Myth Marks is a series of six animations that comprise a portion of my graduating MA project in Cultural Studies at Queen’s University. In this project, I undertook a research/creation methodology to think through the decolonization of the Canadian cultural institution. Myth Marks critically examines the ways that the ethnographic display of ‘Islamic Art’ (and art that works in didactic relation to Muslim bodies) is used as part of ongoing projects of colonization. These animations consider these questions from an experiential starting point, meditating on my own affective reactions to racializing discourses in the Canadian cultural sphere. I did this as a way of prioritizing the racialized, gendered body as a legitimate starting point for critical discourse, which works alongside the politics and policies that govern institutions and circumscribe the limitations of representation in such a framework. Myth Marks seeks to question the apparently clear-cut dividing lines that demark high art from craft, institutions from communities, professionals from amateurs, ‘legitimate’ voices from illegible ones. By doing so, it works as part of an intersectional approach to decolonization, one that considers the multiplicity of erasures experienced by Queer women of colour from essentializing narratives of Islam and immigration.
Unveiling / Invisibility
What does it mean to study through one’s body? To understand the subject of one’s study through the experience of one’s own particular combination of heart, brain, and viscera? What can it mean, then, when that same body is an overwrought cultural battleground, the concealment and revelation of which is demanded in turn, sometimes by the same parties? You can’t please them all. You probably can’t please any of them. But maybe you can please yourself, or at least make it easier on yourself in the long run if you make something you can recognize yourself in, for a change.
I first saw this painting at the AGO, at a 2009 exhibit of works by Hunt and other Pre-Raphaelites. I didn’t need to read its title to know that it was a painting of an Egyptian woman; even from across the room I felt a kind of recognition in it. That feeling is so rare! It stuck with me for years, until I started researching this project, and then I stumbled across this quote from a critical text written not long after the painting was first created (in the mid-1800’s). I had seen this painting, and thought I saw some part of myself in it– but the man who painted it and his contemporaries didn’t see that at all. They didn’t even see a person. They barely even saw an animal. I had looked into a mirror of sorts and had my reflection inverted into something monstrous, forcing me to see that in myself, too.
The integrity of the borders of your own self-definition are at stake when you try to write about your own body as theory. If this was an example of ‘good’ representation, then what does it look like when it’s ‘bad’?
Who actually gets to own their own signature, to speak directly to their identity in this way? To get a name that’s yours, that you own, that contains your own history and the history of your kin? I don’t know if my mom would classify keeping her ‘maiden name’ as a feminist act: I don’t want to diminish her capacity in this regard, but it’s a common enough practice for Muslim women. There’s some pretty extensive sunnah behind it. That doesn’t actually matter though. What matters is that regardless of her thoughts on the matter, this was illegible as a feminist act as far as the well-meaning White troop leader was concerned. Though the practice may be common, its signification in this context makes both the name and its owner invisible. Having your actions understood as the intentional choices of an independent agent is a luxury granted only to those whose identities aren’t defined by their silence.
This piece is a response to the exhibit Cairo Under Wraps, which displays a collection of delicate fabric sherds dating back several hundred years, which were collected by the ROM’s founder, C.T. Currelly, in the mid-nineteenth century . The exhibit boasts that the ROM is one of few world-class institutions with the resources to preserve such a collection. This assertion seems self-evident, but falls apart at closer examination: after all, these sherds successfully survived for centuries in Cairo before Currelly ever received them! The causal chain that results in the need to ‘preserve’ the object is reversed entirely: it is the excavation of the ‘valuable’ object that necessitates the institution that ‘preserves’ it. What would have been lost if it was never un-buried, but its value to its collector? After all, don’t we bury the things we value to protect them? Who, really, is better at preservation than the earth itself?
The Orientalist artist depends on the bodies he depicts to remain static, placed precariously between the comfort of that which is familiar, yet thrilling in its difference. These harem girls might be “frightened”, but maybe the artist is frightened, too: maybe there is a threat lurking inside these “pretty little animals”, maybe the “supple lines of their beauty” reveal something threatening, alien, and undefinable.
One of the sites where the politics of inclusion/exclusion are felt most keenly is the border. It is there that all the intersections of race/class/gender/coloniality merge to a single, crucial instance, and through the omnipresent eye of surveillance, are reduced to a pass/fail system upon which survival can depend. To pass, the body must become undressed: you remove those articles of clothing that mark your difference, and regardless, mechanized scanners can see through them, right through your skin, your organs, down to your bones. This act of undressing reveals the ways that colonial systems mark racialized bodies with both fear and desire: they are necessary resources that carry a threat inside them, an excess that threatens to spill out at any moment.