Beyond good and evil


Considering the title of her latest show, “Aesthetics: Art and Politics,” it is clear that Lebanese-American artist Sumayyah Samaha is an advocate of mixing. But Samaha blends more than politics with her art. She is also a mixer of media, of color and visual art, never hesitating to also merge these with language and poetry.
Language in particular is an inevitable tool in sorting through the thorny issues that make up Samaha’s inspiration. Humans deal with tragedies like violence and occupation through their words, and many of Samaha’s works now showing at the Art Circle gallery fixate on language, the words that make up that language and even the letters that provide the components of each word.

Thus “Siege and Struggle,” “Majnun Leila,” “Al Horsh” and “Struggle” mingle watercolors, ink and charcoal with scribbled words in Arabic and English. The word “Gaza,” written in Arabic, has its letters broken apart in “Siege and Struggle,” where they are lost and confused among brown, orange and black. The Arabic word for struggle is similarly broken apart in several of these pieces, a word torn apart by its own meaning. The piece is frantically scribbled and doused in charcoal – a fitting medium for an artistic interpretation of war.

Other pieces borrow entire lines of poetry from Arabic lyricists spanning the ages from Al-Ma’arri to Etel Adnan and Mahmoud Darwish.In each instance, Samaha takes these poets’ lines and inserts them into her own context of murky, cloudy colors.

“For Beirut” features a moving ode to the city by Claire Gebeyle written on four strips of paper floating parallel to each other in a dark haze of reddish watercolors. The word “Beirut” is, once again, broken apart into its Arabic letters, while a dozen little holes in the paper itself mimic the bullet wounds that sprinkle this city.

Samaha is unapologetic in presenting her themes. With each political piece, she lays completely bare her thoughts on some matter of war or violence. This is most obvious in her “Cluster Bombs” installation. It is an ugly and disturbing work, with the various detritus of life splattered in blood and pinned with needles and nails to the canvas.

An accompanying paragraph from the artist provides an explanation of the millions of cluster bombs dropped on Lebanon in 2006 by Israel – bombs that lay hidden across the South and continue to maim and kill to this day. A blood-stained, mutilated bra, a shoe and a tiny, baby-sized T-shirt testify to this fact.

“I join the many voices that are calling to stop the manufacturing and selling of cluster bombs,” writes the artist. There are no ambiguities here.

Standing in stark contrast to the violence of the cluster bombs installation, Samaha’s oil-on-canvas works prove she can produce beauty as well as she can produce horror. Here we see the artist’s skill in mixing color. In “The Dreamer” she somehow manages to melt a vivid metallic green into a ruddy red, as if the two colors were side-by-side and not opposite from each other on the color wheel.

Each of these beautiful oil paintings features a canvas divided. One half is a solid color, while the other bursts into a chaos of swirls and splatters. Samaha attributes this to her mixed identity: “It seems to me that I am consistently trying to harmonize my two identities: that of Lebanese and American.”

Even as Samaha reconciles her two halves, her art shows her struggles to reconcile, as the show’s title announces, art and politics. But beyond this, Samaha’s work is the pursuit of mixing art and violence, art and evil. Here she confronts the old dilemma of making art out of suffering. Is there an ethical problem in taking someone’s grief – like that of those living under siege in Gaza or even of Samaha’s own experiences with war – and making it aesthetically pleasing? Does creating beauty from suffering legitimize the evil?

The art of Sumayyah Samaha struggles endlessly with these questions. She may at times seem too obvious in the way she attaches a clear political statement to her art, but perhaps this is simply the effect of an artist who cannot separate herself from the suffering of her surroundings, for which we can hardly blame her.

“Aesthetics: Art and Politics” will be at Art Circle until June 24.

  • Art Circle

    ok there has been a mistake with the listing at the end of the article summaya's show will be at Art Circle and not Art Lounge Art Circle -Hamra Antoine Gemayel street (commodore st, going down to Wardeh), Assaf building

    June 12, 2010