“People often expect tidy definitions of otherness, as if identity is something fixed and easily definable,” (1) international artist Mona Hatoum once commented. Independently, London-based Hatoum and New York City-based Shirin Neshat have pioneered art driven by a sense of otherness and displacement. For Hatoum and Neshat this stems from a life in exile that shaped their identity. Yet otherness can just as easily define itself by differences in culture, heritage, race, religion, sexual preference, country of origin or economic standings.
Western society deeply concerns itself with otherness, sometimes fighting and at other times embracing it as seen in contradictory policy decisions. Yet as En Foco artists Sama Alshaibi, Larry McNeil and Dulce Pinzón exemplify, policies and politics have their price on a human scale. Whether we celebrate diversity or cling to the idea of a melting pot, feeling different or out of place beckons the question of belonging and hence the question of identity.
Each of the three artists has focused on certain aspects of identity in relationship with otherness, a place or a home. They use biographic experiences as the groundwork for their artistic expression.
Sama Alshaibi examines stereotypes of the Arabic woman as she considers the Palestinian diaspora on the landscape she knows best—her body. Half Palestinian, half Iraqi, and now the mother of two boys being raised as Americans in the United States, she dispels the stereotype of the hidden, veiled Arabic woman by creating a new interpretation that is possibly a fictional identity as well.
Alshaibi’s images are alluring and mysterious. They are timeless, and to a Western audience as exotic as stereographs of foreign countries were in the nineteenth century, when photographs of Egypt and other far away countries ignited the fantasies of the young and old. We may live in an age of technology, but most of us have a surprisingly narrow understanding of other cultures laced with generalization and misinformation. The internet and other technologies have brought information to our fingertips, but our understanding of worlds not our own is shamefully limited. It is representative of our general ignorance that after the September 11, 2001 attacks, the general public and a few misguided aggressors mistook turban-wearing Sikhs for Muslims. After years in the media, the war with Iraq is still mistaken for a war with Islam.
Alshaibi’s images cannot be mistaken for yesteryear’s travel photography, yet seem similarly unfamiliar and otherworldly. Alshaibi takes us back to a time before Palestinians lost their right to their homeland. The images of a Muslim woman in traditional garments but unveiled go against our limited understanding of the burqa-clad women shown in the media today. The general understanding of Islam and current political events equates Muslim men with terrorists and renders Muslim women invisible.
These images would distinguish themselves in any culture. The photographs are taken on the terms of the woman in the image—Alshaibi herself. It may not be clear from the images if they are intended for a Western or Middle Eastern audience, but the direct and unapologetic gaze implies an unspoken permission to look at her, self-expressed and showing her pregnant belly. The images are sensual, but not sexual. They are ritualistic in a private ceremony that transcends cultural singularity. Reminiscent of work by Neshat, Francesca Woodman or Flor Garduño, it becomes less important to know the extent of artistic expression and cultural authenticity.
Larry McNeil does not have to travel to another place to consider the plight of Native American tribes at the hands of white settlers. He examines painful parts of North American history and their current day consequences, but he does so via a path of humor.
His images have bite. While they are graceful in their elegant compositions and richness of monochromatic tonal values, the accompanying text sheds all notions of innocence—the work are beautiful to look at, yet painful to read. Polite but spiked with a healthy dose of humor and sarcasm, the text lays bare stereotypes applied to Native Americans and does not shy away from occasionally poking fun at itself. Simplified to a notion of Native Americans vs. white people, the work speaks of white curators, white photographers, white shamans. Yet it also suggests greater complexities of mixed raced marriages and the intricacies of existing between two cultures.
McNeil’s images provide a different viewpoint from big media generalizations. He acknowledges a past that has left its mark on his cultural identity, and uses humor to create a commonality that allows the viewer to pay attention to his words. And his message can be absorbed while the viewer equally smiles and cringes at the mercy of his words.
These beautiful and conflicted works are free of hate, but not of sadness. They challenge to remember and look at where we are today. Both sides have changed, and sometimes they have mixed. Sometimes the ghost of Edward Curtis prevails, and sometimes it’s the vanishing Indian, as McNeil seems to suggest.
Full of ascertaining pride and self-assertion, the work acknowledges past wrongdoings and invites us to smile uncomfortably at our own misgivings. It is time to heal, but first we have to listen.
Dulce Pinzón draws attention to the plight of Mexican immigrant workers. She has chosen not only to make them visible, she celebrates them. Unnoticed, these workers prevail under less than ideal conditions, allowing us to benefit from their silent labor every day. Decisions by politicians greatly impact the lives of immigrants. On one side of the issue politicians may be eagerly debating distinctions between legal and illegal immigrants, but on the other side are real people whose commitment to their family never falters. Far from home and frequently working in low paying jobs, they save every penny they can to support family members left behind.
Using a light-hearted approach, Pinzón dresses workers up in superhero costumes and photographs them in their work place. Much like McNeil, Pinzón uses humor to encourage viewers to look more closely than they normally would.
It is easy to think of heroes as the ones who save children from burning buildings and who save people from drowning, but Pinzón forces us to redefine heroism on a new level. Pinzón’s message is straight-forward. She seeks recognition for “the heroes who sacrifice immeasurable life and labor in their day to day lives for the good of others, but do so in a somewhat less spectacular setting,” as she writes in her artist statement. Her images acknowledge that a woman doing laundry can be Wonder Woman, and the construction worker can be part of the Fantastic Four. And sometimes, when not chasing after Batman, Catwoman may be tending to kids who never questioned her superhero status to begin with. These workers can make a difference without flying through the air or battling arch enemies.
Whether we recognize subtle acts of heroism or ponder their significance to the economic balance of two countries, these self-less acts occur around us on any given moment. Just like a magic looking glass, Pinzón’s images allow us to see these workers through different eyes for a brief moment. It is just as easy to imagine alter ego Peter Parker working the windows or Diana Prince starting a new load of laundry. Superheroes one moment, and the next moment they return to their invisible selves.
It is one thing to see a snippet of these people’s lives in the photographs, it is another to get to know them. The artist has chosen to introduce her heroes by name, home region and their monetary contributions to their families. We meet the real Wonder Woman, Maria Louisa Romero, from the state of Puebla, and marvel how she can send $150 home every week, or how Spiderman, aka Bernabe Mendez from the state of Guerrero, can send $500 per month. And the payments add up. The economic impact of remittances by millions of Mexican immigrants working in the United States is significant. In 2002 alone, remittances by Latino immigrants to Mexico and South American countries was estimated at $13 billion by the Migration Information Source, and has been steadily climbing. It is easy to make light of Pinzón’s images, but her heroes are making a world of difference.
||Interview with Janine Antoni, in Bomb, no. 63 (Spring 1998).
More images by the artists can be found on their respective websites:
Sama Alshaibi | Larry McNeil | Dulce Pinzón
Nueva Luz is produced by En Foco, a non-profit organization that nurtures and supports contemporary fine art and documentary photographers of diverse cultures, primarily U.S. residents of Latino, African and Asian heritage, and Native Peoples of the Americas and the Pacific. This issue of Nueva Luz is almost sold out. Some copies may still be available at www.enfoco.org