Lense on Linguistic Planes
Lebanese-American artist Annabel Daou's writings on paper
Landscapes in lines, letters in a linguistic play of our political realities. Their grounds are white papers, rough, torn and glued with tape. Written language as drawn landscapes in arab and latin letters makes the fascinating imagery of Daou's work. by Irmgard Berner
Berlin, November 2008 Researching about artists participating in the upcoming exhibition POLITICAL/MINIMAL in Kunstwerke Berlin, I discovered the following text about Annabel Daou in the net. Since the site where it was published doesn't exist anymore, I wanted to at least save it partly on nurart.
| America. 88"x150", pencil, gesso, repair tape on paper, 2006
By Maymanah Farhat
On a written rendering of a mural size landscape, America (2006), serves as a profound commentary on the current state of American society. Using a variety of written works, phrases and media excerpts the artist creates a portrait of the United States, a nation full of cultural, social and political intricacies and contradictions. Daou’s recording of varying texts is executed so that intersections of prose usher a discussion of the past and present reality of a country uncertain about the unfolding of its future.
Daou’s journey through countless literary works is inadvertently demonstrated for the viewer, the impact of reading a specific passage reflected through the handwriting with which it is recorded or where it is placed in the composition. By taking on aesthetic formations that resemble the exact imagery her phrases describe, the shapes of her written sequences become visual representations of landscape.
The artist employs works from renowned poet Emily Dickinson to examples of American pop culture such as the lyrics of folk music legends Bob Dylan and Arlo Guthrie. George Washington’s Farewell Address lies on the edge of the piece, serving as both a visual and metaphoric pillar of the nation. Thomas Jefferson’s rewriting of the Bible serves as a crowning formation of America, providing an allegorical sky to the artist’s literary depiction. Phrases such as “green grass” and “white picket fence” are visually interrupted by the writing of “army of one” and excerpts from Allen Ginsberg’s Wichita Vortex Sutra. Overlapping, colliding or merging into one another, her selection of writings become composites of this layered and complicated nation that is comprised of several histories. The literary works of Harriet Jacobs, Gertrude Stein, Aldous Huxley and countless others are configured into a gnarled landscape in which skyscrapers, highways, and sprawling earth seem to appear.
The artist’s interpretation of America’s complexity through renowned literary works also revisits a more personal history. Daou was born in Beirut and remained in the city throughout the Lebanese civil war. Her parents owned an English book store, which they were forced to close with the onset of the conflict. With the inventory of the family business stored in her home, she had access to an endless supply of literary works in which she became engrossed, her imagination offering a momentary solace. The creation of America came at a time in which Lebanon experienced a month long military assault by neighboring Israel, during which Daou now found herself immersed in literature as a way of questioning the world around her.
In such works as Propaganda (2006) and Liberty or Death (2006), Daou transcribes English text into colloquial Arabic in ink or pencil on paper. Without translating the text, she reformats the words phonetically, all that remains is the appearance of words or the sound of their pronunciation as they are read, their meaning lost. The English words or phrases the artist chooses (which possess weighty connotations or evoke certain politically explicit understandings) consequently remain suspended. Amidst the process of what would appear to be the initiation of a type of cross-cultural or transnational exchange, no immediate meaning is communicated.
The transcribing of texts into colloquial speech in place of translating it into formal Arabic, the standard, universal usage of the language, adds yet another dimension to the transfiguration of language and meaning. There is an element of urgency in the rewriting of English words into colloquial Arabic, a need for language to be transposed with a minimal amount of transformation so that the inflection of a word can remain intact. This raises an important question: Would the meaning of a word or text survive its introduction into a new environment via translation? Here we find the significant junctions of language and culture, and perhaps the consequences of assuming that translation will suffice in attempts at cross-cultural communication. The viewer is left to ponder this aspect of her work, a provocative reflection on the exchange of ideas, the utterance of meaning.
The conversion of American patriot Patrick Henry’s historical phrase “give me liberty or give me death” and the charged word “propaganda,” written with the inflection of Daou’s native Lebanese dialect, is particularly informing of the entwined political realities of the Arab World and the United States. Fragmented pieces adjoined in a tablet-like construction expose and conceal her transcription of Henry’s famous words in Liberty or Death, as the essence of his call is not only lost in the transcription but is battered and worn.
Daou’s In Lebanon We Have No Bomb Shelters (2006), which reverberates with evocative indication of the recent invasion of her native Lebanon, was created shortly after the conflict began for “Double Exposure: Middle Eastern Rooftops.” While the curatorial premise of the exhibition was to examine rooftops as a “paradigm of the conflicting realities between urban design, gendered gazes and urban turmoil,” Daou chose to call attention to not only Lebanese architecture but the vulnerability of a people under bombardment. The artist’s handwriting begins in the crevice of folded paper. Red ink is used to write “in Lebanon we have no bomb shelters” phonetically in Arabic continuously. The nature of her handwriting materializes into vein-like growths which are bandaged over mangled paper, the center acting as a fault-line from which life has scattered into hundreds of pieces.
By crossing, defying and reshaping linguistic planes, Daou dispels supposed political, social and cultural polarizations. At a time when the Middle East is frequently defined by contrasting comparisons to “the West,” one deduces in her work that geographic borders no longer define the extent and nature of cultural encounters. Her rewriting of historic American texts into colloquial Arabic, enunciates that as globalization permeates our everyday lives, political realities have become increasingly intertwined. With extensive migration and the effects of globalization reaching far beyond the parameters of economic activity, language and culture have become political agents within our ever increasingly interdependent global community.
pictures, from above: America. Detail, 88"x150", pencil, gesso, repair tape on paper, 2006. In lebanon we have no bomb shelter. 70"x40", ink on paper and tape, 2006. Give me liberty or give me death. 30"x30", pencil, gesso, tape on paper, 2005. Screams in the night. Detail, 27.5"x31.5", pencil and repair tape on paper, 2005