October 23, 2017

Beyond a Pentagonal Room: Sama Alshaibi’s Silsila at the Johnson

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In the center of a dimly lit room a rug of intricate design is splayed underneath several patterned poufs. The cavelike disposition of the space channels and stretches the haunting drone of the music being played overhead. On each of the room’s five sides, all of which are made up of moveable walls, a different film is being projected. Both the video works and the accompanying soundscape border on the trancelike and reflect their roots in the traditions of Sufi mysticism.

Each of the works derives its title from a significant facet of Sufi spirituality and of the five in the room, the work that attracts my particular attention is Al-Tarīqah (The Path). This piece is a convergence of multiple sections of film, whose point of centrality is the arid environment of a desert landscape. The wordless footage often oscillates between the fragmented and the continuous, inducing a state that is nothing short of hypnotic. At times, these frame shifts transmit the impression that the film is in a state of breathing. Sporadically appearing in Al-Tarīqah is a blue figure equipped with feathers. At times the mysterious subject is depicted dropping them as if surrendering their fate to the wind. At others she inserts them into the sand below, only to later remove them again. The feathers’ plurality as an object renders them a point of connection — albeit an ambiguous one — between subject and land. In a way their ambivalence in directionality and meaning mirrors the ever-evolving relations and dialogues that we share with our landscapes. Turning my attention to the other sides of the pentagonal space it becomes clear that many of these same ideas are reiterated and transformed in the remaining four works.

The creations of artist Sama Alshaibi, these five works are part of a much larger exhibition (extending well beyond the five-sided enclosure) located in the Herbert Johnson Museum of Art. Silsila — an Arabic word meaning “link” — is a photographic and videographic exploration of identity, interconnectedness and the dynamic processes that shape how we define and redefine the relation of ourselves to our surrounding spaces.

The landscapes of the desert is a focal point of the works of the exhibition.

“In Silsila,” writes Alshaibi, “the desert serves as a metaphor of a shared geographic identity [of the Middle East and North Africa]. Sand also trespasses national borders when it drifts in the wind. As such, it reminded me of the Bedouins whose nomadic traditions erased borders between nations. I linked the three ideas together, the desert, the nomadic life, and my own symbolic journey and performances through the significant deserts and oases of the historical Islamic world… I had hoped it would express a story of continuity, community and perseverance”.

Silsila is just as much an experience for the externalities of the audience as it is an exploration of Alshaibi’s own pluralities that her identity presents. As an American citizen of Iraqi-Palestinian heritage she writes that, “I am primarily interested in speaking to the vulnerability of the human body in spaces of conflict. My own personal history of living in Iraq during the Iraq/Iran war, the continual displacements after we escaped and being an undocumented person for a few years in the USA all has deeply influenced my artwork. I am a political refugee and that is primarily my focus… [the works of Silsila]  deal with the physical and psychological dispossession of the body in relationship to land, resources and identity.”

Many of the works experiment with reflection and repetition of images, evoking parallels to the geometric patterns considered hallmarks of Islamic art. Not only is this an elegant expression of Alshaibi’s Muslim identity, but following the point of artistic departure this play of perspective translocates the point of origin of the work in question; in effect, the image-motif simultaneously becomes an object of focus and a component of a whole. The result is a interaction of singular and plural juxtaposed in the connective matrix of the desert, the broader implications of this being a recognition of the interstices between individual and collective experience and memory across a geographic context.

Leaving the pentagonal room, the haunting music from inside gradually decays to an ambient drone. Composed by Grey Filastine and featuring cellist Brent Arnold and violinist Abdel Hak, Alshaibi remarks that, “I think the music Filastine composed creates a certain tone to the visuals and opens another portal of the journey for the audiences… The violin captures moments of a particular melody reminiscent of a very old piece of music once found in Morocco… it conjures up something distant and yet rooted regionally.”

This dynamic between the familiar and the distant leads one to possibly the most salient message of Silsila; that is, the central idea that while memory is a space of exploration and rehearsal it is at the same time a sublime act of retrieval. The titular link of the exhibit captures — among innumerable others — this conceptual convergence and is perhaps most succinctly expressed by the artist’s description of  Silsila as “a story of continuity, community and perseverance.”


Varun Biddanda is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].