All music is political. Music in the Arab world even more so, due to its sinful status in certain regimes in Islam. In spite of that the Middle Eastern culture is very musical, as is demonstrated through ‘From Ear to Ear to Eye: Sounds and Stories From Across the Arab World’ at Nottingham Contemporary. It explores sound, music and listening in the Arab world, revealing different layers of meaning, intertwined histories, complicated political situations and complex questions. This expansive exhibition spreads across six rooms and showcases works by almost 20 artists who work with sound, are musicians or explore oral stories.
The exhibition opens with an immersive installation ‘Earshot’ by Lawrence Abu Hamdan. Abu Hamdan’s work is about sound which can be measured, analysed and used practically as evidence in a court case. Abu Hamdan’s work uses audio-ballistic analysis of recorded gunshots to determine whether Israeli soldiers, who shot and killed two Palestinian teenagers, had used rubber bullets, as they claimed, or broke the law by firing live ammunition. An acoustic analysis established that they had fired live shots and its visualisations became the crucial piece of evidence against the soldiers. Expanding on this original body of evidence, Abu Hamdan has created an installation encompassing sound, photographic prints and a video to reflect more broadly on the aesthetics of evidence and the politics of sound and silence.
On the contrary, the works in the middle galleries connected to oral histories, are unscientific and unmeasured. Cultural material can be successfully preserved and transmitted orally from one generation to another through speech, language and song, surviving conflict much better than the written word. Etel Adnan, an artist whose accordion-folded painted books are displayed in the middle gallery, talks about this phenomenon in the film ‘ISMYRNE’ by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige screened next door:
‘The only thing that remain is oral transmission. If you suppress it there is nothing else (...) Since there are no letters, no archives, no photos (...) recounting for us meant surviving. This is also how myth is created. Dream like world of imagination, stories and impressions, fiction.’
A picture of the past will never be objective because it is distorted under the influence of time, different ideologies and individual visions of history. History is written from traces of events by people who cannot forget their prejudices and political loyalties. Human memory is influenced by personal beliefs – imperfect and hazy. In the out of focus, dream-like photographs of the Lebanese coastline, Ziad Antar describes Beirut as a city that ‘keeps escaping the memory, that lacks the tangible, the concrete ...’ We create our own fictional vision of a place because we filter it through our subjectivity.
Another attempt to capture history is present in work by Polish artist Ania Dabrowska, who uses a large photography and film archive by Lebanese journalist Diab Alkarssifi, as a starting point for her installation dedicated to the legacy of this man. Alkarssifi’s archive contains material related to himself but also to other anonymous people. Dabrowska uses this material to present and celebrate long forgotten photographs and stories of ordinary people living in Lebanon over the last 100 years. Archives shape our perception of the past and the construction of historical meaning. The archive manages what is said or unsaid, recorded or unrecorded and relys on traces and records of events, forming a crucial part in the creation of history. Dabrowska’s ‘Lebanese Archive’ is an attempt to create yet another, semi-fictitious, history based on human memory that offers an alternative to the mainstream version of history.
The last section of galleries focuses more directly on music and songs as well as their cultural impact on societies. ‘A Magical Substance Flows Into Me’ is an over an hour long, poetic film in which Jumana Manna interviews representatives of different communities all over Palestine and Israel, asking them to play music and tell stories. The film reveals that segregated communities share similar cultural histories and suggests that perhaps this shared heritage might be the antidote to violence. Music can unite enemies but might also unite people against their enemies, make groups stronger, raging against the status quo. Iraqi artist Hiwa K used this aspect of music in his performance intervention ‘This Lemon Tastes of Apple’ executed in the Kurdish capital during one of the last days of a civil protest in 2011. Hiwa K joined the protest, playing a tune on harmonica by Ennio Morricone from the movie ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’. This powerful and well recognised motif was a signal of protest, transmitting the feeling of sorrow and tragedy but also of hope and strength, giving the crowd the energy to persevere.
‘From Ear to Ear to Eye’ showcases some of the most interesting works by contemporary Middle Eastern artists, coming mostly from countries troubled by conflict. It gathers a variety of works exploring sound, music and listening, revealing that they are deeply politicised subjects related to the history of the troubled region. The exhibition examines and reminds us the power of sound and spoken word, which have so many times helped people get through difficult times. When the Titanic hit an iceberg and began to sink, members of the Titanic Orchestra continued to play until the very end, giving passengers hope, as recalled by many survivors. Where there is music there is also hope and I, for one, am hoping for a better future for the Middle Eastern region.