AboutIn 1956, Morocco regained its independence after over forty years as one of France's colonial protectorates. Meanwhile, in London, the prolific novelist and humorist P.G. Wodehouse was publishing yet another satirical farce: French Leave. Aya Haidar plays with these fortuitous associations in her piece Year of Issue (2013), which pairs the date of independence of 18 Middle Eastern countries with books printed the same year. Presented on an ordinary shelf, this idiosyncratic library is as poignant as it is tongue-in-cheek. For Jordan's independence in 1946, the artist selected Simone de Beauvoir's All Men Are Mortal, for Libya's in 1951, Alan Wilson Watts' The Wisdom of Insecurity, for Israel's, Graham Greene's The Heart of the Matter, out in 1948. With characteristic lightness of touch, Haidar probes into the nature of independence, self-governance, and freedom - a question rendered all the more pressing as the Middle East undergoes dramatic changes from Cairo to Damascus. The artist hammers her point home in the collage Covered Issue (2013), doctoring the titles on the book covers as if to free up another layer of meaning. All Men are Mortal becomes Armor, The Heart of the Matter turns into The Art of War.
"I wouldn't say my work is political, but it's politically engaged," says Haidar. Although these new works inaugurate a new, more conceptually-driven chapter in the artist's production, they continue her ongoing research into imperialism, the arbitrariness of borders, displacement and division - geographical or otherwise. The Middle East is natural area of interest for the Lebanese artist, but the issues she tackles reach beyond the controversially-defined region. Haidar's ambitious work, like Sara Rahbar's and Huda Lutfi's, also presented in this exhibition, has universal resonances. Rahbar, who was born in Iran, creates striking tableaux by sewing and nailing military paraphernalia for her War Series (2009-ongoing). Everything around me has turned to ash (2010) has the disturbing quality of an almost-familiar object. Individually, the pockets, stirrups and bits of metal it features are recognizable, but together they don't make sense: this is a heap of equipment as absurd as war itself. With its guns and collection of holsters above a double portrait of Jack and Bobby Kennedy, the enigmatically-named My silent lips remain in this captivity in order to kindle the flames of your anxieties (2010) has a distinctly American flavor. But in the context of this exhibition, the piece appears to materialize the big powers at play in conflicts, present and gone by.
Rahbar shares with Haidar an interest in the handmade, which is particularly visible here in the latter's series of embroideries on Egyptian cotton, Declarations (2013). The artist generated a QR code rendition of the declarations of independence for each of the 18 countries featured in Year of Issue. Again questions around the nature of independence transpire, yet in this series, Haidar more specifically puts the spotlight onto language, communication, and the multifarious incarnations these can take. An ancestral mode of transmission - traditional embroidery - is used to convey a political document in one of the most up-to-date types of coding. Ironically, the translating process renders the declarations unreadable, pure motifs emptied out of any decipherable content.
Rahbar and Haidar's commitment to forms of craft also nods towards the historical role of women. This has been at the center of Lutfi's work for decades, and Crossing the Red Line (2011) exemplifies the Egyptian artist's position in the midst of the mass protests that led to the ousting of President Mubarak in 2011. The collage shows different kinds of men and women, including a pop star, empowered by their military uniforms and literally marching on their way to freedom. Two years on, as Egypt teeters on the brink of civil war between supporters of the disposed President Morsi and army-backed interim government, the white doves on their caps send an urgent message of peace.