Sama Alshaibi has worked with themes of conflict, gender, and migration throughout her career. Best known as a photographer, she is chair of the Photography, Video and Imaging program at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and her work often includes sculptural or video elements. Her sculptural installation “The Cessation” is included in the State of the Art 2020 exhibition at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. Curatorial team Laura Haynes, Alejo Benedetti, and Allison Glenn chose 61 artists to participate in the exhibition, and created four contextual frameworks to consider the contemporary artworks: world-building, sense of place, mapping, and temporality. “The Cessation,” which was originally created at and for the Artpace residency program in San Antonio, Texas, is presented as part of the “sense of place” category, as the project addresses migration, war, and gender in her native country of Iraq.
The work is comprised of several objects grouped together: a neon silhouette on plexiglass depicting a woman pouring water, a brass pipe water feature, engraved blackened ceramic jugs, sound elements, and dried palm fronds. Many of the details are not immediately apparent — the work reveals itself through closer looking. The black vessels are carved with phrases and singular words, and the water feature is small enough that only the sound of water can be detected at first. The piece was originally built to be experienced in public space, and from its first location on top of the Artpace roof, the skyline of San Antonio was visible through the transparent plexiglass, framed by the glowing blue silhouette. In this open-air iteration, Alshaibi’s reference to the presence (and disappearance) of women in the public sphere is embodied in the figural neon representation and its urban surroundings.
For the Crystal Bridges installation, the artist has installed “The Cessation” in front of a window that overlooks a pond and an adjacent building. The new location shifts the meaning of the work from considering women in public space to considering the representation of women in art institutions, another manifestation of gender inequality. The blackened vessels are chipped and appear burnt, bringing to mind the aftermath of war. Palm fronds that were once green and full of life lie still and dry on the ground. The neon silhouette shines on, signifying a woman who is no longer present in flesh, existing only as a vacant sign. The sounds of water and urban traffic add liveliness to the piece, which feels important in a quiet museum setting.
Alshaibi and her family have been in exile from their home of Baghdad since 1982, just after Saddam Hussein came to power, which kicked off decades of non-stop conflict in Iraq. From American intervention to ISIS, there has been little reprieve for the country. When Alshaibi was growing up, there were many women who ran businesses and held academic and government positions, despite prevailing stereotypes of covered and cloistered women. As a result of war, violence, and the new Iraqi constitution, the rights of women have been increasingly compromised and reduced.
The artist has two primary points of inspiration for this piece. The first, which clearly influenced Alshaibi’s formal presentation, is a bronze water feature located in a busy Baghdad intersection, “Kahramana,” by the prolific public art sculptor Mohammed Ghani Hikmat. The fountain is based on the story “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” from One Thousand and One Nights and features the figure of the slave girl Marjana. In this rendition, the artist highlights Marjana’s intellect as she outwits the thieves by pouring oil into the vessels in which they hid from her. The intellectual inspiration for “The Cessation” are the publicly available assassination lists of Iraqi academics, which document those targeted and killed during wartime. Alshaibi analyzed the documents for the assassinations of female academics and chose some of the most frequently used words to inscribe on the ceramic vessels. “Scrubbed,” “Professora,” “Mnemocide,” and “Shot Dead” are some of the selections. These fragments commemorate those disappeared women, whose murders were never investigated and whose deaths extended to the public lives of all women. Further, Alshaibi’s use of short phrases and words allude to violence without explicitly illustrating it, allowing the viewer to create an image in their mind rather than being shocked with graphic images.
Alshaibi works in metaphor to describe political and cultural situations whose complexities and contexts reach back hundreds of years. Her strategy relies on the staying power of stories and mythology with relatable narratives, rather than shock value which inevitably fades. Although The Cessation has many references that may not be immediately understood by the casual onlooker, the iconic familiarity of the silhouette figure, vessels, and palm fronds echo familiar images from One Thousand and One Nights and elsewhere. Alshaibi’s use of text and symbolic materials gives an old story new dimension while elucidating contemporary sociopolitical realities.
“The Cessation” will continue at State of the Art 2020 at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (600 Museum Way, Bentonville AR) through May 24, 2020. The exhibition was curated by Laura Haynes, Alejo Benedetti, and Allison Glenn.