Catalogue essay for Deanna Hitti, Counihan Gallery, Melbourne, 2017
Towla by Deanna Hitti comprises cyanotype prints of Oriental types juxtaposed with instructions from the game of backgammon (one of the oldest known board games). The latter are presented with phonetic translations in English and Arabic – meaning that words are transcribed as speech sounds. An important aspect of the exhibition is that the artist inherited these instructions from her Lebanese father, who she used to play the game with. In fact, her father’s original backgammon, also passed on to him by his father, is included in the show.
One finds allusions to this game throughout the exhibition. For example, the design of the board is overlaid on top of Deanna Hitti’s cyanotypes, which feature representations of Arabic peoples drawn by delusional Western illustrators of the past. Still, these hollow and patronizing gestures appear disturbingly current, as they are reminiscent of the jarring babble of “post-politically correct” politicians and the myriad Facebook comments that unreflectingly applaud these racial deliriums. This torrential “verborrhea” accumulates in swamps of waste that distort and sicken those who are forced to stare at their swirling reflection. If the verborrhea stops, unfortunately the stench lingers, proving that the West has devised an ill yet powerful rhetoric.
Towla evidently addresses this moment of mis-recognition with the reproduction of Arab types in cyanotype prints. However, it also articulates the sense of confrontation that accompanies these encounters. Like backgammon, which is premised on removing pieces from one’s opponent, the production of these Orientalist images is strategic and designed to undermine the Other. Their repetition and overwhelming circulation is not accidental, rather it designed to naturalize a highly manufactured perception of the Middle East that renders its inhabitants as fearsome or desirable.
A wild example of this is Abdul Alhazred, a fictional character written by American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. In Lovecraft’s fiction, the “Mad Arab” Abdul Alhazred (which is not even a proper Arabic name) is the author of the wicked Necronomicon: a forbidden book pertaining such evil, that those unfortunate enough to catch a glimpse of its words are driven to madness. Throughout H.P. Lovecraft’s so called “Cthulhu Mythos”, the figure of the Arab is continually signified as a carrier of obscure and improper knowledge, a threshold between the human realm and that which lies beyond. In what appears to be a repulsive distortion of the development of mathematics in the Arab world (because algebra is such a tenebrous science), Abdul Alhazred represents the corruption that is unleashed when one greedily seeks to attain “unnatural” wisdom.
However, as it is popularly known, Lovecraft spent most of his life in his hometown of Providence, Rhode Island and never travelled outside of the anglophone world (highly doubtful that he ever held a conversation with anyone of Arabic descend either). In a typical Orientalist manner, his noxious character was solely based on a casual accumulation of prejudices and misplaced fantasies that perpetuate a hideous impulse to imagine and depict “the Arab” as an evil entity.
Deanna Hitti’s Towla negotiates images such as this from the perspective of the depicted. She equates the racial sign systems of the Western world with a game of chance and strategy. Where every racial encounter is a match and never the last. While it is tempting to assign fixed binaries between the West and the Middle East, the allegory of the backgammon and Hitti’s use of phonetic translation proclaims a more nuanced stance.
As the artist points out, Towla is also about dealing with her dual heritage as an Australian and Lebanese. Therefore, one can infer that negotiating stereotypes is a process that involves ignorant “mates” as much as it includes bigoted strangers or even oneself (to varying degrees of intensity and damage). Like a board game, it is also a process that becomes more complex with every encounter, as each match forms a network of experiences that informs the next engagement. It is also a model for warfare, serving as an indication of wider and larger struggles. Continual exposure to this racial game, inevitably breeds a good player.