Andrea Isabel Vargas and Patti Levey’s two-woman show, Resurrecting Isis, grabbed my attention based on the title alone. The word as it refers to the ancient Egyptian goddess, a word recently defamed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), no longer yields the top results in a Google search, and articles about the terrorist organization still come up even when the search terms are specific the deity. The careless use of the term obfuscates a keystone figure in Middle Eastern history, a global icon of feminine power, and furthers bad connotations with the region.
Remember that “al-Qaeda,” which translates to “basis,” and “Taliban,” a plural form of “student;” the names of multinational terrorist organizations are also common, everyday words in Arabic. I’ve considered similar semantic issues within the English language, but believe it’s a different story when these terms are politicized as targets and triggers for potential danger; yet another form of control over a culture, language, and history. Perhaps this is a result of an underlying xenophobia, subconscious Islamophobia, and anti-Muslim prejudice? Perhaps it’s mere coincidence. Regardless, we are faced with cultural erasure via ignorance.
That is where Resurrecting Isis lays its concept. The show, comprised of two bodies of work in multiple mediums, generates a conversation between two artists on an issue that is both American and global, female and male, historical and contemporary. Levey explicitly examines the concepts through selections from her series, smartly called Taking Liberty, which features the artist adorned in a burqa-American flag hybrid with various props. Levey cradles weapons, anatomical illustrations and an infant; she also exposes her nude body, not as a means of religious offense, she claims, but “to question the liberties we have as Western women, and to show that beneath the garments we are all human.”
Controversy is not something new to Levey. Observers have met previous exhibitions of Taking Liberty with challenging inquiry, cultural outrage and fear. While some may find the imagery offensively provocative, the work is a sincere, personal investigation. The images are reminiscent of those of Iranian artist Shirin Neshat, though quite different in their interpretation due to the nationality of the artist. Levey calls attention to privilege by acknowledging her own identity, allowing room for introspection for anyone who views it, and encouraging Americans to think of ourselves as global citizens connected and responsible for actions abroad.
Privilege, after all, is the freedom to exist in denial about the world around you and your relation to it. Selections from Taking Liberty take on a new life with interjections from Vargas, whose vibrant, luscious visual works contrast Levey’s black-and-white renderings.
Vargas contributes two-dimensional works that are primarily pastel on paper, as well as a captivating silk installation entitled The 14th Element. Her abstractions exquisitely convey violence and sensuality, and it is easy to get lost in the crimson streaks and soothing teals that suggest human form while obliterating it—a dance of freedom and oppression. The hanging silk tapestries complement the exhibit as a textural extension while representing 13 countries violently impacted by ISIS, creating a tie to the goddess’ mythology of recovering 13 body parts of her dismembered husband, Osiris, in order to resurrect him and conceive a son.
If one were to read the exhibit from left to right, Vargas figuratively reconnects the Isis story at its end, alluding to Osiris as a male form rebirthed and thus reminding us of the male counterpart in this gender-charged show. Vargas’ vision of Isis and her prowess as a political analogy present a confrontational but inclusive statement on liberation, female divinity, and human travesty. “In this way, the propagation of peace is not through violence, but through remembering—and power is most present in the womb itself,” she says.
Translation further muddies these concepts. ISIL, or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, is the term the Obama administration officially uses. “The Levant” is a much more geographically accurate term, although also problematic for some due to its Western colonial connotations. Perhaps most appropriate would be “Daesh,” an acronym for the Arabic equivalent of ISIL, representing “l-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham.”
The terms describing and identifying threats from the Middle East are a complex subject. Since the September 11th attacks, many national news outlets have published articles clarifying the difference between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda groups. Either the two were used interchangeably often enough to merit the articles, or the terms too often generalized any Islamist actions or beliefs that might be anti-Western. One would like to think that the American public has become more educated and sensitive concerning this, but with Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump recently stating that President Obama uses the term ISIL instead of ISIS for no other reason than to “bother people,” I remain skeptical.
Furthermore, “Isis” is the Greek interpretation of the Egyptian goddess’ name with the Egyptian origin most likely being “Aset.”
Find the thought-provoking and visually stimulating showexhibit at Art.i.fact’s small but noteworthy gallery space, Art.i.factory, located within the store. Twenty percent of the closing reception’s proceeds benefit for Creativity For Peace (creativityforpeace.com), an organization that prepares young Israeli and Palestinian women to be peacemakers in their communities and across borders.
Ressurecting Isis Closing Reception
4-7 pm Saturday Nov. 5. Free.
930 Baca St.,