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Women Artists Take Over Artpace with a Trio of Exhibitions Tackling Gender, Race and Identity 

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click to enlarge NEIL CHOWDHURY
  • Neil Chowdhury
Sama Alshaibi

What can you tell me about your upcoming exhibition?
I researched all of these historical images … but then I deconstructed what was going on in [them], which are primary albumens and photogravures from the late 19th century and early 20th century. I created a bunch of sculptures that are used as my props [for photographs] that deconstruct what’s going on — staged fantasies — and then I use myself. I’m the subject. All of them have these elaborate sculptures that are on top of my head. A lot of the images you see from this period … had either headdresses [or] vessels … Women were always carrying them. It’s this idea of the burden of representation. The water pipe, mashrabiya lattice work, those are tropes that get recycled over and over again.

So these would have been done in a portrait studio?
Some. Some are outdoors … Some of them are in Turkey, the majority are from the Middle East and North Africa. You have arbitrary things. A lot of these are costumes, and you have the same models being used over and over again. Some of them are authentic, some are fully staged … Some of [my photographs] are really just poking at those images and some of them deal with the issues that Arab women — I’m Palestinian and Iraqi — deal with … The whole idea I started off with is the West’s obsession with the image of the so-called oppression of Arab women, and how that gets conflated with democracy, and all Western kinds of interventions taking place in the Middle East and North Africa. This is often put onto the burden of the female — oppression through what women do or do not wear in the Middle East. Primarily the hijab or the abaya or the niqab. That garment [can be] a trigger for these kinds of fantasies or misconceptions. This is a historical thing, this representation of the Middle East through the woman’s body. Representation happens in a number of ways. The Orientalist photographers photographed that region two different ways. One, looking at the woman as a sort of sexual being: the fantasy of the harem — as much sex as you possibly want, multiple wives, this kind of fantasy for Western audiences … These women, most of them had no agency in having their images taken like that, with exposed bodies. Or [they were] hidden — completely covered. If a woman is completely covered and she’s Muslim, conservative and modest, she’s not going to be modeling for a Western male photographer. It just shows that these are staged and contrived images. That’s really where this started … I’m [also] making a series of posters [that deal] with images of Palestinian women in the ’60s and ’70s when they started creating their own content, knowing how that iconography of the female in military clothes with a gun was very potent for a Western audience. And we see that now, too. Kurdish female fighters that are fighting in Iraq against ISIS, [these are] the kinds of images that the West was really putting out there. [As if] this is how we’re going to combat ISIS: We have these female guerrilla fighters. This becomes potent imagery to legitimize the morality of Western interventions in the Middle East, especially U.S. interventions … I have video, too, where I’m using early news cinema. I’m looking at early British Pathé films made in the Middle East, primarily in Palestine, Syria, Egypt [and] Iraq. I have archival footage that I’m layering with a performance piece with a gun and a performance piece with [a vessel with] water rushing out. Upstairs will be a neon piece [based on] a very famous water feature in Baghdad … It’s called Kahramana, and it’s a tale from the One Thousand and One Nights … she’s the slave girl that saves Ali Baba, and saves herself. When she hears the 40 thieves hiding in the vessels, she pours hot oil [on them] and kills them all. This was done by an artist who [was] a friend of my father’s. I had an interview with him before he passed away. And I was talking about this idea of why he used a female figure and the Scheherazade story. He had his own reasons for it. But the reason I’m using it is actually Iraqi women’s disappearance from the social sphere since the United States invaded it in 2003. [During] the Bush administration [when] the war was not popular, the United States … backed a particular group in Iraq that [was] against Saddam and against the Sunnis, but they wanted to change the Constitution. What the United States turned a blind eye towards was the fact that women’s rights would be changed … That was the beginning of women’s rights and opportunities eroding. Yet we sold this war in the United States conflating that we were going to be exporting some sort of democracy to women and giving them rights. [But] they’ve always enjoyed their freedoms and rights. They could vote, they worked, they were in government, they drove. It was a [completely] false representation. To this day, if you Google “Iraqi women,” you’ll see the purple-stained fingers [showing] that they voted. They’ve always voted. It’s interesting to me how the justifications and misunderstandings that people have of that part of the world often deal with this representation of a woman being oppressed and covered. [I’m] looking at the truth, the complexity of what women experience there. They’re not a homogenized group: they have different experiences, they have different religions, they’re as complex as their Western counterparts. [And] it gets reduced down to what they do and don’t wear … [The exhibition is] like a play between old and new … It’s a history, a timeline, of the presence of [Middle Eastern] women in images, in the public sphere, through sculpture, through photographs.
click to enlarge A deconstructed trunk factors into Sama Alshaibi’s exhibition as a sculpture and photographic prop - BRYAN RINDFUSS
  • Bryan Rindfuss
  • A deconstructed trunk factors into Sama Alshaibi’s exhibition as a sculpture and photographic prop
How has San Antonio been so far? What have your experiences been?
I haven’t seen a lot of San Antonio [laughs], I’ve seen a lot of my studio. But my husband and kid came out for a few days. I go running on the River Walk and that’s been beautiful. I’ve been to Blue Star [and seen] really great exhibitions there. And people are really kind and generous. It’s the South, [people] are very sweet, very nice. San Antonio’s a little bit like Tucson. It’s kind of similar, so it feels familiar to me. I haven’t been out so much, but I did one work at the San Antonio River, which was really cool. I was born in Basra, which is on the river. You know, Iraq has two very important rivers — the Tigris and the Euphrates — so I’ve always liked places with rivers. I saw [a particular part of the San Antonio River] and thought, that looks like Iraq [laughs]! I had some fun there doing that.

I saw that you are represented by a gallery in Dubai. What can you tell me about the art scene there?
It’s phenomenal. I have to say that, what is happening in the arts in Middle East is pretty extraordinary. And Dubai in particular, they just made this decision years go that they were going to — in the United Arab Emirates specifically — be a cultural capital in the world. And they’ve done an excellent job. Now that it’s really past its infancy, it’s been more than 10 years and you have the Louvre opening and the Guggenheim, the work is so good. First of all, I think Middle Eastern artists are powerful. They have a very strong history and culture in arts. Arts is very much centered and celebrated in the culture. It’s supported in a way that it isn’t in the United States. Yes, there’s a commercial avenue for it and Dubai is a place where there’s money, so there’s definitely support. But in general, you’re talking about a population of people who’ve, for better or for worse, for the last 100 years — colonialism, post-colonialism, wars, civil wars — people have really seen and experienced a lot. And it’s articulated through the work. There’s still a lot to be done and growth, so that artists in the Middle East can study in the Middle East. You know, a lot of them have to go abroad, or there’s a certain point they can get to and then they have to go abroad. But I would say the Middle Eastern patrons are very supportive of their artists. They buy their artists, they also buy Western artists. Art Dubai is I think in a week or two. The Sharjah Biennial is going on right now. Sharjah Biennial is one of the best biennials that I go to. It’s world-class work — really interesting, progressive ideas, lots of risk-taking.
click to enlarge Sama Alshaibi, Between Two Rivers, 2008-2009 - COURTESY OF SAMA ALSHAIBI
  • Courtesy of Sama Alshaibi
  • Sama Alshaibi, Between Two Rivers, 2008-2009
So, does your work come across as controversial there at all?
I don’t think so. I think that’s what’s really interesting. The most pushback I’ve ever had in my work is in the United States. Because of the sort of censorship that goes on in certain periods and times when certain politics fall in and out of favor. I think if you were in certain countries in the United Arab Emirates and you were criticizing their king, or their ruler or their leader, yes, you’d probably get in trouble. But that’s not the nature of my work. I’ve shown stuff where I’m pretty exposed. There are some limits to where you can go, but the Middle Eastern art scene is very supportive of its artists, and especially their female artists, which I think is pretty great.

When did you arrive in the U.S. and what were the circumstances that led your family to relocate?
I arrived at age 13. We escaped Iraq during the Iraq-Iran War and we fled to Saudi Arabia where I lived for a couple of years, followed by Jordan and then the United Arab Emirates. There was a mass exodus and brain drain from Iraq — Saddam responded by basically threatening other Arab countries not to give work visas to Iraqi citizens living in exile. It was difficult for my father to keep his work visas in various Arab countries that were afraid of Saddam Hussein. He was obliged to work for Iraq for a number of years because they paid for his Masters and PhD [abroad], but he was concerned for our safety so we fled. Our escape put us on a blacklist in Iraq. My father [was] also Shia and didn’t want to sign to the Ba’athist party, which also made him a target when we were still in Iraq. The war was very dangerous. A number of incidents transpired including Saddam executing his entire cabinet, one of which was my father's friend. We first left Baghdad and went to the south. We lived in Basra to stay under the radar. However, Basra is on the Iran border, so the war was very bad where we lived. We eventually escaped, but my mother and all the kids, including myself, went back to Iraq to try to sell the house and retrieve our personal items. We were stuck for a year because Iraq closed her borders. We eventually escaped, which is another long story. My mother is a Palestinian refugee. All refugees that left in the 1948 war were not allowed the right of return to their country. So, we could not go to Palestine, and we could not go back to Iraq as long as Saddam and the Ba’athist party were in charge. My father didn’t want to settle in the USA — he also couldn’t find work in the USA — and my mother didn’t want to wait for the war to end to move back to Iraq; my father did. She spent her life watching her father wait for his return to Palestine, which never happened. He died in Iraq. She wanted to settle somewhere safe and where she believed she and her children could have a future. So, we moved to the USA. My father didn’t come with us, and after one year, they divorced. Which made us illegal — we [had] entered with a student visa [and my mother] couldn’t pay for university. My father passed away a couple of years ago. He didn’t move back to Iraq until a few years before he died. So, that tells you how long he waited … I lived here for many years as an undocumented person in the United States. After Iraq invaded Kuwait and the United States invaded Iraq, they started looking for the Iraqis who’d come into the country and never left. We were visa overstay. They found us and they put us up for deportation; we went to court and had two days to fight our case in court, and we were granted political asylum. So from political asylum to green card and then I became a citizen in 2004.

Wow. That’s an amazing story.
It’s all in my work somewhere. Two generations of loss of homeland — one, when the state of Israel was created with no right of return for refugees. That idea of the empty suitcase, the empty vessels, that is my family’s story — lose everything, and then they lost everything again, in Iraq.
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