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Jordanian artist taps absurd for 'Camel in the Room'

With iconic imagery such as camels and locks, artist Raed Ibrahim explores the complexities of Middle Eastern identity, memory and the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

Raed Ibrahim, a 46-years-old Jordanian artist, works in an eclectic range of formats from abstract oil painting to street signs, to dress and embroidery and found artifacts.

Ibrahim's new exhibit “A Camel in the Room” plays out in four different galleries at Darat al Funun — the Khalid Shoman Foundation's arts complex in Amman — where the artist explores the relationship between objects and memory, truth and storytelling. 

It's a Middle Eastern twist on the 19th century Russian fable "The Inquisitive Man," about the museum visitor who notices all the tiny animals in the exhibit but not the massive taxidermied elephant in the room.

The exhibit calls attention to an unexamined side of seemingly familiar iconography including landmark buildings, tourist trinkets and national flags.

The camel on display in this show is an enlarged version of a made-in-China souvenir of Jordan.

"I always wanted to do a camel," said Ibrahim, "It so often accompanies the ideas and sometimes the stigma attached to our culture." 

"It's directly modeled on a camel doll I bought in the market downtown with the word 'Jordan' printed on the saddle. It plays a Tunisian tune when you squeeze it," said the artist with a smile.

The Saudi-born Jordanian son of a father from Nablus and a mother from Beirut explores the Arab postcolonial predicament and the enduring question of Palestine.

"As an Arab visitor to Europe or Africa, I've been asked if I live in a tent or ride a camel. Here in Amman, the shopkeepers who sell souvenirs to tourists display these little stuffed camels. Somehow, they are supposed to represent Jordan, but I really don't know how." 

At Darat al Funun, the eight-foot-tall plush pink object can't be missed, and Ibrahim and gallery workers are installing mirrors on the walls so visitors will escape neither the camel in the room nor their own reflections.

"It becomes kind of an infinity space where we look at ourselves, the people who are with us, and how we in the region are looking at history," said Eline van der Vlist, the artistic director of Darat al Funun. “I think that ties nicely in what he's done with the Twin Towers."

In the adjacent gallery, Ibrahim makes connections between "monument, miniature, metaphor and memory" with four different architectural and allegorical models of the World Trade Center's iconic towers. 

"I was in this very room when I first learned of the attacks on the towers," said Ibrahim, who on Sept. 11, 2001, was participating in a Shoman Foundation artist's workshop with Syrian painter Marwan Kassab-Bachi

"Ever since then, I always wanted to explore questions about what 9/11 did to us, what it did to the world and how it re-represents us to the world."

"Our culture, religion, image became a result of this incident and somehow minimized all our history at this one single moment."

From the back of the gallery, two white steel tubes emblazoned with the Marlboro brand and a cloud of black smoke made of polychloroprene balloons, dried industrial foam and papier-mâché immediately draw in the visitor.

"I'm looking at events as a consumer of a product with the buildings burning and letting off smoke like a cigarette."

The cigarette towers stand as a three-dimensional Roy Lichtenstein-esque pop art piece, simultaneously humorous and horrifying.

The friendly pink camel in the room next door becomes retrospectively intimidating. 

Then, perhaps the boldest piece in the exhibit comes into view: two black-painted stainless steel towers, one mounted with a gold automated model airplane circling the top. Another identical structure is crowned with a gold band clearly referencing the kiswah, the traditional cloth that covers the Kaaba in Mecca, the site of Muslims’ pilgrimage.

"The plane is circling the tower like the people circle the Kaaba while they perform the tawaf," said Ibrahim. "The movement is a ritual, but the process of going around is a chance to reconsider an object from its different sides.”

"To me, our relationship with 9/11 is like this. We repeat arguments about whether this event represents us, or does it not. Are we like that? Are we not like that? So it's about questioning."

The fifth tower is made of wood slivers tied together with small bits of string. The imposing industrial workshop pieces in the rest of the room recede as the viewer ponders Ibrahim's "scaffolding."

"Here, the intention is more about the work, the structure that helps build the structure. I'm trying to find something in the design — while in the real world, scaffolding is something that goes only on the outside — extending it inside and asking impossible questions about what holds us up."

In a small adjacent gallery, Ibrahim has installed a set of six framed late 19th/early 20th century cast iron house locks.

Behind the antique hardware, the artist has placed blue paper shadows under the objects mounted in the glass-enclosed display. 

Keys are a ubiquitous motif in Palestinian art, a symbol of the Nakba, or the "catastrophe" caused by the 1948 founding of the Israeli state and the displacement of Palestinians, and a defiant, hopeful symbol of their aspiration to return home

 Locks, a reference to keys as the symbol of Palestinians displaced in 1948, also feature in the exhibition "The Camel in the Room" by artist Raed Ibrahim. (courtesy of the artist)

"The relationship with Palestine is immediately obvious to everyone," said van der Vlist. "And yet as we see refugees from Iraq and Syria today, we're reminded that inherited narratives of being dispersed from your homeland are universal." She went on, "So the work addresses the wider question of who gets to tell your story and the ripple effects of stories for generations to come."

The work also raises questions about the authenticity and efficacy of memory.

"I actually tried to find locks from Palestine in the antique markets, but I couldn't find them here," said Ibrahim. "I actually got these in Europe."

"So presenting the locks is kind of a problematic gesture saying that, OK, here's the locks, you could open them if you have the keys," and see the problem from the other side, he said. "It's a problem if you are from the second or third generation. We are dealing with the locks and their shadows."

One floor below in a solitary gallery called the Ghorfa, Ibrahim has reinstalled his ongoing project, “The State of Ishmael: Jus Sanguinis." The Latin term refers to citizenship laws determined by the nationality or "bloodline" of one or both parents.

The room is filled with imagined artifacts belonging to "The State of Ishmael" — a kind of alternative Palestine with founding documents and national iconography. The assemblage simultaneously draws upon and critiques the cultural reservoir and legal structures Zionists used to conceive Israel. 

Ibrahim first created his "state" in the Swiss town of Aargau less than 70 kilometers (43 miles) from Basel, where Theodor Herzl convened the first Zionist Congress in 1897. 

"I had a residency there in 2009, and it was clear to me that I want to do a project around the occupation. I wanted to occupy this beautiful Swiss town and call it Ishmael, who is from the Torah and Quran and known as the son of Haggar, who was kicked out of Palestine."

Ishmael's Declaration of Independence is on display, its text similar to Israel's founding document. Critical word switches flip the concepts of the Zionist narrative. Jews and Jewish are replaced with Muslims and Muslim. Ishmael substitutes in for Israel. 

"The land of Ishmael is the birthplace of the Ishmaeli people. Here they first attained statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave the world the eternal ‘Book of Testimonials.’ After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people of Ishmael kept faith throughout their dispersion and never ceased to pray in the hope of freedom and return,” goes the text.

Ishmael's map is an outline of the Swiss canton of Aargau, with the names of destroyed Palestinian cities within its boundaries. 

"I took the ladybug symbol from the Swiss," said Ibrahim. "It looks so cute on their chocolates, but in these red and black colors and the way I designed the stencil, it becomes menacing and aggressive."

Ibrahim's Ishmael is more cautionary than aspirational. 

"Definitely, this is a horrible state to adopt; you have to be a Muslim to be accepted. You have to have a blood relation to the state to be able to become a citizen. It's really a racist country built on someone else's land."

Part of the exhibit is a workstation where visitors can fill out applications for Ishmaeli citizenship." 

The box is already filling up with completed forms.

As the current US/Israeli vision attempts to impose new contours of power and space on the region, Ibrahim's work offers timely questions of legitimacy and representation.

"Ultimately, this is not something that I can look at from outside," said Ibrahim. "It's something that is still going on and I don’t possess the privilege of being poetic about it. I need to use direct language and gestures."