No-Mad-Ness in No Man's Land

November 9 - December 22, 2013
ESLITE GALLERY, Taipei, Taiwan

No-Mad-Ness in No Man's Land examined the nomadism of contemporary migrant artists who deliberately resist location and de-territorialize the origins of their work. It consisted of a selection of some of today's most successful artists based in or originating from various regions in Asia, including the Middle East. These artists are engaged in the acts of moving, living, and working on multiple continents or are addressing such phenomena in their practices consciously, or in some cases unconsciously. They investigate, challenge, and/or renew traditional nomadic ideals in view of contemporary lifestyles relative to ideas about space, place, people, movement, and nature. Through their nomadism, these artists elude the fixed identity categories often imposed on them by their country or countries of adoption.

The word "nomad" comes from the Greek and is defined as "the one who wanders for pasture." Since the dawn of the modern era, however, or perhaps even since the birth of cities, the term has been used to mean one who moves for various reasons. From the 1960s onward, significant numbers of artists from all regions of the world- Asia, Africa, South America, and elsewhere- have traveled to Europe and North America, and vice-versa. Whether they immigrated for a short period or indefinitely, their art not only contributed to the dynamics of their newly adopted art scenes but transformed art-making processes, theory, and criticism, and ultimately art history altogether. Art historians are therefore now beginning to recognize the starting point of contemporary art by delineating artists and movements from 1970 forward as "an art that is of the world for the world."

The exhibition was the fruit of four years of collaborative research and conversations between curators Leeza Ahmady and Ombretta Agro Andruff, which led to the selection of the ten artists currently on view. Some of the artists are culturally and historically connected to the notion of nomadism because of their geographical affiliations; others because they make the concept of nomadism, displacement, and migration one of the central subjects of their art practice; and then there are those who may have touched upon this subject more peripherally but with works that make a strong statement in this specific context.


Khadim Ali

Khadim Ali considers himself strictly a miniature painter, yet he still manages to transcend a discipline that is nearly six centuries old. Conceptually vigorous, his paintings are a testament to his personal contemplation of politics, war, and heritage, as well as an homage to the Hazara collective and its complex history in Afghanistan. (Khadim belongs to one of the most persecuted groups in a land composed of more than fourteen ethnic peoples.)
A prominent figure in Khadim's recent paintings is the Buddha, a reference to the infamous and iconic Buddhas of Bamyan, Afghanistan. He was unable to see the Buddhas during his first trip to Afghanistan in 2000, and they had been destroyed by his second trip in 2002. He claims: "It was not only the act by the Taliban, but the world allowing such an act to take place today that is a tragedy- a personal and national tragedy, as well as a collective, human tragedy." Although he himself is not Buddhist, his ancestors once were. Unlike his family, he sees "religion like one's clothing- something which can be changed"- but he also understands that his identity is a direct result of history and that history is more permanent than anything else.

Isabel & Alfredo Aquilizan

It is estimated that more than a million Filipinos leave their country to work abroad every year; they migrate to escape worsening poverty and in search of better opportunities abroad. Address recalls years of accumulation, packing, and moving of the most varied of objects, from clothes to outgrown toys to other possessions strewn along paths. It consists of a large cube-shaped room constructed of 140 boxes containing the artists' personal belongings from their homeland. This may well be a farewell scene in which the wrenching process of migration becomes poignant and the last object of country is salvaged in pieces. It is caught between the anticipation of a beginning and an unsettling of origin or address, between expectation and alienation. Here migrants as agents are, on the one hand, disembodied in the site of exile, replaced by their property, but, on the other, are also active senders of memorabilia from their dis-locale, suspended in the act of disposing and dispossessing.

Said Atabekov

The installation Korpeshe-Flags is a hybrid object- korpeshes in the style of flags- with which the artist occupies the exhibition space. Korpeshe is a traditional form of Central Asian textile and is a part of a nomad's everyday life, serving a dual function of mattress and blanket in the tents of nomads. These flags of European countries, made of patterned fabrics, could be perceived as a literal expression of mixed languages using symbols of the 'West' (represented by national state symbols) and the 'East' (stereotypical arabesque pattern). A nomad is not tied to a territory, can move in any direction, is open to all winds, and is not subject to any nostalgic trauma. For him, national borders and symbols, such as flags, have meaning only in one sense: how to cross them in order to move on. Therefore, state attributes on the flag-Korpeshes change while the trans-cultural patterned background remains unchanged.

Lara Baladi

The title of the piece is borrowed from the entrance sign of a perfume shop in a touristy area of Cairo and collaged onto the front of a house- a wannabe Chateau de Versailles- enthroned in the center of a manicured garden. The bucolic scene, reminiscent of baroque art, with its profusion of symbolic iconography and composition, is filled with the many levels and forms used across cultures to represent paradise. Here, my mother represents the womb, the original arcadia. She becomes, as do all the other elements in Perfumes & Bazaar, The Garden of Allah, one of the many prisms through which we imagine paradise: paradise as a social construct.

In the first years of the twenty-first century, the world was experiencing a certain kind of invasion: "made in China" was at its peak. Egypt and the rest of the world seemed to be flooded with plastic flowers; gold plastic frames; 3-D plastic representations of Jesus, Mecca, and the Hindu gods; and waterfalls that appeared to move. This caricatured paradise was everywhere I looked, especially in Egypt and other African countries, prompting me to explore this iconography. The Chateau de Versailles may be seen as the ultimate kitsch, a theatrical tour de force of excess, wealth, and abundance. The ruling monarchy in Egypt once imitated the luxury of French courtly life and advertised its grandeur to the greater public.

Jeanno Gaussi

In 2008, during her first trip back to Kabul, Afghanistan since 1978, Jeanno Gaussi met Ustad, (Master) Sharif Amin, a painter of signs, billboards, and commissioned pieces, whose shop was near her home. He told her that he had managed to survive the collapse and trauma of war through painting. Having always felt estranged from her family history, Gaussi decided to give him the thirty images that, out of many albums, her parents had been able to take with them when they left Afghanistan and that, for her, had always lacked clarity or continuity.

She asked him to replicate half of these original images in paintings. In Family Stories (2011 - 12), made up of Sharif's paintings and Gaussi's recordings of her conversations with him after he had finished each work, Sharif becomes a mediator, a decoder, an investigator able to bring to the surface possible traces of the truth, to reach a sort of objective knowledge. The installation, which won critical acclaim during its premiere at dOCUMENTA (13) exhibition in Kassel, Germany, deals with the consequences of forced immigration as experienced by all classes of Afghan society from 1980 until the early 2000s, when millions fled the Soviet invasion and subsequent civil wars, and finally, Taliban rule in the late 1990s.

Mariam Ghani

Landscape Studies: New Mexico is a sort of abstracted pilgrim's progress through New Mexico's strange history of exploration, conquest, revolts, rodeos, mining, missile tests, and participant ethnography- all the projects of strangers passing through, and all of which have left marks on the landscape without altering its core characteristic, which is its tendency to swallow any human endeavor in the vast horizon of its indifference. The video was shot in six different sites in New Mexico, United States around the Galisteo Valley, Route 66, and the White Sands Desert, and its formal structure is organized by theories of the meanings of colors, directions, and clouds derived from the Tewa, a group of Native Americans whose lost pueblos dot the valleys.

The work greatly exemplifies the artist's formal and conceptual preoccupations with landscapes that are marked by an inexplicable beauty and eeriness as no man's lands everywhere are.

Reena Saini Kallat

"Untitled Cobweb (Knots and Crossings)" is formed with several hand-painted rubber stamps wherein each stamp evokes a flag of a nation. While the web is a home, protecting the physical self, at the same time doesn't the criss-crossing structure become a restricting trap? These stamps individually suggest names of people denied visas to various countries (usually based on perceptions of class, nationality, gender, religion), but collectively they seem to form a suspended drawing, like a web of global entanglements. The artist often thinks of the psychological barriers that hold people and places apart more than the physical borders themselves.

In the paper works titled "Anatomy of Distance," the twin forms of maps and mazes are overlaid by the stamped names of people who have been denied visas for traveling to other countries. In these works flight routes formed by the names of those denied access are superimposed on painted maps, while the same names clog the passageways in the mazes. Ironically, even as cultures blend with greater movements of people and information than at any other moment in human history, borders have become more and more controlled and monitored than ever before.

Jagannath Panda

Jagannath Panda's work is characterized by a collage technique in which the surface of the canvas or sculpture is built up with layers of brocade fabrics blended together to create the skins of beasts and feathers of birds, to mimic foliage, or to approximate man-made surfaces. This hybridized surface treatment corresponds with many of the artist's themes, which focus on moments, locations, and icons that are in a state of flux, caught between oppositions that can only be reconciled with anxiety and confusion. Panda's portraits of the burgeoning new city of Gurgaon (where he lives and works) illustrate the tensions to be found there, as over-development threatens natural habitats, and infrastructures prove to be inadequate even before they are completed. Likewise, Panda's mix of the mythological and the realistic points to the disoriented nature of Indian identity today, in its desire to synthesize the traditional and the contemporary, the indigenous and the international, the imaginary and the actual.

Yelena & Viktor Vorobyev

Yelena and Viktor Vorobyev's works, "Photos for Memory. If a Mountain Doesn't Go to Mohammed..." explores and celebrates humanity's spiritual as well as psychological need to experience the other- be it other people, places, foods or cultures. The photos were taken during a research trip around the southern part of Kazakhstan where the couple offered many local villagers the chance to be photographed by the artists against a variety of destination backdrops, such as the Kremlin, the World Trade Center towers (which at the time of their project in 2002 had already been destroyed), and the Eiffel Tower.

By the artist's simple act of photographing their subjects in front of these backgrounds, they fulfilled their desires, transporting them to their dream destinations, while at the same time questioning the value of real and virtual experience and criticizing the role of global advertising campaigns in today's world. The photographic series in its entirety, which encompasses hundreds of images, beautifully illustrates that "being elsewhere" is a surprisingly universal human desire.

"Knife," is a compelling metaphor for nomadic life as that of "living on the edge." A larger than life, stunning organic sculpture made from an actual slab of stone and a tree base; it is a work full of nostalgia for nature, not only from a spiritual but also a physical and artistic stance. The use of natural, raw materials was dramatically affected by industry-expanding regimes during the Soviet era, which continues in Central Asian countries today through capitalistic ventures: exploitation of the region's vast natural resources in all sectors of society as part of a race to tap into Western economies' formulas for prosperity. The knife as a mundane object made by the artists using found materials is also a reference to the creative and utilitarian spirit that enabled many artists in Central Asia to survive the turmoil of a fallen art system that had supported them during the decades of the Soviet era.

Sharif Waked

In late 2009, international media widely reported the transformation of two donkeys into zebras in Gaza. This cross-dressing of the species variety took place at the hands of an entrepreneur whose zoo was badly damaged in the Israeli incursion earlier that year.

While the two lions smuggled into Gaza from Egypt as cubs survived the incursion, few of the zoo's 400 animals and birds were as lucky. Its cheerful ostrich and pensive camel died by air strike. Others, like the much-loved pair of zebras perished of starvation. Since buying a zebra and smuggling it through the Gaza tunnels was too expensive, the businessman opted instead to buy two local donkeys and paint them with stripes.

Gaza Zoo explores the industry of amusement. It ponders the politics and aesthetics of role-play and performance; the penal colony and the wild; the make-up artist and his muse; and the original and its copy.