And Yet My Mask Is Powerful
(Printed Matter, 2017)
“First the air is blue and then,” as reports the diver, “it is bluer and then green and then / black I am blacking out and yet / my mask is powerful / it pumps my blood with power.” Having taken a drag of oxygen from this scuba gear, Adrienne Rich’s speaker in her celebrated poem Diving into the Wreck plunges into an unknown world of potential resistance. The diver proceeds down a ladder into the sea without a map or guide, but as Rich writes elsewhere, “The myths and obsessions of gender, the myths and obsessions of race, the violent exercise of power in these relationships could be identified, their territories could be mapped.” Rich’s poem, in turn, provides the thread of text we pick up and follow into Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme’s beautifully designed artist’s book And Yet My Mask Is Powerful that maps and seeks similar territories of power and resistance in Palestine.
The book translates a larger project—including a mixed-media installation and a five-channel video and sound work, as the preface reports, as well as expeditionary trips organized by the artists with young Palestinians to the sites of villages emptied during the 1948 removal of Palestinians from their lands (what they call in Arabic the Nakba, or catastrophe)—into a volume that collages digital images (including screenshots of Rich’s poem in English and Arabic in a word processing application) against a deep blue (nearly purple) background. Similarly to Rich’s diver descending a ladder from the side of a boat into the ocean, Abbas and Abou-Rahme’s book stages a realm that interfaces with the clear air around us, so that we’re not quite sure when we’ve entered this bluer realm but find ourselves undeniably there once the threshold is crossed.
The digital images collaged throughout the pages include screenshots of browser and application windows; midway through the book, the blue background of the pages becomes a blank desktop screen, with the Apple menu bar included at the top. The diverse images captured in the nets of these scans and screenshots include (in a non-exhaustive list) Neolithic antiquities, hand drawn maps, war photographs, illustrated manuscripts in Arabic, a photograph of Syrian refugees in a dinghy on the Aegean beneath a blood-red sun, a photograph of a woman on a beach in a bikini.
The visual logic of And Yet My Mask Is Powerful connects visual forms across time. In another context, and taking cues from Aby Warburg, art historian Griselda Pollock has called something like these formal associations across time and cultures a “feminist virtual museum.” In the new context of this book, the notion of a virtual museum seems also apt.
As part of the constellation of interventions that the book documents, Abbas and Abou-Rahme fabricated 3D-printed replicas of ancient masks found in and around Palestinian villages of the West Bank. Rich’s diver’s mask becomes Neolithic (an object for this virtual museum in its becoming), with crudely shaped oval holes for eyes, a smaller oval slit for mouth, and square teeth carved out of stone. In screenshot images, the mask becomes a skull becomes a fossilized conch becomes the moon (all with the same general shape and sandy color); the eyes and mouth of the mask translate into a black and white image of a crowd wearing balaclavas. One of these latter image files, shown open as a .psd extension against the blue desktop background and another Finder window, is named dome-rock-jersualem_2.
The small, square teeth of the mask become a formal trope in the book, too. In scans of handwritten notebooks, kept in colored markers and felt tip pens presumably during site visits, plots of small colored squares cover entire pages, perhaps as abstract maps of the sites themselves. On another page of these notebooks, orange dots are added to square swatches of green, ordered loosely in rows. These swatches are not just studies in color and shape. During the expeditions to destroyed Palestinian villages, excerpts from the scanned notebooks tell us, lines of cacti often marked the borders of the villages, otherwise obscured by the growth of new vegetation.
These returning explorers learn to read the landscape with its squat square swatches of cacti topped by orange blooms. In fact, the materiality of reading suffuses the entire project: how we read images across time; how we read history and the lines of force that give political regimes of thinking power; how we read (or translate) the chaos of nature and events into landscape and history—and then, how we read our ways back out of them again.
Some of the images in And Yet My Mask Is Powerful include scans of a catalogue published to accompany an Israeli exhibition of the Neolithic masks. It is from photographs taken at this exhibition that Abbas and Abou-Rahme glean the specs for printing their own 3D versions, and they have also hijacked the catalogue. The pages as scanned show the evidence of what literature professors call close reading—pages marked up with underlining, symbols, and notations; a material practice in reading—while also serving, like the scanned notebooks, as visual objects, as maps in their own way. (The voice of Rich’s diver returns: “The words are purposes. / The words are maps.”)
From the euphemisms and revisionist language of the catalogue essay, Abbas and Abou-Rahme excavate the plundering and selling of these and other artifacts and lands. The artists attend to a “return to the idea of LIVING TIME,” as they scribble in one notebook, as opposed to the time of colonialism. Like Rich’s diver, they have come with their “half-destroyed instruments” to find “the wreck and not the story of the wreck / the thing itself and not the myth.”
PHILLIP GRIFFITH is a writer, editor, and scholar living in New York City.