Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme
“An echo buried deep deep down but calling still”
Astrup Fearnley Museum, Oslo
Until May 28
Many art enthusiasts like to challenge themselves and learn about art, culture, politics and history in new ways. Others would prefer to see what they know and love and thus have what they already know confirmed. The Astrup Fearnley Museum’s exhibition with Basel Abbas (born 1983, Cyprus) and Ruanne Abou-Rahme (born 1983, USA) gives full credit to the first group. The other group should also seek out the exhibition with the complicated English title. It can be translated as “An echo of something buried deep underground, but still calling for our attention”. It concerns, among other things, the situation in Palestine and the conditions under which the Palestinian people live at a time when the Israeli state controls the Palestinians with brutal force. Or, how different societies deal with the consequences of oppressive political systems.
In order to make room for the special exhibition, the Astrup Fearnley Museum has been rebuilt. The main hall is blocked off by a massive wall, the glass ceiling is covered with black foil, and inside the exhibition rooms fragmented and composite video images are projected onto walls and screens placed in front of the walls. It all appears quite chaotic and flickering, but it is both a beautiful and fascinating visual world that we are presented with. The research-based works work on several levels. And since the large projectors are on the floor, everything takes place at the audience’s own level.
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The duo base their art on research, and tell stories of political control, forgotten memories and hidden traces of abuse. It may seem distant when what is shown is mainly concentrated on the Israel-Palestine conflict. But the memories of abuse that are revealed are also relevant in the Norwegian context, both for many immigrants from several generations, for the Sami people and for ethnic Norwegians. By seeing the experiences of others, for example, refugees who find it difficult to talk about the abuse they have experienced can get help to process the trauma. The Norwegian state’s century-long Norwegianization policy and discrimination against the Sami people is another parallel that makes the stories of Abbas and Abou-Rahme relevant.
For the majority population, the series about the Second World War on the northern calotte, which NRK showed recently, can serve as an example. The series centered around the events in the northern parts of Finland, Sweden and Norway plus Svalbard and Iceland. Here we were able to join archaeologists and researchers who were looking for traces out in nature, for gun emplacements, soldier barracks, prison camps and other physical remains that have long since disappeared into nature. By picking up moss and clearing piles of stone, they documented stories that had until now only existed as stories.
When we know that memories of abuse and trauma can affect several generations, uncovering the physical evidence is a good method for processing and confronting the abuse. Another method is to get together and dance, play and tell about the traditions and stories the group has in common. By finding and putting together video clips from such situations, the artist duo has created a visually overwhelming work in the main hall.
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Another example is the artist couple’s composite film in the room above the cafe. It documents the murder of 14-year-old Yusuf Shawamreh. The Palestinian was shot and killed by Israeli soldiers in 2014, when he and his brother were going out to pick a plant that is a delicacy in the Palestinian kitchen. The family’s farmland is divided by a “separation barrier” set up by the Israelis. To get to the place where the plant grows, they climbed through a hole in the fence. As it is not allowed to cross the barrier, the boy was shot and killed.
The ten-minute long film with the poetic title “Oh Shining Star Testify” is both a documentation of the event, the funeral and impressionistic film glimpses of the plant and the landscape it grows in. The murder itself is not shown, but the surveillance cameras have captured the boys’ journey through the hole in the fence and the soldiers’ attempts to clean up afterwards. Because a boy survived and could tell about the murder, and because of the surveillance footage, this became a public case that ended up in court. The recordings from 2014 circulated online for a while before they were removed. The duo takes this as their starting point, and presents the blurred film clips in continuous alternation with the other filmed impressions, as if in an eternal round dance.
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Other parts of the exhibition present a complex reality through avatars, dried plants, masks, text fragments and various visual representations. The fragmented diversity reflects Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme’s history, with an exhibition at MOMA/Museum of Modern Art in New York in addition to the biennales in Berlin, Sao Paulo and Venice. Despite the solid track record, the exhibition is the first museum presentation to provide a comprehensive overview of the duo’s artistry since they began working together in 2007. It is a revelation that will presumably attract an international audience. So even though the artist duo is unknown to most people in Norway, the exhibition is an important piece in the Astrup Fearnley Museum’s international ambitions.