Behind Closed Doors

It is impossible to tune out of the developing events in Libya - the hunt for Muammar Gaddafi has cemented itself onto the news headlines for months and with the passing days and hours since the rebels advanced into Tripoli in late August, journalists and editors are already compiling the biography, or obituary, of the captured dictator when that day arrives. The Arab Spring has undoubtedly been the story of 2011. Waves of civil revolution along the Equator States have inspired the downfall of autocracy and government corruption in the name of positive change and the passionate demonstrations from everyone from exhausted nationals to citizens who returned to their native country to support the cause, has resulted in an incredible degree of social expression that has not been allowed an international stage until now. Expression plays a critical role in times like this - whether it be the formulation of a political manifesto that holds the burden of the ears of governments throughout the world, or the intimate act of elders passing their accounts on to future generations. Artists and curators from the Arab world are unsurprisingly gaining greater attention within international art markets for their genuine expression and reflection of the developing situation from their respective homelands. This year saw the debut of the MENASA Art Fair that showcased artists from the region gaining much international interest, particularly in Europe. It is hoped that the tired labels of 'ethnic' and 'exotic' are not driving this interest such as in African or Indian markets and the political weight that drives creativity is not merely a trend or short-term emerging market.

Yesterday night I proudly attended the opening of Behind Closed Doors at Bischoff/Weiss gallery to support my very good friend and fellow Slade alumnus, Aya Haidar. The mixed media exhibition incorporates a collection of photographic prints onto linen and an installation that relates to her practice of the process of handing down stories of Lebanon past and present, personal and political, which she encounters through family and friends on her visits to the Middle East. While Lebanon has served as a military playground for neighbouring powers, it's transparency and open society has saved itself from the absolute contempt felt by citizens in the Arab Spring. Once the Paris of the Middle East, the streets of Beirut are documented and manipulated by the artist - print IV from Recollections (Seamstress Series) embodies the meeting of the city's old world glamour and the reality of the everyday; depicting the French luxury boutique Herm├Ęs with an embroidered graffiti tag 'Haifa for President' above the boutique's entrance - referring to Haife Wehbe, a female pop star considered to be a sex symbol in Lebanon. The installation that can been seen from the street on Hay Hill, Mayfair invites the viewer to consider access and movement - actions that are taken for granted in everyday life; everyday life that benefits from the privileges of democracy. Unhinged was created for the exhibition and is a series of found doors connected together, their handles removed, to create a physical barricade within the space. Simulating the border restrictions and road blocks that are an everyday occurrence in the Arab world, the practical symbolism of a door is made redundant. What is so powerful about the work is the everyday-nature of a door - its very ease to erect is equal to its potential to be taken down.

Recollections (Seamstress Series) IV, 2011

As well as recycling materials to create installations, Haidar recycles the narratives that have been passed down to her and re-expresses them through her own voice and more literally, through her own hand with the intricate embroidery that is worked across the linen prints as a means of mending or perhaps preserving the well-travelled narrative that successfully engages with the political and historic within a contemporary context. I particularly like the term 'Seamstress' in the titles of the embroidered print collection - not only contesting the stereotype of craft within the art world. In the same way the artist has gathered stories from the market trader to the policeman, or from her very own Mother and Grandmother, they are all characters in the make up of society; all of whom have a story to tell. By therefore granting herself a role in this very make up, the 'Seamstress' playfully takes on both the intimate character who listens attentively while she sews and the powerful role as visual artist with something to say: opening doors one by one.

Recollections (Seamstress Series) XXI, 2011

Big congratulations to Aya for a brilliant show - for further information about the artist and her body of work visit Bischoff/Weiss.

Behind Closed Doors
7th September - 6th October 2011
14a Hay Hill
London W17 8NZ

Images courtesy of Bischoff/Weiss