Berlin

View of “Understudies: I, Myself Will Exhibit Nothing,” 2021–22. From left: Iman Issa, Self-Portrait: Self as Alenka Zupancčič, 2020; _Self-Portrait: Self as Doria Shafik, 2020; Self-Portrait: Self as William S. Burroughs, 2019. From the series “Proxies, with a Life of Their Own,” 2019–21. Photo: Frank Sperling.

View of “Understudies: I, Myself Will Exhibit Nothing,” 2021–22. From left: Iman Issa, Self-Portrait: Self as Alenka Zupancčič, 2020; _Self-Portrait: Self as Doria Shafik, 2020; Self-Portrait: Self as William S. Burroughs, 2019. From the series “Proxies, with a Life of Their Own,” 2019–21. Photo: Frank Sperling.

“Understudies: I, Myself Will Exhibit Nothing”

“Understudies: I, Myself Will Exhibit Nothing,” curated by Egyptian-born, Berlin-based artist Iman Issa, mixes the shaped and the storied in a way that scrambles conventional readings of abstract and figurative forms. Among the works chosen are two eighteenth-century Noh masks, respectively captioned “Deigan, Nô mask of a ghost of a middle aged woman, Japan, Edo period, 18th century” and “Manbi, Nô mask of a young woman, Japan, Edo period, 18th century.” I struggle to see the age difference, but the contrast in expression is striking: The younger woman smiles welcomingly, as if the world were her oyster; the aging woman recoils in horror, as if she has internalized the belief that gender oppression is the consequence rather than the cause of her despondent condition. In Walid Raad’s I thought I’d escape my fate, but Apparently I–IX , 2015, a suite of sketches that incorporate scraps of text, one can read: PORTRAITURE WAS THE FIRST TYPE OF “MODERN” PAINTING TO INHABIT LEBANON, INDEED TO FORM THE NOTION OF A NATION CALLED LEBANON MADE UP OF FULLY AUTONOMOUS, RATIONAL INDIVIDUALS. Unlike the postemancipation paintings Raad refers to, the Noh masks are not portraits; they do, however, point to one of the guiding threads in the exhibition: the idea that the more personal a story, the more universal its appeal. In the Beirut-based journal Makhzin in 2016, Issa dwelt on this theme in a conversation with Moyra Davey, whose film i confess, 2019, on view here, interweaves individual biography with collective history to discuss the subaltern settler status of French Canadians and Anglo-Canadian supremacy via the autobiography of Pierre Vallières, scandalously titled Nègres blancs d’Amérique, 1968.

Needless to say, these works speak to one another, but their dialogue does not happen at the level of content alone. A plastic language is articulated by the exhibition: a language of shape, form, and volume that is nevertheless not aligned with abstraction or formalism but with the vernacular, the arcane, and the folkish. One could even call it figurative but in the sense of reaching for obscure resemblances in order to convey a chimerical vision. Several of the films exhibited have a fairy-tale quality, with protagonists who intend to marry above their station and have to undergo a series of tribulations to prove their worth. In Ashik Kerib, 1988, by Dodo Abashidze and Sergei Parajanov, the protagonist’s heavy makeup fixes a furrowed brow, signaling resolve even in times of despair. The animated figures of Amit Dutta’s Chitrashala: House of Paintings, 2015, which retells the story of Nala and Damayanti from the Sanskrit epic poem Naishadhiya Charita, remain expressionless, hence gracious, as their world comes undone. Both films break the fourth wall repeatedly, Chitrashala by entering and exiting the painted picture, Ashik Kerib via the insertion of anachronistic elements, such as machine guns and a movie camera, amid chimerical figures, pomegranates, and geese.

Embodying a similar forked temporality are the artist curator’s selection of five sculptural self-portraits from the series “Proxies, with a Life of Their Own,” 2019–21. Her Self-Portrait: Self as Hannah Arendt, 2021, is an elongated oblong. Self-Portrait: Self as Doria Shafik, 2020, is composed of two complementary truncated ovoids. Self-Portrait: Self as Alenka Zupancˇicˇ, 2020, reminded me of a stylized heart, broken in two halves, nesting a smaller one, equally slit, but when I read the work’s text panel—“Self as Alenka Zupancˇicˇ who recounted the joke: ‘There are no cannibals here. We ate the last one yesterday’”—I saw an open-jawed creature about to gorge on a smaller one. Much like the engagement with myth or literature in the abstractions of Geta Bra˘tescu—represented here by The War (Mars/Wothan; With a Quotation from an Engraving by Salvator Rosa, XVII Century), 1981—Issa’s sculptures are formally spare but conceptually dense. How is one to engage them, in turn, and “Understudies” as a show, without recourse to the ready-made jargon of Western art categories?