Acre Born Artist Tosses Out the Melodrama, but in Doing So Loses Her Power

Galia Yahav
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Anisa Ashkar’s 'Champion (Muhammad Ali),' 2004.Credit: Courtesy
Galia Yahav

“Take Care,” the title of the new exhibition by Anisa Ashkar, is borrowed from one of the artist’s many facial inscriptions. For years, Ashkar has been inscribing a word or a sentence on her face in Arabic – “Stranger,” “Slowly,” “Regular,” sometimes a line from a work by the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish – and venturing into the Israeli street. Born in Acre in 1979, she is synonymous with this unique calligraphy – a language that many around her do not speak: the Anisa code. Some of the photographs of these facial monograms are on display in Ashkar’s solo exhibition at the Kfar Sava City Gallery, curated by Meira Perry-Lehmann (until June 30).

For example, a 2003 work, “Iphigenia, Take Care of Yourself,” is a self-portrait in profile. Ashkar’s eyes are shut, an inscription in Arabic adorns her face and she wears a white lace coif. Her head is caught, viselike, between two rams’ horns. In “Black Coffee” (2005), she is staring upward, lips slightly parted, a string of coffee beans running across her forehead and through her hair. “Agria Matia 4 (The Wild Eyes),” a work from 2006, shows her pensive and sad, eyes looking to the side.

The major new series is “Golden Mean,” which consists of eight almost identical works. Branches of cotton plants (which also featured in previous exhibitions by the artist) are framed within wood-and-glass boxes. These are spread out before us, creating an effect of snow-covered forests. Some of the branches float within their boxes, underscoring their rootlessness and nonattachment to an earth of any kind. In some cases, splashes of gold color and tar dot them.

According to the curator, “The gold stains confer sanctity on the plants, while testing their capacity for survival once their branches are cut off.”

A mystical-therapeutic style in regard to materials residing in display boxes – as ostensibly sacred relics or remnants standing for a lost whole – is associated with the German artist Joseph Beuys (1921-1986). In his wake, many artists have embalmed living materials in display spaces. Ashkar offers yet another variation on the theme, but it’s not especially exciting.

'Golden Mean' (2015). Photo by Barak Brinker

Hanging from a branch in the eighth and last box is a shirt, also dipped in gold. What is the meaning of this remnant of the absent body? Did something terrible happen in the cotton fields? Was violence perpetrated? Well, no. The shirt was “worn by the artist in 2000 during her performance ‘Always.’ In this way, she establishes a connection between her current pieces and her past work,” Perry-Lehmann writes.

Beyond all the associations and general references evoked by the materials and their arrangement – among them New York’s Cotton Club, according to the curator’s text – the most relevant context would seem to be the private biographical one.

In Ashkar’s childhood, the cotton fields of Kibbutz Ein Hamifratz demarcated the boundaries of her world, beyond which the children were not allowed to go, Perry-Lehmann notes. The boxes are thus border segments. They are a framed nostalgic picture of a childhood landscape that includes what is beyond one’s range of vision and reach. Did Ashkar cross the border and witness what she was forbidden to see? The works are too shallow to allow for an assumption along those lines.

Tracey Emin, without the stains

The series of boxes is a continuation of Ashkar’s engagement with her childhood surroundings in Acre: the Barbur (Swan) porcelain factory that gave the neighborhood in which she was born its name; the charcoal facility; and the horses connected to the family’s livelihood. Likewise, she pursues her extended, symbolic effort, in black-and-white, to transform those everyday objects into mythologizing, larger-than-life stories.

The most interesting work is a collection of objects left after a performance by the artist at the exhibition’s opening. She placed her private bed and mattress in the gallery as a kind of stage, and from it handed out baklava (a rich, sweet Middle Eastern pastry) to the guests. The bed now stands diagonally in the exhibition space, the mattress rolled up in the center of the exposed plywood base, wrapped around a cotton-plant branch.

Above is a small, gilded, heart-shaped box. The back of the bed, hanging lengthwise on the wall, thus becomes an abstract geometrical work made of painted wood. It’s an evocation of English artist Tracey Emin’s “My Bed” (1998), only without the sex, booze and stained sheets – but with a gold heart flower and its childlike romanticism.

The well-known images of Ashkar as a boxer are another standout. In her 2004 work “Champion (Muhammad Ali),” she appears in jeans and a black T-shirt, with a large red hibiscus in her hair and matching red boxing gloves, punching the air in “Million Dollar Baby” -style. In one photograph, the glove hides her face, replacing it; in another, Ashkar is made up to look as if she is bleeding from the nose and corner of her mouth. She’s intense and doesn’t take her eyes off the camera for an instant, enthralled by it. Her direct gaze makes the viewer the recipient of the blows.

New ingredients

After previously using milk and coffee in her work, Ashkar has expanded her range of materials in this exhibition. She’s still in the realm of food and spices, but this time creates stains on rice paper with the use of olive oil and face toner. In her case, the toner acts to erase the calligraphy associated with her, becoming a thinning agent that removes stains and cleanses, but also possessing the power to erase faces.

In a series of delicate drawings, made of gold leaf and olive oil, the oil stains are barely visible, according the paper a yellowing effect like a scroll or illuminated medieval manuscript. These works are the continuation of earlier ones (also on display), such as “Chocolate with Gold Leaf” and “Dark Chocolate and Rice,” from 2012, which are made of tar sprays and the random dripping of brown acrylic. They’re out-of-control Rorschach tests, forms that are absorbed in the paper and spread out on it. Perry-Lehmann says she asked Ashkar whether the stains were random and was told they were not, that the staining is done “deliberately.”

These are the show’s weakest works. They’re anemic and do not realize in an interesting way the latent potential of the materials chosen and the relations of (non)control within them. Ashkar’s works are overshadowed by the works of other artists: the lumps of fat in Beuys’ boxes; the use of chocolate by Janine Antoni or Paul McCarthy; the eating of onions or gold sweets by Marina Abramovic; the pouring of colors that spread randomly by Lynda Benglis and many others. Here, it all remains literal: oil painting with olive oil; sanctification of the stain by its anointment with oil.

In this exhibition, the earlier works are more interesting than the later ones. Ashkar’s language has lost some of its mythologizing element, its dramatic quality, even the sentimental melodrama that characterized it. The ostensibly enigmatic random art and repetitive cotton series lack the power of the singular facial calligraphy or the photographic self-portraits.

Kfar Sava City Gallery, 12 Geula Street, Tel. (09) 764-9303. Open Sun-Thur: 09.00-20.00, Fri: 09.00-12.00; until June 30.

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