Starting June 4, visitors to the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art can travel in the footsteps of two pioneers — one modern, one medieval, one an artist, one a scientist, one female, one male, but both expanding notions of Muslim identity. As part of the museum's southwestNET series, which highlights artists living in the southwestern U.S. and Mexico, Sama Alshaibi will present her show, "Silsila," which translates from Arabic as the "link in a chain."
"I was so exhausted of who's against who, East against West," says Alshaibi. "I was looking for some other way of linking us together."
Alshaibi, a Palestinian-Iraqi woman who is now an American citizen and a professor at the University of Arizona, has spent much of her artistic career exploring the genesis of Middle Eastern conflicts, as well as the traumatic outcome of that violence, but with "Silsila" she searched a more distant past to illuminate the present.
"I started looking at older texts and found a lot of inspiration from Ibn Battuta," she says of the famous 14th-century explorer who set off from his Moroccan homeland and traveled for almost 30 years across the Middle East, India, and even into China before he returned and set down his adventures in his book Rihla. "His travels introduced him to new communities and [their ways of] practicing Islam and ways of living with their landscape."
She took all these themes — religion, humanity's relationship to natural resources, cultural variation — and explored them during a six-year period of traveling throughout North Africa, across the Middle East, and even to the Maldives. She took photographs, created films, and got to know people who, like her were Muslim, but have their own specific ways of confronting the ecological hardships of their times.
"Like many artists, I've been concerned about the environment, especially in the Middle East where deserts are what surround every city and country. If we all have these issues of resources ... in the Middle East, what's next is the water wars." Such concerns don't just revolve around the Middle East; they stretch into all the regions Alshaibi visited. "On the Moroccan-Algerian border, I thought the main problem would be a border problem. It's really how their entire culture and lives are being upended by the end of water."
Many of the photographs and video pieces in "Silsila" have water as a central element. A woman stands in a pond, the borders between water and sky erased as heaven, water, and woman merge into one image. In another piece, the viewer peers through the cleft of two dark, barren crags at the azure sea beyond. Even where there is no actual water, its conspicuous absence highlights its necessity in a landscape where shifting sands take on the quality of a wave.
"I think that her work aesthetically speaks in such a powerful voice," says Claire Carter, SMoCA curator for the exhibition. "It isn't difficult for people to be attracted to it. It isn't difficult to get people to look carefully. In [Arizona], we respond to the desert, but the kinds of deserts she's depicting — the Sahara — are different."
"When I was sitting, a month ago, in Morocco, one of the men running the hotel said to my friend, 'The desert is a mirror,'" Alshaibi says. "I think the desert is a very interesting metaphor that is often used by poets or artists or writers. It's often one of death, decay, isolation. It's also where the prophet Muhammad had his first revelation."
In both the photos and the video projections, which will be played on a five-walled room meant to evoke Islamic architecture as well as the tents of the nomadic Bedouins, the searing, masculine heat of the desert is tempered by the presence of women, very often Alshaibi herself.
"There's the power of the figure, and they're always feminine figures," Carter says. "And that the figure almost always has their faces obscured — covered by a veil or face turned away — gives it a sense of universality."
For Americans, a veiled, faceless woman immediately raises questions about women's roles in Islamic cultures, but Alshaibi believes there are more complex contexts at work than most Americans understand.
"It's the women that are preservers and producers of culture," she says of the Amazighen people [the non-colonialist name of the Berbers] she met on her travels. "They hold a kind of freedom and power. In order to do their kind of work, they would go out with their sheep and goats and camels. They were the ones that would produce the wedding blankets and textiles and rugs rich with symbolism. It's very much a reversal of what you think, of how the West sometimes imagines what a female Arab experience would be."
One of the exhibit's films, Ilham, depicts a ring of Muslim women, swathed in white, their heads covered with a dark scarf, each one holding an electric pink fabric. A kaleidoscopic image, they twirl round and round, until from a sudden dark center emerge other women, these wrapped completely in black. Two by two, they dance together, light and dark, until their individuality disappears into a wheel of color and shamanic geometrics. The individual links in a chain of female figures have united to create a molecular mandala reminiscent of the one thing people in the desert can't live without — water.
"We have a shared future that is going to make the oil wars look like nothing compared to water," Alshaibi says. "I used the desert, the end of water, and the need for water and us having to work together to save and preserve this. The desert is something we all share from that region, a landscape that's void of centers and margins. We have more in common than we have differences."
"Silsila" can be seen at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, 7374 East Second Street, from June 4 through September 18. $7 for adults, $5 for students. Visit www.smoca.org for more information.
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