Vanishing Acts: Waiting in Limbo with Maguy Marin, Nidaa Badwan, Gaza, & Lutèce

marin umweltCompagnie Maguy Marin in Maguy Marin’s “Umwelt.” Photograph by and copyright Christian Ganet and courtesy Theatre de la Ville.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2015, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on the DI/AV on December 11, 2015, in the wake of the November 13 massacre in Paris of 130 innocents from France and around the world on the café terraces, outside the stadiums, and in the Bataclan concert hall by a bunch of cowards. For an update on Nidaa Badwan — who is no longer waiting in limbo — click here.

PARIS — One of the endurance tests of a work of art is its malleability over time. When I first saw Maguy Marin’s “Umwelt” 10 years ago in its Paris premiere at the Theatre de la Ville – Sarah Bernhardt, if the choreography was dense, its spirit was still unrelentingly slapstick, with nine performers taking turns surging rapid-fire — solitary, paired, or in triplets — from the opening between three lateral walls of mirrors, le tout, mirrors and humans with their various props (baby dolls, turkey drumsticks, army helmets, guns, aprons, foliage, blonde wigs, laboratory jackets, pills, buckets of dirt…) buffeted about by wind machines as they engaged in everyday human interplay and gestures from kisses to fights, with the occasional flashing of fesses and genitals tossed in to remind you it was, after all, European modern dance. Even the bombastic score — played by a single strand of twine which crossed the downstage from one spool to another, caressing the strings of three prostrate electric guitars en route — didn’t perturb the frothy demeanor of the movement. What outraged me was that where no one had walked from the same theater during a Wim Vandekeybus spectacle the previous week which projected graphic images of children being tortured and killed, 40 spectators fled “Umwelt,” the more optimistic work. On Friday December 4, though, at the opening of the reprise of “Umwelt” on the same stage, I started sobbing at the first appearance of the performers. With their bright pedestrian outfits and variety of human shapes and ages, in their frantic running back and forth, fighting against the torrential currents of the wind and lost in the confines of the buckling rows of mirror-wall centurions, they seemed to be the 130 innocents killed November 13, discombobulated and disoriented over what had just happened to them, trapped in this antechamber like Captain Kirk hovering between two dimensions, juggling the detrius of their lives on Earth until we the survivors could set things right. At the moment, the verdict is still out, as we too seem to be hovering like Kirk between two worlds — or at least two worldviews, that of trepidation and fear and that of persevering hope.

On Thursday, I returned to the Place de la Republique, where previously, reading a note *whose message I didn’t agree with* implying a causal relationship between these senseless murders and Western intevention in the Middle East (Da’esh attacked us first!) — I was nonetheless heartened to see the statement, and that no one had taken it down, because this is the France they want to destroy, the France which embraces debate and disagreement and dissent. In the United States, striking workers are kept a block away from the workplace they’re picketing; in France, they actually occupy the workplace, and police aren’t called in to clear them out. (These rights aren’t a given; workers died for them.) At the Maison Europeenne de la Photographie right now, as part of the first biennial of photography of the contemporary Arab world, an entire floor is taken up by an exhibition on the disastrous effects of the Israeli invasion of the Gaza strip in 2014, particularly in polluting the area’s water supply. The MEP is an institution of the city of Paris. A similar exhibition would never happen at a municipal museum in the United States, or if it did, Israeli lobbyists would insist on a counter-exhibition postulating a false equivalence of victimhood. It’s institutions like these — vaunting free speech, and a wider opening to Arab perspectives than anywhere else in the Occident — that protected France for so long from the terrorists, with their lying attempts to justify their actions as vengeance for mistreatment of Arabs and Muslims. And it’s this France which the terrorists want to destroy. To them — horrible as this is to say — it’s not so much the body count that matters, as how we react to the blood-letting and whether they succeed in dividing us and getting us to modify our values, or at least our interpretation and implementation of them.

Shepherding the reaction is new terrain for a president who was elected above all to address economic challenges. So far — while there are those on the far Left here who might disagree with me — the response, particularly by the patient interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve, has been considered and tempered, given the unprecedented circumstances the country faces, *and* the crucial regional elections he must supervise at the same time and that, if the far Right takes three to four of the new 13 super-regions in Sunday’s second round as they have a good chance to do, could weigh heavily on the 2017 national elections and the fate of liberty, fraternity, and equality in a country that swears by them. So the following is offered not as back-seat driving, but as the perspective of a foreigner who doesn’t want to see France lose what in a way, we all feel a ‘proprietary’ stake in (and should not imply that there are not Frenchmen and women who feel the same, up to and including the president).

Returning to the Place de la Republique Thursday December 3, then, I found the monument around which the notes have been posted below the votive candles encircled by barricades which made it impossible to approach closer than 100 meters, and thus no longer possible to read the declarations which were the main souvenir compelling Parisians and visitors to hover there in silent contemplation. The two discrete national police officers patrolling the place had been augmented to 20, with a fleet of vans standing nearby. There was a reason and even a noble motivation for this; on the previous Sunday, some demonstrators had reportedly trashed some of the mementos, so that the police were there to protect the shrine and prevent further damage. Still, it made me sad that, at least at this site, it was no longer possible to link ourselves in solidarity around the WORD, the word which has been precious to France and Frenchmen and women since Descartes, since Voltaire, since Moliere, the Chevalier de la Barre, Balzac, Hugo, Baudelaire, Flaubert, Sand, Zola, Jaures, Sartre, Camus and De Beauvoir and right up to modern scholars and philosopher-pundits Stora and Onfray.

gazaGaza, Beti Hanoun, April 2015: A girl from Beti Lahia leads her little brother to a water distribution point. In June the U.N. described the devastation in Gaza  following Israel’s 2014 invasion as “unprecedented.” According to the U.N., Israel killed 2,251 Palestinians, including 1,462 civilians among whom 551 were children. Hamas killed 72 Israelis, including 67 soldiers and five civilians. Photo copyright Massimo Berruti, who received the Prix Photo AFD / Polka for his work. Courtesy Maison Europeenne de la Photographie.

The second decision which saddened me — even if I understand the well- intentioned reasoning — was that to temporarily suspend free Wednesday late afternoons / early evenings at the Maison Europeenne de la Photographie. The reasoning is evident; a magnet for the (mostly) young (less likely to have the resources to pay for a ticket), cosmopolitan, hip, and decoratively dressed, of all cultures, this is demographically exactly the type of event that was targeted on November 13. Popular and crowded — even if the MEP carefully monitors capacity — with several floors and essentially one exit, it’s obviously a vulnerable assemblage. Still, the contemporary Arab world photography exhibition is the perfect counter-argument to the terrorists’ (false and duplicitous) recruiting tool that the West is out to harm Muslims and Arabs. Andrea & Magda’s “Sinai Park” shows the deleterious effects of, among other factors, Daesh’s terrorism on tourism investment in the Sinai. And the Italian photographer Massimo Berruti’s “Gaza: Eau Miracle” shows the calamitous effects of Israel’s 2014 invasion of this occupied territory on the area’s water supply, particularly in his photos of Gazan children searching for water amidst the rubble. In other words, the high visibility of both the biennial in general and these exhibitions in particular proves the contrary of Daesh’s claims as regards France. Perhaps MEP could take a cue from Theater de la Ville director Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota, who, in the face of restrictions on school outings following the declaration of the state of emergency, has promised to bring the artists to the school so that the theater can continue its ambitious education programs. MEP could, for example, bring a slide-show version of Berruti’s award-winning work to French schools, including the banlieus or suburbs.

The MEP room devoted to Berruti’s Gaza work also featured, in continuous loop, a France 24 television report on the devastating effects of Israel’s Gaza invasion, part of which was a featurette on Nidaa Badwan, a Gazan artist caught between two extremes. Prevented by Israel from leaving Gaza, frowned on by Hamas’s “morality” police (who even beat her after arresting her for an outdoor performance) because she dresses like, well, like any Belleville artist, and distressed by the dilapidation that confronts her every time she goes outside, the 28-year-old artist decided to create her own cocoon in her 9-square-foot bedroom, lining it with egg-carts to diminish the outside noise and taking a series of self-portrait photographs (illumined by rare moments of sunlight). When the director of the Jerusalem French Institute read about Badwin’s book based on this project, “100 Days of Solitude,” in the New York Times, the institute organized an exhibition in East Jerusalem. When it came time for the opening, Israel refused to issue her a visa.

nidaa badwan100 Days of Solitude: Gaza Artist Nidaa Badwan captured — and free — in her home and studio. Photo courtesy Nidaa Badwan.

I think of Badwan, armed only with her beret and her camera, determined to make her art even in the face of extremes on both sides. And it occurs to me that if she can persist and create a niche in a space of liberty smaller than even many Paris apartments, maybe we can maintain ours, and liberate Noemie Gonzalez and the other 129 November 13 martyrs from their limbo.
PS: Taking my lunch yesterday abreast of the Ourcq canal in the suburb of Pantin, right outside the Paris Peripherique, I noticed a motorcyclist in a municipal uniform stopping by each of the trees and lowering his vacuum…. to suck up dog poop. We here are much more comfortable preserving beauty than fighting destruction. We are finding our way. So when the Canadian militant Naomi Klein gets up, as she did earlier this week in Paris during the climate conference, and invites her followers to defy the State of Emergency’s prohibition of demonstrations, having the gall to call the government’s ban “draconian and opportunistic,” I want to say: You are a guest here. (And one who has been welcomed on the public media waves.) We are not here to help you sell your books. Please take your self-promoting defiance elsewhere while we work this out, in our fashion.

nidaa badwan new roomNidaa Badwan in the “New Room” — as this photo is called —  and studio accorded to her by Italy after this story first appeared. Photo courtesy Nidaa Badwan

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Women aren’t just victims, IV: From Gaza to the World Stage — Nidaa Badwan’s Freedom-forging Odyssey

nidaa badwan100 Days of Solitude: Nidaa Badwan in her room transformed into studio in 2015. Photo by and courtesy Nidaa Badwan.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Text copyright 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

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When we last checked in on Palestinian artist and photographer Nidaa Badwan in 2015, she’d just created the photography project 100 Days of Solitude, in which she’d transformed her nine-square meter room in Gaza into a pin-hole camera with a kaleidoscopic view, the 28-year-old’s response to Hamas’s releasing her from jail after eight days only after she signed a statement agreeing to only go outside with her body fully covered and accompanied by her father or brother — using imagination to spark creation and sequestration to produce liberation. (Badwan remained in this self-imposed quarantine from late 2013 through early 2015.) “This space,” she told the television station France 24 at the time, “gave me the freedom that I couldn’t find outside — a freedom from the dullness and ugliness of Gaza, from the Israeli siege, from the impositions of the men of Hamas.” If this inventively courageous response was not a complete surprise — Badwan even refused to leave her home during the 2014 Israeli bombing of Gaza — the happy ending that followed was.

Nidaa rooster smallDescribing the impetus behind what she considers her most important photograph, part of the series 100 Days of Solitude, Badwan explains: “In Arabic symbolism, the rooster represents the man. It’s a masculine energy that wants to silence me. I have an Oud with me, a Middle-Eastern instrument. With my gesture, I invite the rooster to shut up and let me be free to express myself and my art.” Photo by and courtesy Nidaa Badwan.

If Israel had refused to authorize her to leave Gaza to attend an exhibition of 100 Days of Solitude organized by the Institute Française in the West Bank town of Ramallah, Badwan was eventually able to depart, in September 2015, when the Italian municipalities of Monte Grimano Terme and Montecatini Terme invited her to share her works and protest and, later, when she expressed her concern about her security if she returned to Gaza, welcomed by the tiny Republic of San Marino.  In April of this year, the Italian municipality of Monte Grimano Terme offered her own atelier to create art and to organize animations for the public.

Badwan’s artistic itinerary since leaving Gaza, meanwhile, has included, in 2016 alone, collective and individual exhibitions in Denmark, Berlin, the French commune of Couthhures-sur-Garonne (for the Festival Internationale du Journalisme Vivant), Dubai, Miami Beach, and New York’s Postaster Gallery, often in group shows where she’s been surrounded by a choice selection of the leading young Arab (and young, period) artists. Meanwhile, the World Bank  in Washington acquired six of her works. She capped the year back in San Marino by participating in an evening dedicated to the theme of autism in which she displayed four paintings created by Abood, her autistic brother, and four of her own inspired by him, part of a planned  solo exhibition on the theme featuring more work.  “Along with me,” she recounts, “there was an autistic boy, very young, who played Chopin. It was an indescribable and marvelous evening.” Badwan’s comments to the assemblage should be required reading for every Beaux Arts student:

“My brother is nine years younger than me, has autism, and lives in Gaza. Stepping into this world and exploring it from within is a rich and unique experience. To penetrate the meanderings of this situation is neither difficult nor easy. Abood needs nothing. He doesn’t need words — he only needs a piece of paper and a pencil. He draws his own world, and usually he asks me: ‘How do you find it?’ To his question, I spontaneously reply: ‘Nice! I want to see more.’

“As time went by, I started to observe and interpret what his drawings revealed. In his works, there are many crying faces, usually smoking a cigarette and surrounded by curvy patterns. A sole fragment of a painting can harbor the contradiction between sadness and happiness. Abood has battled with solitude, the same feeling I experienced for two years. During my isolation, he would wait by the door to make me a surprise with a handful of drawings he made around midnight. Every time he saw me crying, he would give me a new painting. He knows that this makes me vibrate. I imitate what he does; I can follow the curvy patterns and draw like he does. I needed more of these sketches, and even more. I became autistic just like him, learning how to walk through his world. I learned how to speak to him, how to make mistakes in the sentences’ structures and to mutter when I speak. This world is very rich, if the poor ones like us know the truth.”

nidaa badwan new room smallNidaa Badwan in her studio in the Italian village of Monte Grimano Terme: “New Room.” Photo courtesy Nidaa Badwan.

Since the beginning of this year, Badwan has already participated in two exhibitions in Italy, taken part in a collective exhibition in the United States, and addressed the UNESCO conference “Cultural Heritage and Identity: an Arab Youth Perspective” in Carthages, Tunisia. She inaugurated her studio in Monte Grimano Terme in May, in the presence of the mayor, the former education and culture minister of San Marino, and Palestine consul for Italy Nidal Thawabi. In June she participated in both the White Nights of the University of San Marino, creating a sculpture in real-time on the theme of femininity, and the collective exhibition “Ri-crazioni” in Prato, Italy. Through January you can catch her exhibiting with (fellow) revolutionary Arab artists in Valencia, Spain, at the Institut Valencià d’Art Modern and at the “En Rebeldía” and, currently, in a touring version of this show on display in Berlin’s Gorki Theater.

This flurry of activity doesn’t mean that Badwan doesn’t miss her nest in Gaza, where her family still lives. As for  the butterfly emerged from its cocoon, the outside world can be as daunting as it is exhilarating. “When I was in Gaza,” she tells me, “I had a small space, my little world, but I had an infinity of ideas in my head. I could only spin the world with my mind.” She was confident that “this was my world, and I could do what I want. Now, paradoxically, I have all the freedom I want to turn and create in a vast space, like the world, but I do not have my ‘world,’ ‘my’ space where I can be quiet no one can tell me to ‘go away’ if I do not pay rent,” and does not have to think about things like changing her immediate environment.

Still, I can’t help but think that Badwan’s changed circumstances must be liberating. If her previous situation inevitably made her simple act of creating art be perceived as an act of ‘defiance’ by journalists (not to mention polemicists), she’s now escaped from the box and free to find her path without the constraints of her politically loaded identity. All the better.

“I do not define myself as a political artist,” she says, “and I would not like to be. I prefer to leave politics to politicians and to the Press. Of course, I personally have my own ideas, but art and politics should not be confused, though sometimes this may happen. For me art speaks of experiences directly lived, interior and exterior. That particular experience came to me. If anything else had happened, I might have talked about something else or in another way.”

For more information on Nidaa Badwan, including more examples of her work — and to keep up with her ever multiplying cavalcade of exhibitions — check her web site.