Translation attempts to take the foreign and make it personal. The new group exhibit, Tarjama/Translation, at the Johnson Museum meditates on the difficulties of translation — an inherently incomplete art — and offers visual means for filling in the lacunas of understanding. The curators looked beyond overplayed subjects (such as veiling and terrorism) and into the question of communication within the greater region of “the Middle East.” First exhibited at The Queens Museum of Art in New York City, the wide-ranging show was organized by nonprofit ArteEast, and curated by Leeza Ahmady and Cornell’s interim Chair of the Department of Art, Iftikhar Dadi, along with assistant curator and Reem Fadda, Cornell Ph.D candidate in the History of Art. Most of the show is in the main exhibition space of the museum but there are two pieces displayed elsewhere: Iranian soap operas translated into English reside in an upstairs “den” on the top floor, and a sign on the museum’s exterior reading “Translate Allah” by Emily Jacir. The exhibition succeeds most in showing how people in an unstable political atmosphere turn back into nostalgia or reach out into fantasy to express themselves. Almagul Menlibayeva evokes a sense of dislocation and longing in her eerie video, “Queens,” portraying life in the diverse New York City borough. Scenes of traditional Central Asian family gatherings, daydreaming strangers on the 7 train and women dancing in sumptuous traditional dress in the bleak city streets are juxtaposed and blended. Her work shows how tradition can provide a nurturing recourse for immigrants in a strange city. She also challenges the idea of possession: Who owns this borough? Who shapes it? Are the people on the train are just passing through, hoping to return to their homeland? Strangers laugh at the girl dancing on the dirty sidewalk in an ornate Uzbeki robe, but she still co-inhabits this space with them, and maybe reminds them of their own dislocations. Another exploration of identity and acclimation comes from Turkish artist Esra Ersen in her work “I am Turkish, I am Honest, I am Diligent…” wherein Ersen introduces a school uniform to a group of young students and records their reactions to this new shared identity. Each black uniform is scrawled in white with the diary of the child who wore it and they hang together dramatically in the exhibit space, echoing the communal experience of group dress in a country where disparate major ethnic groups all consider themselves “Turkish.”Two very graphic works are Sharif Waked’s “Tughra” and Emily Jacir’s “Translate Allah,” both in the format of large billboards. Here Jacir offers a large-font challenge to the viewer to decide what “Allah” means and if religion is universal or specific. Waked also employs this advertisement format while also using the style of Suleiman the Magnificent’s Ottoman signet the tughra. He replaces the traditional script that reads “ever victorious” with phrases Israeli soldiers yell out at checkpoints: “Get out of here!” (yalla rooh min hon) and “Your I.D.!” (jib al-hawiya). Yet these phrases have double meanings in Arabic, for example if you change the inflection of “rooh min hon” it means, “A soul from here.” The artist questions the linguistic and political implications of speech and victory through this traditional monogram. Pouran Jinchi also plays with the formal qualities of written word in her pieces. One of the most striking objects in the show is her set of scrolls inscribed with text from the Quran with all of the consonants omitted — a comment on the experience of many who know the Quran as a liturgical text but do not speak Arabic. Several artists in the show tamper with traditional symbols of power to create new realities that are somehow warped or fantastical. For example, in her NSS book series (2008), Nazgol Ansarinia dismantles a post-September 11 U.S. security report by alphabetizing the words, thus releasing the terms from their contextual meaning and emphasizing the repetition of buzz words. Ansarinia also cleverly rearranges symbols from a U.S. presidential seal on each volume, rendering them unrecognizable. The work comments on how governmental iconography is so ingrained in the public retina but still can be challenged visually just as government policy is challenged verbally. Feeling suffocated under the boot of political oppression, Palestinian Khalil Rabah turns to fantasy to reveal the absurdity of injustice. Yet his fantasy is encased within a structure that gives it credibility — he is the founding director of the conceptual “Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind” and publishes his newspaper the “United States of Palestine Times” and is CEO of the United States of Palestine Airlines. Rabah plays on people’s expectations about the gravity of institutions and twists them around by imagining these same institutions in Palestine, at once an absurd satire and a sincere plea. Fear is an overwhelming theme in his work, fear that identity and agency could also be lost in a bombed and bulldozed place. Egyptian artist Wael Shawky offers another jarring thought by presenting a computer animation entitled “Al Aqsa Park” showing Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock as a merry-go-round spinning off its axis. Again distorting a traditional symbol by literally lifting it off its foundation, Shawky questions permanence and sanctity in times of religious and political earthquakes. Tarjama/Translation is not a breezy exhibit to stroll through, partly because the subject matter is dense, and partly because it is heavy on video art, which demands your total attention yet can still be pretty elusive. Curator Iftikhar Dadi commented on the goal of the show, saying, “Translation should not be so easy, too digestable. It demands the audience to make an effort to understand the intent of the artist. [We provided] extensive captions and the catalog for that purpose.” He cited motivations for the show including the proliferation of shows after September 11 that simplified the Middle East by making problematic presumptions and placing liberalism and violence at opposite poles. Over a two-year period, Dadi and his fellow curators selected artists with help from local curators in Cairo, Istanbul and Beirut. The work is all recently done, but Dadi noted, “[…] modernism doesn’t arise in a vacuum. Although the work is from the last five or six years it addresses historical issues … All art is political and even formal art offers an alternative to reality which comments on the reality of today.” As a viewer, it is worth your patience to examine the unsettling insights offered here and see if your eyes might understand what your ears cannot.
Original Author: Amelia Brown