. New versions and updates to her exhibitions, speak to the transient and ever changing nature of her artistic and political philosophy. As an exhibition travels across spaces, it takes on a different shape in response to reactions from the public and other artists. She moves beyond the confines of gallery spaces and is able to intertwine her work into everyday public and private spheres providing a common context for both the non art goer and the avid. Because the world is always changing, always including new voices and ideas, it makes sense to have that reflected in art. In this sense, Hassan’s work is counter-intuitive and disruptive which, it seems, is just the point. For Hassan, art is a reflection of the changing world around us. These incremental updates and iterations are art as open-source.
An example of the transient nature of Hassan's work is her exhibition, Orientalism & Ephemera, 2006 at Art Metropole in Toronto. When it was initially conceived, it involved the idea of using selections from Hassan’s own archives. But as the exhibition traveled to different spaces, it expanded with new work and new contributions from other artists. It became a conversation.
Hassan’s ideas come full circle once again in her current curated exhibition Dar’a/Full Circle at Artcite, Windsor, ON which explores the concept of the full circle across different cultures and mediums. One section of the show includes the work of Robert Houle. Who in the early 1980’s reacted to an exhibition, Monument for the Native People of Ontario, at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). Which dealt with issues around the “naming of indigenous tribes”. The show was commissioned by the AGO as part of its “Swing Space” program of exhibitions held during the ‘Transformation AGO’ construction period. After the Frank Gehry renovation, the Monument for the Native People of Ontario installation was removed, and Houle’s reaction to the work remained in the space. Hassan seizes upon this in the exhibition (Dar’a/Full Circle) by drawing a clever parallel. By including Houle’s work, we are impacted by the negative space left by the Monument for the Native People of Ontario. While we are left unable to experience the original installation, the viewer is akin to that of an astronomer who can still observe certain heavenly bodies by measuring their impact on neighboring stars.
This one example reflects on the many reasons why Hassan is so interested in projects about truth and reconciliation. Which incidentally reminded me of Susan Sontag’s journals from the 1960’s - 80’s where she writes, “To become properly acquainted with a truth, we must first have disbelieved it, + disputed against it”.** Which, in my opinion, brings one full circle with the development that is presented with truth and the circular system of its own reconciliation.
*Page 11, Aldin’s Gift, Monika Kin Gagnon; Conversation between Jamelie Hassan and Homi K. Bhabha Monika Kin Gagnon, Moderator
**Page 196, Susan Sontag “As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh” Journals & Notebooks 1964-1980 edited by David Rieff
TUSSLE: How does focusing on your own personal histories in your work interact with viewers and what do you hope they hold from this experience?
JAMELIE HASSAN: Specifically, the personal stories begin from a certain desire or need on my part to work through memories, experiences and the concepts - often this intersects with what is happening at any given time – ie - the news reports. I acknowledge that family and personal relationships impact on how my works develop. I take into consideration the ethics of these relationships. The viewer has a chance to move into the story presented in my work through a multiplicity of positions not exclusively from one voice. I have welcomed the opportunity to exhibit beyond gallery spaces.The viewer’s response varies with each context of presentation which is as diverse as billboard projects to installations in heritage sites and artist book works. I cannot second guess how the viewers might re-act when I present my work – it is always a surprise to me to learn from viewers what works and what does not.
T: Do you consider yourself a political artist? How have the recent events in America affected your work?
JH: I consider myself a politically-engaged citizen who is an artist. Recent events in the USA are highly disturbing and increasingly problematic. The politics in the USA has been problematic for me for some time. I am trying to manage, both on a personal and professional level, the sheer ugliness and the insane military presence of the USA around the world – the recent increase in the budget for the military is larger than the budgets of the next 8 countries combined.The threat of further wars and devastation is very real.
The message, I and millions of others are getting, is that this 45th president of the USA and this government does not welcome people from our community – persons who are of Arab and/or Muslim background - regardless if you were born in Canada and hold a Canadian passport. I have to ask myself - who wants to go where they are not welcome? It is very, very gut-wrenching to see and feel the Islamophobia and hatred so overtly at work in our lives. Nearly 4 in 100 Canadians are Muslim in Canada compared to 1 in 100 Americans. With strong family ties, friends, activists and working relationships in the USA my concern is great for those people. I need to consider whether accepting invitations to participate in projects in the USA and to travel across the Canada/ USA border is something I will or can do over the next while – that border crossing has not been easy for me and some members of my family in the past have had horrible and humiliating experiences. Even children have experienced being on “no-fly lists”. It is a matter of conscience - while I want and need to continue to keep in touch with my family who live in the USA and who feel trapped and people, like Doris Bittar, an Arab-American artist and activist who is based in San Diego, California and is included in the Dar’a/Full Circle exhibit. She and other activists in the USA, who are protesting and mobilizing against this government, need our support now more than ever.
T: In your recent exhibition at Artcite in Windsor, Dar’a/Full Circle, you are focusing on the impact of the circle, its enclosed yet never ending nature. May you expand on your process while curating this exhibition and why you chose the circle?
JH: As I have written in my curatorial statement for this group exhibition, I work with this basic shape of the circle in many of my own art works. In various situations, I noticed how often the circle is present in contemporary art works across all cultures. I see this exhibition as different from the more formal approaches that were done on circle exhibitions in earlier decades. In this exhibition of 14 artists, across generations, their art works with circles is layered in meaning with many references – from the weather, the moon, the water wheel, to global logos, arabesques, Islamic-inspired patterns and the symbolism of the circle in indigenous cultures.
T: What are you currently working on?
JH: I am finishing up a text for publication from a conference titled Art & Resistance which was presented in Bethlehem, Palestine at Dar Al Kalima University in 2016. I just completed coordinating a symposium related to contemporary art (Rebel, Jester, Mystic Poet) at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto and I will present my work in July at the Aga Khan Museum in a group exhibition of Canadian contemporary art curated by Swapnaa Tamhane. I am advising on a cultural project which will take place in Oct. 14, 2017, in Toronto, Canada which is being organized by Jusoor, a NGO www.jusoorsyria.com that focuses on continuing education for Syrian youth and students.