Mai Ghoussoub
19 February 2007


Above and below: two sculptures by Mai Ghoussoub from the Penelopeia Project


Below, two short essays by Mai describing the ideas and inspirations before and after her Penelopeia work

Penelopeia: mission statement

After looking at Tania's work and thinking about it, I feel that I'd like to face the challenge and try to work together with her. Painting and wires and passports and cutting through borders (made of wires?). Penelope has been ignored by feminism because she seemed to be just waiting for her man. Being faithful sounded like weakness. But Penelope is strong and she may have had much more meaning than the faithful wife weaving her life away in waiting.

Her secret is that of women who, through history, had to be manipulative (smart) in order to make their point or follow their desires and become empowered. I would love to discover with a partner what she was really cooking (as in cuisine and as in getting at), how she tried to cross borders and walls through her imagination and as an artist. A real artist who is not concerned with the permanence of her creative work but by its making.

From the shores of the Mediterranean, I prefer to remember the warmth and the dance. From Beirut I do not want to speak of missed opportunities, but of a city that was opened to travellers, a tolerant harbour. In this sense, I would like my sculptures and my installations to speak for the 'New Europeans' who have not left the Mediterranean spirit behind.

This is where I meet Penelopeia. She has wrongly been reduced to the faithful wife who kept weaving away her life in waiting. I see her as a strong Mediterranean-European woman, a subtle manipulator who knows how to attain her object of desire. For me she is a real artist, crossing borders through her imagination; a genuine artist concerned with the process of creating a work of art and not by its eternalness.

Scheherazade_200.jpgKing Shahryar, princess Scheherazade, and her sister, Dinarazade

Penelope and Scheherazade, from grinzane.it

I have a confession to make. You see, until recently, I was becoming allergic to the mentioning of the name Scheherazade! I was fed-up with her becoming an unavoidable metaphor to the plight of women writers. For years, I could never attend a meeting, a reading or a discussion on the subject of women and writing, without hearing the phrase: Like Scheherazade, I write in order to survive. I often felt like screaming against this statement and maybe against the dramatisation of the act of writing.

As an Arab woman, I am often always asked: ‘why do you write'? But I am rarely asked the question: ‘why do you sculpt'?

I have another confession to make. Lately, I found myself, despite my previous revolt, quoting Scheherazade, right left and centre!

It happened two years ago. I was approached by a curator who was organising a European art exhibition on the theme of Penelope. Penelope, the embroider, the queen who worked with her hands doing and undoing her art work in order to avoid marrying another man than her absentee husband Ulysses.

Working on the theme of Penelope, I thought not only about the woman who, despite the fact that she was a queen, had no choice but to marry in order to gain legitimacy. Remember how they taught us and still teach in schools that the Odyssey praises the virtue of the woman who was faithful like a rock to her gallivanting husband?

But, that Penelope was a marvellous cheater. She did not cheat with a mere mortal, she cheated with time. She bent the course of time and its concept in order to survive.

Penelope fixes her schedule through her art work: she embroiders during the day and at night, undoes the stitches; she stretches the days as she pleases. She is like an artist who delivers her finished work on time, but the time is of her own making as well.

There was no way out of it, I could not avoid the truth, it was too obvious: Penelope and Scheherazade are two artists who, like all women, like all of us, need to cheat in order to live, who prefer to manipulate rather than break eggs or necks.

Yes. My admission is about my reconciliation with Scheherazade. One could say that it is Penelope who reconciled me with Scheherazade. Beware those who are going to bring the east/west equation into this. It would be too easy and such an aging cliché.

No, my renewed love for Scheherazade came because of the harmony I was seeking, longing for, between the facts of being an artist, a craftswoman and a woman who works with words.

The need for such harmony no doubt finds its source in my being born in Beirut, a city that speaks and reads from right to left as well as from left to right, and from top to bottom thanks to its multitude of advertising signs. As a woman coming of age in Beirut, I had, like many of my girlfriends, to juggle in order to fit and function between our individuality and our Mediterranean reality; between our fun, our emerging feminism and the omnipresent awareness of our family's honour.

I sometimes think, that the only reason I held a pen, the only reason why I bend iron for my sculptures, the only reason why I work as publisher is because of my city and its contradictions.

Beirut was almost born post-modern. It lived and still lives in juxtaposed realities and times. This small city witnesses the flourishing of veiling next to an increasingly daring erotic show-biz. It moves forward and backward incessantly. How can I not think of Penelope? How can I not try to perfect the art of combining truth and lies, a combination that is the essence of writing? Like all Arab cities, Beirut glorifies and adulates the word. Words? Those of God and those revolting against the gods.

Like all cosmopolitan cities, Beirut hosted and still hosts travelling talents; as a publisher, I tried to be faithful to the tradition of my city, I tried my best to host the many talents that came across my way. As a publisher of words, my path went in the opposite direction from that of my artistic practice.

Let me try to explain, because maybe this is how Penelope and Scheherazade finally met to my great happiness. They met as literature and art. I became a publisher during the Lebanese war when I had to emigrate. With two friends I opened an Arabic bookshop in London. We thought that this project was temporary - something to do until our return home. But the war dragged on and we had unintentionally built an institution: Saqi Books.

For four years we exhibited books and sold them, until the itch of giving birth to our own children imposed itself. We started publishing books on the Arab world, in English. We wanted to explain our reality, to communicate our needs and dreams, our good and bad things. Later on and today Saqi books moved into publishing, both in English and in Arabic, in the mainstream. That is, books that need not be necessarily concerned with the Middle East and the Arab world. From Arab, Lebanese or Middle Easter, our books, the words we printed moved into different corners of the world.

My experience as a sculpture and an installation artist was opposite in its geographic concerns. My first sculptures were African inspired; I sculpted the world of jazz and androgynous universal figures. It is lately, only lately, that my installation moved back to the Middle East or to my city Beirut.

In between, in the middle of the path, I made an installation with an Indian friend exploring the theme of shifting identities: Dressing-Readressing was an installation in which we dressed classical European conservation buildings and book covers with Tarboushes or Fez and veiled their sculptured figures. In the other direction, we dressed a traditional Arab building and old Arabic books with ties and in western fashion. The exercise was very revealing.

Our quest was to search for meanings for what is labelled in Britain as ‘New Europeans', meanings that are far from being simplistic or reductionist.

When we exhibited some classical European novels, with their covers dressed in an oriental style, the passers by and the visitors were intrigued and puzzled, some went for irony and humour. But when we westernized the dress language of Arab or Indian or "oriental" figures, we could not provoke any surprise. It was not enough to stick a tie to an ‘oriental' or to dress a peasant woman with an evening décolleté dress to create a dichotomy.

Our world is very westernized (we would stay globalized in a western way today) King Farouk of Egypt is pretty normal with his striped suit and his austere tie under his tarboushed head. A peasant woman preparing her bread on the tannour can be wearing jeans or a tight dress without causing any disturbance to our visual memory. The multi-coloured, multilayered skirt of a refugee could very easily be seen on cat-walk showing the collection of Alexander McQueen or Yves St. Laurent.

What Shaheen (my colleague) and I found ourselves doing to provoke shifting identities was to send our figures to work or place them within an activity. The same King Farouk turned into a health-freak is not harmonious, but what about the laptop of Ahmad Arabi, the Egyptian nationalist? Even in our attitudes we are more or less westernized.

As a woman, I went through another discovery while working on this Dressing-Readdressing installation. I had made hundreds of cut-outs of photographs of women from fashion or women's magazines. During this process I realised that the image presented to us of women knows no variety.

All the models have been made thinner thanks to the wonders of Photoshop in exactly the same spots: round the waste, the hips and the thighs. My scissors went almost automatically through the same shapes. The model's coiffure is always reworked with the same air-brush pattern turning the hair into a rigid and perfect block. The similarity drove me mad. What a lack of imagination. What a boring repetitive image. I guess this is where the difference between art and images for rapid and easy consumption lies. I could not avoid the comparison.

If the black veil or burqa are supposed to erase the individualization of women, these sexy and supposedly liberated images of women are nothing but standardization. They do de-individualize women. These famished and cloned bodies seemed like a new kind of veil to me.

Penelope's story was written from left to right and Scheherazade's from right to left. Is it because Arabic culture is so enamoured with the word that I had to identify with Penelope in order to reconcile with Scheherazade?

Is it because I discovered, through practice, that veiled or unveiled, we, as women have still to struggle, be it in the east or the west, to live our individuality? Maybe it is because of this that I can now identify with both these women artists, these two lovely manipulators, these two inventors of time: Scheherazade and Penelope.

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