The garden, Michel Foucault once wrote, is a carpet on which a symbolic representation of the entire world is unfolding. And the carpet, for its part, is in a sense a movable piece of the world, a garden that can be unrolled as desired beneath our feet and our lives.
This multilayered object, which assigns people a place on which to settle down while its patterns tell stories from near and far, plays a central role in the work of the painter Fatma Shanan (b. in Julis, a Druze village in Israel, in 1986). In her—typically large-format—pictures, the artist, who lives and works in Julis, arranges complex relationships between bodies and spaces. The rugs in her compositions are not just matrices of vibrant color and a reference to the Druze culture in which she was raised; they also and more importantly function as territories within the picture and mediators between bodies and architecture.
In her painting “Self-Portrait on Parquet” (2019), a female figure—Shanan has described her as a representation of herself—reclines in a room with open windows. The woman’s dress blends into the colorful rug beneath her as well as the flowers arrayed around and on her body. Despite the stage-like quality of the space, the scene captures a moment suffused with intimacy and introspection. The woman’s eyes are closed, and the largely unadorned room is an echo of the impenetrable shell of her self-contained body—the skin and garments a wall—while the brilliant sunlight streaming down outside the open window hints at the wide world that lies beyond.
Shanan’s figures are shrouded in a state of alienation from their surroundings that is never unambiguously characterized. Have they fallen into a deep sleep or a kind of trance, is their self-absorption a form of inner resistance to the viewer’s importunate gaze or a peaceful and meditative coexistence with the pictorial space?
The artist’s body as it appears in her pictures is rigid and passive, but it is never isolated from its context. Her work suspends the difference between figure and ground that defines classical portraiture, for the body cannot be thought without its environment. Shanan’s creative practice encompasses sculpture and performance art as well as painting, and the idea of assigning a place to an I that has attained sculptural definition and exposing it to the real space around it palpably informs each of her paintings as well. The artist’s body itself translates the physical experience of her performances into painting. Rigidity becomes motion that is frozen in the picture.
In the works in the exhibition “Yellow Skirt,” it is time and again fabrics that effect this fusion of body and environment. The carpets, embodying the idea of color as place, seem to extend the figures into the space around them until all contours become indistinct. The titular garment in the painting “Yellow Skirt and Pink Flower” (2019) seems to awaken to a life of its own, its dynamic lines coalescing into an angular and voluminous sculpture that imbues the picture with the very motion that the recumbent body refuses to perform. The artist’s fascination for abstract color field painting is especially recognizable in the sketch-like “Floral Stocking” (2017): it is up to the beholder to decide whether the rug’s plain pattern is absorbing the white stockinged legs of the fragmentary figure or, conversely, the colorful legwear that is spilling out over the yellow background. Unlike in modern painters like Henri Matisse, in whose still lifes and portraits Oriental rugs merely serve as movable backdrops, Shanan establishes an equilibrium in which body, fabrics, and space are interdependent and inextricably intertwined in a larger whole.
In addition to their formal function as territories of color in painting, the fabrics are fraught with symbolic meaning. Woven into the patterns of rugs are artisanal traditions and spiritual subtexts that knowledgeable eyes can decode. Yet Fatma Shanan’s purpose is not to signal to initiates; rather, she homes in on the nexus linking these cultural objects to bodies and femininity. A carpet’s place is in the domestic sphere; despite its mobility, the portable garden marks a space as occupied, as a potential home, and invites the viewer to settle down on it. In visual art, fabrics have been labeled for centuries as characteristically feminine objects; softness, delicacy, coziness are associated with women—a stereotype that constrains and stunts women artists, and not only them. In one series of pictures, Shanan takes the rug, that symbol of nest-building, out beyond the walls of the home, painting it in public urban settings or in nature, a gesture that reads as an act of liberation. The outdoor sceneries not only underscore the carpets’ garden-like quality; the works also demonstrate that the rugs can exist anywhere, intimating that the female bodies symbolically interwoven with them are gifted with a similar agility. The paintings bring out the objects’ contradictory aspects: demarcating boundaries, they also indicate that any such demarcation is subject to change.
In her paintings of interiors, Shanan clearly illustrates the ties that bind her female figures to the domestic context, but by rendering them as almost uncannily introverted, she also stages a kind of resistance to this role. Modelled on the artist’s own body, the figures are ultimately intangible, defying architectonic and symbolic constraints. Utterly withdrawn into themselves, they are agile in their very rigidity and might be anywhere.
In “Floating Self” (2019), Shanan’s painting transcends the laws of physics, giving the idea of coming adrift a Surrealist twist. Jettisoning the cliché of the flying carpet as a means of conveyance through space and time, it is the body of the reclining woman itself that levitates, hovering, straight as a pole and apparently impassive, in an interior from a dollhouse. The escape takes place in the mind alone, requiring no breakage or exertion of bodily force. And as though the unruly woman’s cunning victory over gravity were dismantling space itself, the floor appears to open up in the picture’s foreground.
In the most recent paintings on view in “Yellow Skirt,” Shanan once again gradually departs from the interior settings. The dominant element in the self-portrait “Green Window” (2018/19) is a large window looking out onto an exterior that exuberant vegetation has turned into a composition in various shades of green. One might almost overlook the stooped female figure concealing her face near the bottom edge of the picture. In “Field” (2019), the same tiny and oddly sculptural body—it is again the artist’s own—appears in the same pose in an open field. Yet by moving into a wider space, allowing the gaze to wander toward the distant horizon, Fatma Shanan’s art hardly cracks the shells of the painted bodies. Her compositions engage questions of being-in-the-world and the performative idea of carving out a physical and spiritual place.
Deeply entangled in their environment, bodies yet refuse to abandon themselves to it. Exposed to the audience’s gazes, the protagonists gaze inward. And guard their secret.
By Saskia Trebing
Saskia Trebing is a Berlin-based art historian and freelance writer and translator. Her work has been published by the art magazine monopoland other outlets. She translated Pope.L’s “Whisper Project” for documenta 14, Kassel.
See Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces,” trans. Jay Miskowiec, diacritics16, no. 1 (Spring 1986): 25–26.
Artist: Fatma Shanan
Venue: Dittrich & Schlechtriem, Berlin
Exhibition title: Yellow skirt
Date: March 1 -April 13, 2019
Text/Press release and images provided by the event.
© Dittrich & Schlechtriem, Berlin GERMANY E.U.