During my visit to Basma Alsharif’s exhibition at MOCA Toronto, a young man sat on the carpeted floor intently piecing together a jigsaw puzzle, seemingly oblivious to the video playing behind him. Eventually he gave up and disassembled what he’d finished, returning it to its box. This seemed a useful metaphor for Alsharif’s concerns and process: her fragmented Palestinian diasporic identity, the splintered forms and styles she employs to explore that experience, and the painstaking, if futile, attempt to piece together more truthful representations of the world.
In addition to the puzzle, videos, photographs, drawings, text, books, furniture and plants are assembled across four installations on the museum’s sprawling third floor, demarcated only by long ovals of carpet, wood flooring and faux lawn. Slightly worn furniture adds theatricality to the exhibition while more practically offering places to sit for the extended time needed to register its many meticulous details. The image of the unfinished puzzle, meanwhile, invokes a dysfunctional geopolitical landscape.
The installation Trompe l’oeil (2016) registers multiple levels of reality, as its title suggests: the contents of the artist’s California living room – a television monitor, a coffee table and stack of boxed games, a divan and chair, house plants – are cornered by two photographic wall murals depicting the original interior. Another wall holds 38 small, framed reproductions of archival images illustrating various colonial engagements – ethnography, slavery, cartography, botany – hung salon-style like family portraits. The spectre of colonialism darkens even the most private domestic sphere. The living room window in the mural looks out onto Matera, Italy – the location that Pier Paolo Pasolini selected for his film The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), over historically authentic Palestinian sites the director deemed ‘too wretched’. Three photographs of slaves from the collection of archeologist T.E. Lawrence have been taped to the wall; a didactic notes that the slaves were Arab-owned and that these images, archived in London’s Imperial War Museum, are displayed here without permission. An 8-minute looped video mixes short choppy segments showing the artist engaged in domestic activities – making tea, sitting on a toilet, embracing her lover – as well as reworking archival images, such as an encounter between an explorer and an indigenous person. Images of partially open doors and handles recall Edward Said’s text about another artist of Palestinian descent, Mona Hatoum: The Entire World as a Foreign Land (2000), in which Hatoum’s unwelcoming domestic installations, ‘designed to recall and disturb at the same time’ are said to register the ‘silent catastrophe’ of diasporic dislocation. A shot of the artist’s hand starting and stopping a vinyl recording of cinematic sound effects provides a jarring soundtrack of circus music, bells and a baby’s cries.
The imaginative narratives of Alsharif’s work unravel official histories of patriarchy and colonization. In the video Girls Only (2014), a young woman sits in the Athenian Panathenaic stadium playing a nonsensical rhyming game, undercutting the male prowess promoted in a series of five Olympic Games posters that hang alongside the monitor. At the center of A Philistine (2019), comfortable chairs invite visitors to sit and read a novella co-written by the artist, several copies of which sit in a packing crate between them; these chairs also figure in the story itself, which begins in a Cairo furniture store, winds back through time and space - through France, Beirut, 1935 Gaza, and settling in Ancient Egypt - to reimagine a borderless terrain, before its fragmentation by Israeli walls.
Rejecting more polemical forms of art, such as the militant cinema of the Palestinian Film Unit, Alsharif employs different strategies, such as montage and imaginative narratives, to deconstruct the binary between oppressor and victim. Tireless in her imaginative process, she sorts through the debris of the past in order to envision an existence unfettered by barriers.
Main Image: Basma Alsharif, 'Trompe l’Oeil', 2016, installation view. Courtesy: Museum of Contemporary Art, Toronto; photograph: Tom Arban Photography Inc.