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Exhibition review Arab diaspora blues

LEO BOIX reviews an exhibition combines personal histories, political struggles and Jewish-Arab roots to denounce political oppression and advocate for social justice

IN his seminal book Culture and Imperialism, Edward W Said tells us that just as none of us are outside or beyond geography, “none of us is completely free from the struggle over geography.” That struggle is complex and interesting for Said because “it is not only about soldiers and cannons but also about ideas, about forms, about images and imaginings.” 

Massoud Hayoun, in his unique artistic voice, uncovers some of these struggles in his first solo exhibition in London, Between Broken Promises, Harissa, on view at Larkin Durey Gallery until May 24. 

His perspective offers a fresh and intriguing take on these complex issues, especially amid current conflicts in Gaza, Syria, Libya and Yemen.

In one of his works, “Ceda el paso · bodies on the gears · embouteillage divine · el pueblo las abraza,” we are transported to the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The iconic Casa Rosada stands tall in the background, the Argentinian flag proudly fluttering on the square. 

In the foreground, the Madres de Plaza de Mayo encircle the square, accompanied by Tunisian women revolutionaries in their distinctive red hats. Some wear symbolic white handkerchiefs bearing the words “Nunca Mas” (Never Again). A table occupies the centre of the painting, where women from both groups engage in various tasks. The Tunisian woman embroiders the words Nunca Mas, while the Argentinian peels red chillies to make Harissa, a hot chilli pepper paste, native to the Maghreb, Arab north Africa. 

A mysterious red mountain, a recurring image around the square, symbolises the solidarity of two geographies, struggles and histories merging into one. 

Hassoud comments on this painting, explaining that a lot has happened since he made them, particularly with the current right-wing president, Javier Milei, issuing an executive order that requires demonstrators to pay for law enforcement to suppress their protests. This bears a shocking resemblance to how the military junta started in the ’70s.

“The struggle for accountability and humanity from on high isn’t particular to any time or place — it’s a universal constant. And yet this year, this struggle weighs more heavily on the mind than others, here and everywhere. Argentina’s Madres de la Plaza de Mayo are, to my mind, a talisman against autocracy — a potent reminder that people at the bottom of the power structure can subvert even the most unthinkable, entrenched oppression,” he says.

Hassoud, a native of Los Angeles, US, but raised by his Jewish Arab grandparents, delves into the complexities of his Tunisian, Moroccan and Egyptian heritage in unconventional ways, reflecting his unique upbringing and diverse cultural influences.

In Can You Believe Some People in this Country Don’t Eat on Purpose, 2023, two north African men sit at a table. Between them is a lion with glowing yellow eyes with one of its paws resting on the table. A bright red pomegranate is cut in half, revealing the sign of peace. 

The painting is mostly in acrylic blue, making us think of a past frozen in time and brought back through specific objects like the lion’s eyes and the pomegranate. 

The men are sharing food: two eggs, one lemon cut in half, and three pitta breads. The man on the right smokes a cigarette and looks straight at us. His eyes are highlighted in red, which could be a hidden sign of his sexuality. Between his open shirt, we can see his bones, a sign of impending death or doom. The painting is intriguing because of the mysteries it holds, and it is the unknown history that keeps the viewer gripped.

Hayoun is not only an artist but also a writer and journalist. In 2019, he authored the memoir When We Were Arabs: A Jewish Family’s Forgotten History, a tribute to his grandparents and their histories.

The paintings shown here in London are an attempt to explore a past, both personal and transnational. Through his art, he seeks to uncover family and historical truths and reveal political struggles and solidarities.

According to Hayoun, one of his goals is to uplift voices, including those of systematically silenced people, not just analysts and academics.

In his paintings, Hayoun delves into the stories of his grandparents and national narratives of revolutionaries, migrant labourers and sex workers.

He takes us to public and intimate spaces, such as open squares, street scenes, courtyards, kitchens, bars and cinemas, to focus on the human stories behind political struggles.

Some of his images feature red mountains that evoke the landscapes of north Africa, symbolising the strength and resilience of his people and the magnitude of the challenges they have faced and continue to face.

This exhibition takes you on a journey that explores personal loss and historical struggles in north Africa and beyond while emphasising political solidarity as the way forward.

As Said once said: “Liberation is an intellectual mission that was born as a resistance and opposition to the confinements and ravages of imperialism. Today, it has shifted from the settled, established, and domesticated dynamics of culture to the unhoused, decentred, and exilic energies. These energies are now embodied by migrants, whose consciousness is that of an intellectual and artist in exile, a political figure between domains, forms, homes, and languages.” 

Like Hayoun, a grandson of exiles, who convincingly denounces political oppression while painting revolutionary individuals and movements in their quest for accountability and social justice. 

Massoud Hayoun: Between Broken Promises, Harissa, runs until May 24 at Larkin Durey Gallery. For more information see: larkindurey.com.

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