Traveller’s Tales

Lady adventurers and the legacies of colonial history

Illustration of Lady Hester Stanhope  from her memoirs, 1845. Courtesy: Bridgeman Art Library

Illustration of Lady Hester Stanhope from her memoirs, 1845. Courtesy: Bridgeman Art Library

Three years ago, when the art organization Ashkal Alwan moved to a former factory on the edge of Beirut, it had no intention of establishing an exhibition space. Public programming would consist of talks and screenings and, for the most part, the venue would be used to house an experimental art school, which would, somewhat maddeningly, overhaul itself every year.

How curious, then, that the most radical reinvention of Ashkal Alwan’s quasi-pedagogical Home Workspace Program to date, organized by Anton Vidokle and Jalal Toufic, turned the venue into precisely the curatorial engine it was never meant to be. ‘A Museum of Immortality’, was the last in a series of five exhibitions ranging from Anselm Franke’s ‘Animism’ to Hito Steyerl’s ‘Junktime’, whichkept the curriculum going through a year of notable political upheaval and uncertainty.

Based on an idea by Boris Groys, who was inspired by the 19th-century Russian philosopher Nikolai Fedorov, ‘A Museum of Immortality’ delved into Fedorov’s notion of ‘The Common Task’ which imagined the museum as the immortalization of mankind. Vidokle and Toufic gathered more than 50 artists– established and emerging, local and foreign – to make singular works resurrecting a specific person, idea or thing.

The architectural historian Pelin Tan pondered the ruins of Oscar Niemeyer’s unfinished fairgrounds in the Lebanese city of Tripoli. The filmmaker Raed Rafei considered Pier Paolo Pasolini’s visit to Beirut, where he screened his films in a cinema that no longer exists. The Raqs Media Collective took up the case of missing persons. And, in one of the exhibition’s most striking contributions, Reem Akl explored the serial burials of Lady Hester Stanhope, the 19th-century adventuress whose grave, initially located near a remote monastery in South Lebanon, was disturbed by earthquake, civil war and alleged theft.

Part of a larger project titled ‘A Proper State of Repair’, concerned with forms (from ruin to rumour) that transmit knowledge, Akl’s piece for ‘A Museum of Immortality’, The Five Burials of LHS (2014), is one in a fine line of works inspired by Stanhope. An English aristocrat who ventured East, dressed in drag and died a recluse, Stanhope – the subject of a feature film currently in development, The Lady Who Went Too Far, from the producers and screenwriter of The King’s Speech (2010) – also played politics, harboured refugees and was possibly a spy.

Stanhope appeals to artists grappling with the colonial legacies of Lebanon and the wider Arab world, not only for her transgressions of statecraft but also for her independence and sexual freedom. She had a cameo in James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) as Molly Bloom’s girlfriend, took a string of lovers and never married. In her artist’s book, Sayyîdî Milady (2004), Nadine Touma used Stanhope’s drawings and letters to compose a visceral study of a woman’s sexual pleasure.

Stanhope is just one among several adventurous women who traveled alone at the turn of the last century. Timed to the region’s patterns of political turmoil, they have attracted strangely cyclical fascination. The most famous is Gertrude Bell, whose name is rekindled every time Iraq appears ready to fall apart. Werner Herzog is mid-way through adapting Bell’s life into a feature film, Queen of the Desert, billed as the epic female equivalent to the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia. It stars Nicole Kidman as Bell, Damien Lewis as her lover, and James Pattinson as T.E. Lawrence himself, Bell’s great friend and harshest critic.

In Letters From Baghdad, also in progress, the documentary filmmakers Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbühl are taking a more measured approach to Bell by collaging her letters and photographs. Other women periodically seizing the collective artistic imagination include Vita Sackville-West, Freya Stark and Agatha Christie who, on an impulse, hopped aboard the Orient Express in London and traveled as far as Baghdad when her husband ditched her for another woman. She later married an archeologist who eventually became the director of a British school in Baghdad.

The problem, however, with valorizing these figures is that they are overly romantic and reside on the other side too many historical divides. What can they possibly tell us about today? Three years ago, the late journalist Anthony Shadid wrote a piece for Granta on the history of Baghdad College, a high school established in Iraq by New England Jesuits in the 1930s. The worlds they inhabited – East and West, religious and secular, students and teachers – are definitively gone, wrecked by disingenuous diplomacy, widespread corruption and realpolitik. But it could be that those worlds live on – in the time and spaceof teaching, in the act of making schools, and in the works that emerge, delicate and questioning, from the ambiguity of those public-private settings, where the transmission of knowledge remains, despite everything, a modest but noble endeavour.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a writer based between Beirut, Lebanon, and New York, USA.

Issue 165

First published in Issue 165

September 2014

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