There’s a certain uneasy atmosphere in London in the week between Halloween and Bonfire Night, as I’m writing this. The nights are punctuated with random pops of fireworks and the casual acceptance on public transport of people dressed up as ghouls, zombies and, this year, Donald Trump. There’s a carnivalesque mood that brings with it a suspension of disbelief and of self, and a malleable ritual of looking back, in which autumnal remembrance of the dead merges with the trick-or-treat industry and the commemoration of an aborted 17th-century attempt to blow up the parliament building provides a contemporary countercultural iconography. (A caricatured mask of the man caught in the plot, Guy Fawkes, has become the adopted symbol of the activist/hacker group Anonymous.) Underneath the gags and roman candles, dressing up and masks are tools for both marketing and subversion.
At the heart of Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme’s exhibition, ‘And yet My Mask Is Powerful’, at Carroll/Fletcher, is a set of grimacing and bizarre Neolithic stone masks – some of humanity’s oldest – which the artists self-consciously wield as prosthetics through which to re-examine, or re-imagine, the past. The first room of the exhibition is presented as an unfinished study of sorts, collectively titled And yet My Mask Is Powerful 2 (all works 2016): sketches and pictures pinned in overlapping arrangements on boards leaning against the wall; dried plants and twigs set out on tables alongside open books and notes. It’s all theatrically arranged, as we gather clues that might be real or fabricated, with installation sketches sitting alongside a text that details some of the history of the Neolithic masks. They were apparently found in the ‘Judean Hills’ outside Jerusalem and have been in private hands ever since; 3D scans of the masks have enabled the artists to make replica versions, which dot the room. One, printed in matt black, has oval-shaped eyes and a full set of square teeth on a partly-opened mouth. It may be 9,000 years old, but it looks uneasy, somehow expectant, hungry. On another table is a scrawled list of place names, which turn out to be former Palestinian towns that were forcibly abandoned after 1948.
These plans and print-outs are preparatory research for And yet My Mask Is Powerful 1, a five-channel video installation that depicts several young adults descending through overgrown countryside to explore an abandoned wreck of a building. At one point, they find the black mask in a patch of grass and take turns trying it on; we can infer they are in one of the ruined Palestinian villages, but if they see anything new through the eyes of the mask we can only guess. The rambling, lingering, pastoral style of the visuals doesn’t change, but the video’s soundtrack quickens to a thumping beat as the text in English and Arabic that punctuates the piece bluntly suggest some sort of loosening of identity: ‘I am she, I am he.’
The video’s words and the title of the show are excerpts from American poet and activist Adrienne Rich’s poem ‘Diving Into the Wreck’ (1973), a work that describes a desire to encounter history directly, to empathize with the past. ‘The thing I came for: the wreck and not the story of the wreck,’ states one quote in the first room. Abbas and Abou-Rahme’s work is a staged archaeology, using the poem as a narrative guide to link together the masks and the abandoned villages, two sets of contested artefacts connected by geography and histories of subjugation. What we are presented with here, however, is not a revision of history but, rather, an image of how history can be dressed up and constructed – not the wreck, but rather the story of the story of the wreck: a dissected fable that has been left in pieces, leaving us waiting for another to be told.