The Wandering Ishmael: New Paintings
An Exhibition By Doris Bittar
David Zapf Gallery, San Diego
"The Wandering Ishmael" is the title of Arab-American artist Doris Bittar's recent exhibition at the David Zapf Gallery in San Diego, California. The exhibit, consisting of 27 mostly-recent oil paintings, opened on November 17 and continued until December 16, 2000. The title suggests biblical reminiscences and cross-cultural borrowings, and the exhibit attracted a large crowd of curious viewers from the local Arab and Jewish communities alike, as well as the general art community.
Bittar's new series is based around the biblical story of Ishmael, first son of Abraham by his concubine Hagar. Because of the jealousy of Abraham's wife, Hagar and Ishmael were banished to wander the desert. Ishmael's progeny were labeled the Ishmaelites, and today are the Arabs. By combining the old phrase "The Wandering Jew" with Ishmael's name, Bittar evokes the forced journeys and migrations of Arabs in recent history. The point is not to narrate a nation or people's history, but to tell a personal history in a way that reaches beyond the artist and the events of her life. Born in Baghdad of Lebanese parents, Bittar spent her early childhood in the outskirts of Beirut. Later, her family immigrated to New York where she eventually studied fine arts.
"The Wandering Ishmael" encompasses three themes previously seen in Bittar's work: the legacy of colonialism, Jewish-Arab relations, and the experience of diaspora and immigration. In this exhibition, the three themes are linked together to retell a familiar narrative in a new way. "Narrative is the stepchild of theory," Bittar explains in her artist's statement. "When a theory is a bit obtuse, we tell a simple story to illustrate our point," she comments. Indeed, the basic elements of her art are objects and incidents that serve as the metaphors in her narrative. The title itself transforms Ishmael to a metaphor for the forced relocation of Arabs. Architectural symbols such as the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty point to the bittersweet state of physical and cultural exile experienced by the artist along with the majority of the Arab émigrés to the West. Patterns of Ottoman drapery and textile, Ottoman symbols of royalty drawn in original Islamic calligraphy, women on swings, and white baby angels serve as metaphorical encounters en route from East to West. Delacroix's paintings of Moroccan harems and Lebanon's tourist sites mark the opposite journey, from West to East.
Bittar's work does not allow for a sharp division between East and West. Rather, it traverses multiple and circuitous paths of history, culture, and experience. For example, Bittar correctly understands the historical influence of French colonial rule on Lebanese culture, an influence that preceded the large-scale immigration of the Lebanese, and a pattern that continues today. Similarly, the works of Orientalist French artists such as Delacroix cleared the path for much of the West's long-standing views of the "mystic" East, both primitive and desired, and an area for continuous exploitation and acculturation. Also, in Bittar's eyes, Arabs' views of their former Western colonizers are often revisited upon emigrating to the West. Whether we like it or not, emigrating from East to West allows us to see not only Western culture in new light, but also our own - with or without the West's lens. This process led Bittar to autobiographical sources such as old family photos, childhood memories of red roses in bloom, the Dabke dancers of Mount Lebanon, and the rich patterns of oriental rugs and her mother's embroidery. It also prompted her to rethink the East on multiple recent visits and tours, during which she collected and documented illuminated manuscripts, architectural structures, and popular culture.
In paintings like "Gifts from France," "Tour America #1," "Liberty #1" (all three are oil on canvas, 2000), she depicts Ishmael leaving "Little France" (the colonial French name for Lebanon) for the "Big Apple," the deceptions of Europe's Orient, and the realities of American liberty.
Revisiting today's Damascus, Bittar finds it decorated with posters of Hafiz Assad's ("Joseph in Damascus," oil on linen, 2000), yet Ottoman Damascus with its old iron gates is still visible despite a thick layer of corrupt politics and environmental pollution ("Candy Shop," "Damascus," oil on linen, 2000). She underscores the fragmented nature of Ishmael's journey by bundling snapshots in one painting with an overlaid sliding panel that allows the observer to view no more than two snapshots at a time, as though skipping through time with a limited capacity for memories ("Franco-Arabe Tour #2," oil on linen).
Bittar's paintings speak for the amount of time and work put into them. She laboriously conserves the recurrent motif of carefully rendered fabric throughout the exhibit. With textures ranging from silky to embossed, colors blending from divine sky blue to raw gold, and light reflecting off cloth ripples, the hidden memory underneath still seeps through to the surface. Two paintings depict barely recognizable old family photos; you must consciously peal off the overlaid layers of ornamentation, as though passing through a visual (and conceptual) sieve.
Since her graduation with a Masters of Fine Arts from the University of California, San Diego in 1993, Bittar has had numerous solo exhibitions in California and other states. She also participates in many group exhibitions nationally and internationally, most notably to date in New York, Denmark, and Mexico. She is a lecturer at the University of California, San Diego since 1996 and also lectures at San Diego State University. She received the California Arts Council Artist's Fellowship for 1998-1999 and a fellowship at the Whitney Museum of American Art Independent Study Program in New York in 1995-1996. Her work has been reviewed in the Los Angeles Times, the San Diego Union-Tribune, Arts and Antiques, Al Hayat, and in a previous issue of Al Jadid.
"The Wandering Ishmael" is Bittar's third solo exhibition at the David Zapf Gallery. Her previous exhibitions at that gallery were "People of the Book" (1995) and "Lebanese Linen" (1999). Public and private collections of the artist's work include the Russell Sage Foundation in New York City and the California Center for the Arts Museum in Escondido, California.
Her artwork can be viewed on her website at http://visarts.ucsd.edu/~dbittar.
This article appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 6, No. 33 (Fall 2000)
Copyright © 2000 by Al Jadid