We Are Here
Starting from a rather solemn statement, We Are Here explores the oftentimes precarious relationship between art and ethnic minorities by contemplating a broad range of art and art historical texts. Looking into various artworks and texts fortnightly, whether that be art made by ethnic minorities, artworks portraying them, or texts on decolonisation and orientalism, it aims to address the existence of the peoples in art that has not been voiced for long. Although discussion on race, ethnicity, discrimination, and exclusion is and should be unsettling and demanding - even when accompanied by joyful patches of colours - We Are Here endeavours to begin this conversation by giving awareness to the very being of equal individuals who were or still are 'here.'
A confusion that connects
Ajlan Gharem’s Paradise Has Many Gates — The irony of the steel wire mosque
Friday, November 12th
Ajlan Gharem, Paradise Has Many Gates, Plexiglass, aluminum, rolled steel, paint, electric lights. 300 × 1000 × 650 cm (118 x 394 x 256 inches). (Image: Courtesy of the artist)
Art is primarily a visual culture. When talking about artworks, we use verbs such as “to see”, “to look at”, and when analysing a work of art, we use nouns such as “depiction”, “portrayal”, “illustration”, “representation”, “image”…… the list can go on. The very moment we recognise something as art, we anticipate a visual representation, and more specifically, a visual object that is physically present.
At my first encounter with the photographed documentation of Paradise Has Many Gates, both a sculptural and architectural work — the winner of the exhibition Jameel Prize: Poetry to Politics at the V&A — by the Saudi Arabian artist Ajlan Gharem, the initial factor that drew my attention was that it is a transparent mosque. Without recognising the materiality of the mosque, the work seemed to me as a modern, or perhaps postmodern, take on the religious space of pray and worship; the visual language of the traditional mosque efficiently minimised into the dome, minaret and decorated windows.
However, looking closely at the photograph and reading the written descriptions of the work, I realised that it was a mosque made of chicken wire, which reminds one of a cage; an aspect that stirred much controversy.
Ajlan Gharem, Paradise Has Many Gates, 2015. Plexiglas, aluminum, rolled steel, paint, and electric lights, 118 x 394 x 256 in. (Image: Hadani Ditmars)
Due to concerns of potential repercussions, the mosque was dismantled within twenty-four hours of its first installation in 2015 in the desert an hour’s drive away from the city of Riyadh. The discomfort that one might feel when looking at Paradise Has Many Gates could be due to a variety of reasons, and the individual or societal perception of the work would also depend largely on their relationship with religion. The artist points out, in the interview video — played on repeat alongside interviews with seven other finalists at the corner of the exhibition space — on his award-winning work, that he is intrigued by the difference between the approaches local and international audiences take when looking at the work.
The mosque challenges the physical nature of art by its both ephemeral and omnipresent quality. In short, it went through a lot of different spaces. A year after its disintegration at the desert, it was displayed in Houston, Texas, as part of a group project of Saudi Arabian artists including Gharem touring the US, in an attempt to tackle Islamophobia and the anti-Muslim attitudes of Trump that added fuel to the distorted views on Islam. Alongside the works of other Saudi Arabian artists, both male and female, the work confronted the rather conservative lands of the States with their art. Most recently, the mosque had its place at Vanier Park, Vancouver, in 2018-2020 as part of the Vancouver Biennale exhibition. In these multi-cultural and multi-national environments, Paradise Has Many Gates prompted important social and political discourses on hatred, exclusion and discrimination against Muslims in Western societies.
Gharem’s wire mosque is also often mentioned in the context of its striking resemblance to the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and images of refugee camps, therefore serving as a catalyst for a political discussion on the tension between the US and the Middle East.
The work is disturbing because the viewer does not know how to respond to the work visually, the artist says. People have asked, “What do you intend to say with your work?”, out of pure confusion and uneasiness. The artist has replied to the question in different ways in various media including video interviews, magazines, and press interviews. He says that his mosque in Paradise Has Many Gates represents “the particular form of religiosity, from which came extremism and fanaticism”. He says that it addresses the need for transparency of religion within Saudi Arabia, where the line between the religious and political authority is precarious. He says that it is about tackling Islamophobia, hoping for open-mindedness, and seeking a kind of religion that can facilitate life for the younger generation in his country, where more than 60% of the population is below the age of 30.
Photograph of the artist Ajlan Gharem outside of his work in Vancouver. (Image: Hadani Ditmars)
The artist himself admitted the ambiguity and obscurity of his work in an interview with the BBC: “Sometimes I am confused to say if I built a mosque like a cage, or a cage like a mosque”.
Perhaps this dialogue between the audiences and the artist is a reflection of the Islamophobia that the group of Saudi Arabian artists hoped to break down with the use of art; the fear of, and hatred towards something that you don’t know. Perhaps the mosque as a cage is an image of Islam seen through that lens of hatred and prejudice.
No one, not even Gharem himself, can provide a compact, singular “meaning” behind the work. Art speaks with a visual language, and sometimes we find it hard to communicate with it solely, as the vast majority of human communication is done through language, both orally and with texts. Seeking a single idea as an answer to the work merely diminishes its versatility, and ends up flattening many different personal perceptions, eliminating the chance to start a dialogue on a broad range of topics. When considering Paradise Has Many Gates, one has to take into account all the various layers of the project, not only the mosque’s materiality but also the process of installation and disintegration, spaces it was displayed in, its geographical history, the political context at the time, and different societal receptions of the work.
“This gives Americans the ability to connect with a culture that they have been trained to fear”, one of the American visitors to the exhibition in Texas said. It is somewhat ironic that from a work that has gone through much controversy and brought up concerns about wrong representations of Islam, people’s prejudices on the religion have been challenged. Although there is an ambiguity to it — or because of this very ambiguity — we can certainly see the power in showing and seeing, a power of a physical presence of representation that unites people but also offers anxiety; the power of art, one could even say.
Links to relevant sources:
Who are we looking at?
CYJO’s Kyopo Project: Ethnographic photography as a testimony to Korean American existence
Friday, October 29th
We are all here. We, as the whole of humanity, are here. The very existence of a person is not only recognised by him/herself but also by the society that surrounds him/her. (Well, at least it is meant to.) However, at times, societies fail to acknowledge the existence of some “Us”es, and this is no exception in the art world, and within the canon of the history of art.
CYJO, The KYOPO Project - 240 Portraits, Digital pigment print, 2011 (Image: Collection of the artist, © CYJO)
CYJO’s Kyopo Project focuses on a very specific “Us” — it is a series of 240 photographs of “Kyopo[교포]”s, which is a Korean term for people who are ethnically Korean, living in many different countries. Although Kyopo is a term that can describe people who live in any country, CYJO’s project mostly depicts Korean Americans, which resonates with the life of the artist herself, having been born in Korea in 1976 and immigrated with her family to the States when she was just one and a half years old.
Three Asaro Mud Men, New Guinea, 1970, printed 1976 (Image: The Metropolitan Museum, New York)
Manao tupapau (The Spirit of the Dead Keep Watch), 1892
(Image: Albright–Knox Art Gallery, New York)
These ethnographic photographs may appear very simple and uninteresting, even. Each photograph has the same composition; it captures an individual standing on a wooden floor, with merely a stark white background behind him/her. The simple composition of these works seems to speak for the very purpose of this project — to shed light on the Korean American experience. Being placed in the same setting, the subjects displayed like ethnographic specimens, but not in a way that minimises the diversity of their identity. In comparison to the oftentimes highly problematic ethnographic depictions in art — Irving Penn’s Mud Men or Gaugin’s paintings of Tahiti women comes to mind instantly — that portray ethnic minorities through a lens of exoticism and fantasy, CYJO’s photographs straightforwardly display individuals that are part of an ethnic group, but are diverse in many ways. They do not flatten the image of Kyopos, and nor do they overly glamorise them. Hence perhaps not as visually stimulating as the doubtful works of Penn and Gaugin, but a much more accurate depiction of ethnic minorities without violence against them… You do the maths!
Image of the KYOPO Project exhibit as included in the Washington D.C. National Portrait Gallery's “Portraiture Now: Asian American Portraits of Encounter” show.
(Image: Arts Observer)
The photographs were exhibited in The National Portrait Gallery in Washington D. C., as part of the exhibition Portraiture Now: Asian American Portraits of Encounter. They were displayed on two walls facing each other, all lined up at eye-level. As the viewer walks along the photographs and takes a look at them one by one, the only change they see is the person being portrayed. This emphasises the personal identities of the subjects, and how diverse the Kyopo identity can be. The differing personal identification as Kyopo between the individual subjects is also clearly presented below each photograph, where one can read short texts from interviews CYJO had with them. These people, numbering over 200, share a sense of identity as ethnically Koreans, but equally they are from a variety of backgrounds, and have their own narratives of life as Asian Americans. The Kyopo Project succeeds in representing both the personal and collective identity of being Kyopo.
CYJO portrait of Maggie Kim, digital pigment print, November 07, 2005
(Image: Collection of the artist, © CYJO)
CYJO portrait of Daniel Dae Kim, digital pigment print, January 29, 2007
(Image: Collection of the artist, © CYJO)
But is this a presumption, based upon our prior knowledge of the artist? Do we perceive these photographs as ethnographically accurate and hence ethical, merely because we are aware of the fact that the photographer is a Korean American woman, also a part of the Kyopo community herself? What if we hadn’t known the ethnic identity of the artist? What if these photographs were taken by a white, middle-aged, male American photographer? Would they have the same quality then? Would our interpretation of the photographs change? Can ethnographic photographs only be politically correct when taken by a photographer who is of the same ethnicity as the subjects? What does a politically correct ethnographic photograph look like?
Ethnographic photographs are ambiguous. Considering the relationship between the photographer and their subject is always needed when studying photographs, but when it comes to ethnographic portraits, it has an even more significant importance. The power dynamic between the artist and the subject is particularly key to understanding how the subject is being portrayed — are they being portrayed as the other, or equal individuals?
There are countless doubts and questions on the precariousness of ethnographic photographs remaining still. It is hard to say in black and white which qualities make them ethical, or unethical. Yet, it is clear that one of the most important things when looking at ethnographic portraits is to ask the question (alongside many other questions, if given the time): who are we looking at?
Looking at the Kyopo Project, I do not see a generic type of minority ethnic group. I also do not see a set of exotic, romanticised people. I see 240 individuals. I see their personal interpretation of their Korean identity, as well as their Asian-American identity. The Kyopo Project reads as a testimony to the many individuals who identify themselves as Kyopo, and it is the testimony of their very existence. The fact that they are here.
You can read the short interviews with the subjects Maggie Kim and Daniel Dae Kim from: https://npg.si.edu/exhibit/encounter/cyjo.html