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Issue 133

We Dance, We Smoke, We Kiss
by Simone Krug

Hips jut and shoulders sway, bouncing in time to a blaring bedroom boom box. We Dance, We Smoke, We Kiss at Fahrenheit is a study in joyous movement and the mundane routines performed behind closed doors. With this mentality in mind, the show celebrates recent works that have emerged from and around the Middle East and Arab world, circumventing the tired narrative of political conflict and perpetual unrest en route to a realm of pop culture and global outlooks. Fahrenheit resident and curator Myriam Ben Salah presents a region prone to misrepresentation and stale tropes, feeling around for a new identity even as it clings to customs and traditions. The show straddles these two spaces, stretching, contorting and contracting to portray a character and place that defiantly resists singular definition.

In the hall that leads to the main gallery, an ambient, calming British female voice drifts over Muzak from a looped recording by the Arabian Gulf-based collective GCC, revitalising spaciousness (2016). Her saccharine tone mimics the clarity of an airport loudspeaker announcement as it desperately strives to sell something abstract. Even its title is a vacuous promise, an unfinished skyscraper looming over a brightly lit downtown Dubai. Her message is rooted in the bureaucratic international English spoken throughout the rapidly expanding gulf region. “Welcome to a more comfortable vertical world,” with “global business at your fingertips” and “Dreamliner legendary hospitality,” she murmurs. Culling text from antidepressant ads, the Qur’an and airline marketing, GCC collapses these seemingly disparate spheres, promising adventure, wealth, access and luxury. As in real life, psychological fixes, religion and leisure products vie for our attention; yet, melted together in this recording, they are indistinguishable. If these directives all sound the same, what, if anything, can provide a cure for our suffering? The tangle of corporate and spiritual jargon continues its circuit.

As GCC engages the lofty and universal, Jumana Manna hones in on the particular in her video portrait of a male Palestinian thug community in her East Jerusalem hometown in Blessed Blessed Oblivion (2010). Fixating on their quotidian antics, Manna echoes the male-centric cinematic gaze and experimental format of Kenneth Anger’s depiction of gay Nazi bikers in Scorpio Rising (1963). Her camera follows these social packs as they drive around at night, lift weights at the gym and smoke cigarettes outside an auto body shop. She casts an intimate, almost private, perspective onto decidedly masculine activities and public spaces. As men mill about on camera, here, the hijab is quite literally hidden. The explicit gender division manifests not simply as the artist’s gaze, but as evidence of the gendering of public space in this territory, itself occupied and divided by statute, war and violence. Manna challenges these gendered bifurcations, inserting the stereotypically feminine into the testosterone-charged sites she documents. Men appear in different states of grooming at the barbershop, as they lather, primp and preen over stray hairs. The 1993 Culture Beat song “Mr. Vain” hums as young men lift, pump and heave at the gym, its walls decorated with fading bodybuilder posters. Even as one man evokes the culture of machismo and misogyny that thrives in this community – “I started hating her because she loved me. I wanted to push her away…” – elsewhere in this conflict zone, a carwash employee boasts about his business’ superior soap products.

A similar levity seeps into Tala Madani’s paintings of rotund and balding men who stand naked or in tiny underpants in stark interiors. In these anonymous places, her scenes exist nowhere and everywhere at once. The signifiers of masculinity soften on her canvases, awash with loose brush strokes and bulging belly fat. In Rear Projection: Soft (2013), a stout man holds a flashlight to his mouth as a magisterial light emanates from his bare behind, bathing a piece of floating excrement in a glowing orb. Here, when he opens his mouth, he is at once empty, and to put it crassly, “full of shit.” Filth appears in Avatar (2012) as well. In this work, a grinning man scrambles up a ladder balanced on a mucky swamp as the quagmire gurgles and rises behind him. Is the mud that trails him his shadow or a haunting apparition? It is only clear that he is stuck – and naked – on a ladder that leads nowhere except down into the bog. In Up and Down (2012), Madani affords this poor character underwear, which he adjusts over his hips, forming a V-shape. The same shape appears upside down above his head, streamlined and clean like a car logo. Is this his brand? It protects him even as it pushes him down. Madani’s farcical depictions highlight the patriarchy’s vulnerability, obstinacy and flaws in a mode that resists geographic specificity. Her men, poor fools, are the butt of a global joke.

The global and local intersect in Meriem Bennani’s video installation, Gradual Kingdom (2016), where two opposing convex and concave screens moulded like step pyramids play outdoor scenes from Bennani’s native Rabat. This recreated form, imagined here as a site for video projection, hearkens back to ancient regional architecture. Most compellingly, the distorting effect of the levelled screens renders ordinary Morocco magically kaleidoscopic. Split into fragments, pastries fry in an open-air market, old women relax on a park bench, clay pots are fired in a ceramics factory kiln, and an iPhone on a stool broadcasts a soccer game. Slowed-down Mariah Carey and karaoke renditions of Justin Bieber play alongside the sounds of the bustling market. While the artist depicts ordinary moments in the city, she applies digital manipulations that squish, exaggerate and even set certain objects and characters aflame. Rabat becomes a video game of sorts, as Bennani magnifies and augments the bodies of hijab-clad women relaxing by the beach. Like absurdist cartoons, they expand and deflate. Her effects highlight hidden subtleties.

The show as a whole teases out the hidden. Sophia Al-Maria’s video Your Sister (2014) plays found footage of women shimmying in the m’alayah style, gyrating seductively in tight dresses and lingerie. They dance in messy rooms strewn with laundry, in the privacy of the home. Yet, here, these private, sensual encounters are broadcast to the world. Nearby, eyes peer out from a slit in the cover of French-language magazine Téléramadan. Turning its pages reveals first a veiled and then an uncovered woman’s face. The magazine uses the month of Ramadan to open dialogues about Islam today. Its editors declare, “We are the great replacement of a generation that is active on the Internet and that counters low blows. A generation of artists left alone in the battle, taking on all the fights.” The conversation is necessary, as it deconstructs the ways the region and its culture has shifted and changed. What lies underneath is not always what we expect.

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