Natasha Gasparian on Lamia Joreige

In 2011, after seeing photographs Lamia Joreige had taken on a Greek island that summer, Etel Adnan invited the Beirut-based artist to give visual form to her first poem, “Sun and Sea” (1949). It took a decade for Joreige to respond to Adnan’s request with the video Sun & Sea, 2021. She opened this work by asking in voice-over and text: “How could I create a tale of beauty and serenity of a Greek paradise when daily life had been going so badly in my own country Lebanon as well as in Syria and in Palestine?” The impossibility of answering the question created an impasse that became the work’s guiding principle. Inspired by conversations with Adnan, whose early life was shaped by a post-Ottoman worldliness, Joreige’s recent exhibition “Uncertain Times” (previously presented as “Uncertain Times – Mapping a Transformation” as part of last year’s seventeenth Istanbul Biennial) was the culmination of five years of research, centered on the fate of the so-called Middle East. The exhibition started with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I and traced the creation of modern nation-states, the founding of the British and French Mandates, and the issuing of the momentous Balfour Declaration, which enabled Zionists to establish a Jewish home in Palestine. But “Uncertain Times” also engaged the prospect of how an alternative past would have played out by considering how the region might have been different today, had the British made good on their promise to Hashemite King Faisal I of Iraq of an independent kingdom spanning Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq.

Joreige’s research was presented in three series of collages, comprising reproduced documents and photographs culled from a range of archives that she annotated with color-coded commentary and translations. But the exhibition’s narrative thrust was determined by the lucid painterly draftsmanship that breathed life into the dead letter of the texts, breaking with the bureaucratic aesthetic of the archive and its hierarchies of organization, setting the individual works apart from one another, and rendering the significance of their content legible. In the show’s first collage (or “plate,” as Joreige calls it), The Deadly Fall of My Great Grandfather, 2022, the hind leg of a disproportionately large locust picking at wheat husks—painted in a toxic mixture of yellow, red, and black—looms over the portrait of the artist’s great-grandfather, Asaad Daou. This man is thought to have died by slipping from a rock he had climbed to witness the invasion of locusts that would bring on the Great Famine of Mount Lebanon in 1915–18. The artist’s relative also established a newspaper whose visually evocative title, Mashhad al-Ahwal (Scene of the Prevailing Conditions), is likely to have compelled Joreige to imagine historical occurrences in paint. Principal among these is the Arab Revolt (1916–18), a military uprising against Ottoman powers, led by King Faisal with the support of T. E. Lawrence, and to which Joreige has devoted an entire series, “Faisal’s Dream,” 2022. In it, Faisal advances on a brown horse, as if—like Napoleon on his white horse as seen by Hegel—propelling the movement of history.

“Uncertain Times” returned to a moment of great transformation and highlighted its resonance with the present crisis in equal measure. But it did more than dig up the past. The show’s contribution was its invitation to engage in the speculative exercise of imagining what current realities could have looked like had things played out differently—a present that Joreige has not attempted to depict. Whether the alternative of an Arab empire would really have been less violent than Western domination remains unclear. The question remains: Is the call to imagination enough in the face of the extraordinary brutality of late capitalism?

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