Summer 2012 | Gallery

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Weaving Meaning, Untangling Trauma


Featured artists Khalil Rabah, Mona Hatoum, Tarek Al Ghoussein and Ayman Baalbaki offer us an opportunity to explore issues surrounding collective trauma that emanate from both historical concerns and the artists’ lived reality. Anchored not in narrative but in a subjective and bodily engagement, these artworks produce an affective response that is not rooted in emotion but in the flow of sensation. All four artists share memories of displacement and dislocation that is often revisited on the symbolically charged keffiyeh, a patriarchal emblem that signifies national struggle and unity in the face of aggression. The manner in which the garment is depicted reveals a wounded consciousness that arises from an unresolved present, caused by war, occupation and exile. By incorporating the male headscarf into their art, the artists not only demonstrate links to cultural histories but also develop a coded language that expresses the particular nature of their experience and allows them to confront and navigate traumatic memories rooted in conflict and loss.

The trauma brought to bear onto the keffiyeh does not express an individual or personal experience, which as Jill Bennett notes is always susceptible to appropriation and reduction, a phenomenon she terms “present experience of memory.” Such memory represents the enactment of the uneasy relationship between common memory, the realm in which events are rendered intelligible and readily understood, and sense memory, a physical imprint of the traumatic event, which threatens the coherence of common memory. This confrontation of an outside (ordinary memory) and an inside (sense memory) demands a visceral response outside of discourse and promotes a critical understanding of experiences associated with trauma. By incorporating the male headscarf, the artists united within this gallery allow us to tap into a process: a process experienced not as a remembering of the past but as a continuous negotiation of an unresolved present (1) .

The shared cultural material utilized by these artists, the keffiyeh, once a rural symbol, has been infused with much affective power, one that flows in part from its historical association with the peasant or fallah, marking the wearer as a man of lower status and social inferiority. Its hierarchal status has however been dramatically overturned to denote the garment (one of an array of rural emblems) as a symbol of historical and cultural continuity. Formerly seen as a symbol of the peasantry’s former social marginality, it is today instilled with a popular character that represents struggle and national unity (2). The treatment of the keffiyeh, a unifying theme in the featured artists’ selected body of works, and the forms in which they manifest through photography, painting or as installation works contribute to our understanding of the ongoing upheaval and dramatic transformation of conflict ridden societies in crisis.

Ramallah based artist Khalil Rabah is the only featured artist who has experienced first hand the struggles and violence of occupied Palestine. His work Tattoo (1997) uses an actual keffiyeh; a square white cotton cloth with a grid-like construction of distinctive intersecting black woven patterns thought to have originated from an ancient Mesopotamian representation of fishing nets. Rabah carefully removed many of the black threads, piling the extracted material into an amorphous mass onto the exposed framework. By deconstructing the garment, the artist has defamiliarized the familiar and in so doing wholly alters the perception of the everyday object, effectively creating instability while illuminating the terror of dislocation and disorientation brought upon his occupied nation. The process of unthreading the male headscarf is analogous to dismantling the history of an object steeped in authenticity and rootedness. The artist’s manipulation of the garment endeavors to reflect on the wounded consciousness of the Palestinian people who, like the keffiyeh, have been irrevocably transformed by the violent and unstable environment in which they live.

In Tattoo, Rabah has transformed the keffiyeh into a surrogate object that represents the absent male body, displaced and exiled by an occupation. While the artist does not present a particular event or describe a specific trauma, the body is presented “in extremis,” undergoing acute sensation- expressing the pain but not the cause, and in the process engendering intense horror and a deep sense of anxiety (3). The extracted threads of the keffiyeh then convey fragments of memory that register the pain directly onto the male body: the garment bears the pain and allows truth to be revealed to the body. In the disfigurement of the garment however there is a state of confusion. Instead of wreaking complete havoc upon the garment by removing its threads and rendering it completely unrecognizable, the artist gently and carefully strips the white cotton, leaving the foundation of the keffiyeh intact. This softer more subtle process casts memories in a more hopeful hue to create a mix of sensations that characterize the experience of a collective: in the midst of brutality, there is resolve.

Pain and mourning are major themes in Rabah’s work and are often performed on the body, present or in absentia: the artist adopts the modality of pain and aestheticizes it without removing any of its impact or context. Whether crawling through broken glass in his 1982 performance, Self Invasion to directly assume the pain, or conveying the trauma on the land in Grafting (1995) in which olive trees are uprooted from Ramallah, transplanted to Geneva and finally bandaged with multi-colored embroidery threads to imply the presence of a wound. Even Philistine (1997), which draws on the Oxford English Dictionary to demonstrate the deep rootedness of rhetorical violence, reveals the material impact of systemic violence. In this work, nails sparkle across the surface of the open dictionary leaving the definition of the word Philistine readable:

n. 1. Member of a people opposing the Israelites in ancient Palestine. 2(usu. Philistine) person who is hostile or indifferent to culture. 2. n. vulgarian, ignoramus, Babitt, materialist, barbarian, boor, yahoo; adj. uncultured, unenlightened, unrefined, unread, commonplace, bourgeois, commercial, materialistic.

Here, Rabah symbolically damages the body of the text, ostensibly made flesh through his cutting, to leave its exterior visible and traumatized. Asylum, another work that invokes the absent male body (the title evokes both the straightjackets of mental institutions and the term ‘political asylum) presents the paternal garment, his father’s jacket, ‘worn’ by the wooden frame of a coffee table which hangs high on a wall (4). This work not only recalls the absent male figure but also demonstrates the mourning of a past generation in turmoil symbolized by the artist’s father. Rabah’s visual representations forge a connection to a past that has left a physical imprint on its present, he displaces the mundane and quotidian and in so doing, presents the traumatized male body in pain- tortured, disfigured and often emasculated.

Both Khalil Rabah and Mona Hatoum utilize the male headscarf as an element within their artistic practice to challenge the garment’s symbolic signification of male authority and patriarchy, albeit in different ways. While Rabah deconstructs the garment, Hatoum reconstructs it. In her revision of the object, entitled Keffieh (1993-1999), the artist utilizes the foundation of the male headscarf, i.e.: the square white cotton cloth with the outer black stripes and using women’s hair embroiders the distinctive pattern of intersecting lines onto the fabric, weaving long strands of hair to its ends. By incorporating women’s hair onto the keffiyeh, the artist gives female characteristics to the emblem. The use of hair is a recurring motif in Hatoum’s work and often arouses conflicting responses that oscillate between sensuality and repulsion. Such works include Jardin Public (1993), a wrought iron chair similar to those seen in Parisian public gardens and implanted with pubic hair in a triangular shape on the seat that references the advent of sexual adulthood, while Traffic (2002) uses hair as a metaphor for emotional and cultural baggage carried from one culture to another (6). Hair Necklace (1995), a piece of jewelry fashioned from the artist’s hair collected over a long period, demonstrates the artist’s fascination with the relation between interiority and exteriority and the bodily association of certain surfaces, materials and forms.

Hatoum’s incorporation of women’s hair, frequently associated with female sexuality and seduction in Eastern cultures that demand concealment as a way of repressing and controlling the female body, is put on public display in Keffieh. The trauma inflicted on the garment through the addition of women’s hair irrevocably alters the object to render it devoid of its maleness. While similar to Rabah’s work in that the garment signifies the absent male body, it offers an additional dimension, the introduction of a female “foreign body” to create a sense of instability and disjunction and converts it into an object that threatens the male patriarch. Creating a duality of emotive responses, seen on one hand as an empowerment of the female, one that establishes a voice within a male dominated society, it also renders the male powerless and ineffective. Furthermore, Hatoum’s use of embroidery or weaving, a craft associated with women, further establishes a feminine dominance on the work and the male consciousness. The addition of the female body in both medium and technique imposes on the Arab male not only the strident rejection of his patriarchal emblem but is also a reflection of a changing female consciousness, the emancipation of women within Arab society.

While Khalil Rabah and Mona Hatoum utilize the keffiyeh as a medium in and of itself, Tarek Al Ghoussein’s performative photographs explore what it means to be situated within a particular landscape. His photographs are often thought to be informed by a deictic narrative that privileges the unfolding of a particular historical understanding; the repetitive and ongoing (mis) representation and (mis) identification of Palestinians as terrorists within Western media, an image that has been firmly placed within the mental repertory of Western audiences. Moving away from the predisposition to link particular sights to familiar historical contexts and narratives, a close look at Al Ghoussein’s work provides an alternate type of experience that is “explosive, instantaneous, distinct- a chance to see in a photograph not narrative, not history, but possibly trauma,” (7). The artist’s photographs therefore provide special access to traumatic bursts of memory- isolated moments of time that are unsettling and disturbing signaling the presence of unresolved questions about the nature of his own historical reality; a truth that has no simple access.

In Al Ghoussein’s Self Portrait Series, the solitary figure of the artist is dressed in black with a Palestinian keffiyeh wrapped tightly around his head. His face is obscured as he walks through various landscapes that offer numerous visual clues which reference Palestinian history: submissively crossing an airfield towards an airplane in Untitled 5; walking past a painted ship followed by his shadow, Untitled 3; alongside a large flat-bed truck stacked with large boulders, Untitled 1; standing contemplatively in Untitled 2/Looking at Palestine longingly gazing out across the Dead Sea towards Jerusalem. The male in Al Ghoussein’s conceptually abstract photographs is an elusive figure. Why does he choose to depart or enter a particular picture frame? Why does the artist choose to situate himself at a particular distance from the physical barriers within the landscape that are always horizontal to his verticality? Does the closeness to a barrier represent his desire for active participation and identification with an experience not of his “own” past? Is the distance he evokes symbolic of a psychological and physical barrier that denies him entry into a particular space, his homeland? Despite these uncertainties, there is a certain dynamism to the figure’s movement: whether standing in contemplation or defiance, moving with humility or urgency, the photographs resist a linear narrative and reveal a multitude of affective qualities that reflect on the traumatic experiences of the diasporic Palestinian. While the manner in which the figure appears remains unresolved, there is the sensation that he is often limited and confined not only within the self imposed physical barriers but within his chosen garb, the all black clothing and tightly wrapped keffiyeh both of which perhaps refer to the literal barriers that prevent Palestinians from moving freely within their own world.

Artists Tarek Al Ghoussein and Ayman Baalbaki (a Lebanese artist who often returns to traumatic familiar imagery of his native Beirut to confront the tumultuous recent history of his war torn nation) work in series in order to continuously reenact the traumatic memory of displacement and dislocation. This mode of representation permits the artists to repeatedly address different aspects of their traumatic memories to gain insight into a painful and unresolved present that remains an open wound. In contrast to Baalbaki however, Al Ghoussein’s does not rely on the imagined returned gaze, here always obscured and unavailable, but allows identification through the donned Palestinian keffiyeh of the lone figure, the chosen “sites of past discriminations and exclusions” of his physical barriers and the figure’s bearing and stance that indicates isolation, longing, alienation and loss (8).

While Al Ghoussein’s figure is concealed, Ayman Baalbaki’s male gaze in his Al Multham series, a series of portraits depicting a keffiyeh covered male figure with his gaze partially shadowed by his turban looking out at the viewer, provides access to the explosive and traumatic experiences of a war torn nation, Lebanon. Baalbaki’s paintings are presented on a monumental scale, depicted with thick layers of paint and expressive brushstrokes that result in a gestural style that is not only representative of the artist’s style but also provide access to a traumatic memory through formal means. The gaze of the male figure (occasionally obscured) and the physical presence of paint bear witness to the anguish of violence and aggression that “exert their troubling grip on memory” registering with great force on both mind and body (9). Baalbaki’s exploration of memory is an attempt to produce a kind of “seeing truth” an unfolding through sensations and emotions that characterize the experience of war. The keffiyeh-covered male is not only a witness to the devastation he is also a participant: a survivor and mourner of an unresolved and complicated present.

Baalbaki’s Al Multham series portrays two archetypal figures. The first depicts a male in a black and white keffiyeh set against a black background that is often represented in abstracted dark monochromatic colors with dribbled paint flowing from the ends of his tightly wrapped headscarf. The gaze in these portraits even when directly looking outward remains obscured and hidden- the eyes hollow and vacant slits emitting a ghostly eerie effect, Al Multham (2001) and Fedae (detail 3) (2002). In distinct contrast, the male depicted in the red-checkered keffiyeh, intently gazes outward- his gaze clearly perceptible. While at times abstracted, the grid like construction of the keffiyeh stands boldly against the colorful background, as illustrated in Al Maw3oud (2011) and Al Multham (2008). These bright and floral textile patterns, familiar to Southern Lebanese households and pervasive women’s clothing, once worn by the female peasantry and thought to be both unattractive and in poor taste are often infused with positivity in the midst of tumultuous representation providing a deliberate softening effect, a feminine touch that provides a hopeful future to Lebanon’s traumatic past (10). The floral patterns used as a backdrop form a halo-like effect that convey a glorification of the figures represented.

Lebanon, a nation that has witnessed fifteen years of Civil War (1975-1990) and decades of foreign invasions and occupation, is a community comprised of numerous micro-societies each with its own distinct origins, narratives and customs that not only makes a clear and continuous narrative difficult but one that has created much imbalance within the country (11). Baalbaki’s portraits are an attempt to negotiate a traumatic present with a past that has often set these two archetypal figures in opposition: the black checkered against red-checkered keffiyeh attired male. The juxtaposed images whether perceived as sinister or hopeful, hero or villain, tragic or triumphant all evoke a multitude of affective responses that not only alternate between hope and despair but also attempt to negotiate the fragmented memory of war and violence while simultaneously confronting the taboo barriers present within Lebanese society.

The keffiyeh, once a rural symbol, has been infused with significant affective power; in these artists’ hands it possesses the ability to affect and be affected by the every day and historical experience of trauma, loss and remembering. Despite its discontinuous narrative, once seen as a symbol of inferiority and marginality, the garment is recognized today as a symbol of struggle, national unity and resistance. The treatment of the male headscarf, a unifying theme in the artists’ work, contributes to the understanding of traumatic memory. The pain inflicted on the male body and enacted out onto the male headscarf registers the memory of violence and devastating loss brought upon a collective, whether Palestinian or Lebanese. These visual representations create instability, illuminate terror and form a distinct connection between a traumatic past and the physical imprint of its present, continuously enacting displacement and turmoil onto the male body. In utilizing the garment in this manner, the artists have developed their own particular language, one with significant cultural history to express the disconnection between an outside and inside, and the negotiation of a traumatic past with its present experience of memory. Each featured artist utilizes the garment to convey the trauma of a collective consciousness on the body- one that is in crisis and distress.


(1) Bennett, Jill, Empathic Vision: Affect, Trauma and Contemporary Art (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005), p. 24-27, 38.
(2) Swedenburg, Ted, “Seeing Double: Palestinian/American Histories of the Kufiya”, Michigan Quarterly Review, 31, No. 4 [1992], p.563
(3) Bennett, Jill, Empathic Vision: Affect, Trauma and Contemporary Art (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005), p. 38.
(4) Ankori, Gannit, Palestinian Art (London: Reaktion Books Ltd., 2006), p. 165.
(5) Antoni, Janine, Mikdadi, Salwa, Ohlin Alix et.al. Mona Hatoum (Amman: The Khalid Shoman Foundation, 2005), p.38.
(6) Baer, Ulrich, Spectral Evidence: The Photography of Trauma (Boston: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2001), p. 6.
(7) Ibid., p. 11
(8) Ibid., p. 108.
(9) Ibid., p. 8 and 10.
(10) Ibid., p. 25.
(11) Becker, Lutz, Fani, Michel, Ayman Baalbaki: Beirut Again and Again, ed. Rose Issa (London: Beyond Art Production, 2011), p. 20.


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