Jamelie Hassan's At the Far Edge of Words explores the cultural power of language

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      Jamelie Hassan: At the Far Edge of Words
      At the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery until August 22

      As you’re approaching the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, you’ll see a billboard mounted high on its faí§ade. It’s been there for a while, yes, but serves now as a terrific introduction to the Jamelie Hassan retrospective on view inside the building. This image-text work—Hassan’s response to the first Gulf War and all too grimly relevant 19 years later—consists of a shot of a blue-roofed mosque with the superimposed words “Because”¦there was and there wasn’t a city of BAGHDAD.”

      Enter the Belkin and you’ll encounter a greatly enlarged letter from the Arabic alphabet, wrought in brilliant blue neon and mounted on a square ground of black ceramic tiles. A vessel-like shape surmounted by a squared dot, this character is a religious cipher heading a chapter of the Koran. Walk on into the main gallery: posted on the wall is a poignant poem about place and identity by the late Palestinian poet and activist Mahmoud Darwish. The title of Hassan’s show, “At the Far Edge of Words”, is borrowed from this work.

      All three demonstrate the ways Hassan’s fascination with the cultural power of language is woven into her interdisciplinary art practice. Allusions to writers and writing, ancient and modern, in Arabic script and in Roman, abound in her work, from her early forays into ceramic sculpture, painting, and watercolour through her later explorations of video, photography, and light sculpture. As many critics and curators have noted, Hassan employs whatever medium best serves her ideas. The show, coproduced by Museum London and the Belkin Gallery, includes more than two dozen works, with additional installations on view at the Koerner Library and the Museum of Anthropology.

      Hassan, a Lebanese-Canadian born and based in London, Ontario, makes art that extends personal memory and family history into a wider address of dislocation, marginalization, and “otherness”. She also speaks to local and international human-rights issues, from Oka to the Gaza Strip, and through them to the violent legacies of colonialism. These may sound like familiar subjects now, but when she first took them on in the 1970s, Hassan was a pioneer of fiery cultural and identity politics within the cold, white realm of Canadian art.

      Her early paintings, drawings, and sculptures reveal an impassioned voice searching for the most direct way of expressing itself. For instance, her 1981 ceramic installation Los Desaparecidos employs the triangular shapes of the head scarves of the mothers and grandmothers of “the Disappeared”—leftist activists, students, and unionists abducted and murdered by paramilitary death squads during Argentina’s “dirty war” of the 1970s and ’80s—to express solidarity with the women left behind to mourn. In terms of craftsmanship it’s a mess, with its slabs of crude grey clay and faint blue handwriting, but Hassan would probably dismiss that complaint as irrelevant. What matters here is her outraged response to a brutal and oppressive regime.

      Happily, what this retrospective shows is that her techniques catch up to the ardent and increasingly sophisticated ideas. An engrossing work is the six-minute excerpt from her 1985 video The Oblivion Seekers. Here, Hassan has spliced together grainy clips, shot in both North America and the Middle East and gathered from home movies and TV news footage. Montaged images of men, women, and children singing, dancing, and clapping; jubilant crowds; exclamatory newspaper headlines; and the artist’s extended family emerging from the door of her grandmother’s house in Lebanon, all play against a layered track of found sounds, plinking electronic music, and the soulful voice of Egyptian singer Umm Kalthoum. The impression is both personal and political, reverberating with the pride and pain of a displaced culture and the conflicted status of Muslim immigrants in the western world in the 1950s—and in today’s world too.

      A number of more recent works in the show employ visual references to an 18th-century manuscript, written in Arabic and illustrated with a striking image of the Archangel Gabriel. In Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions, Gabriel is God’s messenger. In Hassan’s art, Gabriel functions as an ambiguous symbol of cultural and spiritual identity. He signifies language’s power to reveal and obscure, inspire and enflame, unite and—tragically—divide.