Art Unlocks Joy and Resilience: Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme 

From young women singing in their kitchen to crowds dancing arm in arm in the street, Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme’s May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth takes us inside the everyday lives and collective emotions of people in the Middle East. It shows us how communities fall back on creativity and performance at times of political strife. The exhibition is presented by The Common Guild at 5 Florence Street from September 9 and will feature multiple large-scale screens showing homemade footage of dance, song, and celebration, recorded by ordinary people since the early 2010s. The artists say that the show “examines how people bear witness to and narrate experiences of violence, loss, displacement, and forced migration through performance.”

Abbas and Abou-Rahme were commissioned to create May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth by the Museum of Modern Art and DIA Art Foundation, New York, and a version has been presented at Zurich’s Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst. However, with the artists based between New York and Ramallah, this is the biggest presentation of their work in the UK to date. Chloe Reith, curator at The Common Guild, tells SCAN how the archive that forms the basis of the show was created. “The artists have been amassing it together since the early 2010s, really sparked by the outset of the Arab Spring in Egypt….But it’s been evolving and changing in the ten plus years that they’ve been building it.” Consisting of footage from across Palestine, Iran, Yemen, Egypt, Syria, and beyond, it reveals communities living through many ongoing upheavals, such as the Syrian and Yemeni Civil Wars and land seizures in Palestine. Abbas and Abou-Rahme have built on this archive by authoring their own performance films, shot on different locations in Ramallah.

As Reith notes, the artists wanted to work against the tendency for western media to present only footage of violence or destruction from the locations they are focusing on. Abbas and Abou-Rahme have instead gathered footage of dance and song: “one aspect they want to express is the idea that joy can also exist alongside experiences of violence and loss, and this can be both a political act and an act of resistance.” The artists also made the decision only to use DIY footage, recorded mostly on phones. Reith says: “you get that sense of the immediacy of the moment; the everyday act of picking up your phone to record a friend, or what is happening on the street.” Showing the footage in an immersive setting, with multiple, floor-to-ceiling screens running at the same time, promises to bring audiences into the action themselves.

The exhibition prominently features footage of new performances and music, authored by the artists responding to gestures, musical phrases, and fragments of language from the archive. These new elements have been developed with electronic musicians and a dancer in Palestine, Makimakkuk, Haykal, Julmud, and Rima Baransai. This is a way of magnifying particular moments of joy and freedom which the artists see as gestures of defiance against forces of political violence and repression.

Reith says “I am really excited to be working with Basel and Ruanne. They make very powerful, full-bodied installations that are totally visually arresting.” The show also will incorporate a one-off performance, an echo buried, buried but calling still, on September 10, using live vocals, electronics, sound sampling, and projection. As Reith points out, “the venue for the show, 5 Florence Street, is a space of community and learning.” It’s a former school, used most recently by City of Glasgow College. This is a great setting for a show which promises to reveal how creativity can provide comfort and strength in times of suffering.

Image 1: Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme: ‘May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth’ (2022), Installation view MoMA. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar. Courtesy of the artists.
Image 2: Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, ‘May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth’ (2020 – ongoing). Digital still. Courtesy of the artists.