Exhibition Review: Action at a Distance at Angela Meleca Gallery
Action at a Distance is a prolific exhibition mounted by Angela Meleca Gallery which seeks to redefine and reintroduce images of the Middle East. The works of five Lebanese artists – Youmna Chlala, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Rhea Karam, and Rania Matar – make a collective statement reconfiguring and reimagining dominant cultural representations of the region.
Through a careful selection of a dozen or so works of art, these artists collectively grapple with their personal identities as Middle Eastern and Middle Eastern American artists, what that means for a continued cultural heritage, and how that image is often skewed through politics and history.
One of the most striking works of the exhibition, and the first the viewer comes across is a large scale photograph by Rania Matar titled Samira 15, Bourj El Barajneh Refugee Camp, Beirut taken in 2015 (feature image, above). In it, Samira stands against a weathered and graffiti-scrawled wall, her brilliant red veil frames her pensive expression and her body is arranged in the slightly unsure way any teenage girl might hold herself. This familiarity in Samira’s pose reminds us that there is some universality in teenage girl culture regardless of vast differences in daily challenges and lifestyle that life in a refugee camp would present.
For Matar, who lives permanently in the United States but frequently visits the large refugee camps near her hometown in Lebanon, this work is part of a series titled Invisible Children. One where Matar photographs recent Syrian refugees living in the camps and Palestinian refugees who are in many cases, going on their third generation living in camps.
Matar frames and gives voice voice to the children who often fade into the background of the camps. Tamer 6, Beirut another of her Invisible Children series in the exhibition captures the young boy in a defiant pose. Tamer, with his hands on his hips and one hip swung out, stands in a pose that makes him seem older than his six years. He is perched against a whitewashed wall between two images of figures which are scrawled in graffiti – one is a faceless man in a suit, the other a child – Tamer figuratively and symbolically stands between the two.
Rhea Karam’s works are as much about process as they are about the image – and through her photographs of lively trees against decrepit buildings in Beruit, she makes a powerful statement. Karam photographs trees in New York’s Central Park, prints them, goes to Beruit and pastes an individual Central Park tree on walls in Beirut – her placement is specific and often is in close relation to refugee camps. The resulting photograph acts as both an attempt to draw attention to the lack of green space in Beruit, as well as the symbolic nature of what it means to be uprooted.
Karam and Matar’s works are juxtaposed with photographs of seemingly perfect cityscapes created by a team of researchers and cinematic artists, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige who track a piece of largely lost Lebanese history in which a group of students in Beirut attempted to launch a rocket into space in the 1960s. Their photographs, which generally appear to be cityscapes of Beirut on an idyllic blue-sky day, consistently have an element of blurred action. To the viewer, the only reference to the rocket society appears in the series title ‘Lebanese Rocket Society’ which not only formally references the lost history, but asks the viewer to conduct research of their own.
A series of four very small scale works by Youmna Chlala lure the viewer in with their sense of intimacy, complexity, and dreamlike qualities. Her series of works, Notes on Leaving and Arriving in themselves have a duel identity. Set up like sculptures that you can circumnavigate, with transparent photographs suspended in the middle, street scenes transform from idyllic to devastating as they are viewed by one side or the other.
Through the works in Action at a Distance, you get the sense that there is a larger and more personal message at stake. Perhaps Matar and Karam are using elements of displacement to categorize not only their subjects, but their own experiences living between cultures. The weight of the themes of transition, loss, and building identity are mirrored in Chlala’s intimate works which seem to desperately hold onto fading memories.
Oscillating between dreamlike and tragic states, these works weave together a varied and unique view of different aspects of Lebanese history and culture which collectively have the ability to reach the viewer in profound and numerous ways.
Action at a Distance is a must-see exhibition. On view through May 27, 2017 at Angela Meleca Gallery at 144 E. State St. Columbus, OH 43215. For more information visit angelamelecagallery.com