October Gallery, London, UK
They stand on either side of the room – headless, limbless mannequins adorned with peacock feathers and jewels. There is something of the fantastically kinky about these torsos, yet a second look reveals belts of ammunition and dynamite. One figure, painted with roses (a reference to Yasser Arafat’s declaration that Palestinian women were his ‘army of roses’), is bound in chains, a brightly-painted hand grenade between her legs, like a macabre chastity belt.
Palestinian artist Laila Shawa was only eight years old during the Palestinian Exodus of 1948, and it is issues of her homeland, and its women in particular, that have long fuelled her practice. In her exhibition ‘The Other Side of Paradise’, she explores the fact that female suicide bombers only achieve equality with men through their death, a project that has its origins in the 2007 documentary The Cult of the Suicide Bomber. Captured on CCTV at an Israeli checkpoint, a young woman becomes increasingly distraught as she is forced to strip down, revealing an explosive device. When the device turns out to be faulty, the viewer is witness to her mental breakdown. The re-worked video, Checkpoint Fashion Week (2011/12), hangs on the gallery’s far wall. The video gradually becomes shakier, more abstract, coloured in strange hues as a mishmash of script eventually takes over the screen, obscuring her from view, as if behind a veil, a wall of white noise. This is echoed in the adjacent series, ‘Trapped’ (2011), and the script, although gibberish, evokes the Qur’anic text that religious fanatics use to justify suicide bombings. ‘I thought, how could she not know what she’s doing if she’s a trained suicide bomber?’ asks Shawa, as the video shows the woman trying to reattach the pin into the bomb. ‘My conclusion was, possibly because whoever gave this to her didn’t care whether she lived or died: she blows herself up, fine. If she doesn’t, she’ll get caught. She’s dispensable.’
Where the mannequins provide kitsch glamour with a sobering edge, pieces such as Scream (2011) pack a punch. Comprising ten panels lined up in two rows, the work features a close-up of a still from the video, the young girl’s eyes squeezed shut in anguish, mouth open in a silent scream. Each panel zooms in closer to her mouth, until, by the last frame, it is simply a shapeless black hole dominating the canvas. Shawa relentlessly shows how this woman, like the countless other women in her situation, has no voice – her mannequins have no heads, her scream has no voice, and every repeated image in the series depicts her strangled, choked, obscured and consumed by layer upon layer of meaningless script. For Shawa, it is precisely the collision of Pop and colour with such a deadly serious topic that gives it its unique brunt. ‘I grew up in the Middle East but I also grew up in the West,’ she explains. ‘I don’t think in a typical way, I see things, I don’t accept things. I try to put them across in my own language and my vision and probably some people would find it shocking that I made sex objects out of suicide bombers but that’s exactly what they are, if you take it down to the bare reality: They are used, and they are used and used and abused. These women are not considered people – they have no head, no arms or legs – it is only their sex that counts.’ There is something defiant in the mannequins of Disposable Bodies (2011/12), who seem to be rebelling against this. Belts on some of them, designed by Nadine Kanso and Rachel Spencer, like some Pandora’s box, proclaim ‘Release me if you dare.’
Others works, like Gaza Sky (2011) have a more playful air, with its proclamations of ‘WHAAM!’ à la Lichtenstein, while Birds of Paradise (2011) at first appears to be a beautiful illuminated manuscript, until the eye focuses on photographs of drones in both works. Used to drop bombs in Gaza, here they are shown in bright hues of pink, yellow, red and blue, belying their deadly nature. And there, again, so tiny she is almost goes unnoticed, amongst a host of exotic birds, is that poor girl, this time veiled in script. ‘I had to put her, the girl, in context,’ explains Shawa. ‘I had to put the bomber within context of the occupation. I cannot divorce her totally from it.’ Indeed, there is a sad irony about Birds of Paradise, for here is the destination promised these bombers, a reward for martyrs, but for which, ultimately, there is no guarantee. In Birds of Paradise, the girl has, in a way, strangely achieved her goal.
Overall, the exhibition successfully immersed the viewer into Shawa’s world – a soundtrack includes the sounds of bombs going off and aborted plans to hang resin models of drone plans, along with a turnstile like those found at the Israeli checkpoints would have further added to the experience. Furthermore, with the gallery space divided in two, the second features a selection of Shawa’s older works, including Fashionista Terrorista (2010). This division works well, providing a backdrop on the Palestinian situation in general. This is an exhibition that works, it draws the viewer in and then forces one to confront the themes of this fiercely intelligent artist.