Aya Fathallah How can I flip the position from an outsider looking in to the insider taking on that narrative, fantasy, and exoticism that’s applied onto…
By Mary Truong November 15th, 2020
As Aya Fathallah tries to convey the diversity of Beirut’s architecture, it is clear that she holds deep deference over these spaces: there are modern skyscrapers; traditional, historical buildings; and war-torn areas of broken glass and bullet holes. Fathallah’s more recent paintings address the variety of its landscapes. As an undergraduate student studying in America, she experienced almost comically one-dimensional representations of the Middle East, and in reaction to that, she found herself painting Lebanon’s buildings, saying “I do want to create visibility as an artist for Middle Eastern heritage and the complexities of the viewpoints people have of the Middle East in relation to art.”
“You’re taking the hands away from people outside the culture who are making their own assumption and making their own narratives around a foreign culture.”
Fathallah notes that, like many artists who create work about their identity, her work is often framed by a question of subversion— as a Lebanese, Muslim, and Palestinian woman how can she wrest control of the narratives about her communities from outsiders? One method is her distortion of Dutch and British painters’ Orientalist imagery of glamorized, fetishistic harems and women. She paints similar settings, depicting arch doorways and Persian rugs in bright, primarily monochromatic colors. The figures included in these paintings are both sinuous and vague.
When Fathallah names Edward Said’s Orientalism as an influence to this series of paintings, I think of scopophilia and Laura Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. The past European painters created works that placed the viewers in the position of fetishistically spectating “the other,” but this fascination does not translate to knowing. That being said, Fathallah’s paintings don’t facilitate 'knowing,' either— though it’s true she paints various Middle Eastern spaces, her unfocused brushwork results in gauzy images that are more atmosphere than setting.
“The way that I access that community is by putting visual evidence and specific things that only they would understand.”
Perhaps this is because Fathallah engages with a different kind of subversion. Her art is not for a universal audience, and she is not overly concerned with the gaze of an outsider (though she is aware of it); instead, she hopes to make artwork for communities that share her identity. “It’s for a specific audience, and that audience is people I have grown up around. That’s what I’m trying to elicit with the work— is just having a moment where those people can see a part of their collective experience represented.” She includes visual signs for this audience: famous local destinations, calligraphy and text, and arabesque motifs that remind her of home. By including these symbols, she hopes to evoke “joy” from this specific set of viewers. Catharsis may be a better word than joy: Fathallah says she hopes that viewers obtain a certain visual pleasure from her work, but the pleasure should be as complicated as Beirut’s architectural landscape. A painting of a building with bullet holes isn’t likely to bring joy, especially to people who have specific memories associated with the site, but the acknowledgement of that reality, along with the many other existing realities that live hand-in-hand can bring a certain type of relief.
Finally, in these complex times, Fathallah has a message for other artists: “I’m sending support, and solidarity, and gratitude to all the other artists out there right now, grappling and trying to continue their practice. Lots of love to the art community.”
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