Red-Black Thread explores the construction of black identity not from the traditional Anglophone and Francophone worlds of the Atlantic but rather from the Russophone idiom of imperial Russia and the Soviet Union. Commissioned by the Walker and Metropolitan Museums on the occasion of the Siah Armajani retrospective “Follow This Line”, Red Black Thread looks at the experience of labor, race, and sexuality from a shared Russian/Soviet and African-American perspective to better understand failed promises of conviviality and co-existence.
I Utter Other2014–present
What does it mean for one east to look to and at another one? Can the romanticized romanticize? From Poles in the service of the Tsar to Persian Presbyterians, I Utter Other looks at the curious case of Slavic Orientalism in the Russian Empire and early USSR. Slavic Orientalism offers a crucial counterpoint if not antecedent to the received wisdom of Saidian Orientalism. Despite the radical transition from Tsarism to Bolshevism, the study of the East in the East complicates notions of identity politics and knowledge in the service of power, offering a coherent post-colonial critique some 60 years avant la lettre.
The lecture-performance has been presented at these venues, amongst others:
Guggeinheim Museum, NYC; SAVVY Contemporary, Berlin; Steirischer Herbst, Graz; Albertinum, Dresden; and Westfälischer Kunstverein, Münster.
Al-Isnad or Chains We Can Believe In2013–present
Al-Isnad or Chains We Can Believe In tells a story of mysticism within modernity, namely through the unlikely perspective of a Dan Flavin commissions for a Sufi mosque in downtown New York in the early 1980s, via the Dia Art Foundation. From Khlebnikov and the Russian Futurists to Charles de Foucauld and le renouveau catholique, the lecture attempts a definition of criticality through hospitality and arts patronage.
The lecture-performance has been presented at these venues, amongst others:
Centre Pompidou, Paris; MuMA, Melbourne; Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, Bardo Museum, Tunis, and Kulturhuset, Stockholm.
Through the lens of phonetic, semantic, and theological slippage, Transliterative Tease explores the potential for transliteration – the conversion of scripts – as a strategy equally of resistance and research into notions such as identity politics, colonialism, and faith. The lecture-performance focuses on the Turkic languages of the former Soviet Union, as well as the eastern and western frontiers of the Turkic sphere, namely Anatolia and Xinjiang/Uighuristan. Lenin believed that the revolution of the east begins with the Latinization of the alphabets of all Muslim subjects of the USSR. The march of alphabets has always accompanied that of empires – Arabic with the rise of Islam, Latin with that of Roman Caholicism, and Cyrillic with the Orthodox Church and subsequently communism. This lecture-performance attempts not to emancipate peoples or nations but rather the sounds rolling off our tongues.
The lecture-performance has been presented at these venues, amongst others:
Kunsthalle Zurich; Dallas Museum of Art; MoMA, NY; Asian Culture Center Theater, Gwangju; Royal College of Art, London; La Colonie, Paris; OGR, Turin; and Pejman Foundation, Tehran.
Reverse Joy looks at Muharram, the yearly Shi’a commemoration of Hossein, as a perpetual protest movement for its radical reconsideration of history and justice. Inserting oneself, flesh and faith, into events that transpired 13 centuries ago; the collapse of traditional understandings of time; the reversal of roles of men and women; and joy through mourning: Muharram has taken on a near cosmic significance, beyond regional rivalries, and possibly beyond the faith itself to impact notions of identity, mysticism, protest, and resistance in the world at large.
The lecture-performance has been presented at these venues, amongst others:
Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin; Secession, Vienna; New Museum, New York; and GfZK, Leipzig.
Embrace Your Antithesis2011–present
Arguably the most important periodical of the Muslim world in the 20th century, Molla Nasreddin was a legendary Azerbaijani satirical weekly read by an audience that stretched from Morocco to India, thanks to its extensive caricatures. Named after the 13th century wise man-cum-fool, Molla Nasreddin addressed issues such as gender equality, education, colonialism, and Islam’s integration of modernity – all of which remain as relevant and pressing today as when the magazine was first published a century ago. Embrace Your Antithesis includes a discussion of the book’s historical context, a case study of the complexity otherwise known as the Caucasus, the figure of the antimodern, and the issue of self-censorship a century ago and today.
The lecture-performance has been presented at these venues, amongst others:
SALT, Istanbul; Serpentine Galleries, London; Ecole des Beaux Arts, Paris; NYU Abu Dhabi Institute; and Asia Art Archive, Hong Kong.
79.89.09 looks at two key modern moments – the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and Poland’s Solidarnosc movement in the 1980s – as bookends to the two major geopolitical narratives of the 20th and 21st century, respectively – Communism and political Islam. Originally a contribution to Berlin-based biannual 032c, 79.89.09 looks at issues as disparate as the monobrow, modernity, and the Beach Boys in understanding the importance of these two moments for the greater Middle East today. The lecture acted as the opening salvo to Slavs and Tatars’ Friendship of Nations: Polish Shi’ite Showbiz cycle, an investigation of the unlikely points of convergence in the economic, cultural, and political histories of Poland and Iran, respectively. From 17th century's Sarmatism to the 21st century reform movement in Iran, the advent of the 24 hour news cycle to the role of crafts as citizen diplomacy, 79.89.09 presents a lateral look at the two countries in their quest for self determination.
The lecture-performance has been presented at these venues, amongst others:
Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw; 10th Sharjah Biennale; Stanford University; REDCAT, Los Angeles; and CAC, Vilnius.
The cycle Régions d’être spans the unwieldy geographical remit of Slavs and Tatars – between the former Berlin Wall and the Great Wall of China – while also serving as a prequel to the collective’s practice. Régions d’être is the collective’s term for an area that falls between the cracks of history and general knowledge: largely Muslim but not the Middle East, largely Russian speaking but not Russia, and having a complex relationship with the nation. Yet rather than representing a specific value, history or culture, this ‘region of being’ is as much an imagined, poetic geography as it is a real, political and historical geopolitics.
Taking the form of an oversized inflatable water boiler, teapot and serving tray lodged into the side of the Hayward Gallery, the sculpture is titled after the eponymous tea brewer commonly found across Central Asia.
A Russian invention of the mid-18th century, samovars are used today across Eastern Europe, the Middle East and some parts of Asia, in both domestic and communal settings.
Although humorously enlarged like a mascot or parade float, Slavs and Tatars’ installation uses the samovar as an emblem to recount the ways in which the history of tea is intertwined with cross-cultural exchange and colonialism.
By creating a monumental symbol of a celebrated and long-established tea culture, the artwork questions the role of tea in British history, tradition and popular culture.
A pocket mirror doubles as a chair in Hi, Brow!: a social sculpture and performance providing visitors the chance to receive a monobrow courtesy of a beautician.
Slavs and Tatars’ work often mixes registers of high and low, high-brow ideologies and low-brow media (pickles to balloons). In that vein, roasted sunflower seeds are a staple snack, shared across the Slavic-Turkic peoples from Eastern Europe to Central Asia. Like the wheat of Wheat Mollah, the sunflower seed becomes a symbol of proletariat or rather, its 21st century sucessor, the précariat.
Characteristic of the artists’ interest in coincidentia oppositorum (the coincidence of opposites) equally as a strategy as subject matter, Hamdami explores the conspiration of the sensual and spiritual.
The takht (bed, or what we call a ‘RiverBed’ in honour of its ideal location by a source of water), the vernacular structure found at teahouses, roadside kiosks, shrines, entrances to mosques and restaurants across Iran and Central Asia, accommodates a group of roughly four or five people without the unfortunate and unspoken delineation of individual space dictated by the chair. Friends, families, and colleagues sit, smoke shisha, sip tea, eat lunch, take naps, and create – however momentarily – a sense of public space, all the more remarkable in countries where public space is circumscribed, such as Iran.
The book is central to Slavs and Tatars’ practice. In addition to an extensive publishing practice, the artists create spaces, sculptures, lecture-performances, installations and audio works all of which ostensibly bring us back to the book. For most of its history, though, reading has been a collective practice, not a private one. You could say the private or individual book as such is really only about 150 years old. Slavs and Tatars are committed to re-activating the idea of collective reading: not necessarily in the lteral sense of reading together, but rather in an attempt to create a multiple subjectivity, to read as a body of multiples. Above is a selection of various reading spaces within their exhibitions.
A traditional kebab skewer pierces through a selection of Slavs and Tatars’ books, suggesting not only an analytical but also an affective and digestive relationship to text. The mashed-up reading list proposes a lateral or transversal approach to knowledge, an attempt to combine the depth of the more traditionally-inclined vertical forms of knowledge with the range of the horizontal.
Love Me, Love Me Not
A genealogy of a given city’s name changes, the result of rising or falling empires, states, and/or populations. Some cities divulge a resolutely Asian or Muslim heritage, so often forgotten in some citizens’ quest, at all costs, for a European, Christian identity. Others vacillate almost painfully, and others with numbing repetition, entire metropolises caught like children in the spiteful back and forth of a custody battle. Like much of Slavs and Tatars’ work, Love Me Love Me Not was first conceived as a book, a compilation of 150 such city names.
A collision of the sacred and the profane – the rahlé, the traditional book stand used for holy books, and the takht (or river-bed), vernacular seating areas used in tea-salons – PrayWay is part installation, part sculpture, part seating area, and all polemical platform.
Molla Nasreddin the antimodern
Often depicted riding backwards on his donkey, Nasreddin is a transnational folk figure found in different guises and under various names from Morocco to Croatia, Sudan to China. Using first-degree humour to question issues of morality and ethics, he has become a retro-active mascot of sorts for Slavs and Tatars. In Molla Nasreddin the antimodern the artists have given the old dervish a bounce to his step and made extra room for a sidekick. Children hold on tight to Hodja’s portly belly as this Sufi super-hero faces the past but trots into the future, cutting a profile of an anti-modern figure.
Whether it’s gender politics as geo-politics, migrant labor, or jadidism, to name a few, Nations employ bawdy humour and deliberate one-liners to deliver ice-breakers of unassuming density.
“Despite their specifically-defined geographical remit, and commitment to this particular region, in some ways ‘Eurasia’ (the continental span that includes Asia, the Middle East, and Europe) is a foil: allowing viewers and audiences to consider their own relationships to more general questions of belonging, foreignness, citizenry, and to the multiple subjectivities that dwell, rightfully yet often with conflict, within any single place. This characteristic attention and care, deployed with humour, is tied to the collective’s transregional perspective: their understanding that any single place or person is in fact made up of many, and that the specific bleeds into the general. If the region of Eurasia is a deliberately broad net to cast, then without any instrumentalization, Slavs and Tatars find, accumulate, and re-present bodies of knowledge and material histories that can seem (to some) minute, niche, and arcane. This characteristic straddling of materiality and ideology, history and belief, the particular and the absolute” is a tension maintained within the jungle-gym of Régions d’être.
Excerpt from Slavs and Tatars, ed. by Pablo Larios, published by König Books, 2017
When in Rome
A deliberate slippage of terminology allows for a moment that is equally commemorative and confused. Coins are offered, not for beggars, but for believers as is often found strewn across icons of Orthodox Christianity. If modernity is the totalizing project of the 20th century, one that doesn’t allow for failure, one where expediency trumps reflection, perhaps Roma offer the possibility of escape, from the tyranny of the past and present.
Idź na Wschód!
In 2009, Slavs and Tatars organized a day trip to Bohoniki and Kruszyniany, two Tatar villages in Poland, located near the Byelorussian border, which offer a cosmopolitan understanding of Polish identity and an ideal model of progressive Islam via the creolized vernacular architecture of the wooden mosques and the liberal relationship between men and women. In the Wola district of Warsaw, a billboard inviting people to ‘Go East’ featured Charles Bronson, né Karol Buczynski, of Once Upon a Time in the West fame, whose cheekbones and eyes were often mistaken for Mexican or Native American but were in fact a remnant of his Lipka Tatar heritage.
Histoire du Monde Slave et Tatar
Histoire du Monde Slave et Tatar proposes a revision of Louis-Henri Fournet’s famous Tableau Synoptique de l’Histoire du Monde, literally a visual diagram of the past 5000 years (or fifty centuries) of world history, to mark those regions falling within the artists’ geographic remit.
A celebration of complexity in the Caucasus, this cycle investigates the linguistic, social and political phenomena of a region at the site of historical crossroads between Ottoman, Persian and Russian empires.
To Mountain Minorities
The original Georgian expression ‘Chven Sakartvelos Gaumardjos’ is roughly translated as ‘Long Live Georgia!’ or ‘Vive la Georgie!’. By changing a single letter, however, the ‘a’ of ‘Sakartvelos’ to a ‘u’ to make ‘Sakurtvelos’, the phrase becomes ‘Long Live Kurdistan!’ and the unresolved geopolitical identity of one mountain peoples is replaced with that of another.
Mountains of Wit
Горе от Ума (Gore ot Uma, meaning ‘woe from wit’) is a famous 19th century play about Moscow manners by Aleksander Griboyedov, a close friend of Pushkin’s and diplomat to the Tsar in the Caucasus. By changing the ‘e’ in the original Russian title to an ‘Ы’, a quintessentially Russian letter, the title becomes Mountains of Wit, and the urban premise of the original work is hijacked by a Caucasian setting equally imaginative and apposite, one which played an influential role in Griboyedov’s life and death.
Hymns of No Resistance
Hymns of No Resistance features classic and cult pop songs revised to address issues of territorial dispute, language, and geopolitics within greater Eurasia. An adaptation of Michael Sembello’s Flashdance track ‘She’s a Maniac’ becomes ‘She’s Armenian’, replacing the struggles of an aspiring dancer with those of a diaspora Armenian. Meanwhile, ‘Young Kurds’ – a retelling of Rod Stewart’s ‘Young Turks’ – tells the story of Sherko and Shirin, a Kurdish couple on the run. ‘Stuck in Ossetia with You’ (originally ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’ by Stealers Wheel) looks at the 2008 Russo-Georgian war.
Letter to Abriskil aka Amiran aka Prometheus
For the West, it was Prometheus who stole fire from Zeus and gave it to the mortals, and whose punishment was to be chained to a mountain (which happened to be in the Caucasus), with his liver eternally torn out by the beak of an eagle.
For the Ossetians, it was Amiran aka Abriskil who, according to legend, got into a rock-throwing match with Jesus. After an enormous boulder hurled past Jesus and lodged itself deep into a mountain, Jesus challenged Amiran to unearth the rock. Amiran did not succeed, and as punishment was chained to the peak of Mt. Kazbek. Amiran was a repeat offender, to use the revanchist legal lingo of his foe’s fanboys (i.e. Republicans): the son of a sorcerer, he singled out Christians for punishment. To this day, it is said that Amiran's despair and struggle to break free of his chains is what causes the avalanches and earthquakes in the greater region.
Kidnapping Mountains (Over-Here)
Given the density of different ethnic groups and languages in the Caucasus, sometimes from disparate language families, Kidnap Over-Here argues for a pre-modern understanding of identity, one which is spatially-inflected. For example, the Georgians living west of the Likhi mountain range, considered by some to be the natural border between Europe and Asia, refer to themselves as the “over-here’s” and to those living on the east side of the range as the “over-there’s”.
Dig The Booty
Dig the Booty features a transliteration of an aphorism across the Latin, Cyrillic and and Perso-Arabic scripts in homage to the vicissitudes of the Azeri alphabet which changed 3 times over the past century: from Arabic to Latin in 1929, from Latin to Cyrillic in 1939, only to go back to Latin in 1991.
The cycle began with a study of unexpected points of commonality between the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and Poland’s Solidarność movement of the 1980s, events that coincided with major geopolitical shifts in the twentieth century, resulting in the emergence of revolutionary Islam on the one hand, and the fall of communism on the other. The points of convergence between Poland and Iran’s respective quests for self-determination extend to 17th century Sarmatism, an exodus of Polish refugees to Iran during World War II, and the intermingling of faith and citizen diplomacy.
A series of reverse-glass paintings exploring the overlaps between Catholic and Sh’ia theology and iconography.
Just as the anti-communist Solidarność Walcząca used the royal eagle, banned from official Polish insignia during communist rule, as an act of defiance to martial law, Inrising looks to the simorgh, the mythical Persian bird and Sufi symbol as a sign of solidarity, albeit in a less socio-economic and more mystical understanding of the term. The simorgh figures heavily in literary works such as Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh and Attar’s Conference of the Birds: here the literary trope has been translated into a Polish craft technique of intricate paper cut-outs known as wycinanki.
Featuring a translation of Czesław Miłosz’s ‘Który skrzywdziłeś’ (You Who Wronged) into Persian, the sound work Samizabt (2013) speaks to the role of poetry as a form of political resistance. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, from tsarist Russia to communist Poland, poets were considered a threat to the state, a stark contrast to their esoteric if not marginal role in Western nations. Following protests in Iran over the results of the 2009 presidential elections, works of Polish authors hitherto untranslated began to pop up in Tehran’s bookstores in Persian. Whether it was the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, philosopher Leszek Kołakowski, or poet Wisława Szymborska, the new crop of a particular nation’s literature makes a convincing case for early twenty-first century Iran to look to Poland’s late twentieth-century struggle with communism. Solidarność’s turn to religion and faith for its progressive potential and effective means of resistance, especially in the face of the creeping secular materialism left unchecked after the fall of the Iron Curtain, resonated with an opposition movement in Iran trying to triangulate between political Islam and the desire for a truly representative government.
In the Name of God
An unofficial motto of Poland, ‘W imię Boga za Naszą i Waszą Wolność’ (In the Name of God, For Your Freedom and Ours) has been appropriated by peoples all around the world in their struggles for self-determination. Featuring both Russian and Polish in its original iteration, the poster is a complex nod to the fate binding two countries whose history has been contentious to say the least. By translating the original into Persian and reinstating the Russian, In the Name of God addresses the transnational, if not transcendental, nature of this phrase, aiming to rescue it from the jaws of parochial or imperial instrumentalization.
Mystical Protest looks at the numinous, or the holy, as a potential agent for change in the concrete, material world. Muharram is the first month of the Islamic calendar and the second holiest month, following Ramadan. Each year, during the month of Muharram, Shi’ites re-enact various rituals and rites surrounding the death of Hussein Ibn Ali, the Prophet’s Mohammed’s grandson. A text reading “It is of utmost importance that we repeat our mistakes as a reminder to future generations of the depths of our stupidity” offers a defeatist admonishment to revolutionary calls for change.
Solidarność Pająk Studies
Originally a pagan tradition, the pająk (lit. ‘spider’ in Polish) was traditionally hung from the homes of rural Poles to celebrate the harvest and to bless the upcoming year of crops. Crafted according to local customs, they are often made with found, ephemeral materials. Slavs and Tatars revisit the pająk as a testimony to the painstaking diligence and delicate nature of compromise crucial to the Polish precedent of civil disobedience. Solidarność Pająk study 1-9 creolizes the pająk by integrating elements or motifs of Iranian Shi’a culture into an originally pantheist then Catholic-Polish one. In one, flowers are replaced with the wool bangles habitually adorning Persian carpets; in another, the reeds form the outline of the Allah crest of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Like the mirror mosaics of Resist Resisting God, the pająk is an example of craft as a vehicle for revolutionary critique and ideology.
Study for Sarmat Surfaces
One of the more surprising convergences in our studies of Iran and Poland has been the visual culture and craft traditions of their dominant faiths: Shi’a Islam and Catholicism, respectively. These range from passion plays and re-enactions of the Stations of the Cross to Ta’zieh, Carnival floats, Muharram alam, as well as banners and reverse-glass painting. Upending traditional notions of Renaissance perspective, painting behind glass requires beginning with the outermost layer, say the eyes, and moving inwards towards the background.
In Friendship of Nations, we often turned to crafts for their ability to decouple innovation from individuality. When push comes to shove, unlike the arts, crafts tend to opt for repetition over difference: an apprentice calligrapher for example, must spend some ten years copying his or her mentor before daring to attempt a flourish of their own. Such an approach allows us to consider innovation not as a series of ruptures or patricides, as the avant-garde would have us believe, but rather as a continuous process. Repetition – be it the mantra of a zikr or the stitching of a needlework piece – revolves around a certain genealogical transparency so engrossing that it verges on transubstantiation; one must not just reveal one’s sources but become them.
A nod to the often-overlooked leftist origins of the Iranian Revolution of 1979. From the basic building block of food – bread – to the ideological stand-in for socialism, it could be argued that wheat emits a sacred, almost atavistic aura, and not just in Slavic countries. Established in 1925, Bank Sepah, Iran’s first bank, today sports a logo combining the stylized lettering for ‘Allah’, as found on the flag of the Islamic Republic, surrounded by a wreath of tulips on the left and a stalk of wheat on the right. This inadvertent tribute to the crest of the USSR, whose hammer and sickle are surrounded by two stalks of wheat, would make Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the inheritors of the Army Pension Fund at the origin of Bank Sepah, drop their collective jaws. Add to wheat's impressive arsenal a talismanic quality: how else to explain that wheat has that rare ability to combine the seemingly incommensurate: communism and political Islam?
Friendship of Nations
Made accordingly by Polish seamstresses or Iranian tailors, the Friendship of Nations banners comprise the main body of work of the eponymous cycle. Creolizing best-practices from the Solidarność movement and the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the banners also speak to the unlikely points of resonance between craft traditions of the Catholic faith and Shi'a Islam.
Pre-Write Your History
On the occasion of the exhibition-cum-summer academy “Group Affinity” at the Kunstverein München, Slavs and Tatars looked into the notion of the anti-modern from craft traditions to female prayer rituals, including the Slavic harvest festival of dozhinki found across Eastern Europe.
Weeping Window (Chłopaki)
Using the rear window of a Polski Fiat 126, a legendary car manufactured in communist Poland, Weeping Window (chłopaki) features the antimodernist trope – looking backwards at history but moving forwards towards the future – that has become a trademark of sorts of Slavs and Tatars’ practice. From Sartre’s description of Baudelaire as driving forward but with an eye on the rear-view mirror, to Walter Benjamin’s ‘Angel of History’ propelled to the future but facing the rubble of the past, the anti-modern is perhaps best exemplified by Molla Nasreddin, the twelfth-century wise man-cum-fool often depicted riding backward on his donkey. The text – ‘Khajda Khłopaki’ – roughly translates as ‘Let’s go, boys!’ in an archaic Polish, an exhortation to advance forward despite glancing backwards.
A Monobrow Manifesto
Sometimes we must ask stupid questions of otherwise smart subject matter. As a cultural prism or epiphenomenon, the monobrow does just that: the pesky hairs that grow between the eyebrows have a startling way of distinguishing the West from the rest. In Victorian England, the monobrow was associated with delinquent behaviour; in eighteenth- and nineteenth- century French literature, a monosourcil incurred suspicion of being a werewolf; in the US today, it diminishes a child’s social capital in the cruel Darwinism called school. But other skies tell other stories: in Qajar paintings, the monobrow is brandished equally by both sexes. In Iran, it occupies a special place, alongside the eyes and eyelashes, as a trifecta that determines one’s beauty. Across the Middle East and the Caucasus, it is a sign of virility and sophistication. If, in the Global South, the monobrow is hot, in the colder climes of the US and Europe, it’s clearly not.
Reverse Joy (Muharram)
Reverse Joy (Muharram) looks at the perpetual protest movement at the heart of the Shi’a commemoration of Muharram, one of the holiest months of the calendar, for its radical reconsideration of history and justice.
Inserting oneself, flesh and faith, into the events that transpired 13 centuries ago; the collapse of traditional understandings of time; the reversal of roles of men and women; and joy through mourning all demand an equally elastic and muscular understanding of the sacred and the profane that is the down payment towards any meaningful social change.
Throughout their oeuvre, Slavs and Tatars often use the term ‘metaphysical splits’ to refer to the combination or collision of two mutually exclusive or antithetical ideologies, registers, concepts within one page or space. No work perhaps better captures this idea of coincidentia oppositorum than Reverse Joy. Through the very simple gesture of a red pigment, the fountain brings together two ends of the spectrum: the innocent with the cynical, the naïve with the violent, through a single color red, for some a festive symbol recalling compote or kool aid, and for others the trace of blood, of martyrdom.
Resist Resisting God
The geometric patterns, upon which the mirror mosaics are based, arrived with the Arab invasions of Persia which introduced Islam in the seventh century. Wood or ceramic was often the Arab medium of choice. The Persians, always keen to distinguish themselves from their Arab neighbours, used mirrors as a bevelled, bling-bling option.
Slavs and Tatars are particularly interested in the revolutionary potential of certain crafts. In the case of Iran, the mirror mosaic best exemplifies the complexity behind the Islamic Republic’s particular brand of anti-imperial imperialism. Much like the Soviets exported agit-prop and socialist realism globally, Iran exports this craft as the aesthetic embodiment of its own ideology to Shi’ite mosques and shrines throughout the region such as the Zeynab Shrine in Damascus.
Hip to be Square
A Polish flag laid over an EP of Huey Lewis’ 1980s hit ‘Hip to Be Square’ and a Kazimir Malevich signature (in decidedly Polish orthography) celebrate the cliché of the plodding Pole by redeeming the methodical, slow-burn nature of the Solidarność strike movement. The seemingly saccharine and innocuous pop song is reinvested with the radicalism of the normal and unsexy, the ‘square’ in English slang, as a successful case study and precedent for other movements of civil disobedience.
In this cycle, the artists look to syncretism – the combination or amalgamation of distinct beliefs, religions, images, languages, or politics – as a third way between the two major geopolitical heavyweights of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries: communism and political Islam. Hybrid genealogies are told from the perspective of the region’s fruits: from the persimmon to the mulberry, from the melon to the pomegranate. The history of the region’s flora moves beyond the anthropomorphic focus on historical personages of a region.
A moving example of the syncretism – be it linguistic, religious, or ideological – found in Central Asia, Holy Bukhara is an homage to the Jews of Central Asia, aka Bukharan Jews, whose language, Boxori, provides an unlikely collision of Persian dialect with Hebrew script. Revising the epithet of Central Asia’s holiest city, ‘Bukhara yeh Sharif’ (meaning Holy Bukhara), with one letter, the work celebrates the language as much as the city’s pluralist approach to faith.
Never Give Up The Fruit
Never Give Up The Fruit explores the triangulation of identity against not only the twin ideological poles of communism and political Islam but also the ethnic tensions of Uighurs and Han Chinese. According to legend, the Qianlong Emperor specifically asked that the religious and political leader Afaq Khoja’s granddaughter – known as Xian Fe to the Hans or Iparxan to the Uighurs – be taken alive after Xinjiang was conquered. Her beauty was so renowned that she is said to have been transported back to Beijing in a carriage with felt-lined wheels to ease the long journey. The Uighurs see in Iparxan a symbol of resistance thanks to her alleged refusal to submit to the Emperor’s desires. The Emperor went to great lengths to please her, building a scale replica of Kashgar’s bazaar outside her window to make her feel less homesick, having the famous Hami melons of her homeland delivered, and even allegedly providing her with baths of sheep’s milk. None of this sufficed, nearly driving the Emperor mad and convincing his mother to assassinate his unyielding mistress. Alas, the Han narrative is more mundane, seeing Xian Fe as one of many concubines; in their version of the story, neither her fragrance nor her beauty was enough to save her from the Emperor’s entreaties.
The only part of Central Asia historically under Chinese (as opposed to Russian) rule, the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region is home to the majority of Uighurs and spans 1.6 million square kilometres – roughly equivalent to the surface area of Germany, Spain, and Turkey combined. If, for the West, Islam comes from the East, and the East is often adopted as a shorthand for Islam, the religion of Muhammad comes from the West for the Chinese. Not only does Xinjiang sit just inside Slavs and Tatars’ geographic remit on this side of the Great Wall of China, the province itself is the site of a face-off between the two major geopolitical narratives of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries – communism and political Islam, respectively. And crucially, almost without any trace of mediation by the West.
Xinjiang is China’s most resource-rich province, with the world’s largest oil and natural gas reserves; it also has the misfortune of having the lowest population density amongst all Chinese provinces, the result of which has been a large influx of Han Chinese in recent decades, facilitating an Uighur population drop from 75 % in 1953 to 46 % today. The mutual enmity and tension between the Han and the Uighur – from online forums to the very streets of Hotan – is palpable, and conjures up the case of Israel and Palestine, except on steroids. Sandwiched between Russia and China, Xinjiang was a stage during two World Wars, not to mention two communist revolutions thirty years apart. So Uighurs have had their fair share of geopolitical landmines to navigate, with differing degrees of success. In the 1920s, the Soviet Union provided support by establishing unions and workers’ groups, as well as publishing titles catering to the sizeable percentage of Uighurs living in the neighbouring Kazakh and Uzbek Socialist Republics. The early Soviet policy of ascribing a narodnost or ‘ethnicity’ to each and every distinct group of the exceptionally diverse population was one of many attempts to deal with the legacies of Imperial Russia and its transformation into a Soviet society.
There has been no shortage of recriminations and ugly stereotypes on both sides during the many decades of this unhappy marriage: the Han accuse the Uighurs of being lazy, while the Uighurs claim the Han lack proper hygiene. Historic neighbourhoods are razed in their entirety under the pretext of fortifying faulty old constructions, incensing the Uighurs, whom the Han in turn consider ungrateful. Despite being the largest ethnic group by a substantial margin (until recently, that is), the Uighurs are never given top administrative posts or political appointments, instead often holding ceremonial secondary roles.
Dunjas, Donyas, Dinias
Long-standing Serbo-Turkic enmities make peace in Dunjas, Donyas, and Dinias. The word for the fruit “quince” in Serbian – dunja – is a common name given to women as a symbol of beauty, and happens to be the homonym of the word “world” in Arabic and Turkic: donya.
Via the puckered lips of someone who smiles backwards, Hanging Low pays homage to the conflicted relationship to memory, to pluralism, and to joy through mourning. Józef Wittlin’s Mój Lwów (My Lvov) laments the loss of the plural identities, languages, and affinities in a city that was once Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, and German, and warns of memory’s selective, if unstated, agenda. He speaks of the strange mix of the sublime and the street urchin, of wisdom and cretinism, of poetry and the mundane – as a special indefinable taste: bittersweet.
“You Know of the How / I Know of the How-less” is attributed to Rabia al-Adawwiya, a Muslim saint and Sufi mystic. Considered to be one of the first female Sufis, she is credited with pioneering the notion of Divine Love central to the veneration of God in Sufism.
Long Live The Syncretics
Modeled after the branch of a mulberry tree whose fruits are white or black, Long Live the Syncretics delicately dangles ribbons as a nod to the progressive, syncretic approach to Islam in Central Asia, where Buddhist, Hindu, and pantheist rituals are incorporated into the belief system.
The Dear for the Dear
Before the Before, After the After
A fruit of caricature, of the Other, the watermelon often serves as a racist shorthand for African-Americans in the US; while in Russia it recalls the contested Caucasus and in Europe the countries of origin of the migrant populations, be it Turkey, North Africa or elsewhere. Placed in the two Robert Oerley pots at the entrance to the Vienna's Secession, the watermelons encourage visitors to experience the “Not Moscow Not Mecca” exhibition not just cerebrally, but also sensorially and affectively.
Stalinist policy towards Central Asia – ‘To Moscow Not Mecca’ – aimed at replacing Islam with communism as the chief belief system of the local Muslim population of the Soviet Union. Not Moscow Not Mecca chooses not to choose between the two major narratives of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, that is, revolutionary communism or political Islam. Instead, each of the Triangulation road markers brings together a resolutely secular city with one known for its sacred importance.
The march of alphabets has often accompanied the ascension and fall of empires and religions. In Language Arts, the collective unteases the politics of alphabets: the many fraught, often forgotten yet palpable attempts by nations, cultures and ideologies to ascribe a specific letter to a sound. The book Khhhhhhh (Moravian Gallery, Mousse / 2012) examines, literally, the throat as a space of phonetic and sacred agency via the Hebrew, Russian and Arabic letters for the fricative [kh] while Naughty Nasals looks to the nose, as a ‘site of resistance in the Slavic and Turkic languages’.
Part of the Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw’s Primary Forms educational program, Księgożerstwo is a stamp and ex-libris challenging adolescents to consider which texts they consider canonical and why.
A mouth emits Cyrillic letters which failed to take hold in various languages, approximations of sounds which did not exist previously in Russian or other slavic languages.
Deepthroat Dipthongs have nothing
on you, Jamal, or as our Albanian Apollinarians
say, Xhemal. The Americans called you
the jump /dz/ for one
Hakeem the Dream
No oldies but goodies Kareem
Abdul Ҹabbar who ҹuggled to the rear
empires under Ҹahangir
The Qit Qat Qlub
headlines the Ka
with a descender
of your thighs,
of your beloved shuns the Qatalogue
of your lies
Rudaki wrote about the wine
Hafez and Saadi the divine
but only your seedless
Grapes the gift of caprice
the whine of so
velars of volcanic tides
We are born oui
people and non! people
Ҩui the people fear not
Amiran nor his
Lean and mean
So many echoes in
Noses half Abkhaz
Jęzzers język celebrates the nasal phonemes specific to the Polish language through a retro exclamation: Yowzers! Unlike most other Slavic languages, the Polish language has prominent nasal phonemes – ‘ą’ and ‘ę’. These letters have provided an unlikely source of self-determination and resistance in the face of pan-Slavism, Russian imperialism, amid a panoply of perceived or real threats.
When broken down into its two component syllabes, odbyt (lit. ‘rectum’ in Polish) means ‘from being’. While Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde clearly indicates which orifice the French artist considered a myth of origins, Odbyt argues for the a**hole as the origin of humanity. Meaning ‘from’ in several Slavic languages, the preposition ‘ot’ used to exist in old Church Slavonic as a Cyrillic letter unto itself: ‘Ѿ’.
Larry Nixed, Trachea Trixed
Larry Nixed, Trachea Trixed looks at various attempts to Cyrillicize sounds or phonemes that did not previously exist in the Russian Cyrillic alphabet, one of many attempts to extend or embed Soviet influence, with a decidedly more sensuous, if not sexualized, approach to the traditionally cold, clinical approach of linguistics.
Enforced from 1932 to 1950, the Turkish translation of the traditionally Arabic call to prayer, or ezan, was perhaps the most controversial piece in an elaborate constellation of language reforms in the Republic of Turkey. To begin with, translating Allah to Tanrı problematizes the very central tenet of the faith – the unicity of God (tawhid) – through the use of a pre-Islamic, shamanist term dating to the era of the Mongols and Genghis Khan, meaning ‘the great sky’. Ezan Çılgınları – literally, the ‘call-to-prayer crazies’ – was the term used for those who defied the authorities’ enforcement of the Turkish ezan by climbing minarets and performing the call to prayer in the original Arabic. Despite a rocky ride, the language reforms known as dil devrimi advanced relentlessly...until 1950, when the call to prayer was changed back to Arabic. To this day, many Kemalists see in this reversal the first of many concessions leading to the increased public face of Islam in Turkish society and politics of the past decades.
For the eighth Berlin Biennale, Slavs and Tatars revisited this particular episode through an unwieldy restaging of the ezan. In collaboration with musician Jace Clayton (DJ /rupture), Turkish call to prayer was recorded with Vocaloid™ for an entirely computer-generated, a cappella summons or chant. If once Young Turks, Gökalpists, and other reformists considered the Turkish replacement a way of anchoring the young republic to the West, five decades later it seems to have had the exact opposite effect: reactivating a thoroughly different understanding of Turkey’s linguistic and cultural genealogy. If the Ottoman Empire pushed southwards and westwards, then Ezan Çılgıŋŋŋŋŋları pushes east towards Central Asia – not just the Balkans or the Middle East – extending across the steppe, nearer to China than Europe.
The distinct Turkish (as opposed to Arabic) phonetics of the call to prayer sheltered it from potential Islamophobic attacks or protests from residents surrounding its outdoor installation at the Haus am Waldsee. Set on the bucolic slope of grass outside the exhibition space, the lake acts as nature’s own loudspeaker, pushing the call to prayer further outwards. Due to the peculiar tonalities of the language, the Turkish ezan is far more consonant-heavy, especially compared to the more open-vowelled Arabic adhan. While the recognizability of Allāhu akbar makes it a vocal lightning rod, the same could not be said of Taŋrı uludur.
Listen to audio file here
The Naughty Nasals
The Naughty Nasals identify the nose as an unlikely site of sonorous resistance to the instrumentalization of scripts, or alphabets. The ‘Ѫѫ’ (wielki jus) and ‘Ѧѧ’ (mały jus) invoke nasal sounds that have disappeared from most Slavic languages but remain as ‘ą’ and ‘ę’ in contemporary Polish. As mobile confessionals, they are a testament to one of the lesser known, aborted attempts to Cyrillicize the Polish language in the nineteenth century. Despite the often very clinical approach of linguistics, the various organs of language represent a distinct erogenous: be it the teeth, lips, mouth, tongue, neck, ears or nose. The sequel to the artists' publication Khhhhhhh, the similarly title book The Naughty Nasals (Galeria Arsenal, 2014) explores the nose as a rupture from the norm of language poltiics across the Polish and Turkic languages.
Long eclipsed by the mouth as a source of libidinal linguistics, Swinging Septum restores the nose as an equally discursive and desirous organ of language. A flat silhouette nose sways from left to right, evocative of the facial acrobatics the septum must perform to reach the sonorous heights of /ɛ̃/ or /ŋ/ to name but a few.
Turkey today has only one measly alphabet. The Turkish language put the thorny issue of alphabet politics to rest in little over eight decades: the massive alphabet reform launched in 1928 by the Türk Dil Kurumu (Turkish Language Institute) stands uncontested to this day. Even a reactionary Salafist in Turkey might think twice about bringing back the Arabic script: the Romanization project in Turkey was, as Geoffrey Lewis put it best, ‘a catastrophic success’.
Among the letters that didn’t quite make it from the sinking ship of Ottoman Turkish to the newly Romanized shores was the 28th letter of the alphabet, a little twitch at the back of the nose, the ڭ or Kêf-î Nûni. Until 1928, the Turks had two different <n> sounds: the conventional ن (n), the one you’d be happy to introduce to the parents, as in نهایت, ‘never’, or ‘nomenklatura’; then there’s the ڭ, a more peculiar, eccentric type of n, pronounced in the depths of the nose, as the <ng> in ‘sing’. The very pronunciation of <ng> has all the first-degree Oriental trappings of a snake-charmer, or more aptly, a gong. For good reason: <ng> figures among the most common Chinese surnames, with an extensive Wikipedia entry dedicated to ‘Notable people with the surname Ng’ to boot. In Turkey, words that used to have the <ng> have progressively whitewashed it out of existence, like blacklisted party members from an official photo – an unwanted reminder of phonetic, linguistic, if not national disruption. Dengiz became deniz (sea), tangri became tanri (all-encompassing sky).
Reverse Joy (Kha)
Throughout their oeuvre, Slavs and Tatars often use the term ‘metaphysical splits’ to refer to the combination or collision of two mutually exclusive or antithetical ideologies, registers, concepts within one page or space. No work perhaps better captures this idea of coincidentia oppositorum than Reverse Joy. Through the very simple gesture of a red pigment, the fountain brings together two ends of the spectrum: the innocent with the cynical, the naïve with the violent, through a single color red, for some a festive symbol recalling compote or kool aid, and for others the trace of blood, of martyrdom. Here, three iterations – in Hebrew, Cyrillic and Arabic alphabets – of the phoneme [kh] dance ceremoniously around the red fountain.
Rahlé for Richard
Rahlé for Richard uses the form of the stand for holy books (or rahlé), a leitmotif in Slavs and Tatars’ work, given the importance of books and language in their practice. Here, the tongue sticks out, a gesture equally of interjection and emphasis, as in a shout or cry. Rahle for Richard suggests the transition from oral to print cultures: whether it’s the relatively late arrival of Islam to print, despite having access for several centuries, or the hesitation of the Orthodox faith to adopt print. The homage to Richard Artschwager is manifold: Artschwager’s consistent use of surface as something with depth, beguiling, uncannily thick. His veneers belie something else, be they pianos or other. In S&T, the artists turn to humor, pop, witticisms, and rumours with a similar understanding of surface, of the very thick first degree, both revealing and obscuring subsequent layers of meaning.
Ten tufted carpets, each equal in dimension, investigate language as a source of political, metaphysical, even sexual emancipation. By revising original drawings by Vladimir Mayakovsky, Love Letters address the very charged if slippery issue of language through one of its best-known, if conflicted, champions. The tongue’s yin and yang, its bipolar disorder – as a source of man’s greatest achievements and yet a cause of his tragic failures – finds its appropriate poster-boy in the figure of Mayakovsky, whose Futurist experiments with language and embrace of the nascent Bolshevik regime resulted in some of the most important works of avant-garde art and literature. Yet his own instrumentalization of language for the purposes of the revolution eventually led to his own disillusionment and suicide, a watershed moment widely believed to mark the beginning of Stalin’s terror.
Through caricature, the carpets depict the wrenching experience of having a foreign alphabet imposed on one’s native tongue and the linguistic acrobatics required to negotiate such change. In particular, the carpets tell two parallel stories: that of the Bolsheviks’ forced Latinization and later Cyrillicization of the largely Turkic peoples of the Russian Empire, and the 1928 language revolution of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk – Turkey’s first president – in which the Turkish language was converted from Arabic to Latin script. The casualties of these linguistic takeovers – lost letters and mistranslations – are given center stage here as a testament to the trauma of modernization.
Qit Qat Qa
The phoneme [gh], corresponding to the Arabic letter ‘qaf’, is pronounced even further back in the throat than [kh], the subject of Slavs and Tatars’ publication Khhhhhhh. Often transliterated in the Latin alphabet as ‘q’ or ‘k’ (in Qur’an or Koran, for example), the Soviet attempt to Cyrillicize ‘qaf’ led to drafting a wholly new grapheme, a ‘ka’ with a descender, which is still in use in Tajikistan but abandoned in other Central Asian countries. Beyond a mere letter, qaf is the Sufi name of a cosmic mountain, home to the mythical bird the simorgh – a precursor to the жар-птица (zhar ptitsa, meaning firebird) found in Slavic fairy tales, the phoenix, or, more recently, Banshee from the motion picture Avatar (2009).
Madame MMMorphologie continues Slavs and Tatars’ interest in language as a form of affective if not affectionate emancipation. Winking at passersby, the tome also speaks to the collective’s bibliophilia: an anthropomorphic edition of Molla Nasreddin, the legendary 20th century Azerbaijani satire the artists translated, bears witness to the alphabet politics of the Turkic languages under Soviet rule.
Other People’s Prepositions
A preposition is a word explaining a relation to another word. And perhaps no preposition is as central to Slavs and Tatars’ specific cosmology as the word ‘from,’ given the artists' interest in historiography, research, and genealogy. The preposition ‘from’ also indulges an anti-modernist perspective – facing the past but moving forward towards the present, like Molla Nasreddin, the 13th century Sufi wise-man-cum-fool, often depicted riding backwards on his donkey.
Literally ‘from’ in several Slavic languages, the preposition Ѿ or ot used to exist in old Church Slavonic as a Cyrillic letter unto itself. OPP tries to restore this ligaturial luxury – a combination of the Greek Omega and Theta – through a meditation on the preposition’s more carnivalesque tenor.
Tongue Twist Her
A pole often found in nightclubs or sex bars has traded in the topless dancer for something no less racy: a giant, fleshy tongue. The alphabet changes in many parts of the former-Soviet, largely Turkic speaking world from Arabic script to Latin to Cyrillic back to Latin in 60-odd years has made whole populations immigrants within their own language. Tongue Twist Her shows not peoples or nations that are liberated, but the dizzying and devastating swings – in this case lingual – of phonemes, graphemes, and organs.
Meaning ‘oops’ in Greek, ωXXX (okh) is an example of linguistic and cultural transmission, with the great omega’s sassy side highlighted by the proximity of a gang of x’s for a particularly attractive alliterative stuttering. Not by coincidence, the ‘x’ is a Cyrillic and Greek letter for Slavs and Tatars’ signature guttural phoneme, [kh], and subject of their publication Khhhhhhh.
One of the principal arguments for changing the Turkish script from Arabic to Latin – the inability of the Arabic alphabet to accommodate the full range of vowels in Turkish, namely the ‘ü’ and ‘ö’ – here serves as both sophisticated as well as lowbrow, slapstick humour. This lengthened version of the word ‘kiss’ in Turkish presents the vowel change as equal parts typo/ editing error and modernist mini-miracle – if not metaphysical mishap.
Mother Tongues and Father Throats
A diagram showing letters of the Arabic alphabet and the corresponding part of the mouth used to pronounce these letters, Mother Tongues and Father Throats turns to the throat as a source of mystical language – as opposed to the the tongue's more profane, transactional role. Here, the artists have added the letters for guttural phonemes [gh] and [kh] in Cyrillic and Hebrew as a nod to these letters' importance across disparate fields such as Russian futurism, Kabbalist gematria, and Sufi exegesis.
Kh Giveth and Kh Taketh Away
Kh Giveth and Kh Taketh Away further mine the phoneme [kh] as a source of mystical if not fricative potential. The mirrors champion the throat and its ability to constrict as opposed to facilitate the passage of air in this decidedly anti-imperialist phoneme.
Mirrors for Princes refers to a medieval and renaissance genre of advice literature in both Islamic and Christian cultures that counselled rulers on matters of statecraft, the body politic, and good governance. Mirrors for princes (specula principum or Fürstenspiegel) represented an early form of secular scholarship that raised the level of statecraft to that of religious jurisprudence or theology. For the artists, aside from producing and foreshadowing a ‘care of the self’ that was instrumental in western modernity, mirrors for princes is a form in which critique is presented as a form of gift-giving or hospitality.
The Contest of the Fruits
A 19th century Uyghur poem is staged as a proto-Turkic rap battle between 13 fruits in this seven minute animation.
Linking spiritual and intellectual nourishment, Slavs and Tatars ask us to consider mind and stomach as one entity, a literary, imaginative space added to a no less discursive if more commercial operation. For the 2021 Public Commission of Osnabrück, the artists collaborated with a local döner kebab shop, adding a literary element to the usual transactional one of fast food. Placemats featuring excerpts from Kutadgu Bilig, the 11th century epic Turkic poem, dürüm wrappers with the artists Kitab Kebab and a public performance program are among the artist interventions within the venue.
The Alphabet (Uyghur kril yéziqi)
The Alphabet revisits Marcel Broodthaers’ Poèmes industriels, replacing the Latin alphabet with an Cyrilized Uyghur one. The original exclamation of ‘OK!’ survives unscathed, despite the transmogrification from the secularized world of Latin.
Who are you?
Using the Arabic word for “He”, often gendered as masculine to express the Divine, Who are you poses the existential question as one not only between secular and holy but also between the various normative gender variations of the former and latter.
An act or document freeing a slave, several manumissio (written on left and right sides of the work, in Hebrew and Greek) have been found in Crimea. According to the Hebrew bible, slaves were to be freed in the seventh year, known as the Saturday or Shabbat year, after six years of labour, regardless of their origin, performance, or profile. Given the struggle of Jews throughout history, from the Exodus to pogroms to diaspora, this was a rather progressive if not generous approach to a contentious issue, especially when compared with that of their Christian and Muslim contemporaries.
Though considered to be the sacred language of Islam, the Arabic language and alphabet is equally the language of Middle Eastern Christians. Featuring an exodus, Alphabet Abdal commemorates the endangered Levantine, Hijazi origins of Christianity, and, with it, the heritage and language that expresses these traditions. The text reads: ‘Jesus, son of Mary, He is Love’.
Elongated and straightened, a heart morphing into a tongue attempts to speak but shows sincerity to be a constraint as much as an opportunity.
AÂ AÂ AÂ UR
An oversized set of prayer beads, sprouting from the ground, AÂ AÂ AÂ UR addresses the balance between seclusion and society, spirit and state, echoes of which we continue to find in the US, Europe and the Middle East today. The beads’ scale and momentum, launched from below the surface, invite a quiet playfulness, in particular with regards to a subject matter often brushed under the proverbial rug: the potential for a progressive agency in faith.
Bazm u Razm
The glass combs of Bazm u Razm swing between the afro-combs of hip hop culture and talismanic forms found around Uighur tombs in Xinjiang, western China, where they are used as family designations or seals. The grooming or taming of hair has been tied to that of civilization and order for some time, with the curly, frizzy, unruly often construed as a social, sexual, or psychological menace. In Bazm u Razm, literally ‘banquet or battle’, the combs are portrayed as markers of order and violence: the Turkic peoples extending from Mongolia all the way to the Balkans were renowned for their skills as warriors as well as hosts.
The multichannel audio work Lektor (speculum linguarum) from 2014 contains text drawn from the eleventh-century Turkic mirrors for princes Kutadgu Bilig (Wisdom of Royal Glory), read in its original Uighur with several voice-overs. The selection of translations (German, Turkish, Polish, Arabic, Scots Gaelic, Aboriginal Jagera, Flemish, Danish, Spanish, and Persian) for the voiceover or ‘dub’ traces the exhibition history of the piece through the languages of venues. Used for films in Poland and Russia, and elsewhere only for news segments, the simultaneous playback of a voice-over translation, a technique known also as Gavrilov translation, makes for a disruptive experience, touching on issues of legibility, authenticity, and language as a form of hospitality.
Written in the eleventh century in Kashgar, in what is known today as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in western China, Kutadgu Bilig is a cornerstone of Turkic literature. The importance of the work is difficult to overstate: it is to Turkic languages what Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh is to Persian, Beowulf to English, or Nibelungen to German. In rhymed couplets (masnavi), four main characters personify four abstract principles: Justice, Fortune, Intellect, and Contentment. Their debates serve as a rare example of Socratic dialogue in a Muslim tradition known for its theological emphasis on the One. A central discussion takes place between a Sufi dervish and a vizier to the king, whose names are, respectively, Wide Awake and Highly Praised – addressing the balance between seclusion and society, spirit and state, whose contours resonate today as much as a millenium ago.
Peter the Great’s desire to make Russia a European nation knew no bounds. It found expression in the baroque architecture on the Baltic and the canals in the swamp of St. Petersburg intended to resemble Venice or Amsterdam. Less well known are his reforms of etiquette in high society and its impact on gender roles. Peter I’s decision to do away with the segregation of women and men at balls and other functions held by the nobility and boyars was not born of a latent feminism. Instead, he viewed women, as mothers raising children, the best means to impart his notions of Western civilization. While most mirrors for princes were written by men for men, we ask how a mirror for a princess would read. Sheikha reverses the paternalism of statecraft in favour of a ‘mammary politics’, as Anna della Subin so eloquently calls it in her essay ‘Mirror for Princesses’ in our publication Mirrors for Princes.
Three centuries later, when religion was strictly forbidden in the Soviet Union, it was again women in Central Asia who maintained the largely oral and ritualist traditions of Islam (see our publication Not Moscow Not Mecca). Whereas men’s more public role meant a regular profession of atheism, elder women known as otin or bibi-otin performed the recitations of life-cycle rituals at local shrines. These otin were responsible for the transmission of sacred traditions. They acted as teachers to younger women in the community, and passed on religious expertise to their daughters and daughters-in-law in an exemplary demonstration of the chains of transmission (silsila).
The Squares and Circurls of Justice
Turbans, some designating students, others elders, greet visitors upon entry. The act of removing headwear or disrobing, like that of coats or outerwear, implies entry to an intimate if not sacred space, as opposed to the more secular public space of a cultural institution.
Hirsute Happily with Hairless
A brunette and blond rahlé (or book-stand used for holy books) offers another take on the seduction of texts and exegesis.
The grooming or taming of hair has been tied to that of civilization and order for some time, with the curly, frizzy, unruly often construed as a social, sexual or psychological menace. In our Mirrors for Princes book, Lloyd Ridgeon’s essay “Shaggy or Shaved” expands upon the rituals of grooming in Islam, particularly in various Sufi sects.
Bandari String Fingerling
The daily taming of hair is an act of civilization, battling the unruliness of the body. In this sense the rituals of daily existence, such as combing one’s hair, echo as objects the counsel of the Mirrors for Princes genre. Like the genre of medieval advice literature, grooming has also undergone an increased profanization in recent centuries. Once a sacred, ritual practice, today it is often a mere cosmetic transaction or at best a tribal, gendered belonging.
Bandari String Fingerling portrays the plucking of facial hair – which follows strictly gendered lines, acceptable for men, unacceptable for women – as a precious act of penitence.
5 O’Clock Shadow
The grooming or taming of hair has been tied to that of civilization and order for some time, with the curly, frizzy, unruly often construed as a social, sexual or psychological menace. In Slavs and Tatars' Mirrors for Princes, Lloyd Ridgeon's essay “Shaggy or Shaved” looks at the rituals of grooming.
Dil be Del
The phrase “speaking from the heart” is taken quite literally in this work as the tongue – the organ of speech – is grafted directly onto the heart. The title, Dil be Del, further emphasizes this jumble of body parts through a composite of the words for “tongue” and “heart” in Turkish and Persian respectively.
To Beer Or Not To Beer
Those familiar with the dregs of college – also referred to as ‘frat-boy’ – humour indigenous to Anglophone countries, not to mention those holiday destinations frequented by the aforementioned (Cancun, Amsterdam, etc.), might have encountered a short-sleeved garment of clothing emblazoned with an illustration of a beer and the question: ‘To beer or not to beer?’ Another specimen commonly found features two depictions of a brewed beverage with the question in another, slightly altered iteration: ‘Two beers or not two beers?’
By rewriting the well-known passage from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet – ‘To be or not to be’ – these modified invocations to imbibe alcohol have squandered the existential gravitas of the original, despite centuries of clichéd usage. To drink a beer or not to drink a beer (nay, two beers!) remains primarily a question of consumption. For To Beer or Not To Beer (2014), we looked to transliteration in an effort to elevate the popular back to the sublime. Normally transactional, transliteration here inches closer to the transcendent: transcribing ‘To beer or not to beer’ in the Arabic script, the sacred script of Islam, redeems the existential query of the original. To imbibe alcohol – for a Muslim, at least – entails a complex web of religious, cultural, even phenomenological questions around identity.
Hung and Tart
Hung and Tart features a heart that becomes a tongue, enacting a synapsis, or short cut between the conception of speech, symbolic and sincere, and its delivery. The wordplay of the title also alludes to the affinitiy between the organs of speech and those of sex.
Coinciding with the World War I centenary, and made in the wake of the European migrant crisis of 2015, Made in Germany sheds light on Germany’s little-known historical relationship with Islam and ‘the East’.
MERCZbau revisits the intertwined histories of the Ukrainian city of Lviv and the Polish city of Wroclaw as seen through the prism of a particularly eastern Orientalism. The Berlin-based artist collective Slavs and Tatars have created a speculative range of merchandising dedicated to the defunct Department of Oriental Studies of what was once known as the Jan Kazimierz University of Lwow, acting as if age-old traditions of scholarship and inquiry about “the East” had survived the Polish population’s forcible westward journey after World War II. The exhibition’s title alludes to German Dadaist Kurt Schwitters’ landmark sculpture Merzbau, a room-sized installation that was destroyed in World War II. MERCZbau thus offers a reflection on the human drama of migration as well as the shifting meanings of our enduring East/West divides, made so much more poignant by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Long Lvive Lviv
Long Lvive Lviv. Слава за Бреслава revisits the intertwined histories of Lviv and Wroclaw, from the particular perspective of orientalism. Following World War II, as Lviv was incorporated into the Ukrainian Republic of the Soviet Union, the Polish population of the city was forced to relocate to Wroclaw, a German city given to Poland at the Potsdam Conference in exchange for the loss of its Eastern territories. Alongside the massive population transfers, scholars at the renowned Jan Kazimierz University in Lviv (today the Ivan Franko National University) were forced to flee and a majority took up posts at Wroclaw University. One key department, however, did not survive this deportation.
Botschaft eines Liebhabers
“For the boredom of the audience, from a lover of boredom.” Johann Georg Hamann (1730–1788) was a radical Enlightenment thinker and philologist who argued against the excessive reliance on the rational. His cryptic, playful writings are an urgent reminder of the compatibility of reason and faith, the mystical and scientific. Curated by Ruth Ur and commissioned by Deutsche Bahn for the S-Bahnhof Friedrichstrasse station.
Honey Dew introduces two quintessentially exterior vernaculars—that of a melon market and a riverbed—found across Central Asia to an interior one, via a canvas wallpaper. The original photo is taken from a publication by Aleksander Rodchenko on the occasion of 10th anniversary of communism in Uzbekistan.
Soft Power revisits the strict threshold which a door traditionally represents–especially in the Middle East where distinct knocks are provided to differentiate between genders–via a carpet, a material often found on floors.
Ha’mann in the hood
Half-sculptural intervention and half-scenography, the carpet is dedicated to Johann Georg Hamann, the enfant terrible of the anti-Enlightenment or, in his own words, ‘to Nobody and to Two’.
Gut of Gab
Disembodied lips allow speech from elsewhere, from other organs, be it the stomach (ventriloquism) or the genitals. Gut of Gab is an homage to Johann Georg Hamann, whom Kierkegaard called “the greatest humorist in history.”
A leitmotif in S&T’s practice, a rahlé or stand for holy texts is mirrored ad infinitum, a further elaboration on the act of reading as a liturgical gesture.
“The history of Russia is the history of a country which colonizes itself”
Unlike the more heteronormative eagles on the Polish or German flags, the eagle on Russia’s coat of arms swings both ways, facing both East and West. Taking its cues from Byzantine heraldry where emperors were also Christ’s representatives on earth, Bicephalic layers Russia’s particular position as Europe and Asia, self and other onto the bi-sexual flag, arguing for a geopolitical identity through non binary sexuality.
Weeping Window (Morgenländer)
In exile and deposed from power, Kaiser Wilhelm once confided to Oswald Spengler, author of the 1918 book Der Untergang des Abendlandes (The Decline of the Western Order): “we are orientals (Morgenländer), and not westerners (Abendländer).”
The The Servant Servant of of the the All-Forgiving All-Forgiving
The renowned Dutch Orientalist Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje converted to Islam in late 1884, and took the name ‘Abd al-Ghaffar’, which translates roughly as ‘the servant of the all-forgiving’. Eager to access Mecca and witness the pilgrimage rites about which he had written his doctoral dissertation, ‘The Festivities of Mecca’, Snouck Hurgronje went so far as to circumcise himself, and purchase and marry a slave in order to better fit into Meccan society. His photographs of Mecca and the Ka'aba, published in Bilder-Atlas zu Mekka (1888) and Bilder aus Mekka (1889), are amongst the first of the Holy City and became key references in the field. Except for one small detail: most of the photographs were not taken by him.
Rather, they were the works of a local Meccan photographer and doctor, with whom Snouck Hurgronje collaborated while in Mecca and whom he would later instruct or art-direct from a distance, when back in the Netherlands. If any further proof were needed that authorship is often a spiked drink, this doctor’s name was also ‘Abd al-Ghaffar.’
Snouck Hurgronje kept his conversion a secret, for fear of the impact it might have on his scholarly and societal reputation. Nonetheless, more than a century later, his conversion continues to be debated: was it an authentic expression of faith or simply a ruse, a means to an end?
The emphatic, Arabic versions of the latin letters S/Z, ظ/ ض grace the cover of Süddeutsche Zeitung further highlighting Slavs and Tatars' investigation of language as a nexus of sensualized politics. These letters are considered highly specific to the Arabic language with one epithet for Arabic being “the language of the dhad” in reference to the letter ظ).
On November 8, 1898, Kaiser Wilhelm II raised a toast to the Ottoman Sultan during a visit to Damascus and pledged his friendship and the friendship of Germany to 300 million Muslims. To be fair to Wilhelm, it was his first trip to the Holy Land and all that very heavy history can make you light-headed, but your chances of success drop significantly if you think a toast is woke with Islam. Part of a concerted strategy to “set the East aflame,” Max von Oppenheim, founder and first director of the Nachrichtenstelle für den Orient (Intelligence Bureau for the East), conceived a plan with Enver Pasha, the Ottoman War Minister, for Sultan Mehmed Reshad V to declare jihad on November 11, 1914. Though global, this jihad was entirely partial: against some infidels (France, England and Russia) but with other infidels (Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire).
The publication by the NfO in 1915 of a propaganda paper called El-Dschihad is perhaps the most curious piece of this pie. Distributed to Muslim POWs held at a camp called Halbmondlager (Half-Crescent Camp) in Wünsdorf, just outside Berlin, and published in Russian, Arabic and Turko-Tatarisch – the languages of the Muslims targeted, living under Russian, French or English rule – El-Dschihad intended to stoke anti-imperial sentiment in territories belonging to the Entente Powers, in an effort to win these Muslims over to the side of the Central Powers. The hope was that they could eventually be persuaded to return to the front on the side of certain infidels, against other infidels; or alternatively, to their respective homelands to fight against their colonial rulers. At Halbmondlager, prisoners were treated to particular luxuries, including recreational games, halal meat and a custom-built mosque, the first of its kind on German soil. If the book cataloguing the West’s instrumentalisation of political Islam is a door-stopper, Dscherman Dschihad would be one of its more entertaining chapters.
Made In Germany
The renowned mark of quality was used to mock Germany’s behind-the-scenes role in the declaration of jihad, or holy war, by the Ottoman Sultan against the Entente Powers (France, England, and Russia) during the First World War. Arabic letters phonetically spell out ‘Made in Germany’ using a military alphabet devised by the Ottoman Minister of War, Enver Pasha (1881–1922) in 1913 for use in wartime correspondence. An early precursor to script reforms, its separation of the Arabic letters into distinct graphemes was thought to facilitate the reading and writing of Ottoman Turkish.
Both Sides of the Tongue
In one of his seminal essays, Roland Barthes deconstructs Honoré de Balzac’s novella, S/Z, about a French aristocrat who falls in love with a star of the Italian opera only to find out she is a he, that the singer is in fact a castrato. To Barthes’ binaries of he/she, revealed/concealed, homosexual/heterosexual, Slavs and Tatars add an extra one: the Arabic letters of ‘ﻆ‘ / ’ﺽ’, the emphatic versions of the original S/Z. Both Sides of the Tongue further highlights the artists’ investigation of language as a nexus of sensualized politics, via two letters considered highly specific to the Arabic language.
A slippage of scripts suggests a verb, an action, and yet another meaning to the already-loaded terms of jihad and Warsaw. The past participle ‘had’ and ‘saw’ disarticulate the traditional signage associated, respectively, with a mediatized term such as jihad and a city devastated by war. The awkwardness of four consecutive consonants – to approximate the [d͡z] phoneme in German – highlights the term Dschihad as irrevocably foreign or Other.
The Alphabet revisits Marcel Broodthaers’ Poèmes industriels, replacing the Latin alphabet with an Arabic one. The original exclamation of ‘OK!’ survives unscathed, despite the transmogrification from the secularized world of Latin to the sacred script of Arabic.
Whether microbes or mitochondria dwelling furtively on the skin or non-native agents living within us: bacteria comprise one kilogram of the average human body. Pickle Politics looks to the practices and symbolism of fermentation, constructing a political argument using notions of the rotten, the spoiled, and the soured.
Too often the cucumber is approximated as male genitalia, whether for sexual or silly ends. Lytes reclaims the feminine agency of the pickled cucumber via its nourishing role as provider of bacteria as well as luminosity. Installed in the entry hall of the Villa Arson, Lytes alerts visitors to salacious and salty offerings inside the exhibition space, architecturally and experientially, through a pickle bar where fermented cabbage juice is served.
Salty Sermon provides a manifesto for the collective’s approach to pickling. Slavs and Tatars see in fermentation nothing less than a robust challenge to the Enlightenment and its legacy of binary thinking. After all, fermentation is a means of preserving thru managed rotting; that is, achieving something via its counterintuitive antithesis.
Brine and Punishment
Pickle Juice is an epiphenomenon, what we call a ’stupid’ medium, through which we can better understand cultural differences and complex approaches to time and history. If across Eastern Europe, pickle juice has traditionally been consumed as a hangover cure, in more recent times it is marketed in the West as a sports and performance beverage.
Replacing the traditional water bottles with an amameh or turban, Salamoia underline the discursive role of thirst in the foundations of Shi’a cosmology. Water-fountains are often found outside Shi’a shrines and mosques, as votive and ritual sources of water in homage to the 7th century Battle of Kerbala in the desert and the dehydration which followed.
Acqua di Georg
Johann Georg Hamann, the enfant terrible of the Enlightenment, spent much of his childhood in the bath house of Königsberg which his father ran. Acqua di Georg pays homage to Hamann’s interests in salt cures, and the regime of affect and ratio imposed by a sauna experience.
Dillio Plaza reclaims the Turkic origins of fermentation, first used to preserve nutrition amongst nomadic tribes, those very foreign and ‘barbarian’ cultures against which Western Civilization has historically defined itself, from Herodotus to Hitler. Dillio Plaza challenges of the self through the unlikely relationship with bacteria and the microbe, the original Other or foreigner.
Often found in grocery stores, butcher shops and the like, PVC curtains often demarcate a space for its hygiene or climate control. The curtain features the dual nature of fermentation, as a form of rotting and preservation, as well as a performance enhancer or hangover cure.
Via its prolific use as a shorthand for satire, humor and comedy, here the gherkin becomes a verb, an imperative, in the shape of an exclamation mark.
Down Low Gitter
One of a new series of works, Down Low Gitter like its predecessors Dresdener Gitter and Königsberger Gitter, takes the crowd-control mechanism (known as a ‘Gitter’ in German) in 1:1 scale and modifies it to address the civilizing and collective act of reading.
It is said that writing prioritises sound, and reading prioritises meaning. Here, a device traditionally used for crowd-control, known as the Hamburger Gitter, has been transformed into a reading bar by the artists as an allusion to the civilising effect of reading. The visitors are invited to take a seat.
Before print became an affordable technology, reading was in fact a collective and largely oral activity, in particular for holy texts. Underage Page stresses the shift in the history of reading as constitutive both of a community and individual subjectivities; a shift that, as the metal tube between the reader’s legs suggest, evokes the idea of penance or pleasure.
A device traditionally used for crowd-controls, known as the Hamburger Gitter, has been transformed into a pickle-juice bar. Visitors are invited to kneel down, much like on a church pew, to taste the soured fruits of our rotten social contract.
Pickle Juice Sports
Pickle-juice is a ‘dumb’ medium (much like the balloon, or the monobrow, or a joke): its simplicity – fermented saltwater or brine in this particular case – allows us to demystify seemingly complex subject matter. For example the defeatism found in so many Slavic cultures versus the positivism of the United States. If in Eastern Europe pickle juice is a hang-over cure, then in the US, it is sold as a sports performance drink.
Afteur Pasteur (cots)
History is littered with attempts to draw spurious genealogies and threads across nations and tongues where no such thing exists. Brotha Tongue pays tribute to those failed linguistic attempts which didn’t necessarily suckle at the same breasts.
Leavened plays on the original term Hebrew origins of the name for Kumis (khametz). The nurturing role of the mother – namely, her breasts that provide milk – has soured or gone rotten. A tattoo in Hebrew reads ‘leavened’, a nod to the Jewish origins of the nomadic Turkic tradition of fermented milk found across the steppe.
Afteur Pasteur (full)
Louis Pasteur's mustache, and face, are dripping with milk, a nod to the legendary Got Milk campaign. The legacy of the famous French scientist's work is exemplary of an Enlightenment project taken to an extreme: bacteria and microbes, we are told, are our enemies, so many foreign agents against whom we erect a liquid wall of hand-sanitizer.
Coo Coo 4 Kumis
Made from fermented mare’s milk and found across Central Asia, kumis was called milk-champagne and even cosmos by the first European travellers to the Mongolian steppe. Not only is mare’s milk hard to come by, its usage as a cure for mystery illnesses further lent the drink a cult status in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Kwas ist das
A fermented drink made from rye, kwas or kvass is a traditional Slavic and Baltic drink which has of late been promoted as an indigenous response to Coca-Cola and other imported soft drinks. The line dividing Slavic and Germanic peoples has long been a mobile one, shifting east or west as a result of wars, treaties, and migrations. Kwas ist das combines the two languages in one, offering a linguistic amalgam in lieu of conflict, one that essentially amounts to ‘WTF’.
The fermented mare’s milk known as kumis was extremely sought after in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for its healing power, earning it the moniker ‘milk champagne’. For Afteur Pasteur, their début exhibition at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, Milk Champagne signals the entrance into a fermented-milk bar. The PVC curtain confaltes society’s phobia of bacteria with the recent foodie interest in all things fermented.
Extending itself in opposite directions, yet incorporated in one body, the tongue tries to do the splits, to be both platform of communication and means of obfuscation, both secular vehicle and sacred totem.
Hammer and Nipple
Soured rule, no mother’s best
Curd milk oozing from her breast
(English translation of Polish verse)
Skisła władza - zamiast mleka
po jej piersiach kefir ścieka
A feminist appropriation of the gerkin, Hammer and Nipple challenges the meme of the pickle as a shorthand for a penis, asking us to reconsider the soured relationship between rulers and public, often characterized as a nourishing one.
Pavement Prose: Język lata jak łopata
In the logo of the 19th century, Vilnius-based literary society Towarzystwo Szubrawców (Society of Rascals), whom the artists turned to for their eponymously title show at Raster Gallery, the shovel is used to parody the parasitism of the nobility who rides it like a witch. The Towarzystwo Szubrawców ridiculed the fancy language of Polish 19th century romanticism through its journal Wiadomości Brukowe. Pavement Prose reimagines the piece as a languid bar-table, where tongues let loose and proverbial skeletons of history are excavated.
An obscene hand gesture specific to Turkic and Slavic cultures, Figa revisits the old Egyptian proverb: “Life is like a cucumber: one day in your hand and one day in your ass.”
A transnational root indigenous to Eastern Europe and Western Asia, the horseradish best exemplifies the push and pull, the attraction and repulsion necessary to reconsider and move beyond the reductive and confrontational thinking of our age. Railing against binaries, Pan Chrzan – a two headed anthropomorphic horseradish and mascot of the artist’s Pickle Politics cycle – features a tail which speaks to its head, perverting the dualism of Enlightenment thinking.