Tell it to the River by Sama Alshaibi
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Maraya Art Centre in Sharjah presents Tell it to the River, the solo exhibition by Iraqi-born artist Sama Alshaibi. The show is curated by Mo Reda, a Kuwait-born Dutch artist and curator, and Cima Azzam, a Palestinian-Jordanian curator. It will run through 30 June, 2023.

The exhibition brings together Alshaibi’s significant artworks created over the past 20 years. It showcases two new commissions: Prelude to the Round City, which inaugurates the 1st chapter of the artist’s 2021 Guggenheim Fellowship, and Iihyaa (Restoration) closing her multimedia project Silsila (2009-2017).

Prelude to the Round City is an immersive circular installation generated by LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) scans, a remote sensing method used to examine the Earth’s surface. The artwork reflects post-war Baghdad through data collected and composed as a digital territory by Alshaibi. Here, the bustling city environment is situated against the life in the Mesopotamian Marshes of Southern Iraq.

Iihyaa (Revival) marks Alshaibi’s return to Southern Iraq, her homeland, after 40 years of displacement. The Silsila project’s protagonist, who has crossed the deserts and endangered water bodies of North Africa and the Middle East, comes back to the source of creation and civilisation to see that the historic Marshes of Southern Iraq are rapidly dying because of annihilation and climate change. So the protagonist performs a restorative ritual to reverse time and order in the marshlands.

Sama Alshaibi, Iihyaa’ – إحياء (Revival), 2023. Video, 12 min 4 sec.

Silsila (“chain” or “link” in Arabic), which is focused on the Middle East’s water crisis, was initially inspired by the 14th century traveller Ibn Battuta. While working on the project, Alshaibi loosely followed his route through the present-day Middle East and North Africa. After many years of forced displacement (during the Iran-Iraq war in the 80s, her family moved around the Middle East before going to the USA), Alshaibi was interested in a different experience of migration. “There was a time when migration and movement was about curiosity in one another,” she says. “Rather than fleeing one’s homeland and looking for another place to live, and nobody else wanting you”. So Silsila is built on the concepts of migration and territorial boundaries; the central idea is that these man-made symbols are disintegrated by the desert. “[The desert] […] doesn’t adhere to these human […] projects of trying to divide and separate. And water behaves in that same way,” the artist says.

Sama Alshaibi, Al-Ṣaḥrāʾ al-Bayḍāʾ (The White Desert), 2011.

Drawing our attention to the environmental crisis and water scarcity in the Middle East and North Africa, Alshaibi also explores political issues connected to it. She brings politicisation of water against marginalised and minority communities to light: systematic violation of water rights by the occupation in Palestine, for example, and water violence committed against Iraqi Kurdistan by Iran and Turkey.

About the artist

Sama Raena Alshaibi (b.1973, Basra, Iraq) is a conceptual artist who resides in the USA. Her art practice involves video art, performative photography, sculpture, and installation. In 1999, she received a BA in Photography from Columbia College Chicago, Illinois, the USA, and an MFA in Photography, Video, and Media Arts from the University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado, the USA. The artist is a Regents Chair of Photography, Video and Imaging at the University of Arizona, Tucson, the USA.

Sama Alshaibi, Mare Mecca (Sea of Mecca), 2014.

Being deeply impacted by living in a war and later as a refugee, in her art, Alshaibi delves in such themes as conflict, war, exile, migration, power, and the quest for survival. She often features herself as a protagonist within her works as a representation of the country or an issue she is dealing with. However, using her own body as the subject of the images, she does not consider the works to be self portraits.

The artist has had her works displayed in numerous solo and group exhibitions, such as Sama Alshaibi: Generation After Generation, Arlene and Morton Scult Artist Award solo exhibition, Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix, AZ, the USA (2022); Sama Alshaibi: Grainlines, Kittredge Gallery, University of Washington at Puget Sound, WA, the USA (2021); Staging the Imagined, Ayyam Gallery, Dubai, the UAE (2019); Sama Alshaibi: Silsila, Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, NY, the USA (2017); The People of the Sea (The Sea is Mine), Qalandiya International 2016, Haifa, Israel (2016); Arab Territories, as part of “Constantine – Capital of Arab Culture 2015”, Palace of Culture, Algiers, Algeria (2015); Portable Nation, Fondazione Fish – Visual Arts Center Museum of Contemporary Art, Pesaro, Italy (2014); and many others. She has taken part in such biennials as the 55th Venice Biennale (Italy), the 21st International Art Biennial of Santa Cruz de la Sierra (Bolivia, 2020), the 13th Cairo International Biennale (Egypt, 2019), the Honolulu Biennial (Hawaii, 2017), and others.

Sama Alshaibi, Shaṭṭ al-Jarīd (Lake of Jerid), 2011.

Alshaibi has received many fellowships, grants, and awards: Guggenheim Fellowship, John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, NYC, NY, USA (2021); Arlene and Morton Scult Artist Award, Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix, AZ, USA (2021); First Prize, Project Development Grant, The Center at Santa Fe, NM, USA (2019); AFAC Visual Artist Grant, Arab Fund for Arts and Culture, Beirut, Lebanon (2017); Sovereign MENA Art Prize, Sovereign Art Foundation, Nominee (2016); Fulbright Scholars Fellowship (Ramallah, West Bank, Palestine), IIE Council for International Exchange of Scholars, USA (2014-15); and others.

To learn more about Tell it to the River, please visit the show’s official web page.

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