Between Anywhere and Nowhere

Najia Bagi is the Creative Learning Assistant at Modern Art Oxford. Below she discusses her motivations for curating the performance evening Between Anywhere and Nowhere. Taking place on April 18, the evening presents work by three female artists who use performance to explore family, tradition, every day life and their own connections to and distance from the Middle East.

My dad is Arabic; he is from Benghazi in Eastern Libya. He came to Europe as a young art student; he studied in Rome and then travelled to the UK to gain a Master’s Degree in English literature where he met my English mum. Together they had three children, my two sisters and me.

The introduction I have just given to you is one I have rehearsed all my life. It is a justification of why my dad is here and therefore, why I am here. It is a composed presentation of the past because it is a list of his achievements and importantly, his movement towards Westernisation. It is also a story that makes his being Arabic, more real to me.

I realised, as I grew older, that this story of my father’s rightful place in the UK is a reflection of his own fragmented memories of home and his journey of cultural heritage and identity. These stories, or fictions, were passed down to my sisters and me, and passed down again from me to my daughter. The overwhelming feeling created by these stories is one of absence.

According to Frankowski, the white gaze is “momentless”; when it speaks about the experiences of diasporic cultures; it is created from all the moments of contemplation of the other across history. It follows then that those held under the white gaze are “without time”. The spoken and sung stories of my father’s homeland which I experienced as a child had created ‘a past invented for the present’ , relaying a beautiful, nostalgic and absence-filled image of his (and therefore my) cultural identity. It was this re-creation that I have always felt so sorely distanced from, and I decided to address it through my artistic and curatorial practice.

In 2018 I began to work with recordings of my dad speaking in Arabic, improvising to the recordings and making new looped and layered sounds from them. It was a way for me to understand his past and also begin to make it my heritage, through working in the present moment. This present moment, deep listening and embodied practice is something that I have researched through my Masters and which I believe provides a way for children of immigrants or exhilants, to find a connection with our identity. It doesn’t matter that you might not have been to North Africa, or that you don’t know how to wear a hijab, what matters is that you are listening to your body and to the stories of your family.

During my creative project, I recorded my sisters talking about their own experiences of having an Arabic father, and there was an overwhelming feeling of not being valid or not having permission to own their cultural heritage. The story didn’t seem to be theirs to tell; it belonged to the past or to the people in their lives who told them that they didn’t look Arabic, or to the doubts that they had in their own minds about not being able to speak the language or cook the food authentically. This is an excerpt from the recording where my sister Dena is talking about her identity as a non-white British female:

“I feel like… I feel like… I’m not valid enough… I’m not valid to make… I think that’s the thing with me.” (5:48).

This brings me to why I wanted to programme an evening of performance by women with Middle Eastern cultural heritage. During the work I did with my sisters, it struck me that each of our experiences were so different from one another’s, and that what was common was the way we chose to find meaning in our present lives for concepts such as cultural heritage, which by themselves are extremely difficult to connect to.

I became fascinated by other artists who were also exploring their cultural heritage (as all artists are, in a more or less direct way). I was particularly interested in female artists who somehow use their physical presence to perform their perspectives, which links to my thoughts about using the present moment to connect to the past. This fascination eventually led to my programming Between Anywhere and Nowhere at Modern Art Oxford, and creating a space where a small group of women could perform and present their perspectives of the Middle East in the company of one another. The title came from Umama Hamido’s biography, where it states that the artist lives “on the border between many places and nowhere”. This really resonated with the concept that place and time are warped by our lived connections to and distance from cultural identity. I have personally seen the work of all three artists that are performing on 18 April and am hugely moved and excited by each one. We will see cinematic performance by Umama Hamido, live interactive performance by Jumana Hokan and an experimental DJ set by Zahra Tehrani. Each one of these women holds beautiful space for the exploration and sharing of their cultural heritage, and I am so excited to watch all three perform in one evening. The collective presentation of all three performances will, I hope, teach me and the audience something new about how we view and understand one another, and how we can use our bodies to connect with our own lives and past experiences.

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