CHICAGO – For a while now, art spaces all over the world have been shifting their operations to the virtual space of the internet, organizing online programming such as talks and tours. I recently attended an online tour conducted on Instagram live, of Palestinian artist Kiki Salem’s exhibition at Flood Plain Gallery in St. Louis, Missouri: The Fine Line Between A Simulation and Assimilation. Having opened on March 14, Salem’s first solo-show offers a broad range of textile, installation, and video works that challenge the “dystopian simulations” created and perpetuated by colonial powers of the United States and Israel. 

The interdisciplinary artist grew up between her native Al-Bireh, Palestine, and the American midwest, an experience she describes as living “as the versus” within an “East vs. West” duality that oversimplifies the complex experiences of assimilation. Her historically-informed work combines traditional Palestinian emboirdery techniques and motifs with her growing experimental textile and installation practice to tackle contemporary issues of orientalism, Islamophobia, shame, borders, prisons, and imperialism.

Kiki Salem (weaving and embroidery) and Kris Mosby (print), Christmas, acrylic on wool and hemp, DMC pearl cotton, 2020.

 

A weaving titled Christmas is made of wool and hemp, with an acrylic print by St. Louis-based artist Kris Mosby which depicts a gradient straddling a dark silhouette and a conventionally accepted, white-washed image of Jesus. For those who read languages like Arabic, which run leftwards, the portrait seems to be growing lighter and whiter. For anglophones who would read from left to right, the face is darkening. The gradient hence acts as a metamorphic timeline, read differently by colonized and colonizer. Its fluidity and ambiguity simulate the processes of erasure and assimilation under colonialism. Meanwhile, the Bethlehem star embroidered into the fabric and often used in Christmas sweaters is widely attributed to Scandinavian textile cultures despite its origins in Palestine: another historically-rooted instance of appropriation and colonialism. 

Kiki Salem, Empire Reinforced Caution (They Watch Where We Pray), Woven caution tape, tassel trimming, block print, 2020.

However, Salem’s weaving practice also extends to other, less conventional materials. Empire Reinforced Caution (They Watched Where We Pray) confronts the Western orientalist view of muslims, which both exoticizes and alienates them, head-on. In the installation, three mats resembling muslim prayer rugs point in the direction of the qibla, two of them suspended in midair, as if about to take off on a spiritual journey. This image of freedom, however, collapses upon closer inspection of the carpets, which are woven out of yellow caution tape, with a pattern of white and red crosshairs printed on them: the former representing constant observation and the latter being that of a gun. That they are interconnected via a framework of police tape speaks to the inherently violent surveillance of muslims and Arabs in America, especially following 9/11, a state which contradicts the orientalist fantasy of the flying carpet. 

Kiki Salem, (sound in collaboration with 18andcounting), The Silver Lining We Don’t Need, Concertina razor wire, steel, aluminum, mixed fiber, security alarm stands.

Occupying a central position in the gallery, The Silver Lining We Don’t Need speaks to the practices of terror at American as well as Israeli borders and prisons: two sides of the same coin. Putting viewers face-to-face with coils of razor wire, the installation does not merely underscore what is common between two separate oppressive systems, but underscores their mutually constitutive relationship. The United States and Israel have a long history of supporting each other in enabling the structural violence each colonial state enacts on the indigenous people of the land it has stolen, a glaring example of which are the billions of dollars of economic and military aid the US funnels into Israel. Detroit-based Palestinian artist and author Leila Abdelrazaq, whom Salem has worked with in the past, illustrates just a few of these connections in her comic, Single-Issue Voter. The “Israeli company Elta was one of four picked to build the prototype for Trump’s wall,” for one. As such, Salem’s work critiques the walls, borders, and checkpoints, as well as the control, violence, and racism that are foundational to both the American prison-industrial complex and the Zionist apartheid state.

Kiki Salem in collaboration with Vincent Stemmler, Banana Chair (Palestinian Chair), ceramic bananas, cinder block, concertina razor wire, steel, aluminum, hemp, 2020.

Whatever cruel juxtapositions we see in The Silver Lining -between soft yarn and sharp razors; rigid grid and organic curves; and blocked paths and clear skies- find an arguably darker expression in Banana Chair (Palestinian Chair). The Banana Chair is a torture method developed by Israel for use against Palestinians -an act in violation of their human rights and illegal under international law. The technique was renamed “Palestinian Chair” by American soldiers later employing it in Iraq, having borrowed it from Israel. For Salem, the irony is in taking something as seemingly innocent and healthy as a banana and associating it with an act of extreme violence. 

Created in collaboration with St. Louis-based ceramicist Vincent Stemmler, the installation comprises several ceramic bananas, toxically yellow, splayed out over a cinder block and bound to each other with aluminium and razor wire, simultaneously resembling both the torture position as well as the chair needed to use it. The piece calls out another instance of the exchange of technologies of terror between the US and Israel. In addition, the artwork’s use of the banana as a symbol harks to other histories of American imperialism, such as the Banana Wars, a series of US military interventions in Central America and the Carribean Islands in the early 20th Century. During the tour, the artist also cited Israel’s theft of water from Palestinian aquifers, which is causing banana crops in Jericho to go extinct. 

There is no doubt that a lot was lost on me by only seeing the show virtually, specifically when it comes to material and space. Watching through a screen, I could only imagine the suspense I would have felt directly facing a tapestry of razor wire so close to my face. I could only imagine the 3-dimensional dynamism and movement of Salem’s police-tape prayer rugs as I looked at them through a flat surface. I could only project what my body would have felt like navigating the space between the different installations and textile works. However, I still learned a lot. 

In The Fine Lines Between A Simulation and Assimilation, Kiki Salem draws from her upbringing between occupied Palestine and the United States, as well as the histories of Western imperialism, to dismantle orientalist stereotypes, highlight the unspoken nuances of assimilation, and critique the colonial violence perpetrated by Israel and America in the past and today. As Black Lives Matter protests still animate the country, work like Salem’s is a pertinent reminder of the need for international solidarity between all peoples against the global systems of white supremacy, imperialism, and capitalism poisoning the Earth and its inhabitants. 

Read more from Jad Dahshan.
Images courtesy of the Flood Plain Gallery.