In a film showcasing contemporary Middle Eastern art, director Pia Getty invites artists to speak about their practice and shape the context in which it is seen. Etel Adnan is an eighty-two year old Lebanese philosopher, painter, poet and essayist undertaking what she calls ‘endless research in form’; her work is driven by a desire to transcend language barriers: this is something all eight artists in Axis of Light have in common and the film provides an intimate introduction to their work.
Form and themes recur and overlap: Adnan calls her abstract paintings ‘poems of colour’ and the visual properties of words are also crucial in the work of Algerian artist, Rachid Koraichi. He works with Sufi script, using traditional methods to create graphic prints. Iranian Shirin Neshat also uses ancient script in her critique of the representation of Arabic women. She covers their faces and hands with mystical writings until word and image blur; these women stare out at us, their expressions, like the inscriptions, unreadable. Egyptian Youssef Nabil is also a photographer. He uses the studio techniques of old Egyptian and Hollywood films, hand-painting film with pastel and watercolour; this stylised glamor creates a dreamlike mood through which he can explore notions of exile and longing.
Mona Saudi, from Jordan, reads her own poetry over footage of her stone sculptures. She speaks of how the details of stone formation are like a story; the markings revealing traces of our past. In Ayman Balbaaki’s paintings, stone and land are also used to reveal truths. He paints from photographs of Beirut, speaking of how the buildings of his city remember past events as bodies do. The cityscape is locked in a cycle of deconstruction and reconstruction and through thick, wild strokes of oil he mirrors this process, building up layers of paint like scar tissue. For his canvas he uses a traditional flowery material that reminds him of the mattresses and belongings carried by refugees as they escaped the city.
This juxtaposition of the mundane and the traumatic is also evident in the work of Palestinian-Lebanese artist, Mona Hatoum. She subverts household objects to express a sense of Freud’s uncanny, the German word for which translates literally as unhomely, providing an understated description of her installations. The everyday is imbued and transformed by the memory of traumatic events; a child’s cot is made from metal but has cheese slicing wires instead of a mattress; graters and colanders become instruments of torture, humming with electric current. In Topographies of War, Iraqi Jananne Al-Ani makes what she calls cartographic images: photographs of Iraqi landscapes, that show the area from a drone’s-eye view. At such a distance the un-peopled villages form abstract patterns, the viewpoint distorting the content and imposing a false order on the destruction.
Al-Ani tells a story about where the idea for her piece came from. In Kosovo in the1990’s, forensic anthropologist Margaret Cox found herself inadvertently searching for a rare blue butterfly and the wild flower it fed on while looking for the victims of the Serbian massacres. Due to the recently disturbed and soil and nutrients provided by the decomposing bodies, it was clusters of flora and fauna that indicated where bodies were buried. It is this story that best sums up the essence of Getty’s film: from a place of struggle and pain, these artists are creating something beautiful and by investigating the past, they are finding new ways to move into the future.