Trembling Landscapes: Between Reality and Fiction: Eleven Artists from the Middle East*

14 December, 2020

* The geo­graph­i­cal term Mid­dle East is not neu­tral, but Euro­cen­tric and has its ori­gin in colonialism.

Trem­bling Land­scapes is on view through 3 Jan­u­ary, 2021. The exhi­bi­tion title is bor­rowed from Lebanese artist Ali Cher­ri’s series of lith­o­graph­ic prints Trem­bling Land­scapes (2014–2016).

Nat Muller


Land­scape is a charged notion in the Mid­dle East. On the one hand, rep­re­sen­ta­tions of land­scape engage with a heady mix of nation­al and nat­ur­al bor­ders, tus­sles over resources and ter­ri­to­ry, and (colo­nial) his­to­ry. On the oth­er hand, it is a rich source of iden­ti­ty, tra­di­tion and imagination.

In Ali Cher­ri’s series of lith­o­graph­ic prints, Trem­bling Land­scapes (2014–2016), aer­i­al maps of Algiers, Beirut, Dam­as­cus, Erbil, Mec­ca and Tehran reveal polit­i­cal and geo­log­i­cal fault lines. An apt metaphor for an exhi­bi­tion that draws in equal mea­sure on geopol­i­tics and poet­ics, includ­ing some of the Arab world’s most promi­nent artists work­ing with video and film.

The artists relate to land­scape in var­i­ous ways. They do not shy away from inter­ro­gat­ing how beau­ty, folk­lore, ide­ol­o­gy, colo­nial­ism and vio­lence are ingrained in how land­scape is under­stood, con­cep­tu­alised, visu­alised and imagined.

In this exhi­bi­tion, the par­tic­i­pat­ing artists chal­lenge and reshape views of the region by draw­ing on a host of com­plex and entan­gled issues, rang­ing from geog­ra­phy and con­flict to belong­ing. Trem­bling Land­scapes: Between Real­i­ty and Fic­tion includes works by Basel Abbas & Ruanne Abou Rahme, Heba Y. Amin, Jananne Al-Ani, Ali Cher­ri, Joana Had­jithomas & Khalil Jor­eige, Mohamad Hafe­da, Laris­sa San­sour, Hrair Sarkiss­ian, and Wael Shawky.

What binds these art­works togeth­er is that they explore land­scape as a ver­sa­tile trope for telling sto­ries about the past, present and future, whether root­ed in real­i­ty or fiction.

In his video The Dis­qui­et (2013), Cher­ri fol­lows a sim­i­lar log­ic by trac­ing the his­to­ry of earth­quakes in Lebanon, seam­less­ly com­bin­ing seis­mic and polit­i­cal cat­a­stro­phe by invit­ing the view­er to con­sid­er longer timescales than those of recent polit­i­cal events. It is illus­tra­tive of an exhi­bi­tion that chal­lenges and reshapes views of the region by draw­ing on a host of com­plex and entan­gled issues, rang­ing from geog­ra­phy and con­flict to iden­ti­ty and the imaginary.

Imag­ing and map­ping tech­nolo­gies help shape the way we look at land­scape. Egypt­ian artist Heba Y. Amin looks at tech­nolo­gies used by colo­nial pow­ers to sur­vey the land­scape, as well Film­scapes of the ‘Ori­ent’ in his­tor­i­cal trav­el accounts. In The Earth is an Imper­fect Ellip­soid (2016), she reframes geo­gra­phies and inverts this colo­nial and male gaze. Irish-Iraqi artist Jananne Al-Ani inter­ro­gates the mil­i­tary notion of ‘mas­tery from above’ in Shad­ow Sites I (2010) and II (2011). Her dreamy aer­i­al vis­tas of Jor­dan point to how devel­op­ments in tech­nolo­gies of pho­tog­ra­phy and film are inter­twined with tech­nolo­gies of avi­a­tion. Here aer­i­al sur­veil­lance maps the plun­der­ing of the earth­’s resources (fos­sil fuels and ores) and sug­gests the weaponized view of a mil­i­tary drone.

Lebanese artist Mohamad Hafe­da shows how the his­tor­i­cal carv­ing up of the Mid­dle East in 1916 by the Sykes-Picot Agree­ment into Eng­lish and French spheres of con­trol and influ­ence, and the 1917 Bal­four Dec­la­ra­tion in which the British gov­ern­ment laid the ground­work for the foun­da­tion of the State of Israel, have cre­at­ed arti­fi­cial bor­ders that con­tin­ue to res­onate and desta­bi­lize the region to this day. In Sewing Bor­ders (2017) he works with dis­en­franchized res­i­dents of Beirut, includ­ing Iraqi-Kur­dish, Pales­tin­ian, Syr­i­an and Armen­ian refugees who nego­ti­ate urban space in a city where they are marginalized.

For Pales­tini­ans suf­fer­ing the con­se­quences of Israeli occu­pa­tion and land­grabs, land­scape has for many decades been an impor­tant artis­tic trope to demon­strate a con­nec­tion to the land and reclaim Pales­tin­ian his­tor­i­cal pres­ence. In the Pales­tin­ian-Israeli con­flict, ter­ri­to­ry is the cur­ren­cy. Pales­tin­ian artist Laris­sa San­sour and artist-duo Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme draw on the frag­ment­ed and dis­ap­pear­ing topog­ra­phy of Pales­tine in high­ly orig­i­nal ways to dri­ve this point home. In the dystopi­an, yet humor­ous, sci­ence-fic­tion short Nation Estate (2012), San­sour cir­cum­vents Palestine’s issue with land con­ti­gu­i­ty, ham­pered mobil­i­ty, check­points and clo­sures by locat­ing the entire Pales­tin­ian pop­u­la­tion in a lux­u­ry high-rise on the out­skirts of Jerusalem. Abbas and Abou-Rahme take the view­er on a riv­et­ing and fast-paced audio-visu­al jour­ney through the West Bank in which the char­ac­ter of the ‘inci­den­tal insur­gent’ offers a spec­u­la­tive poten­tial for change.

Although the exhi­bi­tion is firm­ly root­ed in the tur­bu­lent his­to­ry and geopol­i­tics of the region, oth­er nar­ra­tives unfold. For exam­ple, Egypt­ian artist Wael Shawky’s mes­mer­iz­ing land­scapes of Upper Egypt become a site of folk­lore, mag­ic, ghosts and whim­sy, root­ed in Egyp­t’s rich lit­er­ary tra­di­tion. The dis­tinc­tive rur­al land­scapes around the Nile’s river­banks become an uncan­ny foil for the short sto­ries of Egypt­ian writer Mohamed Mustagab, on which Shawky has based his scripts.

In the exhi­bi­tion, land­scape encom­pass­es nature as it does cityscapes and the built envi­ron­ment, as well as emo­tion­al land­scape. Syr­i­an artist Hrair Sarkiss­ian takes a deeply per­son­al and auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal approach in his instal­la­tion Home­sick (2014). One screen shows a scale mod­el of the artist’s parental home in Dam­as­cus grad­u­al­ly reduced to rub­ble, while the oth­er shows Sarkiss­ian swing­ing a sledge­ham­mer. The work address­es con­cep­tions of home and collective.

A sim­i­lar sen­ti­ment is echoed in Wait­ing for the Bar­bar­ians (2013) by Lebanese artists and film­mak­ers Joana Had­jithomas and Khalil Jor­eige. Tak­ing its cue from Alexan­dria-based Greek poet Con­stan­tine Cavafy’s 1898 epony­mous poem on polit­i­cal iner­tia, the work shows a cityscape of Beirut com­posed from pho­tographs and mov­ing images. It presents the view­er with a mes­mer­iz­ing yet omi­nous land­scape of a city that has suf­fered inces­sant­ly at the hands of its cor­rupt rulers dur­ing the Lebanese Civ­il War (1975–90) and its after­math. Seen in the light of the trag­ic port explo­sion that flat­tened a large part of the city on 4 August, this work becomes all the more poignant.


The exhi­bi­tion was curat­ed by Nat Muller, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Jaap Gulde­mond and Mar­ente Bloemheuv­el for Eye, the Nether­land’s film muse­um. This text was orig­i­nal­ly writ­ten for the exhi­bi­tion brochure.


Nat Muller is an independent curator and writer with an expertise in contemporary art from the Middle East. Recent projects include: the Danish Pavilion, Heirloom, with Palestinian artist Larissa Sansour for the 58th Venice Biennale in 2019 and Kurdish-Iraqi artist Walid Siti’s first monograph, published by Kehrer Verlag in 2020. She is researching an AHRC-funded PhD on science fiction in contemporary visual practices from the Middle East at Birmingham City University. Her latest exhibition Trembling Landscapes: between Reality and Fiction is currently on view at Amsterdam’s Eye Filmmuseum.