Saturday, February 18, 2012

Suicide bombers at the October Gallery

"The Other Side of Paradise", talk by artsist Laila Shawa about her exhibtion at the October Gallery, on Saturday 18th February, 2012.

Although I have a high regard for the October Gallery, I went along to this talk by the Palestinian artist Laila Shawra (1940-) with some hostile anticipation. The blurb said that Shawra neither condoned nor condemned the suicide bombers. "Uh-oh!", I thought, "Another attempt to gloss over carnage for the sake of politics." From my general viewpoint, killing civilians for political purposes is always wrong, irrespective of the validity of the political cause or the urgency of pursuing it. But I also believe that free speech and debate are central to our civic culture of freedom. Apologists for suicide bombing should be allowed to state their case and the reset of us should be allowed to criticise them.

In fact, my anticipation was unfounded. Shawra's position is both more humane than I had feared, and more nuanced than I expected. Her view aligns with that of Mahatma Gandhi, who in his autobiography (1929) exhorted us to "Hate the sin and not the sinner". The corresponding formula in Christianity is found in the epistles of St. Augustine (letter 211, circa 424 AD): "Cum dilectione hominum et odio vitiorum", which translates roughly as "With love for mankind and hatred of sins." Shawra, as a Muslim, rejects both suicide and murder, and does so on religious and other grounds. In common with other Abrahamic religions, Islam bans suicide (e.g. "And do not kill yourselves, surely God is most Merciful to you", Quran 4:29) and murder (e.g. "...whosoever killeth a human being... it shall be as if he had killed all mankind, and whoso saveth the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind...", Quran 5:32). More to the point, she regards suicide bombing as morally wrong, counter-productive, and damaging to the Palestinian cause and public perception of it. She does not, however, damn the women who carry out suicide bombings as straightforward, cold-blooded monsters, which of course is the conventional demonisation in the Western media. The purpose of her ongoing project, which has spanned several years, is primarily to understand what motivates young women to blow themselves up in public places, and to articulate her insights in artistic forms. Her provisional conclusions are darker, more complex, and more plausible than the media mantra that these are simply individuals driven by rage against Israeli iniquities to carry out senseless slaughter of indiscriminate human targets.

Those of us who lived in London during the IRA's bombing campaign against Londoners will be disinclined to cut any slack to terrorists who kill men, women, and children at random. Shawra does not ask us to. All she asks is that we step into the suicide bomber's shoes, and take a look at the world from that perspective.

This is second time that the October Gallery has shown Shawra's work In 1994, she exhibited alongside Wijdan Ali, a female artist from Beirut. The work she showed then was more deeply connected to the Islamic tradition of using calligraphy and geometry as the primary artistic vectors, which historically comes from the Quran's prohibition of pictorial illustrations. She showed photographs of Arabic graffiti, dotted with pictograms such as machine guns, superimposed on boldly colored squares, diamonds, and other basic geometries. These were photographs she took in Gaza during the first 'Intifada' uprising. Eighteen years later, her new show at the Gallery explores the theme of female suicide bombers with bold and bright colours and an exuberance of forms and materials.

Amongst the first works that you encounter on entering the exhibition at the October Gallery are four decorated mannequins, which almost fade into the background because shop dummies are so commonplace in London. The highly charged and brightly coloured pictures hanging on the wall tend to grab the attention first. But then you do a double-take and start to take in the mannequin torsos (no limbs, no heads), which are identical in themselves but have been painted and adorned in individual styles with eclectic found objects--peacock feathers, jewelry boxes, corsets, a leather bra with tassels on one, a decommissioned Israeli grenade on another. What they all have in common is a fashionised simulation of the explosives belt hidden by suicide-bombing women under their outer garments.

My first reaction is one of revulsion at the apparent levity with which Shawa has treated the means of inflicting murder and disfiguring injury to random human targets. As more information emerges, however, from Shawa's talk and from Gerard Houghton's notes in the exhibition catalogue, I have to reconsider my reaction to the mannequins. The clue lies in the next room where the piece "Fashionista Terrorista" hangs, depicting a woman wearng a keffiyeh, the traditional Palestinian head-dress, and sporting a New York 'Big Apple' icon. The reference, as Hougton points out, is to the spectacle of the widespread use of the keffiyeh as a fashion 'statement' which has been so succesful that cheap keffiyeh's manufactured in Chinese sweatshops flood not only the markets in New York, London, and Paris but in Palestine itself, where the cheap imports are putting out of business the local businesses that make the authentic keffiyehs. Suddenly I see the mannequins in a new light, as a statements of the West's commodification of the Palestinian's daily round of struggle to deal with the illegal Israeli occupation. It's just like the French situationist Guy Debord said. The consumer-focused media machine (which mediates the West's understanding of itself and the outside world) can handle things in only way. It can treat things only as commodities to be marketed, bought, sold, and then made obsolete by the next fashion wave. So, the West can engage with suicide bombers only by slotting them into a marketing pigeon-hole. They are to be eroticised, or demonised, or glamorised--whatever, just convert them into a product for which there is a known consumer market. Shawa's message, as I read it in now in her mannequins, is that the simplistic monstering of suicide bombers that the Western media presents is a pre-formed response that is inadequate to an analysis of the complicated, obscure, and dark reality of the societal forces that generate a continuing stream of suicide bombers.

The centre-piece of Shawa's work on this theme stems from one particular scene from Robert Baer's documentary "The Cult of the Suicide Bomber" (2007), a three-part TV series that was commissioned by Channel 4 and later released as a DVD. I bought a copy from the ICA bookshop when it first came out, but completely missed the significance that Shawa's close reading discovers in this scene.

A woman is wearing a belt of explosives under her baggy shirts and jacket, but is stopped by Israeli border guards as she tries to make her way from Gaza to Israel to kill Jews. She is forced to strip down and reveal the weaponised belt. What Shawa noticed is that having been stopped from completing her mission by the border guards, and having realised that she cannot blag her way out without stripping down, the young woman says a prayer and pulls a cord form her pocket that was intended to detonate the explosives. The device fails. Distraught, the girl reinserts the trigger device and desperately tries to re-attach it to the exlosives via the attachment hidden in her pocket. Her reaction is one of manifest horror. Why? Why does she want to blow herself up in the middle of an empty cage where the Israelis have imprisoned her? Why is she so horrified taht she is going to survive, albeit imprisoned by Israel? This is the puzzlement that led Shawa to dig more deeply into what motivates young women to become human bombs.

Her provisional conclusion is that, at least sometimes, female suicide bombing is 'honour killing' carried out by other means.

R.D. Laing once described shizpophrenia as a sane response to an insane situation. On Shawa's analysis, carrying out a suicide mission will sometimes be the only route left open to a woman who is threatened with brutal murder by her own family to restore family 'honour'. This is why the young woman in the video so keenly needs to martyr herself even though she has been prevented from inflicting damage on the Israeli target: she needs to restore her family 'honour' by dying. And this also helps us to understand her highly visible emotional body language: damned by her family to death for bringing so-called 'dishonour'; damned by Israel for trying to murder its citizens. Damnation in a cage, recorded in timestamped video.

Shawa does not claim to have any answers. Her role, she says, is to pose questions and lead people to think afresh about the problem of suicide bombers. This she succeeds in doing with a serious and seasoned voice that is well worth listening to.

Laila Shawa's provocative exhibition "The Other Side of Paradise" is being shown at the October Gallery in Old Gloucester Road until 31st March 2012. "The Cult of the Suicide Bomber" (2 x DVDs) now seems to be available only as NTSC US imports.

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