Installation view of Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme: May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth. There are two large projections. The one on the left has an image of a person with big curly hair and a yellow t-shirt, they are in a forest-like setting. The text on top of the image says "WE ARE IN THE NEGATIVE" in English, beside that is Arabic text that presumably says the same. The projection on the right is a blown-out image of a group of people, their silhouettes are a bright white. The text on the image says "WE ARE IN THE NEGATIVE" in English, beside that is Arabic text that presumably says the same.

Observed Online Reviews

Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme Counter the Colonial Logic of Disappearance

For nearly a decade, the Palestinian artists have been centering glimpses of life amid the violence of occupation.

by Nasrin Himada

Installation view of Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme: May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth, The Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis Studio at The Museum of Modern Art, 2022. Photo by Jonathan Muzikar, courtesy The Museum of Modern Art, 2022.


Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme’s May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth, opened at The Museum of Modern Art in April, prompting my first trip outside Canada in two years. For nearly a decade, the Palestinian artists have been collecting footage posted online from Iraq, Palestine, Syria, and Yemen, creating an index of moments, scenes, and images that speak to the effects of displacement, dispossession, and the unspeakable violence of occupation and colonization.


The exhibition bears the name of a larger, ongoing project co-commissioned by MoMA and Dia Art Foundation, which also exists as an online platform where many videos can be accessed through a digital index. In both the physical exhibition and online index, we see incidents of Israeli soldiers attacking a crowd of protestors, or bulldozers destroying homes. But this collection also includes glimpses of life that manifest in dance and song, in breath and rhythm, in walks and drives, offering perspectives from an angle that only a flower might possess. 

Abbas and Abou-Rahme have been collaborators for years, working across sound, installation, mixed media, and sculpture. Their compositions stem from a poetic eruption, a kind of shuddering of the land. Only sounds that tremble through us, the exhibition’s main installation, is a multichannel sound and video work that spans across the four walls of the museum’s Kravis Studio. Panels of poured concrete and scaffolds resemble the construction of the Israeli apartheid wall and act as projection screens on which the images hover. Multi-layered, adjacent walls and components create a feeling of choreography, pulling the viewer’s eyes across the space. The superimposition of images, sound, poetic texts (in both Arabic and English) are a signature of Abbas and Abou-Rahme’s collaborative practice. Found footage of dancers are mixed in with videos of new performances developed in collaboration with choreographer and dancer Rima Baransi, and electronic musicians Makimakkuk, Haykal, and Julmud. These scenes offer a poignant focus on music and dance as breath, anchoring them to the backdrop of our lands. They affirm life amid the constant violence of occupation, which we witness through glimpses of the destruction of homes by Israeli bulldozers.


Installation view of Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme: May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth. There are three projections on the 3 different sides of the room. The one on the left shows an image of a person's profile silhouetted in front of a sunset. The projection in the middle is an image of a person looking directly at the camera, it is colorized into red pinkish hues. The image on the right is of a woman's face, her head is resting against a wall. It is colorized into red pinkish hues. On all three images is text that says "INSIDE US" in English, underneath is Arabic text that presumably says the same.
Installation view of Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme: May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth, The Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis Studio at The Museum of Modern Art, 2022. Photo by Jonathan Muzikar, courtesy The Museum of Modern Art, 2022.

The circuity of breath, the movement of bodies through dance, and the amplified beats translate into a tremble that feels as if the land is calling. At other moments, through the movements of elderly women singing, the clapping in unison, the heavy breathing of the young in the ecstasy of a beat, it feels as if we are calling for the land. Life lived through these modes of liberation—beat, rhythm, and movement—counters the colonial logic of disappearance. Almost midway through the 30-minute loop, an unforgettable text appears on screen:  “The land haunts us, and we haunt them, the shadow, the echo, the ghosts of what remains.” 

Abbas and Abou-Rahme’s image-making becomes a form of  writing, an intertextual mode of creation. “We are in search of a new language,” a line pops up on screen, its sentiment resonating throughout this experience. I wonder if we have come close to feeling our way there, if we have come close to sounding it out. In a way, these texts function as ghostly witnesses. They take on a haunting presence across the multi-channel screens. Although we don’t hear one, it’s almost as if a voice is present, its haunting manifested by the words that appear and disappear on screen.


A blue and purple colorized multi-exposure photo of two people in movement. It is placed onto of an image of snow-covered mountains.
Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, Still from May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth, 2020-ongoing. Courtesy of Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme.

It is hard to find words to describe the embodied feeling that I experience when encountering Abbas and Abou-Rahme’s work. The effect often demands the creation of new language, and in some ways also exists beyond it. In past reflections on Abbas and Abou-Rahme’s practice, I have pushed myself to write differently, to consider the fictive powers of memory. I have written alongside their work and not about it. Such encounters have compelled me toward experimenting with new forms of writing that address the epistolary form. But here, standing amid the life-size, multi-channel installation, I was completely stunned in a way I haven’t been for a while, and this feeling is taking its time to find its way toward language.

When I write in relation, composing love letters to Abbas and Abou-Rahme’s videos or installations, my focus is often on the intimacy that transpires between the experience and what it evokes from beyond it. The activation of the senses becomes a way to write memory into the world of dreams and stories, inspiring other imaginings of Palestine that exist in an unforgotten past and into a futurity without occupation. I can’t help but be more clear and forward about the fact this work really does something for us—those who come from a lineage of dispossession. The artists have conditioned a space1 , an experience, in which we can continue to imagine the liberation of our land collectively and intimately, beyond the bounds of colonial confinement. Here sound is intricately connected to image-making, and it is Abbas and Abou-Rahme’s unique tremble that erupts from the core of an insatiable vitality, even as we mourn each day. And in this instance I am overtaken by this familiar but overpowering effect. I am not ready to write this letter yet. 



Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme’s May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth continues in person through June 26 at The Museum of Modern Art, and online via Dia. The exhibition at MoMA was curated by Martha Joseph, with performances produced by Lizzie Gorfaine and Ginny Benson, with Olivia Rousey. 


Footnotes:

1. Editor’s note: Such transformative capabilities by the artists are particularly notable, given the fact that in May 2021, a group of over 250 artists, scholars, and critics released a Call to Action and a signed letter identifying members of the board of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) as being directly involved with “artwashing not only the occupation of Palestine but also broader processes of dispossession and war around the world.” You can read more about the board members and the action, as well as the full text and signatories of the letter here.

 

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