On ViewCanada Pavilion
2011 ≠ 1848
April 23 – November 27, 2022
59th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale Di Venezia
Seeing Arabic on the wall instantly drew me into Stan Douglas’s powerful exhibition at the 59th La Biennale di Venezia. But I was initially taken aback, because one does not encounter Arabic at international art venues, let alone in Canadian institutions, where Arab or Muslim narratives are usually absent. Through his brave embrace of a language vilified and stigmatized in the West, often linked with terrorism and savagery, the artist expresses solidarity with the grievances of the Arabic-speaking world, placing these in a larger historical and geographical context.
The artist’s interest in the region spanning Southwest Asia to North Africa stems from his investigation of the so-called “Arab Spring,” a series of uprisings that epitomized global turmoil, as many communities reacted to the havoc wreaked by the 2008 recession. The exhibition examines two critical years in modern history: 1848, when Europe was shaken by revolutions, and 2011, when populist mobilization toppled several regimes in Arabic-speaking countries, inspiring widespread dissent that reverberated far beyond. From Los Angeles to Baghdad, and from Tehran to Hong Kong, the causes varied, but demonstrators generally denounced economic inequalities, corporate greed, government corruption, and myriad social injustices. Douglas’s 2011 ≠ 1848 argues for the difference in scale between these historical moments: while the former primarily shook France, the latter signifies global revolutionary potential today.
The exhibition, curated by Reid Shier, consists of two parts. The first, presented at the Canada Pavilion in the Giardini, is understated and initially underwhelming—just four photographs. Upon a closer look, however, these recently produced large-scale images reveal themselves as epic, almost painterly tableaux. Each showing a critical episode from 2011, the photographs capture vast urban settings that bring Tunis, Vancouver (the artist’s hometown), London, and New York City into dialogue with one another. In this archeology of worldwide resistance, it is unclear whether Douglas happened to coincidentally be in these places at those exact times, or if these are instances of exceptionally legible photojournalism; either way, the carefully doctored photographs position Douglas as a witness to a watershed moment in contemporary history. Known for the deceptive veracity of his imagery, the artist instrumentalizes the trope here to emphasize that what unfolded in Arabic-speaking geographies was not an aberration—rather, it was emblematic of a desperate planetary cry for change.
But the photographs are only a teaser. A small card, with the exhibition title in Arabic on one side and a map on the other, charts the way to the second part of 2011 ≠ 1848, located at an offsite location on the other side of Venice. Douglas challenges the Biennale’s antiquated national representation model, defying easy understanding of his work solely in the context of the Canada Pavilion. In a dark, cavernous space at the Magazzini del Sale No. 5, the monumental screens of ISDN (2022), a two-channel video, are suspended just above the visitors’ heads. Two Egyptian men, the rappers Raptor and Yousef Joker, can be seen on the first screen performing in Arabic, with English subtitles, while two British women of African descent, Lady Sanity and TrueMendous, are on the second rapping in English, with Arabic subtitles. Both duos ostensibly perform to the same rhythm, with the distinctive sound of Arab drums (particularly the Tabla and Riq) heard occasionally.
Both sides rap about various overlapping subjects: love, family, identity, faith, finances, frustration, depression, exhaustion, pain, death, power, the media, the police, broken systems, oppression, rebellion, and justice. They are poets conveying their communities’ preoccupations—indeed, the wall text argues that the musical genres of Mahraganat (festivals) in Egypt and Grime in England became soundtracks for social movements in these milieus. Their vocal deliveries parallel each other beyond the paired screens and the differences in genre, suggesting a comparable musicality, or substructure, in both. While trying to follow the fast-paced performance, the viewer first believes that the rappers are facing each other in the same space, taking turns in singing and listening to the other side. But that is all staged.
Toward the end, the camera zooms out from two different buildings, to reveal that the men are based in Cairo, the women in London. The two musical collectives also appear to create their music together, using their headsets to listen to each other through phone lines, but that is staged too. The video loops, though the music is never the same, making each performance unique. Captivated, one’s body sways involuntarily to the beats. Douglas succeeds in invoking not only a dialogue between those on the screen, but also the viewers’ engagement with causes that might not directly touch their lives.
Although 2011 ≠ 1848 does not strictly speak to Canadian identity, the work emphasizes one of the most extraordinary and least catalyzed aspects of Canada: it’s plurality, and thus, its inextricable global ties, thanks to the heterogenous lineages and creeds of its diverse population. The work equally subverts official identity politics in Canada, particularly the empty rhetoric around inclusion within art and cultural institutions, which tokenize and pigeonhole racialized communities into neat categories that enable convenient comprehension, and control, of the “other.” But the significance of Douglas’s work goes far beyond Canada. Giving the platform to these international rappers, empowered and dignified, deploying poetry and music as tools of alliance and resistance, begin to hint at the immense, entangled, and at times intractable issues facing the world today.
Although Douglas centers Arab experiences and refers to two historical milestones, there is palpable relevance and urgency to his exhibition. Unlike the themes that characterize much of this year’s Biennale—dreamy and surreal visions, or enchantment with alternative futures, some of which appear evasive and even escapist—Douglas is polemically focused on solidarity across prescribed cultural boundaries. He seems aware that although human beings are the main culprits in the degradation, exploitation, and suffering all around us, it is also human cooperation and collective mobilization that can undo this harm. Douglas utilizes fact and fiction, technology and human relationships, individual and group identities, to counter apathy and galvanize action.