The Politics of Numbers
A Visit With Ebtisam Abdulaziz
Ebtisam Abdulaziz is considered one of the most outstanding Arabian artists. In her work, she links conceptual approaches and formal rigour with social critique. Deutsche Bank is now devoting an entire floor of its Frankfurt headquarters to her. Brigitte Werneburg met Ebtisam Abdulazis in Sharjah.
||"I think I was born as an artist", says Ebtisam Abdulaziz in reply to my question about her career. Because originally, the artist from the emirate Sharjah got a degree in mathematics. Her reply matches her confident appearance at the Abu Dhabi Art Fair on the previous day. On a panel there, she had eloquently and openly explained her position as an artist. The panel’s purpose was to introduce the "Emirati Artists' Resource & Register", which the Abu Dhabi Music & Arts Foundation had recently established under the name "National`s Gallery". I was impressed by her – especially because her intellectual performance was in stark contrast to her sartorial appearance. Apart from her face and hands, Ebtisam Abdulaziz was completely covered in black.
I missed the opportunity to ask whether her sartorial style was necessary to enable her intellectual performance, because during our conversation in her studio at the Sharjah Art Center directly opposite from the art museum, I completely forgot the veil and only saw an amiable, confident, and beautiful young woman. And after all, if art and mathematics go together, why should a veil and the emancipation of women exclude one another?
Even as a child, Ebtisam Abdulaziz tells me, she had been a little different from her brothers and sisters. She liked being alone, and drew and painted continuously. Her father encouraged her in that, and so after finishing school she thought about studying art. However, at that time there was no art school in the Emirates and the Gulf region. And because she has always loved numbers and calculations, she decided to study mathematics.
If you see the oeuvre she has created since 2000, you don’t imagine her as a painter. Nonetheless, initially painting was unavoidable. Because when she realised after her degree that she wanted to make after all, the only thing available where the summer courses offered by the Emirates Fine Arts Society in Sharjah. There, students were taught quite traditionally how to draw in perspective, as well as basic skills in painting.
Ebtisam Abdulaziz, however, soon engaged with the idea of the Ten triangles. Laughing, she admits today, "my ideas were simply larger than the canvas". So she designed ten differently shaped triangles and then set up simple equations with them: one triangle plus two triangles equals three triangles. At the end, this procedure resulted in a kind of complex puzzle, and she was no longer certain whether it was still art. But her friend Hassan Sharif reassured her. Sharif is one of the most important artists, theoreticians, and art educators in the Arab world.
Hassan Sharif gave her a slim volume about Systemic art and Lawrence Alloway. In 1966, the art critic and curator Alloway defined Systemic art as a type of abstract art which is characterised by the use of simple standardised and usually geometric forms, either as a picture of a single form or as systems of forms that are organised according to a clearly evident principle. Today, the term denotes an artistic practice that works with the means of abstraction, where however the form is not a means of expression, but the medium for politically relevant observations.
Vision and Illusion, the video installation that Ebtisam Abdulaziz showed at the 7th Sharjah Biennial in 2005, which under the motto Belonging (Where do I belong?) addressed the questions of diasporas, emigration, inclusion and exclusion, should be understood exactly in this way. Abdulaziz led visitors down a dark narrow corridor, and then they were directed to the right, until they stopped in front of a kind of window. There, they saw a video sequence with a light box for eyesight testing, and the corresponding dialogue between ophthalmologist and patient. When the latter’s left eye was tested, the visitors, due to a trick with a mirror, saw the test for the right eye. But who was wrong? The doctor or the beholder? The situation was arranged in such a way that the beholder was urged to trust the doctor more than his or her own senses. For Ebtisam Abdulaziz, the installation is “once more about politics”, as she said. Governments, institutions, and the media keep feeding us numbers and information that we cannot check, but which we are supposed to believe. Do we actually notice from time to time the arrangements by which they push us in their direction?
The bright green sequences of numbers that the artist has printed on the black body suit she wore at the 53rd International Venice Biennale are political numbers: they inform us about the place and date of Ebtisam Abdulaziz’s money transactions. The numbers come from her bank statements collected between 2003 and 2005. Initially, she used this collection in a video installation: instead of the usual screen, the bank machine showed a film where the artist spent the money she had withdrawn. Later she developed the performance with the suit, "where I like that I’m part of the artwork, walking about and talking to people. This direct contact is very important for me", she explains and adds: "During the performance I met a lot of people who knew nothing about art. I walked through the souk and the bazaar, and of course people came up to me, especially children, wondering what it was all about. One guy asked me whether I was advertising something. Well, in a certain sense I was doing that. I was advertising art, and I was teaching people."
Teaching us a role that has been familiar to Ebtisam Abdulaziz for a long time. Because when she turned away from painting in the middle of the year 2000 and began to work conceptually, it was a shock for people who knew her. Therefore she tried to explain what her goal was in the new works. She began to read about art, and she started to write. She quickly became known as a writer on art, and co-editor of the Emirates Fine Art Society’s magazine Tashkil. When she noticed that many important books on contemporary art were not available in Arab countries, and certainly not in the Arab language, she didn’t hesitate for long and began translating. In her varied work as an author, translator, teacher, and recently also curator of exhibitions, she is without a doubt one of the most active and dynamic artists in the United Arab Emirates.
There is probably a direct link between her willingness to approach others and her great curiosity. She loves figuring things out, says Ebtisam Abdulaziz; this is why she is so fascinated by the screening devices at airports. Since she has no access to the monitors there, she had the idea of producing a series of x-ray photographs of handbags. As the head of the Sharjah Art Center Ladies Club, it was easy for her to simply ask visitors whether they would agree to have their handbags screened. The series Life in a Bag, with which Ebtisam Abdulaziz is represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection, shows how surprisingly little is necessary to gather significant information about somebody. There is the handbag that suggests wealth because every item it contains comes from an international luxury goods company, others are filled with medication or packs of cigarettes. A handbag with a toothbrush and toothpaste speaks of the long working hours of its owner, who has no time to freshen up at home.
Life in a Bag is linked to the work Number and Lifetime, which Ebtisam Abdulaziz also presented at the 7th Sharjah Biennial 2005. At the time, two large photographs of hands hung on the walls of the exhibition hall, together with a board bearing an alphabetically ordered archive with 27 folders. They contained about 2.000 further photographs of hands. The beholders were invited to imagine for themselves the people whose hands the artist had photographed, adding a number and a standardised set of information about age, origin, profession etc.
For two months, Ebtisam Abdulaziz had approached people for this project on the street, but also in offices shops, schools, and government agencies, in order to get a cross section of the population at a certain time, well, in hand. Old, young, worked, well-manicured, dark-skinned or light-skinned hands give a quite immediate impression of the life circumstances and the social classes, the age and population structure of the city.
Most recently, Ebtisam Abdulaziz also sought out – and enjoyed – such direct contact with people in her performance Autobiography. She will continue on this path. She is already at work, together with Suzanne Cotter, one of the curators of the 10th Sharjah Biennial 2011, on a new performance that she will show during the biennial from 16 March to 16 May 2011. There, too, we can be certain, she will be especially concerned with giving the less privileged portion of the population of the Emirates, for example the many work immigrants, expression and a voice. Because the element of fragmentary biography that runs through Ebtisam Abdulaziz’s work like a leitmotif is called aesthetic or poetic justice.
Translation: Wilhelm Werthern
Brigitte Werneburg was in Abu Dhabi and Sharjah at the invitation of the National Media Council of the United Arab Emirates.