Where Souls Dwell

Laila Shawa: Where souls dwell 4

I’ve had a message from Laila Shawa, whose work I noted earlier, enclosing one of her latest projects (and generously allowing me to show her work here).  Where Souls Dwell (above) is from her Gun series and speaks directly to one of my very first posts (on the arms trade); it shows the AK-47, and Leila explains it like this:

Next to Drones, this gun is the biggest killing machine in the World. Due to its cheap production by everyone, it is in the hands of everyone, including children!! The Butterflies (in World mythology) represent the souls killed by this gun, and their return to the place (or cause) of their death.

I provided a brief bibliography of work on the AK-47 and the trade in ‘small arms’ in my original post, but I wasn’t aware of the way in which artists had engaged with this deadly weapon.  Last September Laila’s work was featured as part of the AKA Peace Exhibition at the Institute for Contemporary Art in London.

The exhibition was conceived by an ex-soldier who challenged 23 contemporary artists to incorporate decommissioned AK-47 assault rifles into their work. You can see some of the results, including those by Antony Gormley and Damien Hirst, here, here and here.  Laila adds:

“The challenge of altering and removing the raison d’êtres of an AK-47 is irresistible. I turned my guns into jewelled objects that can only be useless!!! In no way was I trying to glorify lethal weapons that are responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands of people.

I feel that artists must speak out against the arms race, wars, and the Arms Industry,which drives countries to create unnecessary wars.

According to mythology, the souls of people killed return as butterflies to the place where they were killed. The butterflies in this work represent those souls. 

My first AK-47, was commissioned by Peace One Day, a peace organization under the patronage of the United Nations, and was exhibited at the ICA London in October 2012 under the title ‘AKA Peace.’ Later it was sold in a public auction to raise money forPeace One Day. 20 British artists participated in this show amongst which were Damien Hirst, Anthony Gormley, Gavin Turk and the Chapman Brothers. The AK-47 (Kalashnikov) is the most produced gun in the world, in various versions. There are over 200 million AK-47s in circulation, quite often, and most irresponsibly, in the hands of children.”

There are many implications arising from all this – the most direct, of course, about these killing machines.  But these interventions also underscore the need for those of us working in the humanities and social sciences to engage with the work of creative artists, not only as critics and commentators but also as interlocutors interested in exploring other media in which to develop our arguments.


shawa-cast-lead‘In 1990,’ Palestinian pop-artist Laila Shawa recalls, ‘I had breast cancer.’

While undergoing radiotherapy, I watched on television the precision bombing of Baghdad by US airplanes, forever linking the two events in my mind and in my art. The body woman and the body land amalgamate; the invasion of one is equated with the invasion of the other and the implicit fact that both leave scars.”

Jo Long made a parallel, beautifully nuanced argument in her ‘Border Anxiety’ essay in Antipode in 2006, but you can literally see what Laila Shaw means in the extraordinary Cast Lead (2011; above left).

Laila is probably still best known for her silkscreen cycle Walls of Gaza (1992-95)a different take on graffiti to most geographers’, since she insists that the situation was unique:

I believe the Gaza Graffiti differs completely from urban graffiti that one sees in big cities around the world. In Gaza, graffiti on the wall was the only method available to Palestinians to communicate with each other. The Israeli occupiers banned any form of media in Gaza, such as newspapers, radio, or television. The writing is cursive, spontaneous and hurried. It changed almost daily to update whatever was happening in Gaza.

In the Walls cycle she juxtaposed images of Palestinian children and graffiti from Gaza to expose the trauma of war and occupation, a theme to which she returned in Target (2009), a variation on an iconic panel from Walls, in which a photograph of a young child is superimposed against a graffiti-covered wall with a cross-hair centred on his face.  ‘War deprives children of their childhood,’ she says.

Much of her work depends on mixed media juxtapositions like this, which she mobilizes to brilliant effect. She explains:

‘Today, when we are desensitized by the surfeit of media violence, new strategies are needed to overcome people’s apathy and weariness for compassion.’

Last year she had an exhibition at London’s October Gallery, The Other Side of Paradise, which was in part provoked by a documentary on a female suicide bomber but which also included the extraordinary images shown below, Birds of Paradise and Gaza Sky, which speak directly to my previous post about other ways of visualizing drones.

SHAWA Birds of Paradise

SHAWA Gaza Sky

Laila was born in Gaza, but Gaza Sky strikes me as problematic; Israel doesn’t use Predators, so far as I know, but manufactures its own Heron drones and leases/sells them to other states.  Still, the image captures occupied Palestine since – for me – the reference isn’t only to Roy Lichtenstein‘s Whaam but also to Mahmoud Darwish‘s moving poem The earth is closing on us (which Edward Said used for his collaboration with Jean Mohr, After the last sky):

Where should we go after the last border? Where should the birds fly after the last sky?

I’m left wondering about how to draw together my first and last paragraphs – how to bring these ‘birds’ and the bodies on which they feed into the same frame.  This isn’t a compositional problem for my writing; it’s a political-aesthetic one.  So I start to think about Laila’s Target again.  For The social life of bombs, I plan to end the performance-work with a back-projected image of three children asleep under a checkered counterpane; all you you can hear is the rhythmic sound of their breathing.  As the camera moves in, it becomes clear that each checkered square is in motion; the sound gets louder.  Closer still, and each square becomes a video feed from a drone. Closer still, and one square fills the whole screen: the compound in which the children are sleeping, seen from high above (and far away).  By now the sound of breathing is incredibly loud; suddenly, an even louder explosion.  When the smoke clears, the sound dies away, and the lights slowly come up, we see three small figures, clutching the remains of their bedding – a re-staging and reworking of Noor Behram‘s to me iconic photograph of the three Bismullah children, the sole survivors of a drone strike in Waziristan.  But it could, of course, be Gaza.  Or Yemen.  Or Somalia…