Carried by Currents: Dala Nasser

“Colonialism is carried by currents in a weather-and-water world of planetary circulation.”
—Astrida Neimanis

In October 2015, three months into a waste crisis in southern Lebanon that led to rubbish overwhelming public space and mass protests unfolding almost daily, rain poured onto the streets of Beirut. Images of waste floating down the streets of the city proliferated across the internet, as months of government corruption and neglect coalesced with the rainwater and slowly seeped into the ecosystem. At the same moment, a private museum designed by architect David Adjaye to house retail magnate Tony Salamé’s personal collection of contemporary art opened in a resort area east of the city. The inauguration and its attendees were widely reported on by the international arts media, with the backdrop of the waste crisis, and the corruption which caused it, barely a footnote.

Two years later, artist Dala Nasser won Beirut’s 32nd Salon d’Automne Emerging Artist Prize with a work titled David Adjaye’s Trash (2015). The piece combines latex-covered waste, dyed to evoke the rusty red of Salamé’s museum, with tarpaulin, a material used to anchor trash bags and stop them from floating away in the rain. Created by Nasser with a bag of rubbish taken from outside Adjaye’s London studio in the days following the opening and alchemically transformed into a painting, the piece questions currents of information, the narratives and histories that circulate, and those which get obstructed or erased entirely. It is also a means of materially witnessing the failing systems and ongoing ecological violence that were swept away by the rain that evening.

Working across painting, performance, and film, Nasser’s practice continually returns to strategies for witnessing, persisting and articulating within historical, political, and environmental deterioration. With a background in painting, the artist actively resists fixed outcomes, preferring instead to work with materials, often from the land surrounding her hometown close to Lebanon’s border with Occupied Palestine, in continual processes. Dirt, charcoal, found fabrics, and natural dyes made from local flowers evidence the ways material, through methods of abstraction, can become witness. Through her work, Nasser asks what is lost and what persists as extractive infrastructures pull things back and forth across the landscape.

These approaches to material and process unfolded in Nasser’s recent exhibition Red in Tooth, which opened at Kölnischer Kunstverein, Cologne, in May 2022. An installation comprising paintings, sound, and film, the exhibition follows the border-defying Wazzani River, which flows from southern Lebanon into Occupied Palestine. Water from the river, a scarce resource, has been historically, and continues to be, extracted via a vast infrastructure that pumps it into neighboring territory. The surrounding area is divided by border walls and fences, surveilled by cameras and only partially accessible to a handful of residents and the wildlife that sustains itself along the river’s edge. In 2021, Nasser began making the journey to the river several times a week—each time bringing fabric that, using material provided by the land, she would dye, wash, and then bury in the earth until her next visit. Presented partially draped across the stage in Kölnischer Kunstverein’s exhibition hall, various pieces of this crumpled, weather-worn fabric were pieced together with tape to create a fragile patchwork of peaches, splattered blacks, and tarnished whites that emanate the smell of the earth from which they came. Every material mark is laced with a specific colonial politics of location. The ominous temporality of slow violence is imbued into each fragment by the currents of the Wazzani River and surrounding earth that has kept the score of blood spilled, resources extracted, and toxins deposited over lifetimes. The work, still in process, will be added to as part of Nasser’s inclusion in Sharjah Biennial 15, with the fragile tape removed and the works stitched back together. It is an undoing and remaking, a constant movement, which addresses the ever-shifting context in which Nasser works.

Contrasting with the still, slow time of Nasser’s paintings, a film, part of the same installation in Cologne, documents the artist’s journey to the river to tend to the fabrics in the earth. Shot over the course of a month, we are moved first, by road, along the Blue Line and then on foot. We encounter dogs, cows, birds—nonhuman guides, whose traversing of the river is a gentle denial of the border site itself. The film, coupled with a sound work, comprising field recordings from the river that fills the main gallery space, enables Nasser’s project to flow across numerous sites and temporalities simultaneously, disturbing and redistributing our experience of time and place as a result.

Perpetual processes, within Nasser’s practice, are strategies of continuous movement—a form of persistence that inverts the ways occupation and extraction have prevented people from moving freely across land for generations. By distributing her practice across various geographies, times, and materials, with the earth as an ever-unfolding collaborator, Nasser creates currents through which information and affect can move. She does this, not by reducing the complexity of her subject matter, but by holding it in abstraction and allowing it to reveal itself to those who traverse the various sites and temporalities where the artist’s practice is taking place. The work is a witness to the invisible flows of colonial legacy that seep through the dirt, but also uncovers new springs that allow possibility to circulate once more.

Dala Nasser (b. 1990, Lebanon, lives and works in Beirut) graduated from the Slade School of Fine Art, London (2016), and then studied with A. L. Steiner at Yale School of Art, graduating in 2021. Her work has been shown internationally, including at the 58th Carnegie International, Pittsburgh; Antenna Space, Shanghai (2022); Deborah Schamoni, Munich (2021); Yale School of Art, New Haven (2021); Bétonsalon, Paris (2019); Beirut Art Center, Beirut (2017 and 2019); Sharjah Art Foundation, Sharjah (2019); Ghebaly Gallery, Los Angeles (2018); and Victoria Miro, London (2018). A new work will be presented at Sharjah Biennial 15 in 2023.
Amy Jones is a curator, writer, and editor based in London. Jones is currently associate curator at Chisenhale Gallery, London, working across publishing, exhibitions, and public programs. Forthcoming and recent projects at Chisenhale Gallery include a major new commission by Laurie Kang (forthcoming, summer 2023), Nikita Gale’s IN A DREAM YOUCLIMB THE STAIRS (2022); Rindon Johnson’s Law of Large Numbers: Our Selves; and Abbas Akhavan’s curtain call, variations on a folly (both 2021). 

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