A group of young adults wander around the ruins of Palestinian villages: we see them from the back, their faces hidden from us, their aims unknown. They wear masks as they turn to the camera. Surrounded by trees, plants and stones, they enter caves, inspect plants, and watch the sunrise. They move into a forest-like space when the image gets blurry and the background music feels more intense. Inside the cave strange shadows follow them; back in the forest their views become dizzy, as if to represent how the unnamed travelers are blacking out after the overwhelming experience.
This is Basel Abbas and Rouanne Abou-Rahme’s five-channel video installation, part of “And yet my mask is powerful,” an immersive new exhibition at Istanbul’s Alt Art Space. First shown at London’s Carroll/Fletcher gallery, the 2016 work is a curious mixture of archeology and poetry. The video installation features words from “Diving Into the Wreck,” Adrienne Rich’s 1973 poem whose speaker explores a sunken ship to investigate the disaster that has sealed its fate. Before diving into the wreck, the speaker reads a “book of myths” in order to get guidance. “The thing I came for,” she writes, “the wreck and the story of the wreck / the thing itself and not the myth.”
Abbas and Abou-Rahme describe their work as one that confronts the violence that dominates our present time. “Taking Adrienne Rich’s poem ‘Diving into the Wreck’ as the beginnings of a script, ‘And yet my mask is powerful’ asks what happens to people/place/things/materials when a living fabric is destroyed,” they explain. “How in the face of such violence can we then begin to retrieve and reconstitute living matter from the wreck itself? The project uses the trips taken by young Palestinians to sites of destroyed villages as an avatar to think about the possibility of using the site of wreckage as the very material from which to trace the faint contours of another possible time. Materials are taken from the sites: plants, flowers, stones, bits of garbage. Other objects, particularly tools used for either building or destroying things, are cast into the work, either by themselves or projected into the sites. Caught in a play of scale, magnified by the video projections, these things create a disjuncture between the thing itself and its shadow, what is and what could be.”
Born in 1983, Abbas and Abou-Rahme have made their name with a number of well-received exhibitions: “Only the beloved keeps our secrets” in 2016, and the “Incidental Insurgents” in 2015. They are the founders of Tashweesh, the sound and image performance group. Alongside the musician and performer Boikutt, they have combined performance, video art, archive material, field recordings and soundscapes. Their exploration of the distinction between sounds, music and image play a major role in “And yet my mask is powerful.”
Basel Abbas & Rouanne Abou-Rahme
“And yet my mask is powerful”
Installation view from the exhibition at Alt Art Space, 2017
In the video, Rich’s poem is quoted in English and Arabic, which adds to the video’s hybrid and lyrical atmosphere. “The words are purposes,” one line reads, “the words are maps.” The most intense moments of the video feature similarly strong phrases: “we circle silently,” “my mask is powerful” and “we dive into the hold.”
In an e-mail exchange with the show’s curator Mari Spirito, the duo describes how the sound work for the second half of the exhibition had been conceived as a conversation between the artists about their trips to Palestine, “which are still alive, almost possessed despite a colonial logic. Over time, these sites are transforming, revealing a relationship between colonialism and the domination of nature/ecology/landscape, which resists this domination.”
This part of the show features Neolithic masks as well as sketches and pictures concerning their study of the subject. Notes are scattered around, open books show the research that went into the making of the project. There are even twigs and dried plants in this carefully curated room. For the artists, the neolithic masks are the centerpiece here; found in the West Bank, stored in private collections they have been “hacked and 3D-printed” by the duo.
For the artists, those masks that look like black ski masks provide opportunities for resistance against dominant power. “This is an experiment in becoming other, becoming anonymous, in this accidental moment of ritual and myth,” they write. “In its intersections between performativity and ritual, body and artefact, thingness and virtuality, ‘And yet my mask is powerful’ begins to piece together a counter-mythology to the dominant mythologies of the present. A counter-mythology that holds on to our imaginative space as the last terrain to be colonized.”