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Colour photography. Lorna Simpson and Ahlam Shibli at Jeu de Paume

(Paris.) Times are changing. Hardly any stereotype proves true anymore, and still we hold on to outer appearance, to an empty shell.

For decades, if not centuries, journalists have enjoyed fame as some of the most prolific alcoholics on this planet, and at Jeu de Paume's press reception on a cloudy Monday morning at 10:30, a battalion of wine glasses filled with red and white liquid promised to keep the long tradition alive. A handful of yesterday's croissants in a basket could only be meant as bar food for the weak-at-liver. Inexperienced in these events - I have to admit I rarely have the occasion to visit press receptions - I decided to have a look at the exhibitions of Lorna Simpson and Ahlam Shibli first, then join the party and stay at least until some most important editor-in-chief passes out in the arms of a cute museum intern.

But what disappointment Fate held in store upon my return to the entrance hall: Lifting the precious crystal (plastic, actually) to my trembling lips, its content turned out as - juice. Ordinary, common, plain, red juice, impossible even to distinguish what poor fruit had suffered its life for the infamous waste of water. Outer appearance and inner essence.

This is a topic that matters to Lorna Simpson too, albeit in a much more serious context.

Her work focuses on the delicate subject of skin color. And Lorna Simpson does not emphasize differences, does not continue in the line of "blackisms" from Négritude and Marcus Garvey to today's Hip Hop culture. On the contrary, there is the strong will to overcome all classifications in unity.

Inferring from her work, it seems doubtful if Lorna Simpson would refer to herself as an "African American" woman, a stupid term invented by white "intellectuals" that distinguishes between "regular" i.e. "white" citizens and others (who belong to Africa?). Not to forget that white people of Maghreb origin are African too, whilst black people from India are "geographically" Asian... (On the other hand, all humanity is of African descent, if you only go back in time long enough; remember Lucy). But back to the exhibition: Lorna Simpson wants to move our gaze away from phenotypes, to the basic truth that outer appearance does not allow any judgment at all.

Despite all changes in society, for many people the visual impression "black skin" still comes with significantly other connotations than the equally trivial impression "red (/blonde/blue,...) hair". When Lorna Simpson covers a wall with photographs of the back of a woman's head in ever different hairstyles, and adds terms like "Daring", "Sensible", "Severe", "Silky", "Ageless", "Silly", "Magnetic" etc. - referring to coiffure and personality at the same time -, she contests the stereotypic identification, and stigmatization, of this person as "a black woman". The resemblance to mugshots is no coincidence, either.

And Lorna Simpson varies the theme. Another series of back heads with Twenty Questions - "Is she pretty as a picture", "Or sharp as a razor", "Or black as a coal", "Or pure as a Lily"... - continues the fight against connections of color (a visual impression caused by light of a particular wavelength falling on the retina - right?) and arbitrary attributions. The same, when she shows five times the same upfront photo of a woman in a white dress. One image for each (work)day of the week with captions like "Misinformation", "Misidentify" or "Misdiagnose" - this Miss is perceived in a stereotype everyday, overshadowing any truth.

Lorna Simpson is not exclusively concerned with these questions. Sometimes she just creates poetical artworks, big format photographs of dark interiors (ok, black and white again) to which she writes shortest short stories. But she regularly returns to social roles and role-plays: In a three-screen video installation, the artist is seen playing a game of chess against her alter ego in male disguise. Moving the chessmen to the rhythm of a pianist hammering on ebony and ivory, the players are multiplied in a schizophrenic kaleidoscope. One step further to dissolve the inscriptions, now also concerning sex (or, to sound hip: "gender").

It will be interesting to see how society evolves over the coming decades.

Sometimes, problems are solved in a way nobody had foreseen. The question of prejudice against woman artists seems less urgent today than forty years ago, as the recipient often does not even know whether an artwork has been created by a man or a woman. If you hear the name Ahlam Shibli, what is your guess? Are you able to tell immediately if the artist is a "he" or a "she"?

Since artists are no longer called Pablo and Frida but Hicham and Kader and Ai and Yue, the traditional Western audience can no longer be sure of anything, the person of the artist easily hides behind the work. (At least for the Western audience that still rules the art world, and that has raised those questions in the first place.)

Ahlam Shibli visits warzones and minority groups around the globe. In this show, the artist's native region of Palestine dominates: The photo series Trackers documents Muslim volunteers of Bedouin origin serving in the Israeli army(!), for Self Portrait, Ahlam Shibli revisited own childhood memories, and Death shows the families of Palestinians who fell or were taken prisoner during the second Intifada. The absurd reality in the photographs of this last series is striking. Lost fathers, brothers and sons are omnipresent in heroic wall paintings, potentially preparing the next generations for revenge. In fugitive camp interiors, no telephone table overladen with football merchandise and other most ordinary bric-a-brac lacks a victim's photograph.

Now add Trauma about former French Resistance fighters who later became oppressors in North African colonial conflicts themselves, and you have a clear political tendency.

Gladly, there are also pictures of homosexual refugees from Islamic countries partying in London, Zurich, Barcelona - and Tel Aviv. Or the series Dom Dziecka on the micro societies of Eastern European orphanages. Maybe, all of this has a lot more to do with journalism than with art, but who cares, if you learn something new?

Oh, and Ahlam Shibli is a woman.

One last thing I'd love to know: How comes that all of the museum wardens in Ahlam Shibli's show are Arabian immigrants and in Lorna Simpson's show are black? You will rarely spot a white warden in any European museum (the one exception I once met in the Louvre wanted for some reason tell me about an obscure catholic sect and its guru; no joke), maybe there is still a long way to go. The struggle for distinction in equality remains a great paradox of modern society.

Lorna Simpson, Jeu de Paume, 28 May-01 September 2013

Ahlam Shibli: Phantom Home, Jeu de Paume, 28 May-01 September 2013



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