We Have Woven the Motherlands with Nets of Iron
curated by Eric Gottesman and Toleen Touq
This winning submission for Franchise 2011 will be presented in Amman, Jordan May 4 - June 6, 2011.
Friday, May 6, 5-8 pm: Opening reception featuring a performance by Ayham Agha
Train available at 3 pm from Amman train station
Saturday, June 4, 4-6 pm: Tour of Qasr Al Mshatta as part of curatorial investigation of the palace facade
Train available at 3 pm from Amman train station
at the Giza Train Station
near the Amman International Airport
Weekdays: 10 am – 4 pm; Weekends: 10 am – 7 pm
With works by: Ayham Agha, Francis Alÿs, Asli Çavuşoğlu, Mehmet Fahraci, Samir Harb/Nicola Perugini, and Anees Maani
Other contributions by: Ahmed Barakat, Ahmad Zatari and Ala Younis
Follow the curator's progress on their blog: http://acuratorialinvestigationofthehijaz.blogspot.com/
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Documentation of exhibition by Eric Gottesman and Toleen Touq
JO magazine review
A train. A line that moves along a single path. A line that transcends borders. A line that connects. A line that divides.
Nations build trains and determine their routes to fulfill spiritual, economic, and political aspirations. Bound by the track, we (the passengers) cannot change course. A train picks us up in one location and drops us in another, ignoring the intervening borders that bind our existence. There are disincentives to cross those borders but, every now and then, we are struck by forces that move us across constructed nationhood and unexpectedly remind us of the connections between us.
In researching We Have Woven the Motherlands with Nets of Iron we began by examining the Hejaz Railway – a train built in 1908 by Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II for the stated purpose of transporting pilgrims from Damascus on the Hajj to Mecca. We believed it was a nostalgic symbol of connection at a time when the map had almost no borders. Landscape, culture and language connected this region throughout history; the train was a line on the map that wove human beings together from Damascus to Dara’a to Haifa and Nablus, to Amman and Ma’an, to the holy city of Medina.
But the train also served the political aspirations of the Sultan by allowing him, with his German allies, to send soldiers to control remote areas of his empire. In World War I, the leaders of the Great Arab Revolt, with the assistance of Lawrence of Arabia, blew up the railway in pursuit of self-rule. Little did these leaders know that Lawrence, their trusted friend, together with the British and the French would soon replace the Ottoman lines with
In a poorly lit room, these European men sat around a table with a blank map in front of them. In slow vertical strokes, the green pen moved around hills, lakes and deserts, at times followed rail lines, crossed ancient pilgrimage routes, and divided towns, cities and Bedouin encampments. Relations of blood, race, and trade were overlooked. History was broken.
What does an old railway that pre-dates nonsensical regional and national borders (the line drawn by Churchill between Syria and Jordan suggests that perhaps he too may have been responsible, along with Braque and Picasso, for inventing Cubism) mean today?
We began where the Sultan did — in Turkey – where Mehmet Fahraci, member of the A-77 artist collective in Antakya, explores `the arbitrariness of borders and the resulting displacement of language and culture in his textile installation Ben Seni Arapça Düşünüp Türkçe Seviyorum, 2009 (“I think of you in Turkish but I love you in Arabic”). He weaves cloth materials into messages that defy division. Fahraci’s installation speaks to the resilience of culture and implies that language, like a railway, does not obey the strictures of nationhood.
The legacy of railways in specific communities is the subject of the research-based art practice of Samir Harb and Nicola Perugini. They investigate the limits of architectural elements on the continuity of landscape in Palestine and translate their research into installations and drawings.
Here, in Epiphany of Dispossession, 2011, they present a collection of video, text and comics on the temporariness of the borderline that runs along a railroad track in the Palestinian village of Battir. The “Armistice border,” in this case the Green Line, traced the contours of the train line, and so it seems physical and permanent, but in reality the artists suggest it is malleable, functional to the further articulation of the Israeli settler-colonial project.
Ayham Agha, in his poem Longing, assumes a view of the world that is elastic and anticipates the unexpected, colliding past and future, myth and reality. What we think we know is twisted until we find ourselves floating in illusions and allusions. Intended as a means of spiritual connection across the desert to Mecca, the train never realized its purpose (construction stopped in Medina). And though it seemed permanently planted in the sand, it eventually dissolved into the landscape: now, the train only runs for cargo and scattered tourist activity.
The dream of the Hejaz railway no longer exists. Agha’s performance of this poem at the exhibition, using the machinery of the railroad itself, alludes to the colonial construction of mirages and a longing to believe in something, even when it is proven a fraud. Similarly, Francis Alÿs addresses a desire to return to projects built on faulty ground in his video Painting/Retoque (Paraiso, Panama), 2008. The artist visits a former U.S. military base and repaints the faded lines dividing opposite directions of traffic on paved roadways. Alÿs paints a fine line between restoring, satirizing, and memorializing the monumental “grand projects of nations” that ultimately failed. The U.S. left Panama, European empires crumbled, the Hejaz never reached Mecca. Colonial projects designed by men who dream of conquest are in the past.* But dreaming on a grand scale, Alÿs implies, is difficult to abandon.
The Sultan dreamt of re-writing history. Turkish artist Aslı Çavuşoğlu's series of photographs, The Demolition of the Russian Monument at Ayestefanos, 2011, recreates the first-ever Turkish film that supposedly documented the destruction of a Russian monument. The Sultan ordered
both the destruction and its recording but the footage was never found. Çavuşoğlu’s work represents the stakes of the erasure of memory and the dangers posed to those who so easily choose to forget the past, messages as relevant to the Sultan’s demise as they are to leaders today.
Railroad enthusiasts, European engineering companies, and idealistic businessmen want to revive the Hejaz; we can refurbish the tracks, they say in denial of existing borders, and one could board a train in Damascus and arrive shortly in Haifa, a beautiful metaphor of the connectedness of the region. But reconstructing a century-old railway, preserving another era’s architecture of statecraft, seems outdated. Seductive as it sounds, we might ask what is an alternative to the “grand project?” What is a medium in which every person can dream anew? What can someone make from what remains?
At the site of our exhibition, the Giza Train Station, the boundaries of a football field and a cemetery have been erected using excess metal from the railway line. Artist Anees Maani uses discarded steel from the railway to make sculptures from the raw, repurposed materials. The medium of the colonial impulse — conquest — is replaced with craft and playfulness. Creation, innovation, tinkering: these are the new forms of rule.
The aspiration to connect across the region, ignoring geography and borders, has taken many forms since the Hejaz Railway was built. What will be the new vehicle for regional transcendence? Arab Nationalism was one such vehicle. Born in resistance to the abstract lines drawn by the European colonialists, it aimed to unite Arabs from the Atlantic Ocean to the Arabian Sea. However, as a political project, this form of Pan- Arabism was short-lived and, in the latter half of the 20th century, was followed by hyper-national dictatorships that led to stagnant national identities. But today, Turkey, the seat of the former Ottoman Empire, is acting to re-establish links with its southerly neighbors. A new era is emerging with the rupture of revolution across the region; from a nationalism that divides comes a paradoxical transcendence of national boundaries.
Arab Nationalism was one such vehicle. Born in resistance to the abstract lines drawn by the European colonialists, it aimed to unite Arabs from the Atlantic Ocean to the Arabian Sea. However, as a political project, this form of Pan- Arabism was short-lived and, in the latter half of the 20th century, was followed by hyper-national dictatorships that led to stagnant national identities.
But today, Turkey, the seat of the former Ottoman Empire, is acting to re-establish links with its southerly neighbors. A new era is emerging with the rupture of revolution across the region; from a nationalism that divides comes a paradoxical transcendence of national boundaries. Arab Nationalism may yet revive, as it divorces from interstate projects and is redefined by ideological connections between the masses. A force barrels through borders and leads us away from past and traditional notions of unification and domination, towards wondering: what connects us? What mechanism will allow us to dream of meeting our grandest aspirations?
The Hejaz Railway transported passengers towards Mecca. The journey for pilgrims was a spiritual one that transcended the 3000 kilometers of landscape through which they travelled. The Hejaz was also a mechanism of centralized rule, one tool in a long line of political ideologies: Ottoman rule, European colonialism, occupation, Arab Nationalism, dictatorships, and now finally, what?
This one-track train of history may have come to a grinding halt in the sands of the desert. Our fellow passengers— restless, nervous, but comforted by common language and culture—peer out from the windows at a landscape that is in flux. The doors open wide once again. History is no longer a timeline, movement no longer linear. Each person gets up and begins to walk outside, unsure of where to go to reach their destination or how to move. We are hesitant to disembark, to leave the train forever, but also ecstatic. We get to decide, to dream. The next part of the journey could lead anywhere. Could this be paradise after all?
-Eric Gottesman and Toleen Touq
© 2011 Franchise Program winners
*It occurs to us that this exhibition has more men than women. This is by no means a fair gender representation of artists working in the region on which we focused. We wonder, however, if the fact that the show was inspired by the Sultan’s construction of the Hejaz Railway led us unintentionally to male artists struggling with the intertwined history of masculinity and conquest.
Eric Gottesman is an artist whose work has been presented around the world. He is the recipient of an Artadia Award, a Fulbright Fellowship, and in 2012 he will be an artist in residence at Amherst College.
Toleen Touq is an independent cultural operator based in Amman, Jordan. Since 2009 she has directed and curated the yearly Hakaya storytelling festival and in 2010 was outreach and education manager at the first Karama human rights film festival. She was the recipient of the British Council’s Cultural Leadership International award.