Review – Waqt al-tagheer: Time of Change
How is time conceptualised outside of the status quo? When time is understood within a western context, the idea is static: the past is fixed and the future is inaccessible until it passes through the present. But when experienced by equally corporeal bodies non-consensually demarcated as Other, the relationship between these chronological states changes. The past and future are not isolated from the present—both dimensions have equal bearing. Meaning is derived from current standpoints to create evolving visions of future-pasts, determining the relationships these dimensions of time have to a specific moment.
As such, there is no better time for Waqt al-tagheer: Time of Change, a group show from new Muslim-Australian artist collective eleven. Part of the Adelaide Festival, and co-curated by Abdul-Rahman Abdullah and Nur Shkembi, the collective’s first major exhibition sees ten artists—which includes founder Khaled Sabsabi and Abdullah, as well as Hoda Afshar, Abdul Abdullah, Safdar Ahmed, Khadim Ali, Eugenia Flynn, Zeina Iaali, Abdullah M.I. Syed and Shireen Taweel—each responding to their interpretations of time as placecards. The thirteen works featured are a multifarious attempt at deconstructing linear time when personal realities are upended and reassembled.
Despite the inherently personal nature of each artist’s work, the inevitable politicisation of Muslim identity haunts the exhibition. Today Islamophobia is one of the lynchpins of the narrative of Australia, augmented by centuries of colonial violence and racism. As a result, it is difficult to comment on the self in relation simply to time amid private, structural, and dialectical experiences of discrimination, even if it doesn’t always define you. Hoda Afshar documents this schism in her portrait series ‘Under Western Eyes’. Large digitally-manipulated photographs depict symbols of female Islamic identity in a pop-art style: veiled women as Minnie Mouse; a gun pointed towards her temple; blonde ponytail obscuring her face; smoking a cigarette while holding a dog. The prints are a bid by the Iranian-born, Victoria-based artist to depict the peculiar sensation of double consciousness, induced by the colonial imagination foisted upon a racialised body—bringing about a sense of loss as they begin to see themselves through a prevailing western gaze.
This preemptive self-shaping can also be seen in Zeina Iaali’s hand-cut Perspex work ‘Sweetly Moulded’. By replicating the moulds used to create Ma’amoul (an Arab dessert pastry), Iaali responds to the various ways patriarchy in Australian society has stifled her, forcing her into a mould that expects linearity in terms of her womanhood and sexuality. Likewise, four-time Archibald nominee Abdul Abdullah grasps at these false dichotomies through archival prints ‘Delegated Risk Management’ and ‘Mutual Assurances’, part of his new ‘Wedding’ series which builds upon his 2015 work ‘Coming To Terms’. Traditional Malay-Muslim wedding imagery is disrupted through balaclavas worn by Abdullah’s subjects, unnatural lighting ghoulishly illuminating each scene as innocent bodies sit, set against criminality. It’s a two-way mirror that speaks to dual projections. Elsewhere in the gallery, another work by Abdul Abdullah —’Journey to the West’—hangs on its own, a self-portrait depicting himself as the Monkey King, sitting amidst opulence while bathed in monstrosity projected from the outside world.
But if this idea of disassociation comes up as a theme in the exhibition, then the notion of a deeply philosophical spirituality divorced from this heavy underscoring of identity is another. In Khaled Sabsabi’s installation ‘At the Speed of Light’, eleven screens are placed in a circle, each screen showing pre-recorded light movements as 218 hours are condensed into one mere second. Placing the viewer in a central viewpoint, this work is a intimate treatise with the Sufi understanding of the heart and the unseen, accompanied by twenty-five gold-leaf paintings and five versions of the same text in the five languages Sabsabi currently understands. Near the entrance, 2017 Carstairs Prize recipient Abdullah M. I. Syed’s installation ‘Aura II’ draws from a corresponding ethos: a mandala-like orb constructed from white crocheted prayer caps is back-lit against a black wall. Further, Abdul-Rahman Abdullah’s ‘500 Books’ sits on the floor, a cubic simulation of five hundred identical books half-draped by a sheet. The work speaks to a past memory: of his discovery of the books as a boy in his childhood home, Sufi texts saved by his father which would have otherwise been pulped.
At the crux of a private self now scrutinised by wilful mass ignorance lies a sense of cogency that is also reflected in the exhibition. Shireen Taweel’s ‘musallah’—a perforated sheet-copper hoop hovering ethereally above the ground—is a response to the oldest-standing Australian mosque in Broken Hill NSW, the site of a former camel camp populated by Australia’s first Afghan settlers. As the installation casts shadows on the floor, it is simultaneously a comment on the erasure of long-standing histories, as inconvenient truths are rubbed out of the status quo to prop up an incomplete version that delegitmises non-Anglo roots. On the far wall, Eugenia Flynn’s textual work ‘With my sister’ speaks to her experiences shaped by 9/11, as notions of public and private inexorably conflate. A similar leitmotif runs through Abdullah M. I. Syed’s second piece ‘Untitled Object(s)’, US currency is reconfigured—woven, hand-cut and shredded—into beautifully intricate rug and lamp weavings, a nod to cultural assimilation when power becomes inextricable from an acceptable understanding of selfhood.
This sense of disembodiment continues to be illustrated by Khadim Ali’s two works ‘The Arrivals #1’ and ‘Untitled’, on the absurdities that lay behind how oppression is constructed. Finally, Safdar Ahmed’s stunning work ‘The Subjective Xenophobe’ uses virtual reality to depict a simulacra of an anthropomorphic “human” Other, a visual representation of the trappings of racism and xenophobia that becomes useless in a hyperreality.
The threads that Waqt al-tagheer: Time of Change manages to thoughtfully weave together and convey are at once linked yet distinct, which points to the merits that communal sovereignty affords. Issues surrounding identity can be both complex and mundane, a testament to the fact that there is no such thing as a singular narrative. The message is clear: the continuity of such initiatives will remain important—as a means of decolonising the capital-I institution and disrupting hegemonic discourse within the art world.
Cher Tan is a freelance writer in Kaurna country/Adelaide. She writes mostly on tech, identity, politics and culture. Her work has appeared in Kill Your Darlings, The Lifted Brow, Meanjin, i-D, Overland, Right Now and VICE, amongst others. She is the author of cultural criticism food/book journal Cooking The Books and can also be found at @mxcreant.
Waqt al-tagheer: Time of Change runs 3 March to 21 April 2018 at ACE Open.