Lucy Knight

Not only Arabic

At 98weeks research space and Villa Fleming in collaboration with 98 Weeks, Kunsthalle Lissabon and AIR Antwerpen


When artist Mounira Al Solh first moved to the Netherlands she didn’t speak a word of Dutch. She also wasn’t really required to. “When you go there as someone working in the arts you are not asked to speak Dutch. You do everything in English, so you start to speak that globbish English full of mistakes, or what they call ‘international art English’.” 


It was through this experience that Al Solh became aware of language, how it is used, and how it is taught. Al Solh's experiences in the Netherlands were also formative in another way: "I had the brilliant ability to switch off a few minutes after someone was speaking next to me in this language [Dutch]. Not hearing what is being said around someone is an exercise many of us practice at times. In a language we know very well, this would be more difficult, but it is not impossible."


This idea of "switching off one's ears" is present in Louis Wolfson's book Le Schizo et Les Langues - an inspiration for the 'Language and schizophrenia' (third) edition of Al Solh's ongoing NOA (Not Only Arabic) Magazine project. In the book, Wolfson tries to eliminate English words from his daily life by replacing them with words he creates or finds from other languages that would rhyme or sound the same, and mean the same or at least something quite close to the original word.


As part of a three-day event Al Solh will be soaking up inspiration and exploring - through performance, exhibition, and panel discussion - these issues for her new chapters at Beirut’s 98weeks research project.


Part of the event has seen Ghalia Saadawi moderating a conversation on the use of ‘institutional’ language, with Marwa Arsanios of 98weeks, Luis Silva and Joao Morao from Portugal’s Kunsthalle Lissabon, the Belgian artist Mark Luyten, and the Beirut-based artist Ghassan Maasri. “As an artist you do everything in English,” says Al Solh. “From grant applications to press releases.” This particular discussion will look at how this use of English shapes the understanding of art – it will hopefully provide Al Solh with some food for her next issue.  


The origin of the NOA Magazine, which Al Solh believes to be one of the richest projects she has undertaken, was a seed sewn in the wake of the 2006 war with Israel. “At the time everyone was accusing everyone else of being a traitor,” says Al Solh, whose first issue took on the theme of treason.  


Her predilection for language wasn’t too far off either: “I felt it was a flash back to 1982, and you think that in all those years there is supposed to have been no communication between Lebanon and Israel. This could go on for another 200 years.” So Al Solh began to ponder what it would be like if communication actually happened, what would the language be, could we communicate? “Arabs are so proud of their language, but just because we speak the same language doesn’t meant we are communicating any better. What language could we all speak?” And so the ominous title of NOA was born.


Once described by a curatorial team (for WHWs - What, How and for Whom) from Zaghreb for as a “performative gesture,” NOA Magazine comes in the same form as any other publication sitting on a shop shelf. Even its content is similar to that of a rich journal looking at art or fashion: essays, anecdotes, stories, movie stills, and drawings. However, that is where the similarity ends. “The magazine is still closer to a performance or a video,” says Al Solh. Not mass-produced, there have been fewer than 10 copies of each printed. 


Speaking about the first issue she says: “when you are a ‘traitor’ you do things in secret and in order to view it you had to make an appointment.” Al Solh has continued in this vein, wanting to keep exclusivity and the ability to not be restrained in the content - so much so she is hesitant about displaying the content, even to NOW. 


After the 2008 edition ‘treason is like a bible,’ came the 2009 edition entitled ‘arrest buried under something else.’ A natural follow up to the first, this was a collection of stories of Fascism and oppression.  The works are obviously still relevant and the first two issues are available for reading, by appointment of course, in Glasgow until November 10. 


This, the third edition of the magazine, has already been a few years in the making, and during that time Al Solh, along with curator Angela Serino, has created the NOA Language School. “It wasn’t long before discovering that the topic of language was so broad and rich,” she says. “We invite artists to create language teaching sessions for either forgetting a language or learning a small detail in another language.”


Advancing from her first foray into language with her short film The Mute Tongue - a staging of 19 Arabic proverbs and sayings used in her daily life - Al Solh is pleased to find an excuse to work with others. For this artist, who has worked with film and drawing, the experience of creating a magazine has been so unlike her usual process: “you work alone a lot as an artist and working in a group was really nice. This thinking with others is really what the week at 98weeks is all about.” 



For more details of this week's events, you can visit the 98weeks website here.

The cover of 'NOA (not only arabic) magazine, issue # 1: Treason Is Like A Bible' (image via www.mouniraalsolh.nuncium.com)

“Arabs are so proud of their language, but just because we speak the same language doesn’t meant we are communicating any better. What language could we all speak?”