Heba Y. Amin’s exhibition at the Berlin gallery Künstlerhaus Bethanien, The Earth is an Imperfect Ellipsoid, was conceived as a response to the work known as The Book of Roads and Kingdoms by 11th-century Andalusian writer Abu Abdullah al-Bakri.
Existing now only in fragments, the book is a compendium of the writings and observations of travelers, traders and others concerning the territory of contemporary western and northwestern Africa – what Amin, an Egyptian visual artist, lecturer at Bard College Berlin and doctorate fellow at the Free University of Berlin, has called in her own practice “a migration of images.” While the text shares some of Ancient Greek writer Herodotus’s flair for the spectacular and anecdotal, later scholars find Bakri’s geographical data broadly sound. This is despite the fact that Bakri himself appears never to have set foot in Africa, or even outside of his native Andalus. Thus, Bakri could be thought of as an early expression of the all too contemporary phenomenon of representing Africa at a remove.
While distance may offer perspective, it may also manifest a species of blindness. To see one aspect of a place or set of relations may well be to miss another, or even to render other features obscure. As every amateur magician can tell you, the key to a successful illusion is misdirection. And illusions can be dangerous, even if they are not intentionally created. It is this dynamic that informs The Earth is an Imperfect Ellipsoid, an exhibition deeply concerned with the mechanics of observation, revelation and concealment.
Bakri’s text is the starting point for a set of observations Amin has produced of physical spaces encountered while traveling along a route described in The Book of Roads and Kingdoms, spaces that are, in many cases, now conflict zones or sites of transmigration. Along the way, she produced a number of atmospheric images using a surveying tool known as a theodolite. The gauzy chiaroscuro of the images evokes the visual aesthetics of the historical colonial past, but the subject matter which she captures, lonely wind turbines stationed in the desert, a nest of satellite dishes perched on squat urban rooftops, are unmistakably contemporary. The world documented in Bakri is recognizable to modern viewers by virtue of many of the same economic and cultural forces that drove the chroniclers on whose accounts of the region Bakri’s book is based.
One of the notable elements of Bakri’s text which Amin’s works bring to the fore is the lurid descriptions of the bodies, and alleged sexual practices, of women along African trading routes. One of the milder excerpts, translated and included in Amin’s exhibition, is a representative sample:
Abu Rastam al-Nafisi, who is one of the merchants of Awdaghurst, informed me that he saw one of these women reclining on her side . . . and her child, an infant, played with her, passing under her waist from side to side without her having to draw away from him at all on account of the ampleness of the lower part of her body and the gracefulness of her waist.
In the sense that Amin’s work is, in part, a response to this kind of exoticization and gourmandizing, such a reclamation of the physical and psychological territory of the region is inherently a political as well as an aesthetic act. One could even regard it as a kind of sociocultural audit: using the tools of science to reveal the presence of subjectivity itself.
In late 2015, Amin and Dawit L. Petros, a US-based Eritrean visual artist, founded the Black Athena Collective, which they have described in the text “Nowhere is a Place” as “a research and artistic laboratory” that “engages political discourse and territorial logics connected to the Red Sea region from Eritrea to Egypt.” At the center of her practice, Amin has put the understanding and conceptualization of physical space and the things that revolve around it, writing that there is a need to “address mobility as a crucial principle for structuring new approaches to territorial convention, citizenship and politicization.”
Vision is, of course, as much a function of the brain as of the eyes, and what one sees physically is not always what one processes, understands or accepts mentally. A case in point is the work Vision is One of the Senses (2016), a sculpture made of iron and hung on the western wall of the gallery. The piece is derived from a diagram of the human optical system as understood by the 11th-century writer, Ibn al-Haytham. Upon first encountering Vision is One of the Senses, there is an almost spiritual quality to its lacework of lines and curves that turn back on themselves like an extended Möbius strip. That the work is an expression of the frontiers of Islamic science in its pre-colonial position as a world leader further deepens the thematic unity of the exhibition.
Vision is One of the Senses is positioned across the room from The Pupil of the Mosquito’s Eye (2016), a set of four television screens showing the black and white image of a woman’s face from apparently decades-old footage, as she struggles with gale-force winds. Occasionally, she slips out of focus, is obscured by the image of a passing man, or simply turns her face away and becomes both present and absent. She may be more or less identifiable at different moments of the film’s four-and-a-half minutes, but her presence is eternally visible due to the technology that captured her: trapped and immortalized at once. She is not unlike her predecessors, frozen in place for centuries by Bakri’s derivative linguistic portraits. That the sightless visual system elaborated by Haytham gazes across the room at The Pupil of the Mosquito’s Eye is an aspect of the display that is particularly potent. One may look directly at someone and, by doing so, render that person invisible.
If Amin’s exhibition has a central territorial axis, it is the dialogue between the images taken with the theodolite, which hang on the southern wall of the space, and a scroll-like work on paper that hangs on the western wall and spills out over the floor. On the scroll are printed sections from Bakri’s text. The spatial interplay, is, of course, quite appropriate. The works – almost literally – speak to each other across time and space.
But unfortunately, on multiple occasions, the text on the scroll contains typographical errors. These errors, interestingly and suggestively, both relate to pronouns: “her” and “their” are rendered “he” and “the.” Read in context, the first error creates a syntactic disruption in the sentence and the reader is forced to supply the word that the “he” is obviously meant to be. In my case, I thought it was supposed to read “the” but, later, encountering the full text printed in the accompanying materials for the exhibition, I discovered it was supposed to read in the following way: “They fall upon any merchant [disputing as to] which of them shall take him to her house.” This is a very different matter from disputing “which of them shall take him to the house.” Such a small typographical error perhaps seems like a trivial thing about which to quibble with an exhibition that is otherwise so strong, but as the importance of pronouns in language has increasingly become a contentious political issue, the world is learning how much meaning a single letter can express. Particularly in a show concerned with accurate representations of women and interrogating male normativities, such problems cannot be so easily overlooked as they might be, for example, in the first printing of a novel.
Even now, I find myself wondering if these printing errors were intentional. Were they an attempt to express the inadequacy of Bakri’s reliance on secondhand opinions and accounts? Were they a critique of language itself as a means of expressing or encompassing identity? Or were they just the result of a printing problem that went unnoticed? These are not the kind of things you want to be asking yourself as you look at the evocative theodolite images, or stand in the contested space between Vision is One of the Senses and The Pupil of the Mosquito’s Eye. Amin’s exhibition both rewards and penalizes close observation, and in this way it reproduces both the power and the shortcomings of its conceptual subject matter.
The Earth is an Imperfect Ellipsoid was on display from January 20 through February 12.
This article was commissioned and edited by Daniel O’Connell.