Pansee Atta is an emerging Ottawa-based Egyptian-Canadian artist, whose practice is often collaborative and community-driven. Her work considers themes of colonization, feminism, and Islam, as well as the role of the cultural institution in legacies of epistemic violence.
Contact: pansee [dot] atta [@] gmail.com
I think about all those who have been displaced, dislocated, re-located, and misplaced. I think about all the routes they took to get to where they went, and how they got there and found a place that was entirely different than the one the map suggested. I think about those who never got to where they were going, and those who never found a place to go.
I think about these things and it occurs to me that these routes are neural systems, electric pathways along which joy and agony can travel.
I think of these things, and I think of home.
One of the sites where the politics of inclusion/exclusion are felt most keenly is the border. It is there that all the intersections of race/class/gender/coloniality merge to a single, crucial instance, and through the omnipresent eye of surveillance, are reduced to a pass/fail system upon which survival can depend. To pass, the body must become undressed: you remove those articles of clothing that mark your difference, and regardless, mechanized scanners can see through them, right through your skin, your organs, down to your bones. This act of undressing reveals the ways that colonial systems mark racialized bodies with both fear and desire: they are necessary resources that carry a threat inside them, an excess that threatens to spill out at any moment.
This piece is a response to the exhibit Cairo Under Wraps, which displays a collection of delicate fabric sherds dating back several hundred years, which were collected by the ROM's founder, C.T. Currelly, in the mid-nineteenth century . The exhibit boasts that the ROM is one of few world-class institutions with the resources to preserve such a collection. This assertion seems self-evident, but falls apart at closer examination: after all, these sherds successfully survived for centuries in Cairo before Currelly ever received them! The causal chain that results in the need to 'preserve' the object is reversed entirely: it is the excavation of the 'valuable' object that necessitates the institution that 'preserves' it. What would have been lost if it was never un-buried, but its value to its collector? After all, don't we bury the things we value to protect them? Who, really, is better at preservation than the earth itself?
I first saw this painting at the AGO, at a 2009 exhibit of works by Hunt and other Pre-Raphaelites. I didn't need to read its title to know that it was a painting of an Egyptian woman; even from across the room I felt a kind of recognition in it. That feeling is so rare! It stuck with me for years, until I started
researching this project, and then I stumbled across this quote from a critical text written not long after the painting was first created (in the mid-1800's). I had seen this painting, and thought I saw some part of myself in it-- but the man who painted it and his contemporaries didn't see that at all. They didn't even see a person. They barely even saw an animal. I had looked into a mirror of sorts and had my reflection inverted into something monstrous, forcing me to see that in myself, too.
The integrity of the borders of your own self-definition are at stake when you try to write about your own body as theory. If this was an example of 'good' representation, then what does it look like when it's 'bad'?
Who actually gets to own their own signature, to speak directly to their identity in this way? To get a name that's yours, that you own, that contains your own history and the history of your kin?
I don't know if my mom would classify keeping her 'maiden name' as a feminist act: I don't want to diminish her capacity in this regard, but it's a common enough practice for Muslim women. There's some pretty extensive sunnah behind it. That doesn't actually matter though. What matters is that regardless of her thoughts on the matter, this was illegible as a feminist act as far as the well-meaning
White troop leader was concerned.
Though the practice may be common, its signification in this context makes both the name and
its owner invisible. Having your actions understood as the intentional choices of an independent agent is a luxury granted only to those whose identities aren't defined by their silence.
The Orientalist artist depends on the bodies he depicts to remain static, placed precariously between the comfort of that which is familiar, yet thrilling in its difference. These harem girls might be “frightened”, but maybe the artist is frightened, too: maybe there is a threat lurking inside these “pretty little animals”, maybe the “supple lines of their beauty” reveal something threatening, alien, and undefinable.