Introduction to Velvet Society by Prof. Janis Jeffries

Introduction

Prof. Janis Jefferies

 

Velvet Society: Power and Glamour in 90s Damascus

Raghad Mardini and Heba Al-Akkad in dialogue

The Litehouse Gallery is a unique space for showing work by Syrian artists, many of whom escaped war. The gallery’s founding director Raghad Mardini was born in Damascus but escaped to Lebanon. She created a series of artist residencies in the stables she had restored at Aley (ARA) outside of Beirut in Lebanon, itself a city and country that has only recently recovered from a violent past and civil war.  ARA offered respite to young Syrian artists post 2011. Mardini’s vision on arriving in London was to release the creative energy of artists, homeless and displaced, like millions of others and who had suffered and continue to suffer the horrors of war (figs.1 and 2).

Founded in 2017, the Litehouse gallery represents and promotes the work of emerging Syrian contemporary artists, and as Mardini explains, “A main objective of Litehouse Gallery is to build bridges between the UK and the Middle East and to create awareness and spread ideas about all topics related to being displaced, living in exile, identity, belonging and security”[1].

The current exhibition, Velvet Society: Power and Glamour in 90s Damascus, brings together two women, the curator Raghad Mardini and

[1] https://litehousegallery.co.uk/interview-with-raghad-mardini-at-home-through-the-artists-eyes/ accessed 15/03/2022

(figs. 1 and 2: Aley (ARA), the stables restored by Raghad Mardini to house artists fleeing from upheaval in Syria and the Middle East)

 

the artist Heba Al-Akkad, who have distinctive collections to show and histories and stories to tell us about their lives in a Syria of the recent past. The reference to ‘velvet society’ is important. It is a figure of speech which is used across the Middle East for nouveaux-riches business men, diplomats and political powerbrokers who had a glamorous and expensive lifestyle.

 

As  Raghad Mardini recalls,

 

The power system in Syria gave rise to the “velvet society” where rich businessmen and men of power socialise alongside diplomats and expats. Women’s position in that social structure is considered merely as objects to enhance male political and economic status.

 

Where does our story begin?

Raghad Mardini and Heba Al-Akkad met in Beirut through Mardini’s artist residency project for fleeing artists in need. Both women were in exile from the regime and upheaval in Syria and became friends. Although from very different classes in Syria, the women connected through their desire to redefine a woman’s place and position in society, exploring self and social images through their respective personal narratives. They have found their own voice from their experiences of being women who ‘rebelled’ under Syrian’s system of power and privilege. Their love of art, their commitment to creativity and individual expression, supported their desire to become self-confident women full of pride, dignity and independence as they now hold their futures in their own hands.

 

Passion for Fashion: Mardini’s story

Each has a different relationship with material. Mardini trained as a civil engineer. This means design, building, assembly and renovation of old houses in Damascus. But, it was through a marriage in the 90s that Mardini was thrown into a new socioeconomic class, the self-styled velvet society, and her clothes, as much as her identity and behaviour, had to adapt radically in order for her to function in her new lifestyle of high power and glamour, a demanding new set of social mores and a new visual and sartorial language to relocate herself in and to negotiate.

 

It was from this move into the velvet society that she accrued a collection of 1990s couture clothes, which she once wore at highly glamorous and social events and that can be seen in this exhibition and catalogue (for instance, see cats. ). The dresses, like the woman who wore them, were on display for someone else’s pleasure. On the other hand, the dresses themselves were beautiful, often sumptuously crafted, and Mardini, who had an instinctive passion for fashion, derived aesthetic joy in these clothes. Mardini has kept some very beautiful ones that hold memories from the past: these form part of the exhibition. They are full of colour, vibrancy and rich in detail. Sartorial choices and stylistic innovations are the creative products of cosmopolitan and glamorous lifestyles as Mardini’s dresses, archive material and labels from Cavalli, Dior, Versace, Hervé Léger, Mugler, Leboutin, Prada, Chanel, D&G, YSL, Alaia and Syrian designer Nicola Khoury, show us (cats. xyz).

 

In Mardini’s archive there are photographs whilst at ‘social’ events with her then husband. While it appears to be a very cosmopolitan lifestyle, appearances can deceive. Cosmopolitanism evokes many associations linked to ideas of hybridity, pluralistic dialogue, and openness to the worlds of others. It is associated with progressive thinking and a willingness to cross borders and challenge various forms of parochialism, religious and patriarchal violence, as Mardini understands from her own struggles.

 

Dress, clothing, fabric

In Visibly Muslim (2010), Emma Tarlo describes René Magritte’s famous painting of a pair of lace-up boots that end in human toes (Le Modèle Rouge, 1935, (fig.)) and how it explores the relationship between the body and clothing. This is often referred to as a second skin by Tarlo. But a second skin can also be a protective layer to the woman who begins to explore her identity bounded by an oppressive society.

 

Dress, clothing and fabric carry powerful signs of non-verbal communication. We are covered, draped and tightly fitted by them; individual identities can be represented and played with. What we do and what we wear in our everyday lives can be challenged playfully in any number of physical, aesthetic and sexual ways. If we are displaced or exiled from our homes or driven out by war, what we put on or around our body’s changes.  Scraps of fabric wear with age, as do bodies marked by class, gender, and culture. Clothing can disguise what we feel, protect women from onlookers; they are a second skin, attached to us, but they can symbolically perform shifting social values and economic status, in the past and in the present.  Our social relations and cultural behaviours are both mediated and expressed. In this sense they are part of a social fabric, however fragile, towards a future yet to be made. It is on-going work that involves ceaseless questioning. Critical engagement with material, the stuff that matters, involves repetition, revision and reordering, allowing us to explore concepts that are in flow and in flux. New ideas can be seeded, just as we perform new ways of dressing ourselves for what lies ahead and, at the same time, actively engaging with the archives of our lives and stories to present new points of departure. The most important issue is how our clothes make us feel about ourselves. What matters is that the clothes are our own choice and make us happy. Raghad’s dress has changed and she feels free to express herself in her own choice of clothes without the need to conform to what others think and contrary to what consumerism and the patriarchy tells us.

(fig. 3: Magritte, Le Modèle Rouge, 1934. Oil on canvas. 183 x 136 cm. Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam.)

 

 

Assemblage: Heba Al-Akkad’s story

Heba Al-Akkad focuses on a different kind of assembly in her work to that of the archival curation of Mardini. As one of the artists involved in Mardini’s artist residencies in the stables at Aley (ARA) in 2013 for artists in need following the upheaval in Syria, she began to explore themes of isolation and vulnerability.  The paintings of this period are soulful but their light, bright palette conjures feelings of Matisse and other Fauves painters (???fig.). In her dream-like images, she works to disentangle feelings of loss and death. She experienced so much in her life, from an early, abusive childhood to the murder of her brother: it was art that provided solace.  Fabric and collage would later become integral to her art practice.

My mother left us when I was five years old.  My father remarried; my stepmother was stitching all the time, my grandmother sewing, and my aunt knitting.  Thread and fabric have been with me since my childhood.[1]

 

In 2002 Heba graduated from the Faculty of Fine Arts in Damascus University, where her studies concentrated on figurative, academic artworks. At the same time, she taught art to children aged 5 to 7 years. As she writes, they had a greater influence on her art.

 

I used to watch them, I learned from them how to imagine a face and colour it blue.   I was inspired by the children’s work, and this is the reason my drawings and paintings look a lot like children’s work.

 

I had no paints, so I used fabric from the dresses I wore as colour.  I cut them, added a piece of our neighbour’s mattress cover which resembled trees. I cut our red tablecloth to make the mole on my sister’s face. I called my artwork My Sisters and I in the Park… I decided to write the story of my life in my artworks, using oil pastel crayons as well as fabric[2]

 

Moving from photography, painting and sculpture, she found her voice through collage, creating three-dimensional works that explore the power of women’s sexual and social status through a range of mixed media materials. These were often built from soft sculptural forms of body parts, limbs and doll-like heads. Heba Al-Akkad’s biography tells us that she has always worked with fabric, thread and paper — but frequently on canvas (such as cat.). Interestingly, she was raised in a family of tailors and from the age of twelve made abstract constructs using any materials at hand.

 

For a long time, Heba was creatively blocked, traumatised by the violence and destruction she had seen of the place she had lived: soft sculptures of abstract faces and heads came into the forms that we see here in the assemblages of this exhibition and for which she is known internationally, being, for example, part of the Syrian pavilion in the 2015 Venice Biennial edition. War changed everything. She now lives in Sweden.

 

Heba’s newly commissioned work is on display for the first time in the UK. The exhibition focuses on the themes of self-identity and dress. It movingly connects to Mardini’s ideas of how some men exerted control over her during her time in the velvet society, often reducing a woman to a puppet, co-opting the fabric of women’s clothes and the fine craftsmanship of fashionable clothes and the cult of glamour into this.        Reflecting similar ideas, Heba’s dolls are often bound together with thread (cat.). Wood appears as supports, often boxes into which these women are enclosed, made to stand, are put on show and transported away (cat.). For some viewers, limbs and body parts may recall the latter fabric works of Louise Bourgeois (fig. 4). She too repeated the themes of identity, sexuality, trauma and memory later in life. Memories cannot be escaped from, nor the psychological trauma that remains from childhood as in Bourgeois’ ‘herstory’. Heba often uses news clippings and images of the war in Syria to accompany her collages and dolls. I think the work contributes to our understanding and rethinking of history, how we deal, as viewers, in this instance, of tragic and traumatic historical events, mediated through the eyes and hands of an artist who constructs and tries to make sense of her personal, cultural, and political memory, effects of war and displacement. In this exhibition, Raghad’s personal

[1] The Story of Heba, given to the author, 26/03/22

[2] Ibid.iii.

 

Bourgeois, The Good Mother (detail), 2003. Fabric, thread, stainless steel, wood and glass. 109.2 x 45.7 x 38.1 cm. Photo: Christopher Burke.

 

archive of dresses and photographs from her time in the velvet society and Heba’s artworks—both collections steeped in memories and experiences that are highly individual—converge in the space of the exhibition room. The lives of these two women, presented in these works of fabric, open up to one another across the room, forming as much as revealing a space of shared cultural experience and memory. It is an exhibition as much of microhistory as microhistory played out on the highest level, crossing borders and decades, as both women have had to do. But, what is the collective memory that Raghad Mardini and Heba Al-Akkad share?

[1] The Story of Heba, given to the author, 26/03/22
[1] Ibid.iii.

 

Collective Memory

Eviatar Zerubavel (1996) sees that an understanding of collective memory can be taken as cultural and an idea that not only implies a commonly shared past but also a jointly remembered one[1].  This definition best describes what Raghad Mardini and Heba Al-Akkad bring into focus. To study memory is not just a question of deepening it, but rather to us, as viewers, of mediation and an appropriation for our times. We can, for a short while in this exhibition, only act as witnesses.  As Walter Benjamin has taught us:

 

He who seeks to approach his own buried past must not be afraid to return to it again and again to the same matter; to scatter it as one scatters earth, to turn it over as one turns over the soil.

Benjamin, W. c1932[2]

 

Documentation

I raise the question of documentation, or how we view the past we have not experienced. As outlined by Boris Groys (2002)[3] the claim is made that art documentation, like archives, newspapers, labels, are the only possible form of reference to an artistic activity that cannot be represented in any other way. This is what the space in the exhibition has recourse to, the combinatorics of the art archive and the enlivening presence of the viewer bound in the moment and in its midst. Mardini’s collection, which had for a long time been in storage in the Middle East, opens itself up to Heba’s artworks, themselves works of archival weaving, and to a new space and time here in London, and, in turn, a sense of lives being led and art being made is kindled, just for a moment, for the viewer. The transfer of art as activity, in so far as it can be reinstated in another location, brings the original action into a close proximity with our viewing experience; it brings it ‘home’ by another route. This question of ‘home’ haunts this exhibition.

 

In this powerful exhibition, Velvet Society: Power and Glamour in 90s Damascus,  we can give witness to the artists’ testimony by gaining some small insights into how two Syrian women have coped with historical religious and patriarchal violence through their creative acts of survival and renewal.

 

References

Tarlo, E. 2010 Visibly Muslim: Fashion, Politics, Faith. Oxford: Berg Publishers.

[1] Zerubavel, E. 1996. ‘Social Memories: Steps to Sociology of the Past’. Qualitative Sociology19: 283-299

[2] Benjamin, W.1927-1934. (1999) Excavation and Memory. Berlin Chronicle. Selected Works II: 576, 611. Jennings M.W., and Eiland H. and Smith, G. (Eds.) Transl. Livingstone R.et al. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

[3] It is worth citing the claim in full at this point as Groys’s point is that whilst art documentation refers to art in many different ways, including performances, temporary installations or collaborative happenings, they are only visible and present to us, as potential viewers, at a particular time. ‘Art documentation which by definition consists of images and texts that are reproducible, acquires through installation an aura of the original, the living, the historical. In the installation the documentation gains a site – the here and now of a historical siting. Because the distinction between original and copy is entirely the topological and situational one, all of the documents placed in the installation become originals – and thus can rightly be considered original documents of a life that they seek to document. If reproductions make copies out of original, installations make originals out of copies. Boris Groys, ‘Art in the Age of Bio Politics from Art Work to Art Documentation, Documenta 11 – Platform 5, Exhibition Catalogue, Germany, Hatje Cantz, 2002, p 114.

Share this post