Phantom Punch

Lewiston, ME


Muhammad Ali, the most famous American Muslim, delivered the original phantom punch two minutes and fifteen seconds into his heavyweight championship fight against Sonny Liston on May 25, 1965 at the Central Maine Youth Center in Lewiston, Maine, less than a mile from the Bates College Campus. In what felt to many like a second phantom punch, in the early 2000s the city of Lewiston, a largely white, Christian, working-class city of 35,000 suddenly found itself home to 5,000 African, Muslim refugees from Somalia. So when Steven Stapleton, Dan Mills, and I were planning an exhibition of contemporary art from Saudi Arabia, we thought Phantom Punch was the perfect title. It conveyed the force with which we hoped this art would strike its viewers, and it also evoked the earlier, complicated experiences the city of Lewiston has had with Muslim visitors from far away.

When you enter the main gallery of Phantom Punch, you’re immediately faced with a large video screen hanging right in front of you just above head high. It’s playing Arwa Al Neami’s Never Never Land (below). Young Saudi women and girls wearing black abayas, hijabs and niqabs drive around and around in brightly colored bumper cars. Americans may find this image sad, funny, or upsetting, but Al Neami simply wants to show them that Saudi women, like women everywhere, can have a lot of fun even though they are subject to social control.

To your right, in the corner of the gallery, hanging on adjacent walls are the five panels of Ahmed Mater’s striking blue and black The Evolution of Man, in which a gas pump morphs into an x-ray of a man about to shoot himself in the head with a pistol. On the facing wall, Mater’s video Leaves Fall in All Seasons makes its US debut. The juxtaposition of Mater’s devastating critique of the oil industry with his equally devastating critique of the Saudi government’s policies of “urban renewal” and “urban destruction” in the Holy City of Makkah is striking.

Other works that line the walls of the main gallery are Abdulnasser Gharem’s Ricochet, in which intricate blue and yellow patterns of the dome of an Iranian mosque merge eerily into a fully armed fighter jet, and Rashed Al Shashai’s Doors of Heaven, a set of five large stained-glass windows, which on closer inspection, you realize are actually made of colorful, but cheap, plastic strainers. Across the room are two large photographs of Ajlan Gharem’s Paradise Has Many Gates, a mosque-like cage or a cage-like mosque, built of chain link fence standing in the desert outside Riyadh. In the center of the gallery is Ahmad Angawi’s Street Pulse, a huge black ball of 3,600 microphones. Around it are Musaed Al Hulis’ Dynamic, a prayer rug made out of bicycle chains, and Gharem’s Aniconism, a shiny, white, nude, female mannequin (below) that Gharem and his friends sliced up into over 50 pieces so that it could be shipped into Saudi Arabia from Dubai.

In the smaller gallery downstairs are two works of “conceptual calligraphy” by Nasser Al Salem. Guide Us Upon the Straight Path is an old video monitor displaying what seems to be an electrocardiogram running across the screen. It ends with the patient “flatlining.” Upon closer inspection, someone who reads Arabic will realize that the “cardiogram” is a text that actually spells out the title of the work. Where, Al Salem seems to ask, does the “straight path” really lead? On the wall nearby, hang two works by Shaweesh. One depicts Darth Vader of the Evil Empire as a special guest of the Arab delegation to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. The other – particularly powerful in light of Donald Trump’s recent executive order banning travel to the United States from seven Muslim majority countries – depicts Captain America standing in front of Palestinian refugees in 1948. According to the title of the work, he is calling on the United States “to take a stand on the refugee issue.”

Other work in this gallery includes Nouf Al Himiary’s The Desire to Not Exist, three luminous color photographs of a woman’s face looking up at the viewer from underwater; Huda Beydoun’s series of photographs entitled “Documenting the Undocumented,” which depicts undocumented foreign workers whose faces and bodies have been covered with the heads and polka-dot clothes of Mickey and Minnie Mouse; and Njoud Al Anbari’s Elementary 240, a performance piece in which young girls play in front of a frightening mural from a Saudi elementary school that warns students about the dangers of drugs, pornography, music, and behaving like “infidels” by not covering their face and hair. In a screening room filled with rugs, cushions, and sofas viewers can watch an hour’s worth of YouTube videos that includes episodes from Myrcott’s animated series Masameer (below) and Telfaz11’s comedy series Khambalah.

For me personally, the opening of Phantom Punch was the culmination of several years of hard work. The excitement I felt when works of art I had read about and seen on line were actually being uncrated in the Bates museum in front of me was extraordinary. Hosting the artists in Lewiston was even more exhilarating.

After his evening lecture, a young Shia woman from Afghanistan asked Abdulnasser Gharem (below during his distinguished lecture at Bates) if Ricochet was “anti-Shia” because it portrayed Iran as a violent country. When I brought Ahmad Angawi to Tree Street Youth, an afterschool program in downtown Lewiston, a young Somali girl asked him if he was from Africa. Angawi said no, he was from Mecca, and her eyes grew wide. When Ahmad started reciting a prayer in Arabic, she joined right in. We took the visiting artists to the Mogadishu Store in the Somali business district in downtown Lewiston. After a warm conversation in Arabic with the Somali storeowner, who had lived for many years in Jeddah, we were walking down the street when an elderly Somali woman approached Nouf Alhimiary and angrily confronted for not covering her hair: “Are you a Muslim? Why don’t you cover your hair? You should be ashamed of yourself? Are you a Christian? An infidel?”

Taking people on tours of the exhibition and sharing with them my fascination with the work on display has been a real joy. I took family members through the exhibition, old friends, young Somali refugees, and Lewiston Middle School students (below), not to mention Bates students studying anthropology, religion, and politics. I loved challenging them to think about what they were looking at. I often asked them the same questions Nugamshi, a calligraffiti performance artist from Riyadh, asked me when I discussed his work with him: “What do you see? What do you think?” Sometimes I also asked them: ”What do you feel?”

Sometimes my questions took the form of riddles. I wanted to get people thinking about the connections - the associations, the juxtapositions - that the artists evoked in their work: How are the doors of heaven like strainers? How is a prayer rug like a bicycle chain? What’s the relationship between a mosque and a jet fighter? Why make a mosque out of chain-link fence? Is the artist saying that a mosque is a prison? That Islam is a prison? That all religions are prisons? That intolerance associated with any religion is a prison?

A Somali high school student could read the Arabic title of Shaweesh’s work about the Paris Peace Conference, but she didn’t know who Darth Vader was. Some people were surprised that Saudi Aramco would sponsor an exhibition that included Mater’s Evolution of Man with its devastating critique of the oil industry. Others found it difficult to believe that conservative Saudi clerics could possibly think that Paradise Has Many Gates represented a positive comment on Islam or that Telfaz11’s No Woman, No Drive (below) was an expression of support for the ban on women driving. Such are the virtues of humor and ambiguity in a world of strict censorship, a world where, as one artist put it, “crossing the boundaries” can lead to being “crushed.”

At the beginning of class one morning, I played a recording of the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer. One student described it as calm and peaceful, but didn’t recognize what it was. Another student, who did recognize it, said that in many American movies, it was associated with an impending attack by some evil “Muslim terrorists.” He had recently watched Black Hawk Down. I asked the Christian students in the class how they would feel if the Lord’s Prayer came to be associated with acts of violence. Later a student suggested that Ricochet really did imply that Islam was a violent religion. I told him that if I were an artist I would paint an image of a jet fighter emerging from the dome of Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Rome or the entrance to Notre Dame in Paris. Then I told him about growing up singing the old Protestant hymn whose title I remembered as “Onward Christian Soldiers Marching Off to War.”

Ultimately, however, the most rewarding aspect of bringing Phantom Punch to Bates was the opportunity to develop meaningful personal relationships with individual Saudi artists. Without my commitment to anthropology - to learning and teaching about other cultures - without their commitment to art - to expressing some of their deepest insights and values - we would never have met. Walking through the Maine woods with Ahmad Angawi talking about tolerance and cross-cultural understanding. Discussing with Nouf Alhimiary her ability as an artist to help young women escape whatever forms of confinement they faced. Experiencing an emotional “connection” with Musaed Al Hulis as we talked about the “connections” his prayer rugs of bicycle chains, fuses, and jumper cables established between the divine and the human and between human beings around the world. These are the experiences that anthropology and art make possible.

According to Clifford Geertz, a preeminent American anthropologist, “the aim of anthropology is the enlargement of the universe of human discourse.” The same can certainly be said of art. Both anthropology and art teach us to see, think, and feel in new and different ways. They both enable us to establish connections across languages, religions, and cultures. In this way, they both enlarge our worlds, and at the same time make them smaller.

Exhibition Title: Phantom Punch: Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia in Lewiston

Part of Bridges 2016-2017: an ITHRA initiative

Location: Bates College Museum of Art, Lewiston, ME

Exhibition Dates: October 28, 2016 – March 18, 2017

ARTISTS: Sarah Abu Abdullah, Ahaad Alamoudi, Njoud Alanbari, Nouf AlHimiary, Musaed AlHulis, Arwa AlNeami, Rashed Al Shashai, Ahmad Angawi, Huda Beydoun, Ayman Yossri Daydban, Basmeh Felemban, Abdulnasser Gharem, Ajlan Gharem, Ahmed Mater, Nugamshi, Nasser Salem, Shaweesh, Telefaz 11

Dispatch Date: 14 February 207

Dispatch Author Bio:

Loring M. Danforth is Charles A. Dana Professor of Anthropology at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, in the United States, where he has taught since 1978. Danforth received a B.A. from Amherst College in 1971 and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1974 and 1978. He has written many books and articles on Greece, Macedonia, and Australia. His interests include ritual, religion, nationalism, and refugees. Danforth won a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship for College Teachers and Independent Scholars, and was a recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship. His books have been featured on the CHOICE lists. In 2013 he received the Kroepsch Award for Excellence in Teaching. Danforth is the husband of Maine politician Margaret Rotundo. They have two children: Nick and Ann.

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