A ‘Compellingly Odd’ Pornographic Reimagining of the Middle East’s Colonial Legacies

Basma al-Sharif, a Philistine/em>, 2023 (installation view). Photos: Tadzio. Courtesy the artist and Imane Farès, Paris

A disorientating new exhibition from Basma al-Sharif veers bizarrely from a multi-species orgy on the banks of the Nile to masturbation amidst the development of new luxury housing in Egypt 

Palestinian artist Basma al-Sharif’s latest exhibition aspires to cover a lot of thematic ground, probing global themes including statelessness, postcolonial sexuality and contemporary architectural planning. The first of two bodies of work here, a Philistine (2019–23) forms part of an eponymous series exploring Palestinian identity and the colonially imposed national boundaries of the Middle East. The gallery’s main space has become a reading room replete with 1970s soft furnishings, the walls decorated with photographs taken in the former Yugoslavia: a train at the old Belgrade station, a couple of empty interiors. Aside from showcasing another dimension of al-Sharif’s work and alluding to another geographical region riven asunder by religious divisions, though, the images’ role here is not apparent. Visitors are instructed to sit down and read a fictional text of about two dozen pages, printed in Arabic, English and French, with pornographic line drawings printed on opposing pages.

The text cannot be removed from the gallery or reproduced elsewhere, obliging viewers to read it from cover to cover in order to engage with the work. The writing tells the story of three generations of Palestinian women, taking us from 1935 to an imagined, apparently borderless present day, and is framed as ‘an exercise in etymology, an experiment in multilingual translation, a declaration against the colonial project’. It culminates with the youngest protagonist taking a rail journey from Lebanon to Egypt – an impossible itinerary, given that the state of Israel separates origin from destination – and a multispecies orgy on the banks of the Nile, in which women’s labia are smeared with cowshit, and copulating animals and humans become all but indistinguishable – a ‘fusion of bodies’ that mimics the dissolution of frontiers in the text. The writing is compellingly odd, though you do wonder how it can be interpreted in relation to the artist’s stated aims; removed from the context of the wider body of work that makes up a Philistine, it doesn’t make much sense.

a Philistine, 2023 (installation view). Photos: Tadzio. Courtesy the artist and Imane Farès, Paris

Less engaging is Capital (2022), a two- channel video consisting of scrappy phone footage of luxury housing developments under construction in Italy and Egypt; an excerpt from a radio interview with an unidentified Egyptian politician explaining the societal value of a major building project; and a peculiar little drama in which a woman masturbates to a male Italian voice regaling her with the specifications of a new residential community. The work might suggest a relationship between monolithic political projects, consumer desire and the kind of twenty-first-century urban planning we see in the video – all subjects deserving of sceptical analysis, and hammered home via footage of empty streets and the cynical tone of the voice entertaining our protagonist. But beyond this, we don’t glean much other than the vague impression that the artist, quite reasonably, isn’t a fan of what he depicts. Nevertheless, the show’s insistence on the fragile boundaries between public and private life, and the repeated motif of cultural and sexual transgression, stick in the mind longer than expected.

a Philistine at Imane Farès, Paris, through 13 July

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