Critics’ Picks

Marwa Arsanios, OLGA’s NOTES, all those restless bodies, 2014, HD video, twenty-three minutes.

Marwa Arsanios, OLGA’s NOTES, all those restless bodies, 2014, HD video, twenty-three minutes.

New York

Marwa Arsanios

Art in General
145 Plymouth Street
March 3–April 11, 2015

The showstopper of “Here and Elsewhere,” last summer’s exhibition of contemporary Arab art at the New Museum, was this Lebanese artist’s Have You Ever Killed a Bear? Or Becoming Jamila, 2014, a knotty consideration of the interwoven terrain of cinema and politics. Becoming Jamila has its roots in back issues of the pan-Arab culture magazine Al-Hilal—which, during the Algerian War, frequently praised the revolutionary Djamila Bouhired as a model of Arab womanhood. Bouhired became a character in Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 film The Battle of Algiers, and the actress in Arsanios’s video is preparing to star in a new film based on her life. She sits in a bar in Beirut rehearsing her lines, imagining Bouhired (or the woman who played her in 1966) planting a bomb in an Algiers café. Yet as she holds up copies of Al-Hilal, including one whose cover shows Bouhired toting a gun, we realize that the remake isn’t actually going to be made. Representation isn’t what it used to be, and, frankly, neither is freedom fighting.

This first American survey for Arsanios, which had an earlier iteration at Kunsthalle Lissabon, includes some early animations that interrogate modernist architecture in Beirut (the sound track of one, a little incongruously, features a snippet of the ’90s eurotrash banger “What Is Love?”). But the Al-Hilal series is her strongest work, and along with Becoming Jamila, this show includes a melancholy new video, OLGA’s NOTES, all those restless bodies, 2014, that also looks at postwar Arab culture with deep, post–Arab Spring skepticism. In 1963, as part of president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s modernization program, a new ballet school opened in Cairo with the explicit aim of creating “the new body” for the Egyptian nation. What have those bodies become, Arsanios asks as she films one woman dancing Trio A and another on a stripper pole. Overworked and scarred by history: the locus of an ongoing war between modernity and domination, which proceeds by attrition and doesn’t even stop when you’re worn to the bone.