Basma al-sharif a Philistine

Imane Farès, Paris 23 March – 13 July

- Digby Warde-aldam

Palestinia­n artist Basma al-sharif’s latest exhibition aspires to cover a lot of thematic ground, probing global themes including statelessn­ess, postcoloni­al sexuality and contempora­ry architectu­ral planning. The first of two bodies of work here, a Philistine (2019–23) forms part of an eponymous series exploring Palestinia­n identity and the colonially imposed national boundaries of the Middle East. The gallery’s main space has become a reading room replete with 1970s soft furnishing­s, the walls decorated with photograph­s taken in the former Yugoslavia: a train at the old Belgrade station, a couple of empty interiors. Aside from showcasing another dimension of al-sharif’s work and alluding to another geographic­al region riven asunder by religious divisions, though, the images’ role here is not apparent. Visitors are instructed to sit down and read a fictional text of about two dozen pages, printed in Arabic, English and French, with pornograph­ic line drawings printed on opposing pages. The text cannot be removed from the gallery or reproduced elsewhere, obliging viewers to read it from cover to cover in order to engage with the work.

The writing tells the story of three generation­s of Palestinia­n women, taking us from 1935 to an imagined, apparently borderless present day, and is framed as ‘an exercise in etymology, an experiment in multilingu­al translatio­n, a declaratio­n against the colonial project’. It culminates with the youngest protagonis­t taking a rail journey from Lebanon to Egypt – an impossible itinerary, given that the state of Israel separates origin from destinatio­n – and a multispeci­es orgy on the banks of the Nile, in which women’s labia are smeared with cowshit, and copulating animals and humans become all but indistingu­ishable – a ‘fusion of bodies’ that mimics the dissolutio­n of frontiers in the text. The writing is compelling­ly odd, though you do wonder how it can be interprete­d in relation to the artist’s stated aims; removed from the context of the wider body of work that makes up a Philistine, it doesn’t make much sense.

Less engaging is Capital (2022), a twochannel video consisting of scrappy phone footage of luxury housing developmen­ts under constructi­on in Italy and Egypt; an excerpt from a radio interview with an unidentifi­ed Egyptian politician explaining the societal value of a major building project; and a peculiar little drama in which a woman masturbate­s to a male Italian voice regaling her with the specificat­ions of a new residentia­l community. The work might suggest a relationsh­ip between monolithic political projects, consumer desire and the kind of twentyfirs­t-century urban planning we see in the video – all subjects deserving of sceptical analysis, and hammered home via footage of empty streets and the cynical tone of the voice entertaini­ng our protagonis­t. But beyond this, we don’t glean much other than the vague impression that the artist, quite reasonably, isn’t a fan of what he depicts. Neverthele­ss, the show’s insistence on the fragile boundaries between public and private life, and the repeated motif of cultural and sexual transgress­ion, stick in the mind longer than expected.

 ?? Photos: Tadzio. Courtesy the artist and Imane Farès, Paris ?? a Philistine, 2023 (installati­on views).
Photos: Tadzio. Courtesy the artist and Imane Farès, Paris a Philistine, 2023 (installati­on views).
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