Goodman Gallery is pleased to present Letters from the Greater Maghreb, Dor Guez’ first solo exhibition on the African continent.
Dor Guez, an artist and scholar, was born in Jerusalem to a Palestinian family from Lydda on his mother's side and North African Jewish immigrants on his father's side. As a member of a multi-ethnic family, some of his work's raw materials originate in this complex and multicultural family history. However, the personal is always a departure point for a broader universal context and an in-depth exploration of the interrelations between identity, language, trauma, and memory.
In Letters from the Greater Maghreb, Guez presents the three-channel video installation Colony, and his latest body of work Letters from the Greater Maghreb that is currently on display at the Jewish Museum in New York. In these two bodies of work, there is a strong connection between land, language and body. These are all memory receptacles, as well as being the thread connecting the two installations, which address displacement, colonialism, language, and plague.
The title of the work, Colony can be interpreted in two ways: on the one hand, as describing a form of settlement through forceful and violent human behaviour, and on the other hand, as an image from the animal realm. The video work begins and ends with enlarged images of duplicate abstract spots. These images are based on scans of the original stereoscopic negatives, which, prior to being archived in Washington, were damaged by flooding and their emulsion peeled off. By using the duplication created by water damage to the original glass plates of the photographs, Guez visually represents a political act of blurring identities. In the colonialist view, the locals were duplicated and the perception of them changed from individuals to an anonymous body with no single identity.
The tension in the video is created by the fact that there is no correlation between the visual representation of the locust plague and the aural one, which is perceived as a monologue on colonialism, thus sneaking a subversive, undermining element into the text. The philosophy of deconstruction deals with dismantling the permanent meaning of the text. Its argument about the inability of language to serve as an accurate instrument for representing reality is similar to Guez's assertion regarding the same inability of photography to represent reality objectively. The colonialist gaze versus the indigenous voice is the dialectical force that simmers beneath the surface in "Colony." By presenting it, Guez undermines the impartiality of the archive and exposes it as a tool for blurring certain historical narratives. According to Guez, his visual presentation of history allows for a new and different reading of it. In his hands, the original archive materials, the photographs, become a video and sound installation. In doing so, the archive reveals and positions itself differently in space, a move that summons the viewers a physical experience that is created when the video screens envelop them and the melody of the Arabic language plays in their ears.
The video installation Colony concerns the locust plagues that had originated in Africa and arrived in Palestine in 1915 and 1930. The plagues were documented by Lewis Larsson, a photographer of the American colony in Jerusalem. (The photographs are currently in the archives of the American Colony in Jerusalem and the negatives are at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C.) Similar to photographs of other foreign photographers who were active in the Holy Land, looking at Larsson's photographs reveals that they rarely had anything to do with the materiality of the place or the harsh geographical and climatic conditions characterizing it. Most of them were photographed from a distinctly Western perspective, designed to justify the spread of colonialism in Africa and Asia.
The video work is accompanied by narration in Arabic, written by the artist and based on testimonies in Arabic and Hebrew of locals who had experienced the plagues. While the photographs that the video is based on are a representation of a Western gaze on the Orient, the choice to narrate in the indigenous Arabic language, rather than the colonialist’s English, gives voice to the locals and recognizes that a native language embodies the idea of home and the connection to the land.
In Letters from the Greater Maghreb, Guez acts as an archaeologist who discovers relics and takes on the task of preserving and displaying them. His father's family, who worked in theatre in Tunisia and experienced the Nazi occupation of that country, immigrated to Israel in 1951. Guez sheds light on forgotten chapters in the history of Tunisian Jewish people by using pages from his grandfather's notebook, which have survived the journey. The notebook was written in Maalek, a language used by Jewish people in the Arab world and is not in use anymore. The blurring is also central to this installation, but here it is visual. Like in the locust plague negatives destroyed by flooding, here, too, Guez focuses on the damage inflicted by water that had penetrated the belly of the boat, where the notebook had been kept. The water caused the ink to spread throughout the pages, dissolving and blending the Arabic and Hebrew lettering. Just like the locust, which is visually present in the video but not explicitly mentioned in the narration, the Maalek script is present in the enlarged scans, but in a way that does not allow a clear reading of the text. In a reversal of the process of developing a photograph in a dark room, where stains appear first and then the image is revealed, in the notebook pages, the textual image has dissolved into a stain. The Maalek script that had embodied a glorious cultural tradition dissipated, and Guez, attempting to perpetuate it visually, had doubled up the faded images.
The disappearance of the Judeo-Arabic script from the pages symbolizes a broader phenomenon prevalent in Israel - the cultural exclusion of the Maghreb Jewish people - suggesting that the disappearance of the Judeo-Arabic did not occur in a vacuum and that there was a reason why North African Jews who had immigrated to Israel “adopted” a new Hebrew culture that rejected any affinity to the Arab one.
A prolific multidisciplinary artist, Guez, who is first generation of immigrants from Africa, illuminates a significant part of his biography and oeuvre in this exhibition.
Exhibition curation and text by Tamar Dresdner