‘I long to hear the story of your life, which must captivate the ear strangely.’ – William Shakespeare, The Tempest
A land is more than a geographical encircling or an extension. Living in an island constantly challenged by the marker, the boundary, the danger of the waters, gives you a better sense of perspective connected to disruption: Islands dispel the myth that surfaces of the earth are continuous and the geometrical idea that extension is infinite. Boundaries transform an encircling into a locality, specificity and entity. But a boundary is human as Julia Kristeva explains: Corporeal inscription is unstable and the body emerges only when we begin to recognize a boundary between ‘me’ and ‘another’. The new proportion is not geographical but anatomical: Islands as bodies.
A body is a consciousness, a consciousness of the boundary. Bodies of earth, bodies of sand, bodies of soil, bodies of mud. Inundated bodies too. In her experimental film from 1944, At Land, avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren is metaphorically re-born in mermaid-like form on the waves of a beach in an island (in this case Long Island) and begins a strange journey in the format of a dream, encountering different versions of herself and others, in what is said to be a struggle to maintain personal identity throughout the instability of freedom. A land is also that, a sense of safety. This safety comes not through dwelling alone but through the umbilical cord of communities of memory that are permanently eroded by time.
A short film from Bahrain, Mohammed Bu Ali’s 2009 The Good Omen, poetically narrates the struggle of Mohammed, an old Bahraini fisherman from the island of Muharraq who refuses to part from his old house and cross the bridge into the now modern main island of Bahrain, as he is awaiting the return of his long-departed wife and in the traditional local ritual of the good omen (al-bishara) he hangs the highly elaborate woman’s dress (thobe al-nashal) over the roof of his home as the joyous announcement of the return of a family member after a long absence. In his refusal to cross the bridge – a metaphor for modernity – he is binding himself to the memory of the island rather than letting it become diluted by time. There is a safety of space.
The film opens with the question, ‘Who would leave the sea and build his house in the desert?’ that brings to mind the disappearing fishing huts along the coast of Muharraq documented in recent years by Bahrain-based Lebanese photographer Camille Zakharia. It is also in Muharraq where the painter Nasser Al Yousif stages his childhood memories before crossing into Manama at the age of eight, and the house with a large gate, the wooden cylinders in green and yellow, green and red, and the textures of bamboo and wicker; all of which entered his paintings dealing often with traditional society and architecture, Islamic concepts of harmony, the life of pearl divers and fishermen. The brush of Al Yousif never left the contours of the land, the body of wholes.
A parallel trend emerges here between the young filmmaker and the legendary painter, with the former’s films Absence (2008) and the latter’s masterpiece The Wait from 1979. Bu Ali’s Absence makes a reference to The Lonely Alone of celebrated Bahraini poet Qassim Haddad, with a score by the composer Mohammed Haddad who in 2009 collaborated with the poet Ali Abdullah Khalifa in the recital ‘Washaej’, setting to music some of his poems, in the same way that Al Yousif inscribed onto oil on board a poem of Ali Abdullah Khalifa back in 1968. Haddad and Al Yousif also meet at the intersections of poetry and music, having long established the strong relationship of Al Yousif’s work to folkloric music as broken parables and myths.
It is Kafka, Al Yousif’s fellow traveler in the grammar of soundless music who best interprets the paintings of the Bahraini master that attempt to grasp the inner life of the land: ‘Art flies around truth, but with the definite intention of not getting burnt. Its capacity lies in finding in the dark void a place where the beam of light can be intensely caught, without this having been perceptible before.’ It is also the colours of this body, absorbed in the early days of Muharraq and Manama, where Al Yousif’s palette is indefinitely formed: Muds, earths, soils, clays, sands, woods. Those are his basic colors. One is reminded here of Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, in which a magician is stranded on an island for twelve years; the painter is that magician, observing life day after day in the way of Monet, but depicting it in the way of ancient frescos, miniatures and murals.
In his watercolor Memories of a Pearl Diver (1977), he begins to depict the pearl diver’s longing for home in the dangers of the sea, far away from the marker of territory into a freedom too vertiginous to be controlled and recalls the long pearl hunting trips, often lasting months at a time, and that at the end of the 19th century, long before the oil era, constituted the backbone of the working class economy, risking their lives for the precious keep. The pearl diver is afraid of not returning, as in Bas Ya Bahar (The Cruel Sea, 1972), that little known Kuwaiti film and the first made in the Gulf, in which the young son of an impoverished diver is forbidden to go to the sea by the father, but as he falls in love with a merchant’s daughter he goes into the sea looking for pearls for a dowry and is ultimately killed as she is forced into marriage to an older man.
In picturesque manners that almost resemble comic strips, cut into frames, the painter aims to delineate the land with his brush, and to delineate here means to appropriate rather than to set in free motion. As is for Maya Deren, the painter looks at the barren land of the developing country and finds under the void the true raw materials of the land, and to be at land here is not a question of memory as much as it is a matter of identity. But to have an identity is not really to know who we are, because that privilege is probably barred from this earth, but rather, to establish a community of the future, of the not yet, a community of hope. This is what is achieved in his painting Hope (1978) showing the struggle between danger and reconciliation, and the reconciliation comes not from living in the past, but with the past. Be as it might.
But it is difficult to be at home as a painter and even more as a human being. The temptation of exile is given in to easily. Exile is always the unfamiliar territory, the minimal distance, any discontinuous moment, every rupture in the boundary; yet Nasser Al Yousif refuses to be in exile, vehemently, and as a painter he returns to a time that is not past but primeval, a time that speaks in archetypes and basic forms, in the way a child dreams of the world before he has entered the linguistic code, free from abstractions. Like him, the writer Hélène Cixous, resists exile: ‘Exile makes one fall silent/earth. But I don’t want exile to make silence, I want it to make earth; I want exile, which is generally a producer of silence, extinction of voice, breathlessness, to produce its opposite… I lost Oran. Then I discovered it, white, gold, and dust for eternity in my memory and I never went back. In order to keep it. It became my writing.’ The painter wants to make earth.
And a painter that wants to make earth needs to leave a land in order to never forget it. He needs to enter it through the backyard of the text and the brush, to reach a place not susceptible to the dangers of the present while looking at them straight in the eye. The umbilical cord is never broken that way. In his painting Unity (1982) he discovers not what is absent now but that was never completely present; the warmth and harmony between the old society that disappeared with the huts and the dancers and the drums. White, gold and dust. It is this memory, primal and timeless, what in words of Hannah Arendt, gives unity and wholeness to their existence. When the dangers appear, the earth leaves no empty spaces, there is an enclosure, and the land becomes a hand that becomes a body that becomes a home. Home never is; it is always becoming.
As Bahrain dissolves into an abstract mass of conurbation, planks of concrete cover the land and shape the earthly palette of memory into vague, very vague soundscapes, confusing memory with the past, and conversation with controversy, the painter Nasser Al Yousif left behind the open text of a contemporary mythology that can be read not as a lamentation but as a museum of the mind in which everything can be touched, everything can be heard, everything can be told. The train of modernity has taken off and his world is to remain unavailable for us but it is up to the viewer to decide how far he wants to travel. As Hungarian philosopher Agnes Heller remarked, ‘Where are we then at home? Each of us in the world of our self-appointed and shared destiny.’
By Arie Amaya-Akkermans