Chaza Charafeddine’s “Studies of a Self-Portrait”: No escape from finding solace in the repressed, bloody faces
By Roger Outa
In “The Unbearable Lightness of Witnessing: Studies of a Self-Portrait” (at Agial Gallery until December 15th), Chaza Charafeddine exhibits images of her face showing her features disfigured by the apparatus of violence. Beyond this, she artistically relates to the faces repressed beneath the skin – faces masked by power and wrapped in a cruel covering, under which continued breathing is made difficult. When these wounded faces refuse to submit to the power of their image, they lose their features, and their flesh fragments as the result of their being stricken or shelled. The face of the child Hamza Bakour, more than half of whose face was destroyed by a Baathist mortar, indicates the truth of the relationship that ties totalitarian power to the individual face. Francis Bacon, writing to his companion George Dyer, stated, “There is nothing else we can do but escape our faces.” Similarly, Chaza Charafeddine says that there is no escape from the destruction of familiar faces and finding solace in the repressed, bloody faces that are characterized by ugliness and fear. She photographs the features of these faces in a way counter to elimination and restraint, extracting them from their cutaneous ruin, so that the face in the image is transformed into fleshy authenticity. As for the violence present in the butchered faces, it is inherent in the muscles. In other words, it is an organ of the body, and it is the only way through which it is possible to find the face compressed beneath the skin. When the artist removes the skin’s pressure from the faces, the violence that conceals them doubles, but she lends an artistic subject to this violence, and it is changed from a weapon in the hands of power into an artistic mode.
From another perspective, the artist imitates the faces of victims, whose images reached viewers over television screens after the outbreak of the Syrian revolution. She refuses to consider them mere corpses to be buried far away. She studies their deaths, or rather, her death in the context of the events of theirs, for she wears their faces and like them confronts the mortar, the bullet, and the knife. As she enters into their bodies through their faces, this form self-portraiture becomes a corporeal crucible or an icon of flesh; photographing her face bare, it is unconventional and characterized by its relationship with the original death, with its photographic composition, and with its bloody rebirth.
Death Instead of Sight
Chaza Charafeddine does not ask that the faces look in one direction or another in order to photograph them; the traditional contract between the photographer and the subject is absent. Instead of “Please, look here,” the artist says to herself “please, kill me there,” so that I may successfully photograph you. The contract of death defines the relationship between the artist and her face; through it she wears the faces of others after erasing her own face and disappearing behind the shattered mirror. The artist moves in the new contract from the position of the self to that of the subject, and she is able to look at her face from the perspective of the death of others. The act of looking presents itself in this contract solely as a way to discover death, especially as its subject is a means to torment the viewer and retaliate against the “lightness” condensed in an imaginary photograph. Through the act of looking death becomes altruistic and causes viewers to feel that it pertains to them, even if it were tied to others. In this way, one discovers the true death of others, which is not sufficiently expressed by the images of their corpses on television and computer screens, images that fade and are soon forgotten.
The result of this contract of death transforms the relationship between the artist and her face, in that the self-portrait no longer contains one face but rather several. Self-portraiture encompasses the artist, her face, and the other; and it is impossible for Charafeddine to reveal her “otherness” without her face, or to convey her own identity without relying on that of the other, before it assists in terminating the power of the commonplace and familiar image.
An aluminum framework
In addition to the means of looking, the contract of death is composed of the reflective mirror that lets the self wear the faces of others. The artist photographs her face on warped aluminum and captures the reflections of her face from which she creates a selfless face. However, the created faces do not think of the reflection but rather against it because they continue to require the framework of a mirror; the faces within it are an expression of the reflection of a singular face. The artist exchanges this framework with a system of aluminum, and the faces are released from their bodily prisons.
In the self-portraits, death comes to exist without a reflective framework, and its faces are not held captive beneath the skin, even if the processes of their distortion were repeated time and again as a sign that there is no way out of the slaughterhouse in which we live.
A Shroud of Blood
As she progresses from the framework of the self to that of the other, the faces appear unattractive, struck at from all directions, knocked and beaten. Thus, the faces lose some of the flesh after the skin reveals them and shows the raw bruises and swelling in different areas. The faces appear as if they were hacked with an axe then electrically shocked; the moment their image is captured is one of conflict, in which the face expels its self and simultaneously haunts it. The self here is not figurative but physical, and its arteries are severed; its face appears awash in blood, running or coagulated over its features.
Blood covering Chaza Charafeddine’s face, or her repressed face, greatly resembles the shroud in Syria that is placed over corpses, keeping them dry from either the rain or from the water dripping down the walls of rooms converted into field hospitals.
The artist thus recreates her face as a study of her self-portrait, relying upon the faces comprised of flesh and blood present beneath the skin. Looking to self-portraiture, Chaza Charafeddine discovers that her face, whether in the process of birth or the process of death, is one in the same, especially as the covering of conflict coincides with that of struggle in the warped aluminum mirror, in which violence becomes an artistic style, and death a glimmer of light.
Translated from the Arabic by Amir Eustice