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Issue 211

Sulaïman Majali Builds a Waiting Room in the Folds of a Haunted Europe

In the context of increasingly sadistic attacks on Muslim people, the Glasgow-based artist provides a space for grief and dreaming

BY ​Hussein Mitha in Reviews , UK Reviews | 10 MAR 20

Sulaïman Majali’s sculptural sound installation ‘saracen go home’ takes its title from racist graffiti sprayed on a mosque in Cumbernauld, Scotland, 2016, and transposes it in a diasporic register to Collective gallery in Edinburgh. The installation, taking the form of a waiting room, both provides a space for Muslim, diasporic subjectivity and offers an artistic strategy with which to relate to the specificity of physical location within a colonial historical nexus.

In the context of increasingly sadistic attacks on Muslim people and Muslim spaces in the UK, as well as the deeply ingrained processes of exclusion and erasure, silencing and theft, that define the West’s relationship to Islam, Majali provides a space for grief and dreaming, for a speculative history. The title of the sound work — though we know the dream is built from the collateral of our minds and the shrapnel that lies within it (all works, 2020) — bears this sense of the melancholic, diasporic subject. Violence has formed our subjectivities, and our dreams.

Sulaïman Majali, ‘saracen go home’, 2020, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Collective, Edinburgh; photograph: Tom Nolan

Couched within Edinburgh’s former City Observatory on Calton Hill, Collective gallery overlooks the city, sitting alongside various imperialist emblems. The largest landmark on this peak is a monument to Admiral Nelson: a giant upturned telescope, conjoining verticality, visuality and power in an image of Scottish enlightenment and British military dominance. Other monuments on Calton Hill, such as an unfinished replica of the Parthenon in Athens, form a 19th-century attempt at an Edinburgh acropolis. It is to this topographically crowded and important site in which various elements of Western identity are performatively linked and affirmed (Scottish, British, European), and where visuality is so key to power, that Majali constructs a ‘waiting-room-non-place’ in which to listen to an audio work composed of music, field recordings and fragments.

A line of waiting-room seats faces an empty mic-stand and a speaker. Various objects – a green acrylic star, artificial lemon peel, red insulating tape, a peacock feather, a 3D print of a 12th-century Almohad-era fragment excavated on the southern Iberian Coast — form a constellation in the room. Sounds evoke a collage of associations and memories (mouse clicks, Regent’s Park mosque Friday prayers). Solar recordings, taken at an observatory, are converted into audible human hearing range, as if to undermine the symbolic matrix of science and visuality (as represented by the trope of ‘the observatory’) which asserts Western power. In a booklet, a series of documents includes works on optics by Muslim astronomers al-Biruni and Ibn al-Haytham, demonstrating that, contrary to Western claims, discoveries such as the earth’s circumference and the camera obscura were prefigured within Muslim societies.

Sulaïman Majali, ‘saracen go home’, 2020, installation detail. Courtesy: the artist and Collective, Edinburgh; photograph: Tom Nolan

Majali uses the idea of ‘folding and creasing’ source material as both a ‘conceptual technique and poetic strategy’. The formal elements of the exhibition — sculpture, audio, printed materials—are connected to each other through this notion, with each component demarcated but co-existing within the same work. The topography of Calton Hill is also understood as a ‘fold’, pointing to the spatially expansive nature of Majali’s practice. Countering the logic of Western epistemology, Majali jolts a different consideration of how knowledge is transmitted. In another recent work, cyphers in the dream (2019), they have written in relation to the Almohad-era fragment that features in this exhibition:

‘A dream at the folds of diasporic flesh, the machinations and exhaustion of the colonial, and a haunting of Europe. Directly from the Arabic for ‘zero’, ‘cypher/cipher’ when used in English is a secret or disguised and coded way of communicating and revealing.’

The cryptic-poetic constellation that forms ‘saracen go home’ is not decipherable or ‘legible’ under a Western framework of knowledge, but it may be the scene of a cipher. The condition of waiting created by the installation may evoke both dreaming and elicit revelation. A place is opened up here in an act of decolonization, to which this poetics of object, image, space, uproots history.

Main image: Sulaïman Majali, after David Roberts, Petra shewing the upper or east end of the valley, Jordan, March 8th 1839, plate 96 from Volume III of The Holy Land, 1842 (Screen Shot 2019-1210 at 13.26.52). Courtesy: the artist and Collective, Edinburgh

Hussein Mitha is a researcher, writer and artist based in Glasgow, UK.