Mixed Media: Photography, Text, Projection, Iron Sculpture
The Earth is an Imperfect Ellipsoid is a land surveillance project that utilizes Al-Bakri’s “Kitab al-Masalik wal-Mamalik” (The Book of Roads and Kingdoms), an eleventh-century Arabic geography text describing major trade routes in West Africa under the Islamic Empire. Today, the original manuscript only exists in fragments. In 2014, Heba Amin embarked on a five-month journey along the same routes, starting the project in Ghana. With a theodolite, she documented the contemporary geographies missing from the manuscript. Using “Kitab al-Masalik wal-Mamalik” as a guide, the project critiques the authored accounts of merchants, traders and travelers who describe geographies through sexually explicit descriptions of the women they encounter. She secretly recorded her interactions with border-patrol officers to relay the sexual dynamics of bureaucracy connected to territory.
“While distance may offer perspective, it may also manifest a species of blindness. To see one aspect of a place or set of relations may well be to miss another, or even to render other features obscure. As every amateur magician can tell you, the key to a successful illusion is misdirection. And illusions can be dangerous, even if they are not intentionally created. It is this dynamic that informs The Earth is an Imperfect Ellipsoid, an exhibition deeply concerned with the mechanics of observation, revelation and concealment.
Bakri’s text is the starting point for a set of observations Amin has produced of physical spaces encountered while traveling along a route described in The Book of Roads and Kingdoms, spaces that are, in many cases, now conflict zones or sites of transmigration. Along the way, she produced a number of atmospheric images using a surveying tool known as a theodolite. The gauzy chiaroscuro of the images evokes the visual aesthetics of the historical colonial past, but the subject matter which she captures, lonely wind turbines stationed in the desert, a nest of satellite dishes perched on squat urban rooftops, are unmistakably contemporary. The world documented in Bakri is recognizable to modern viewers by virtue of many of the same economic and cultural forces that drove the chroniclers on whose accounts of the region Bakri’s book is based.
One of the notable elements of Bakri’s text which Amin’s works bring to the fore is the lurid descriptions of the bodies, and alleged sexual practices, of women along African trading routes. One of the milder excerpts, translated and included in Amin’s exhibition, is a representative sample: Abu Rastam al-Nafisi, who is one of the merchants of Awdaghurst, informed me that he saw one of these women reclining on her side . . . and her child, an infant, played with her, passing under her waist from side to side without her having to draw away from him at all on account of the ampleness of the lower part of her body and the gracefulness of her waist.
In the sense that Amin’s work is, in part, a response to this kind of exoticization and gourmandizing, such a reclamation of the physical and psychological territory of the region is inherently a political as well as an aesthetic act. One could even regard it as a kind of sociocultural audit: using the tools of science to reveal the presence of subjectivity itself.” (excerpt from “Heba Amin in Berlin: Technologies of vision and concealment in the construction of landscape” by William Kherbek)
Artist Talk: Kuenstlerhaus Bethanien, 2017