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Reviews / May 21, 2009

Jamelie Hassan: At the Far Edge of Words

Jamelie Hassan Wall with Door 1977 Courtesy of the artist / photo John Tamblyn

“Jamelie Hassan: At the Far Edge of Words” is an elegant exhibition that traces this London, Ontario, artist’s output from 1977 to 2009. Without a doubt, Hassan is the most important female artist to emerge from this city, and as for other contemporaries from this place, there is little difference between art, life and politics. This survey exhibition is not only an important art history “event” but documents the history of the Lebanese diaspora within this stately and conservative “forest city.” Organized in close collaboration with curator Melanie Townsend, it reveals the artist’s most significant and representative works of the past 32 years while inviting us to think, reflect and debate. (Scott Watson will also curate a version of this exhibition for the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery in September 2010.)

Hassan’s mind has always been a nomadic one, creating stories that are inextricably tied to the specific dramas of home life, to her strong affinity with the Middle East and to the myriad countries to which she has travelled. Her inspiration is drawn from anything that may spark her persistent and inquisitive mind—a book, a park bench, an image, a gesture, an emotion—and yet she distills these artworks into something uniquely her own to communicate a metaphorical sense of displacement and the inequalities of power.

From this exhibition, it is clear that Hassan has tirelessly investigated the ways in which art can interact with broader social and political contexts, addressing issues of topical relevance, and largely focusing on events of social marginalization, political oppression and civil rights. She gets directly involved, giving voice and face to victims and witnesses. Her medium is whatever material or means is best to record her chosen subject. Here she makes use of installation art, ceramics, video, bookworks, neon text, photographs and her ever-portable watercolours.

Far from seeming shopworn, old favourites like 1980’s Common Knowledge maintain a freshness and vitality that is quintessentially Hassan. Comprised of 57 ceramic objects placed in a circle on the floor, this installation replicates items from within her domestic environment: curls of birch bark, books, letters, a flower—all personal mementos from her daily life. Hung on the wall near the ceramic objects are watercolours depicting rejection letters from the Department of Immigration, denying her grandmother and uncles entry to Canada. Here, the particularities of the domestic and the personal commingle with the politics of exclusion. Tension between home and away, presence and absence, memory and forgetting is what suffuses Hassan’s works with evocative powers, placing notions of “here” and “there” at the core of the human condition.

The title of the exhibition, “At the Far Edge of Words,” pays homage to Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who died in 2008. His poem begins, “I come from there and I remember” and concludes with “I learned and dismantled all the words to construct a single one: Home.” Hassan’s survey exhibition is, itself, political art expressed poetically. (421 Ridout St N, London ON)