Written by Lizzy Vartanian Collier
Copy editing by Eliza Marks
In November 2018, Saudi artist Tamara Al Mashouk organised The London Summit: Queering Space, a three-day event of presentations, performances and dialogue featuring queer, female and gender non-conforming researchers, activists and artists of colour. The event aimed to address sexuality, space and queerness as a site of resistance and potential in itself.
Tamara’s work explores the movement of people across both national and societal borders, especially when it comes to young queer Middle Eastern women. Her work is largely concerned with representation, whether it be regarding the refugee crisis in Europe or the representation of Arab women in contemporary art. My.Kali spoke to Tamara about The London Summit, the refugee crisis and addressing Arab stereotypes in her work.
How was the London Summit, and what was the driving idea behind it?
It was magic. The premise: to queer space, to carve out a spatial imaginary that subverts power and is founded upon radical community.
The word queer itself (in its LGBTQ+ context) was born in the queer homeless community on the streets of New York during the AIDS epidemic. Sylvia Rivera lost her job, her home, and was rejected by the Lesbians and Gays at the first Pride in New York for being trans.
So what does it look like to queer space? Much like the word, the queer community has never had a home or place within the mainstream – our only spaces have only ever existed in nightlife. So the London Summit imagines what queer space looks like in the light of day and holds space for the voices of queer international woman of colour from underrepresented countries such as: the Middle East, Iran, Colombia, Spain and UK.
Your work comments on the struggles of being an Arab woman, especially in terms of sexuality, but put great effort into avoiding imagery generally associated with Arabs. Why is this so essential to your work?
I just don’t relate to the stereotypes. I can’t make work that incorporates a veil or calligraphy. I’ve tried, it was so contrived. I also don’t actively feel any more oppressed than other POC queer women. I’m strong, I have a voice, and I take no shit. So when I create or represent my body in my work, that’s what comes out.
I think that the problem is with representation – the only image of female Arab art is veiled, yet strong, and speaking about oppression and/or heritage with Orientalized visual language – even if the work is made by Arab women. These images need to exist because they do represent a version of female Arabness, but they don’t represent us in our entirety, nor do they represent us exclusively. So my work kind of expands the palette.
Does your desire to “expand the palette” contribute to your decision to incorporate Arabic and English in your work?
Yes, I’ve been writing voice-overs in both English and Arabic where the same video contains both languages, and not subtitling the Arabic. The choice not to subtitle the Arabic is multifaceted: there’s something beautiful that happens when you sit in the discomfort of not understanding a language.
To speak English today allows access to most mainstream public spaces, but if you don’t, the world can be scary and isolating. I’ve watched people get yelled at to move by immigration officers in the security lines at airports, and the immigration officer just kept getting louder without acknowledging the language barrier. And this is in an airport, a space built for international intersectionality.
Most native English speakers have never experienced a world that places them on the outside. So the lack of subtitles asks them to sit and listen. Doing so with Arabic, a language usually only heard on the news in specific contexts, feels vital, and even more so when the language being used is queer, female, and empowered.
The use of my specific Arabic is a way of speaking to my diasporic heritage – I speak a combination of Lebanese, Palestinian, Saudi and Bahraini so my accent itself contains traces of my ancestry.
You recently participated residencies in Italy and Mexico. Can you tell more about the mission of those residencies and how they affected your work?
The residencies in Italy and Mexico were a part of my yearlong fellowship with the Center for Art Design and Social Research (CAD+SR). The Center convenes artists, designers, and scholars to share knowledge towards addressing urgent issues in global societies through workshops, residencies, exhibitions, publications, and collaborative research projects. We’ll convene one more time this July in Italy.
Throughout my time in Italy I presented work in progress, participated in workshops, and gave a talk with three other artists. I also mapped a church and multiple facades of a villa Napoleon stayed at when he went to visit Spoleto. It’s also where the London Summit was conceived.
The residency in Mexico included an exhibition with a closing reception. I had recently completed a 10.5 hour performance for Deep Lab (a group of female activists, researchers, artists, hackers) commissioned by the York Mediale where I read “The List,” a list of 34,361 women, children and men who died trying to get to Europe that was originally published by the Guardian in June 2018. It was 53 pages long and listed the causes of death and locations. The work was called, Can You Die If You Don’t Exist?
While in Mexico and in collaboration with Dalida Maria Benfield, we presented We Exist, Existimos. A chorus of 17 international artists simultaneously reading sections of “The List” along with data Dalida gathered on deaths caused by the trip between Mexico and the US. The 18 minute performance was spoken in both English and Spanish and ended with my voice reading the name that started “The List.”
In addition to all the work you listed above, you also consider refugees in your work. What made you start thinking this topic?
I’ve always thought about borders and the absurdity of a piece of paper dictating the movement of people. The system and bureaucracy of immigration feels intentionally isolating and alienating.
Having a Saudi passport means I’ve applied for visas my whole life, and they have dictated my movements for my whole life. In June 2018, I didn’t make it to the first phase of production for what became Can You Die If You Don’t Exist? because I hadn’t gotten my visa in time. This led to a conversation among the women of Deep Lab about immigration and the arbitrariness of border regulation. “The List” had just been released by the Guardian, one of the women brought it in, and it all came together.
The first iteration of the work we presented to the York Mediale was a video of the list itself. It wasun-aestheticized, with only a voiceover of Deep Lab members reading parts of the list they selected. I started to feel this impulse to place my body in front of the projection, and to put a face to the granddaughter of a Palestinian refugee who got on a boat when she was 9. I then decided to read “The List” in live performance.
What are you working on now?
The most recent video I filmed is in series with Can You Die If You Don’t Exist? and We Exist, Existimos, and might be called I Exist. I haven’t edited it yet, so this may change.
It’s about sinking back into domesticity after having read “The List.” It uses imagery of me washing my face paired with an audio recording of a distress call from a Syrian man calling the Italian Navy in Lampedusa. The emergency calls were ignored.
I’m also working on a video that explores epigenetics of space and place rather than simply in the body. If our DNA can be changed by trauma, what’s to stop the DNA of soil, water, buildings from changing as well. The video was filmed in Bahrain in my childhood home and travels the paths I walked, the water I swam in, the smells of the jasmine, the sounds of the birds.
There’s going to be a lot more work with epigenetics of space, which will include a trip to Lebanon to trace my family’s movements as a result of war. Additionally, it will include a trip based on my work with “The List,” which will take me to the locations with the highest concentration of refugees to gather material/matter/detritus from the Mediterranean sea, the Evros River, the port of Calais etc. The idea is to speak to the movement of this matter across borders that many humans cannot pass, my own movement across borders, and the trauma water/soil/earth now contain.