Two Women Artists Dialogue with Berlin and the Biennale

15 September, 2022
Jihan El-Tahri, “Com­plex­i­fy­ing Resti­tu­tion,” 2022, video, col­or, sound, approx. 15′ (video still cour­tesy Jihan El-Tahri).


“Please Pat­terns” & “Com­plex­i­fy­ing Resti­tu­tion”: Myr­i­am El Haïk and Jihan El-Tahiri at the Berlin Biennale


Viola Shafik


The 12th Berlin Bien­nale for Con­tem­po­rary Arts is about to come to an end, yet it might be worth mus­ing on its main themes, to exam­ine how this “edi­tion brings togeth­er artists, the­o­rists, and prac­ti­tion­ers from dif­fer­ent fields to let them enter into a dia­logue with the city of Berlin and its pub­lic,” and con­sid­er whether speak­ing to some of them may pro­vide fur­ther insight on why the Ger­man cap­i­tal has become such an art hub in recent years. Can we indeed fol­low the Biennale’s state­ment for this pur­pose? It attests that Berlin “is con­tin­u­ous­ly under change thus remains frag­ment­ed, diverse, and contradictory.”

“Com­plex­i­fy­ing Resti­tu­tion,” still from the film by Jihan El-Tahiri.

Coin­ci­den­tal­ly — or not (!) — we found that two of the present Arab female artists, Jihan El-Tahiri and Myr­i­am El Haïk, even though keep­ing a strong foot in Paris, have both moved to Berlin five years ago for rea­sons that will be explored below in detail. With regards to the cur­rent exhi­bi­tion, their respec­tive con­tri­bu­tions, the video “Com­plex­i­fy­ing Resti­tu­tion“ (2022) and the installation/performance “Please Pat­terns” (2021–22), fall into the mul­ti­tude of terms that the Biennale’s “Messy Glos­sary” offers for its core con­cept; that is, the “de-colo­nial.” It touch­es upon top­ics as var­ied (and as cryp­tic) as hydro mys­ti­cism, the exot­ic, extrac­tivism (the process of extract­ing nat­ur­al resources from the earth to sell on the world mar­ket), but also as icon­ic as cul­tur­al her­itage, insti­tu­tion, impe­ri­al­ism and so forth.

Sift­ing through the Biennale’s artist inven­to­ry, the quan­ta­tive “Arab” pres­ence seems quite strik­ing, cer­tain­ly unlike what is usu­al­ly the case at  the Berli­nale Film Fes­ti­val, for instance. Apart from the already men­tioned El-Tahri and El Haïk, we find the late Amal Kenawy (Egypt), as well as Ammar Bouras (Alge­ria), Asim Abdu­laz­iz (Yemen), Bas­sel Abbas & Ruanne Abou-Rahme (Palestine/USA), Driss Ouadahi (Algeria/Germany), Lawrence Abu Ham­dan (Arab Emi­rates), Lamia Jor­eige (Lebanon), Layth Kareem (Iraq/France), Raed Mutar (Iraq), Simone Fat­tal (Lebanon/USA), and Taysir Bat­ni­ji (Palestine/France). These are four­teen among a total of more than eighty artists, with­out count­ing those involved in the dif­fer­ent group pre­sen­ta­tions, as well as the Biennale’s artis­tic team members.

The lat­ter includes Lebanese cura­tor Rasha Salti, based part­ly in Berlin, who has been also respon­si­ble for an attached film series, and of course even more impor­tant­ly, Kad­er Attia, the Biennale’s chief cura­tor (inter­viewed else­where in TMR’s BERLIN issue). Born to Alger­ian par­ents in France, he too lives between two cities, not Paris though but Algiers and Berlin. Artist and activist, Attia has repeat­ed­ly focused on decol­o­niza­tion, not only of peo­ples but also of knowl­edge, atti­tudes and prac­tices. His lat­est take on the top­ic is called “Car­ing, Repair­ing and Heal­ing,” which he will fea­ture in his upcom­ing exhi­bi­tion (Sept. 9, ‘22- Jan. 15, ‘23) at the Mar­tin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin.

Accord­ing to Attia, the notion of “repair” is “first of objects and phys­i­cal injuries, and then of indi­vid­ual and soci­etal trau­mas. Lit­tle won­der this top­ic also fea­tures promi­nent­ly at the Bien­nale, with one of its numer­ous encoun­ters and con­fer­ences called “From Resti­tu­tion to Repair“:

Par­tic­i­pants inves­ti­gate the psy­cho­log­i­cal dimen­sions of the loss of cul­tur­al her­itage in Africa and the para­dox pre­sent­ed in mim­ic­al museog­ra­phy. The con­tri­bu­tions explore the pos­si­bil­i­ty of an ontol­ogy of resti­tu­tion as a cos­mogo­nic, polit­i­cal, and philo­soph­i­cal rein­ven­tion. —Berlin Biennale

This again is exact­ly what the Beirut-born Egypt­ian Jihan El-Tahri is engag­ing with. Pre­vi­ous­ly a reporter and jour­nal­ist, she has become an acclaimed film­mak­er, men­tor and visu­al artist. The Bien­nale web­site quotes her: “Work­ing pri­mar­i­ly with instal­la­tion art, she often engages with the inter­stices between offi­cial his­to­ry and mem­o­ry in an attempt to rein­ter­pret the moments of our his­to­ry of which no traces have been left behind and to pro­pose a new read­ing and alter­na­tive voice from a Glob­al South perspective.“

Film­mak­er Jihan El-Tahri .

In her 15-minute video “Com­plex­i­fy­ing Resti­tu­tion,” El-Tahri uses archival and her own doc­u­ment­ed mate­r­i­al (some of which mir­rors her pre­ced­ing doc­u­men­taries) on researchers, artists, and film­mak­ers to inter­pret, rethink, and reap­pro­pri­ate the archive. “Accord­ing­ly, every piece of found imagery is crit­i­cal­ly probed, scru­ti­nized, and con­tex­tu­al­ized,” start­ing from so-called ethno­graph­ic colo­nial footage to the ambiva­lent images of Nubians cheer­ing Egypt­ian nation­al leader Nass­er for his deci­sion to flood their home­land for the sake of mod­ern­iza­tion; or even more painful, the tes­ti­monies of Guinean cinéastes remem­ber­ing those who were sent to study film in Moscow, only to be per­se­cut­ed and even elim­i­nat­ed when they came home.

El-Tahri, born into a diplomat’s fam­i­ly, toured the globe as a child. In her con­ver­sa­tions, she switch­es instant­ly from French to Eng­lish to Ara­bic. For many years she made Paris, among oth­er cities, her home, but she feels sim­i­lar­ly root­ed in sub-Saha­ran Africa and has kept her pre­vi­ous domi­ciles in Dakar and South Africa. Con­stant­ly on the road, chang­ing her many pro­fes­sion­al hats all along, she radi­ates the cen­tered agili­ty of a swirling dervish. Hence, one of the many things she man­ages, apart from trav­el­ing from one film fes­ti­val to the oth­er to help train young African and Arab film­mak­ers, is to run the non­prof­it Dox Box, head­quar­tered in Berlin.

The asso­ci­a­tion was orig­i­nal­ly estab­lished in Dam­as­cus in 2008 and run by ProAc­tion, the first inde­pen­dent doc­u­men­tary pro­duc­tion house in Syr­ia, owned by Orwa Nyra­bia and his spouse, Diana El-Jeirou­di. They orga­nized a fes­ti­val that became a hub for young Syr­i­an film­mak­ers. After the Syr­i­an upris­ing, the cou­ple moved to Berlin and widened the institution’s scope, cater­ing men­tor­ship, res­i­den­cy pro­grams and an annu­al con­ven­tion for Arab film­mak­ers along with Syr­i­ans. Even­tu­al­ly, five years ago, El-Tahri was appoint­ed artis­tic direc­tor and has broad­ened the focus once more to encom­pass pro­grams for sub-Sahara and female doc­u­men­tarists. This appoint­ment, in fact was the rea­son why she moved to Berlin. And as she con­fess­es, even though she has decid­ed to quit her job at Dox Box in order to focus more on her artis­tic work, she will keep one more domi­cile to remain con­nect­ed to Berlin.



Myr­i­am El Haïk, “Please Pat­terns,” 2022, instal­la­tion view, 12th Berlin Bien­nale, KW Insti­tute for Con­tem­po­rary Art (pho­to cour­tesy Silke Briel).


Myr­i­am El Haïk too, like her fel­low artist, com­mutes between dif­fer­ent cities and coun­tries, in her case Rabat, where she grew up; Paris where she stud­ied fine arts and music com­po­si­tion; and Berlin, where she has her work space and young fam­i­ly. Despite the fact that she is sim­i­lar­ly a live­ly, petite woman, the dif­fer­ence in artis­tic expres­sion could not be larg­er between El Haik and El-Tahri. For her work has lit­tle to noth­ing to do with audio­vi­su­al pol­i­tics of rep­re­sen­ta­tion or film archives, but all with visu­al and son­ic mem­o­ry, with music, rhythm and pat­terns as they inhab­it time and space, or rather, cre­ate inter­stices between them. Her “Please Pat­terns” is a piano piece she com­posed, its rhyth­mic and melod­ic frag­ments were inspired by her draw­ings and her col­lec­tion of Moroc­can “Berber” or Amazigh rugs that are also part of the show.

Artist Myr­i­am El-Haik (cour­tesy Berlin Biennale).

Her “repet­i­tive min­i­mal­ist aes­thet­ic,” as she calls it, runs through as a series of dis­played draw­ings, and a polyp­tych wall draw­ing that she con­tin­ues doing once every week togeth­er with piano per­for­mances to become a reg­u­lar rit­u­al through­out the 12th Berlin Bien­nale. Here she wants to offer “the expe­ri­ence of an unfold­ing time.” Watch­ing her metic­u­lous­ly cross­ing out the lit­tle squares of a grid rem­i­nis­cent of our school math book­lets dur­ing her per­for­mance, a med­i­ta­tive silence emanates from her con­tained move­ments, and the over­all for­mal expe­ri­ence def­i­nite­ly reminds you of the wealth of abstract art forms prac­ticed in her home­land before the advent of Euro­pean style fig­u­ra­tive arts, start­ing from cal­lig­ra­phy up to orna­men­tal arts. And she does every­thing to under­line their cul­tur­al impli­ca­tions: “One and the same thread appears to be run­ning from the ances­tral tra­di­tion of weav­ing to the act of draw­ing and even­tu­al­ly to con­tem­po­rary music: a thread of rit­u­al­ized time that links writ­ing to speech, the visu­al to sound, the score to the music. Per­haps a time like that so apt­ly and gen­uine­ly con­ceived by the Ara­bic lan­guage — with­out an imper­fect or future tense — a time shared between the com­plet­ed act and the unfinished.”

Quite telling­ly, it was El Haïk’s love for music and pat­terns which became the tip­ping point for mov­ing to Berlin. With a music piece in mind, she walked through the streets to find the light reflect­ing on the win­dows cre­at­ing var­i­ous pat­terns that inspired her. She found her­self addi­tion­al­ly attract­ed by pres­ence and his­to­ry of the Bauhaus, that gen­uine archi­tec­tur­al and design move­ment, in the city. More­over, bring­ing out her inner child, she expe­ri­enced a play­ful­ness much more devel­oped than elsewhere.

Last but not least, what she under­lines as one of the most pos­i­tive assets for her is the curios­i­ty and the open­ness of Berlin’s pub­lic and its cura­tors. While in Paris she found her­self con­front­ed with “iden­ti­tar­i­an” poli­cies. These rel­e­gat­ed her abstract min­i­mal­ism to her home­land and con­fined it to art spaces like the Insti­tute du Monde Arabe. In Berlin, in con­trast, she found her­self received and per­ceived as what she was — a mem­ber of a glob­al art scene with­out eth­nic or cul­tur­al clas­si­fi­ca­tions. This argu­ment, it seems, not only con­firms the Biennale’s state­ment about Berlin’s change­abil­i­ty and frag­men­tary char­ac­ter in a pos­i­tive sense but could explain as well why it has become so attrac­tive for Arab and non-Arab artists to work and reside here.


Arab artistsArab cinemaArabicBerlin BiennaleEgyptian filmmakerJihan El-TahiriKader AttiaMyriam El Haik

Viola Shafik is a filmmaker, curator and film scholar. She is the author of Arab Cinema: History and Cultural Identity1998/2016 (AUC Press), Popular Egyptian Cinema: Gender, Class and Nation (AUC Press 2007), Resistance, Dissidence, Revolution: Documentary Film Aesthetics in the Middle East and North Africa (forthcoming from Routledge, 2023) and the editor of Documentary Filmmaking in the Middle East and North Africa (AUC Press 2022). She has taught at the American University in Cairo, Zurich University, Humboldt University and Ludwig Maximilians University, Munich where she held the position of a researcher 2016-2020. She served as the Head of Studies of the Documentary Campus MENA Program 2011-2013, curator and consultant for numerous international film festivals and film funds, such as La Biennale di Venezia, the Berlinale, Dubai Film Market, Rawi Screen Writers Lab, Torino Film Lab and the World Cinema Fund. She directed several documentaries, among others The Lemon Tree/Shajarat al-laymun (1993), Planting of Girls/Mawsim zaraa al-banat (1999), Jannat `Ali-Ali im Paradies/My Name is not Ali (2011) and Arij - Scent of Revolution (2014). Current works in progress are Home Movie on Location and Der Gott in Stücken. Viola Shafik is the guest editor of TMR's BERLIN issue.


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