In a speech given in 1912, Polish-born American Socialist and Feminist Rose Schneiderman, labour union leader said “What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist — the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art. [...] The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too. [...]”. That last sentence became synonymous with the struggle for respect and dignity as an integral part of workers’ rights. Women who have take part in suffragette and women’s rights marches during any time in history have been able to imagine a different future, an alternate way of living and of sharing power. They have used discourse as well as a form of public performance to challenge unfair and ill-balanced status quos.
I’d like to talk about four performative elements of The Island Is What the Sea Surrounds, curated by Maren Richter; Heba Amin’s OPERATION SUNKEN SEA, Times of Dilemma by Transparadiso, Tanya El Khoury’s Sejjaħ lil Malta, and the beautiful Who by Fire by Susan Philipsz. All four interventions somehow spoke about alternative worlds, of utopias or non-utopias, or promised lands and of heavens and hells. All brought the female to the fore too, whether through artists-as-protagonist, or through undercurrents or themes which ran through each work. Unfortunately I haven’t yet seen Kristina Borg’s No Man’s Land, and I’m unable to comment on the main The Island Is... exhibition objectively, so I’ll stick to these four elements.
I remember just over two years ago working intensively on a call for the curator of a “high-profile multi-site exhibition and cultural project” worthy of a European Capital of Culture (yes I’m aware of the irony; hindsight is a wonderful thing). The call went out worldwide, the proposals came in, and we were lucky to meet Maren Richter, (previously co-curator of the Maldives Pavilion at the Venice Biennale and Artistic Director of the Festival der Regionen in Austria) and hear her thoughts and dreams for the project. I remember seeing her on skype for the first time, and I think we all knew; this is the one - this is our curator. After all the plans, dreams, tears, artists, theories, determination and venues, The Island Is What the Sea Surrounds was finally opened - mainly due to the determination - or ‘labor’ - of some really strong women.
“I am a woman among men” said Heba Amin during her performance OPERATION SUNKEN SEA. Her composure was unbreakable, her shoulder pads angular, and her speech pointed and perfect. “As China is building a new Silk Road” she declared, “and Turkey building a new canal connecting the Black and Marmara Seas, we too shall explore the capabilities of human progress in a feat of poetic engineering, and sink the Mediterranean Sea.” In a perfect straight-laced satirical and commanding performance, Amin drew on the speeches and actions of dictators to formulate a manifesto for an audacious infrastructural intervention unparalleled in scale; to relocate the Mediterranean Sea within the continent of Europe, simultaneously providing water to the deserts and creating a ‘super-continent’ made of Africa and Europe. Amin researched her speech extensively, and drew from many megalomaniacal sources to create an almost fembotic super-speech.
And it worked; it was believable because Amin made it so. Her assurance, her certainty in the plan, made the audience believe in it too; so much so that when her performance was finished we had to shake ourselves a little bit to remember that no, she’s not being serious - it’s all an act. There were flowers (if not roses) in her performance; the display on the lectern in front of her was created to look exactly like that used by Robert Mugabe during one of his infamous speeches.
Transparadiso also encroached on male territory, through the contemporary-għana dialogues in Times of Dilemma, a medium traditionally more dominated by men, but here shared equally by both genders.The għana was sung-broadcast between Manoel Island across to St. Michael’s Counterguard in Valletta, 320 meters away. The għanneja sang from song-sheets composed through workshops during which participants discussed the contradictory interests between economic prosperity and community values. And while singing from song-sheets may not have come naturally to the għanneja, their conversations travelled over the sea and fell into a rhythm; a verse loud and clear on one side, answered by a faint response from across the bay, followed again by a clear verse on our side of the bay.
It’s impossible to separate the process and intent of the lyrics from the performance, and here, maybe, some irony or regret crept in; noble lyrics, thoughtfully formulated were being broadcast out to the sea to be heard only by the few who turned out to listen, or by bemused tourists making their way back after a day at sea. In the end Manoel Island will still be privatised, Valletta will continue its journey to a soulless tourist city, and the beautiful loudspeakers glinting in the sun sending the għanneja’s voices over the sea, will become a distant memory. Rose Schneiderman’s bread may have arrived in Malta, but it’s relentlessly pushing the roses out of its way to get here.
Also on two shorelines was Tania El Khoury’s Sejjaħ lil Malta. Sea shells from Tunisian coastal city of Sousse contained a voice, partly giving information about the Mediterranean - a leisure-destination for some, a death-trap for others - and partly telling the moving story of how the art-piece itself came to be. On a water taxi, Mohamed Ali “Dali” Agrebi gave some insight into the history of exiles to Malta, while in on the other side of the harbour, Chakib Zidi’s understated performance recalled the title of the piece ‘Call Malta’. The background of the work was ambiguous; perhaps deliberately so (whose voice is contained in the shell, and is what she’s saying true and personal to her?) but the message was clear; the Mediterranean is a multi-layered space, inviting suffering for many people who live on its edges, while others are oblivious to their ordeals. (As I write, the BBC World-Service is efficiently relaying the news of 46 Tunisians’ drowning in the Mediterranean today).
Lastly Who By Fire, by Susan Philipsz. A word of warning if you intend to go; only look up. Don’t look down at the lights, the wires and the fire-extinguishers. They’ll remind you that you’re in the real world. If you only look up and listen, you’ll believe you’ve been transported somewhere else entirely. The cistern in which the work is located is dramatic in itself - strange roots hang down from the ceiling, and a dignified arch rises to meet them. Light streaming down from a small grate in the street above is the only reminder that a busy bustling street exists still exists somewhere up there.
Then comes the sound; bells, which are followed by a recording of Philipsz herself singing Leonard Cohen’s ‘Who by Fire’. The song is loosely adapted from the melody of a Hebrew song chanted on Yom Kippur, supposedly listing all those who will die in the coming year. But you don’t need to know all this to be moved by the sound, by the crystal-clear voice singing in the cold underground air. The sound echos, it’s a beautiful sound you don’t want to hear anything else. As you surface, Valletta seems superficial, overbright, lurid. You want to go back down underground, seek refuge in that voice, those words, in that womb-like space.
And so we come back to Rose Schneiderman’s words, “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too”. There were many ‘women who laboured’ for The Island Is What the Sea Surrounds. From the curator, project manager and programme manager, to the artists, female għanneja, protagonists and producers, they all worked to somehow represent an alternative reality, or suggest a different way of being. Their work called for bread - and roses - and much more, for many women, of course, but also for migrants, for local communities, whole countries and at a stretch, for all of humanity. Here in Malta though, the home of The Island Is…, it seems that while bread is not hard to come by, the roses have either disappeared entirely.
More info here:
OPERATION SUNKEN SEA, Heba Amin; www.hebaamin.com/works/operation-sunken-sea/
Times of Dilemma, Transparadiso: www.transparadiso.com/cms/index.php?id=114&L=1
Sejjaħ lil Malta, Tanya El Khoury: taniaelkhoury.com/sejjah-lil-malta-call-malta/
Who by Fire, Susan Philipsz: vimeo.com/262645934
Maren Richter: www.youtube.com/watch?v=jAyjqUTH3ak