Review of Abbas: Children of Abraham by Martha Swift

February 8, 2016

Susan Bee Laufer’s English 119 class, “Art Reviewing and Criticism” stopped by the gallery last week to see our Abbas exhibition. The students later wrote riveting reviews about the aesthetics, cultural relevance, and social commentary present in Abbas’s photo exhibition. We have selected two to share with you on our blog. The first is by student Martha Swift:

‘Man created God to his needs, not to his image.’ So said Abbas in a recent NPR interview (Abbas, NPR, 2015). In Children of Abraham, now at the Arthur Ross Gallery, Abbas has created images of man; man as he worships, lives, and learns amongst the religious spaces and communities now inscribed with this God. In this room, photographs of Jews, Christians and Muslims, all the proverbial children of Abraham, hang frame to frame.

Violence is perennially present.

Its actors, victims, and willing participants have been transported here in black and white. A Mujahid (of the Hezbi-Islami Islamic Party) clutches a Kalashnikov as he stares at us from his perch on a bunk-bed frame on the road to Kabul (1992). On the walls behind, the white arm of Jackie von Maltitz clutches a gun over her Bible after Sunday Mass (Ficksburg, South Africa 1999), while, in another frame, the unnamed oil-burned body of an Iraqi soldier lies in the foreground of a silhouetted tank (Kuwait 1991). Across the room, an Egyptian family mourns the assassination of Gamal Abdel Nasser (Cairo, Egypt 1970) and two different boys are circumcised in family ceremonies; one in Tajikistan (1990) and the other in the 18th Arrondissement (Paris 2001).

Most striking, however, are the photographs in which violence and its aftermath are transformed into transcendental experiences. Taken in Juazeiro do Norte, Brazil in 1996, the first photograph on the inside wall is one such image.

A man stands shirtless and muscular in almost the center of the frame. A small bright medallion swings from his neck and his right arm is outstretched from the elbow. On his left, a smooth line runs from the end of his neck to the end of his ribs; this arm has been amputated. He has come, reads the accompanying plaque, on a pilgrimage to the statue of Padre Cicero, in thanks for a miraculous cure after being hit by gunfire made it necessary for his shoulder and arm to be amputated. As if offered in replacement, another arm looms into the frame from the far left, raising what must be a microphone above the head of this man. It is unclear whether this arrangement was intentional on the part of Abbas, or just a coincidental alignment of limbs, but perhaps it is this very atmosphere of accident that makes this particular photograph quite so compelling. Echoed in the choice of the enormous statue for the background, religion is made materially manifest through the miraculous coupling of a one-armed body and a bodiless arm. Through these physical symbols of belief, arm and statue both rising above the head of the photograph’s devoted subject, the material presence of religion becomes indicative of its ability to supply healing to an existential wound as well.

Just below this hangs what might be considered an accompanying image from the Village of Santa Lucia (in the Philippines) in 1995. The text for this one reads: ‘Crucifixion of a fidel during Good Friday’. Amongst a crowd of male legs and torsos, a nail rises from the palm of the fidel. The cross he is bound to has yet to be raised. The nail, his nails, the lines on his knuckles and the wrinkles in his fingers, the striped cloth that binds his wrist to the wood, and the wood’s lacquered sheen have all been caught in sharp, detailed focus by the camera’s lens. The edges of the scene, even the rest of the man’s own body gently recede from focus, not blurred but not outlined by the same stark contrast either.

It is, in fact, the curatorial pairing of the two that makes each quite so arresting. In each, the body is inscribed with belief, with the absence of the arm and the fidel’s scarred stigmata, but while the upper image might best be described as a reactionary celebration, this one articulates a voluntary violence inflicted upon the self, a sort of loving suffering. Here, Abbas once more captures the transcription of spiritual belief onto the corporeal, investigating, as he further mentions in his interview, what people will do in the name of God. History is well populated by wars, crusades, and persecution in the name of God (or Gods) in one form or another, but such an act of violence against the self is nonetheless disruptive. And confounding. Perhaps even more so than the image of the dead Iraqi solider or Jack von Maltitz’s aggressive grasp on her gun.

Yet, at the same time that violence pervades the exhibition, marriages, meals, pilgrimages, play, teaching, and learning all continue alongside the conflict that much of the modern world now considers inextricable from religion, most particularly its Abrahamic manifestations. A Beta Israel family gathers in one room (Gondor, Ethopia, 2015). A woman is married to her absent fiancé (Kabul, Afghanistan 1992). Hessidic children are taught by Yasser Arafat’s advisor on Jewish Affairs (Jerusalem, Israel 1995).

Religion is addressed sometimes overtly, sometimes obliquely. Sometimes, it is only the accompanying wall text that indicates this photo is meant to be informed by religious overtones. The overall effect is that of pervasive beliefs, dominated, yes, by the violence of fundamentalists and fanatics, but at many other moments, these offer a benign structure to lives, a way of ordering existence that is echoed in the families and communities of each region and religion reproduced in the exhibition. Abbas’ work reveals a dialogue between faith, place, and identity.

In this vein, one more photograph stands out as indelible. A Belfast street fills the frame, recognizable from almost half a century of reporting on partisan bombings and failed peace talks. The girl in her communion dress occurs to the viewer almost as an afterthought, though it is only her Catholic presence that informs the space’s loyalist character, just as her shadow falls across the foreground of the road. Yet the contrast between the crisp white of her dress and the dark shadows of the wall behind her seem to mark her as a moveable part, in much the same way that without her communion dress she too would be another nondescript child, albeit very literally a child of Abraham. Religion here, for a moment only divisive rather than blatantly violent, is posited as a pervasive force, writing its own rituals and relations over those inherent to daily existence; defining modes of interaction and, as the viewer’s reaction to the potentially contentious history of Northern Ireland might prove, perception.

Throughout all these photographs, however, Abbas himself remains an impartial observer; Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike are depicted wielding weapons, speaking prayers, performing rituals, gathering in great masses, reflecting individually, and raising children. Each a silver gelatin print, each approximately the same size, each framed in the same frame, the photographs in Abbas: Children of Abraham are, above all, a great trove of record.