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Adelita Husni-Bey “Adunanza” at Galleria Civica di Modena

by Ilaria Bombelli

 

Their backs are turned. Three men and three women raise their fists. The gesture is clear—militant, political. We understand the intrinsic symbology, the nature of a certain discourse about what they are doing (solidarity, struggle, rebellion). And yet the pose—and not just the fact that their backs are turned to us, some are kneeling, one has his head bowed—exhausts all the possibilities of making it a dominant and definitive image. It is this photograph (from the Agency series: Activists, 2014) that Adelita Husni-Bey has chosen as the poster for her solo exhibition in the seventeenth century building that houses the Galleria Civica of Modena, the Palazzina dei Giardini, originally a place of amusement for the Estense court. It is a wide-ranging exhibition—films, installations, paintings, photographs, drawings and posters, produced over the last ten years—put together by the Italo-Lebanese artist and the curators Diana Baldon, director of the Fondazione Modena Arti Visive, and Serena Goldoni under the title of Adunanza (Congregation in English, a term that was preferred to Gathering and to the first version, untranslatable into Italian, of Heal Fatigue. Touch Inventory).

Figures with their backs turned have a marginal role in the history of painting: wayfarers, shepherds, servants. Socially inferior, they are placed in out-of-the-way positions, on side panels, depicted on a smaller scale, in subordinate roles. Onlookers or bystanders, they are figures, in the worst of cases, to whom not even the right to a face is recognized, and in the best, who play the part of a comment on the main scene. Rarely do we give them a glance. It could be said that this is the same way in which Adelita Husni-Bey observes life, the kind that we lead under the current capitalist and neoliberal economic system of the West: not in its more conspicuous and successful aspects but in ones that tend to be hidden from view. Her approach is that of the pedagogue. The educational theories of collectivist anarchism and experimental teaching practices are the subjects that have most stirred her curiosity. Radical thinkers like Leo Tolstoy (The School at Yasnaya Polyana), Francesc Ferrer i Guàrdia (The Origin and Ideals of the Modern School), Augusto Boal (The Theatre of the Oppressed), Paulo Freire (Education: The Practice of Freedom) are the ones who have inspired her most.

In her work Husni-Bey slowly gets to the heart of questions about which she feels deeply, such as civil disobedience, physical pain, the right to public space and the freedom of the body, to self-determination, to failure. She puts these messages of hers in a bottle and entrusts them to a group of people (injured athletes, evictees, schoolchildren), who come together for a few weeks in workshops, often held at public venues like schools and museums. There she invites them to unroll the messages before her eyes, to illustrate them, suggest solutions, improvise choreographies. Collective forms of conversation and representation emerge spontaneously. The discussion becomes civil, political. Husni-Bey leaves a lot of room for interpretation, pushing the mise-en-scène beyond the spirit of role play. Her works are like trunks filled with stories, things, memories (the products of these workshops are drawings, photographs and films, which are then cobbled together and reworked in composite installations). The initial premises, rigorously established by the artist, are never lost from sight. It is not clear where the collective ends and the happening begins.

The exhibition at the Palazzina dei Giardini opens with the video installation Postcards from the Desert Island (2011), in which we see a class of children, aged between seven and ten (later we find out that they are from the École Vitruve experimental elementary school in Paris) create a desert island and an ideal community in their classroom, taking William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies as their scenario. Not far off, more students, this time from a high school, who during a workshop at the MAXXI museum in Rome had held a discussion on relationships of power in contemporary Italy, putting themselves in the shoes of figures like politicians, bankers and activists, are the subjects, in highly choreographed poses, of the photographs of Agency (2014). The roots of the sense of social defeat evoked in Agency are explored in the video After the Finish Line (2015), in which injured young athletes are called on to speak of failure, competitiveness and feelings of inadequacy. Visitors are invited to sample the conditions of physical deficit and disability, and do so seated on shower stools designed to meet hygienic and sanitary needs in the installation Shower (2013), while it is physical pain (a pain often de-individualized and the consequence of an act founded on the forced smile: the exhibition is dotted with posters of distorted smiles taken from the covers of manuals “of the perfect something”) that Husni-Bey conjures up in a diagnostic manner in the drawings of human outlines stained with red of Encounters on Pain (2015). Other works, a dozen in all, follow. What they have in common is a playful exposure of the reality of the existential disaster to which a certain set of economic and social ideas has led us and the stubborn desire to seek liberation that stems from a critical, shared and collective position.

This exhibition opens a few days after the closure of another solo exhibition, held in the spaces of the former tobacco factory known as MATA (Manifattura Tabacchi) and also promoted by the Fondazione Modena Arti Visive, by the American photographer Sharon Lockhart (curiously here too an image a woman seen from behind, with her fists clenched around a stick, had been chosen for the poster). On that occasion I confessed my doubts to Lockhart: onto the stage of her art, I told her, and the same can be said here for Husni-Bey, come what we might call “ordinary” people (teenagers, workers, et cetera), placed alongside a representation of themselves as a function, at bottom, of a system alien to them and one of which we need not infrequently to be wary. To what extent they have a real awareness of their location within the picture is a question that I also put to Husni-Bey. She smiled, giving me to understand that this was an argument in her favor: “At the start of every project the use that will be made of it is immediately made clear,” she said. “It’s the less eye-catching but distinctive character of my work. And an agreement is made over the way any proceeds from the sale of the work will be divided up: one third goes to the artist, one third to the gallery, one third is shared among the participants.” As their role is not confined to a participation in the representation, this gives them right not only to a face, but also to a voice.

 

at Galleria Civica di Modena
until 26 August 2018

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