Mana Rouholamini: War, Recycled

 

Mana's opening 005

February 7 – March 12, 2016,

When the Iran-Iraq war erupted in 1980, Mana Rouholamini was a child in Tehran, ensconced in a happy, secure family. Despite (or perhaps because of) the pervasive propaganda, the war, with its air raids and bomb shelters, seemed to the child no more than a rude interruption of a life that was otherwise full of loving people, play, conversations and stories. War was an annoyance that best be ignored. A few years after the war was finally over, she enrolled at Azad University to study graphic design; the pictures, words and forms she created there, never related to that one circumstance that could have, on any day, completely changed or ended her life: the war.

It was, perhaps, the intuitive wisdom of the child, that led her to not care, to dull feelings of fear and compassion for things and situations that were too close, too real, and too impossible to change.  Only years later, in the late nineties when Rouholamini lived in Canada,Mana Rouholamini 017 far removed from war zones, images of war begin to appear in her work. Resorting to black ink, as dark and viscous as oil and blood, she worked out her rage andhelplessness in the face of the ongoing wars of the nineties. She bought herself a stack of large, cheap poster paper, and began to react to the horrific imagery and stories of that decennium that  were coming her way from Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo and Palestine among many other warzones. Fierce and furious scratches and splotches, made with pen, brush and hands, vandalize the white sheets. Angry words and figures appear; most are unreadable and unrecognizable. On other sheets, a hand, arm, foot, a coffin, a house, materializes as if uncovered among the rubble and ruin.

Mana Rouholamini 020On one sheet, a large, clear eye takes up space. The child has grown up, and now is all-eye: acknowledging and witnessing the never-ending cruelty and violence between humans. War no longer is experienced as a series of annoying incidents, planes flying over your house, air-raid sirens going off, and parades to watch; it is now seen as a generic evil, an evil that turns up with the same horrible tactics in different locations in the world, over and over again. Now war needs to be witnessed and morally addressed.

Nonetheless (and perhaps subconsciously) personal experiences appear to underpin Rouholamini’s protest against war. She draws a house, a large black house, which instead of windows and doors, holds a grouping of small houses inside, as if to protect a community, a whole village, from outside dangers. A chimney is cemented on to the roof at a ninety-degree angle, as in a child’s drawing. It acts like a canon, or an angry fist, determined to keep out an undesired war. 001

Yet it is not her war she’s fighting. Rouholamini’s drawings may have started out as reactions to specific wars, the end result, a mass of drawings she installed in the RIA Artist Project room, is generic. They are like protest banners, drawn years ago for a past war, and stored for re-use.  They can be picked up and dusted off, over and over again, anytime, to protest present and future wars.

Large rough cuts carve a sentence into a wooden plank: “A war I will not fight is killing me.” At Nuit Blanche (2014) she covers it with paper and lets a steamroller make a print. The line is from a poem by Gerald Huckaby, in which he argues that he is, involuntarily, suffering a war he refuses to fight, as there is no escape, no consolation…

“from the sixoclock news, from the headlines lurking on the street, between the
angry lovesongs on the radio, from the frightened hawks and angry doves I meet
a war I will not fight is killing me-
i am in Vietnam-who will console me?” [1]

Mana's opening 002

It is a sense of inescapability of war that comes through in this poem, as it does in Rouholamini’s installation. And it is the “sixoclocknews” the continuous flood of photographs and news flashes, the endless counting of bodies that draws us all in to the conflicts of the world, whether we take sides or not. All of us who are here, are there as well, in some way. We take war in, we feel for its victims and we want it to stop. “J’en ai marre de compter” (I am fed up with counting) Rouholamini writes, after filling an entire sheet of paper, twenty-three inches by thirty-five inches large, with numbers written out in English: “one hundred and thirty eight, one hundred and thirty nine, one hundred and forty, one hundred and forty one. And yet another sheet is filled with numbered coffins.

Mana Rouholamini 022Over and over again, she draws her black drawings of broken bodies, powerful bombers, buildings on fire.  And she scratches her angry, unreadable sentences as if trying to come to grips with her incomprehension and deep grief over the state of humanity. The work does not take sides, it does not explain in any comprehensible narrative the wrongs done by one person or one group over another. This work shows a mature recognition that wars go on, and a deep frustration with the stupidity of it.

What is the use of portraying violence and war? Is it to stir compassion?  If this is so, what do Rouholamini’s pictures add to the “sixoclocknews” the videos and photos that can show us the horrors of wars more precisely, can identify its victims, and illustrate accounts of specific conflicts? In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag searched for ethical approaches to the use of war photography. While not providing absolute conclusions, she adamantly contradicted the generally accepted idea that we become immune to the horrors of war because we have seen too many pictures.[2] Photographs do evoke sympathy, she felt, but it is a sympathy that needs to be set aside to make space for a sense of responsibility for the global inequalities in which we are all involved:

“To set aside the sympathy we extend to others beset by war and murderous politics for a reflection on how our privileges are located on the same map as their suffering, and may—in ways we might prefer not to imagine—be linked to their suffering, as the wealth of some may imply the destitution of others, is a task for which the painful, stirring images supply only an initial spark.”[3]

Despite the many ways in which photographs can be falsified, they retain, through their indexical link to a specific time and place, a sense of veracity that is lacking in drawings and paintings. Arguably, this makes it easier for photographs to identify an “us” and “them,” and to elicit pity. Drawings and paintings, which must rely on “likeness” to obtain a sense of realism, move beyond these positions to a generic and metaphoric sphere, where one can set aside sympathy, and begin to contemplate a larger picture of the violence of war that is part of all of us.Mana Rouholamini 018

Rouholamini’s drawings are palpably hand-made. Rough, fast, and expressive, they present a subjective, indignant reaction to war. At the same time the drawings show that she (and by extension, the viewers) have a hand in war. We cannot help but be involved; a war we will not fight is killing us. The drawings, in their directness, speak of that connectivity: they speak of the inability of grown-ups to ignore war, to not care. They put victims, perpetrators and onlookers onto the same map of war. “Mes pieds,” (my feet) she writes, “écoute,” (listen)…She is there, she is counting, and so are we. She takes control, if only to render illegible the words of war, if only to tell us she is fed-up.Mana Rouholamini 006

Her installation protests the “normalcy” and banal routines of war: the counting, lining up and burying of war’s victims. There is nothing “normal” in this installation, as there is nothing normal about war. Sontag claims that no one today, not even pacifists, believes that war can be abolished, but Rouholamini’s installation opposes such a defeatist attitude.[4] Why protest war if one believes that war will always be? It may be true that, as contemporary scientists remind us,  there is a part of human nature that is not constructed by culture, and that ancient survival instincts still govern some of our behavior. But the capacity to care, to feel compassion for the suffering of strangers, is an innate human characteristic that is just as ancient and enduring.[5] And so we continue to search out ways to make and maintain peace, using words to hold the world together, rather than weapons to break it apart.Mana Rouholamini 021

“Let us imagine for the sake of argument that all the nations now fighting were to awake tomorrow morning in their right minds, able to survey the wreck already caused, to sum up the suffering, the human loss, the economic loss; able each to comprehend the motives that have driven the other into battle; able to realize the futility of vengeance, the unwisdom and wrong of trying to crush or humiliate a race, the folly of continued competition, the advantages of co-operation.”[6]

These are the words of writer and literary scholar, Julia Grace Wales, who was born in Quebec, and travelled to The Hague to participate in the Women’s Peace Congress in 1915. There she outlined her vision for a peace conference in which neutral nations would mediate peace. When an exchange project brought Rouholamini to The Hague to take part in an exhibition in 2013, she took this opportunity to create an art book around this century-old text, which she found in Library and Archives Canada. Some of Wales’ handwritten and typewritten letters, along with excerpts from her speech and other related documents from the trip she made in 1915, find their way into the art book, alongside Rouholamini’s photographs of The Hague anno 2013, and peaceful images of water, taken of the Ottawa River and the North Sea. [7]

Wales’ peace effort, one hundred years later, may seem hopelessly naïve and completely insignificant. Yet here are her letters, her words, dug up from the rubble that is the archive, and insisting to take part again in the ongoing, necessary discussion on peace. Rouholamini’s interest in water was set off by a Persian saying: “Do a good deed, throw it in the water and somewhere in the desert it will return to you.”[8] Small gestures toward peace may seem insignificant, but droplets of water do form cumulus clouds.

There is something positive about Rouholamini’s installation, despite its darkness; inspired by the initial spark of media imagery and by the memories of a wartime childhood, her drawings linger in our minds, invite us to reflect on the pain of others and the role we play, willingly or not, in causing this pain.  In its urgent invitation to care, the installation reflects a compassionate side of humanity that runs as deep and is as ancient as its sinister, violent counterpart. We are not intractably locked into the violence of war. What was not learned may nonetheless be unlearned.

 

-Petra Halkes,  March 2016

With thanks to Laura Brandon, Christine Conley, Andrea Fitzpatrick, Lynn Hart, Annette Hegel, Laurie Koensgen and Sherry Tompalski  for taking part in a conversation and correspondence about this work, that provided insight and inspiration.

A special thanks to Lynn Hart and Laurie Koensgen for participating in the presentation/performance on March 12!

——-

The exhibition, Mana Rouholamini, War Recycled, (February 7 – March 12 2016)  was related in theme to the group exhibition There’s Room, Ottawa Artists Respond to the Refugee Crisis, at Gallery 101, (January 23 –  February 27, 2016) and the exhibition Left Behind, at the E.B.A. (February 13- 27, 2016)

Mana Rouholamini is a multidisciplinary artist. She has produced drawing installations, artist books and digital prints that focus on language and meaning. She received her MFA from York University and her BFA from Azad University in Tehran, Iran. In 2015 she participated in residencies in Sagamie ( Alma, Québec) and Daïmon (Gatineau, Québec). Recent exhibitions include Centre d’art et de culture Dieppe (Moncton, New Brunswick), Centre culturel franco-manitobain (Winnipeg, Manitoba) and Voix Visuelle (Ottawa, Ontario).

[1] City,uncity (1969), Gerald Huckaby (author), Corita Ken (illustrator), Doubleday, 1999. The whole poem reads:

Fullscreen capture 8242016 34409 PM.bmp

[2] This was Sontag’s argument in “On Photography” (1977) but she changed her point of view in  Regarding the Pain of Others  (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux 2003) pp.108 – 111 . On compassion fatigue, see also: David Campbell, “The Myth of Compassion Fatigue”, in Liam Kennedy and Caitlin Patrick, eds. The Violence of the Image, Photography and International conflict. (London/New York,: I.B. Tauris 2014) pp. 97 – 125

[3] Sontag 2003,  p. 103

[4] Ibid p.5

[5] The well-known biologist and theorist Edward O. Wilson writes: “Today, it is widely believed that human behavior has a strong genetic component. Instinct and human nature are real, although how deep and forceful remains under discussion.” In: The Meaning of Human Existence (New York/London: Liveright Publ. Co./W.W. Norton&Co. Ltd. 2014)P. 176

[6] Julia Grace Wales, “Continuous Mediation Without Armistice” Conference paper at the Women’s Peace Congress 1915, The Hague. https://ebaquartairexchangeproject.wordpress.com/2013/08/24/continuous-mediation-without-armistice/

[7] Mana Rouholamini: Traces  Water  The Hague  Ottawa, Art Book, 2013 ISBN 978-0-9938502-0-2

Enriched Bread Artists:  EBA/Quartair Exchange =Dutch Settlement and Interference (Ottawa: Enriched Bread Artists 2014)

[8] From a conversation with the author, March 2016