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010_06 / 22 November 2016





Silsila, which is the Arabic word for 'link', is a multi-media project produced over the past seven years in remote, natural locations across the Middle East and North Africa.  Initiated by my own fatigue of the region's continued artistic and cultural productions drawn from narratives of trauma, I began a project in search of a counter expression that could forward a shared, common identity among our region's inhabitants-one not defined by war or rooted in the antagonisms of nationalism. The media and cultural/artistic producers-myself included-as well as the institutions that promote this type of work, maintain or exasperate divisive fissures among an already splintered population with their almost singular focus on such narratives. If the aim of these artistic productions were to reflect the status of our region's current conditions with the potential to activate positive change by furthering knowledge and shaping values, then I would argue that the collective focus on trauma is undermining the very nature of such works as vehicles for change. Rather than stimulating knowledge through a dynamic representation of complexities, abundance reverses into the reductive, and apathy replaces empathy. The imaginative potential of artistic expression is frozen into a categorical depository, disintegrating into the predictable. The unintended outcomes run counter to art's emancipatory nature when dealing with sociopolitical issues to a point of exhaustion that is experienced by audiences, and the artists themselves. It is not the problem of any singular artwork but rather a consequence of a cumulative preoccupation.


Cognizant of my own role in such productions, and their unintended effects, my original aim was to highlight the land and natural resources (desert and water) in a shared continuum of time, place, and culture, using my own body, a symbolic figure, to contextualize the human condition in relation to territory. My method of production was based on the journeys of the fourteenth-century explorer Ibn Battuta; I applied his book Al Rihla ('The Travels') as a practical guide in locating territory of historical importance while also enacting my own physical journey as a metaphor for migrations across territorial boundaries that erase nationhood.


The project shifted, or perhaps it is more accurate to state that my purpose evolved, because of my continual exposure to the effect of water stress on natural environments, and its role in straining the economic, social, and political conditions of the communities I lived amongst. Water scarcity is not new to the region, but the inability to respond effectively is protracted not only by climate change, but also because of disintegrating management amongst rapidly growing political unrest. Droughts, rising sea levels, water contamination, desertification, water territorial disputes, agricultural water waste, and energy needs met with the expanding use of dams are exasperated by the explosion of our region's birthrates. An estimated 80 to 100 million people in the MENA region will be water stressed or water displaced by the year 2025. Like oil, water is essential to all human activities, but of which no sustainable alternative exists. Desalination further stresses water quality and contributes to global warming, which aggravates water shortages in our region. Forecasts of colossal eco-refugee populations (often placed within the spectrum of the "political refugees" label) and mass migrations are imminent realities.


Working in the desert and among its dwellers on and off for seven years impacted me in ways I couldn't anticipate when I started "Silsila". What was previously one of several intellectual concerns, the impact of climate change upon multiple manifestations of the human experience, including my own survival while producing Silsila, emerged as my guiding principle: a compass of my broadest motivations. It is a lens through which I now operate my artistic practice, developed within a deepening relationship to the land in zoetic modes of consciousness. Yet I still faced the perplexing question of how to produce works that could be effective in elevating the discourse, rather than numbing audiences once again to issues that appear to be beyond repair.


My objective was to present the intersections of history and the present, geography and culture, the self and the collective, and the real and imagined. Silsila is articulated through varied strategies-aesthetic, formal, and conceptual-both in content and its installation and publications, to encourage self-reflection, "linking" through mirroring the singular towards the infinite. The specificity of locations was stripped from titles and accompanying texts. The figure is anonymous as are the markers of regional codes of dress and language. In the videos, time is layered and composited, rather than chronological and sequential. Basically, I privileged the concept of a regional 'us' over the specific 'them'. With each opportunity for public display (print, web, and physical space), I reinterpret the presentation, often adding new material to include the additional sites I've managed to reach, more stories visualized, and the varied realizations of my now seven-year production.


In the ongoing making of Silsila, I've had to remain flexible to the changing facts on the ground in the Middle East and North Africa. The project, therefore, is fluid, malleable, and continually filled with possibility. It is very much what I had hoped for, a project that doesn't efface or deny our struggles, yet resists apathy. I'm always reminding myself that change is possible. Too often, traumatic situations are declared unfixable, that nothing can or will ever change, only to be presented with evidence that matters are getting worse. If situations that are declared fixed in a position of complete misery can become worse, then it's only reasonable to admit that they can get better. There is the same statistical chance of movement in either direction from the status quo. It is in this vein that I continue with my aim to contribute towards an upward direction with thoughtful consideration in my own actions and through my life and work.

About the author

Sama Alshaibi

Sama Alshaibi is an artist whose multi-media artworks disinters negotiations in spaces of conflict: the causation and aftermath of war and exile, the clashes between nation and citizenry, the vexatious dynamics of humans competing for land, resources and power, and finally, one's own internal struggle with mental entrapment through self-policing emotions such as fear. Although she frequently uses her own body, Alshaibi is rarely representing herself directly. The body situates itself in allegorical contexts, trapped in time and space. The body juxtaposed with symbol, backdrop and gesture, constructs contexts of her physicality. The body as evolving metaphor. The body as site. The absence of her body in her artwork is still the context of the body absent.

Alshaibi has had over ten international solo exhibitions and her artworks are widely exhibited in prominent international biennials, film festivals, museums/institutions, galleries and fairs, including the 55th Venice Biennial, VIII Tashkent Biennale of Contemporary Art (2016), 2014 FotoFest International Biennial (Houston), Honolulu Biennial 2014 (Hawaii), MoMA (NYC), Edge of Arabia (London), Arab World Institute (Paris), Headlands Center for the Arts (San Francisco), The Bronx Museum (NYC), Paris Photo (Paris) and Museum of Contemporary Art (Denver). Aperture Foundation published her first monograph, Sama Alshaibi: Sand Rushes In – it was released in March of 2015 in conjunction with her solo exhibition with Ayyam Gallery in London. Recent and upcoming solo exhibitions include Sama Alshaibi: Silsila at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (Arizona, USA, 2016) and at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum at Cornell University (NY, USA, 2017), Collapse at Ayyam Gallery in Dubai (2015) and vs. Him at Lawrie Shabibi Gallery in Dubai (2012). Her art residencies include Darat al Funun (Amman), A.M. Qattan Foundation (Ramallah) and Lightwork (NY). Alshaibi was awarded two national teaching awards and granted the title of 'University of Arizona's 1885 Distinguished Scholar'. She has been awarded the 2014-2015 Fulbright Scholars Fellowship to the West Bank, Palestine. She is currently Chair and Full Professor of Photography and Video Art, University of Arizona, where she has taught since 2006. Alshaibi is exclusively represented by Ayyam Gallery.