JAMELIE HASSAN: PRIMER FOR WAR
The Art Gallery, Mount Saint Vincent University
[First published as a curatorial essay for a M.S.V.U. brochure in 1985.]
London, in the vast agricultural heartland of Ontario, is a long way from the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon where Jamelie Hassan's parents were born, and a long way from Iraq, Italy, Central America and France where Hassan has lived and worked. Canadians are used to long distances, however, which we often mundanely translate into a few more hours on an airplane: after all, Halifax is a long way from London. Hassan's work tends to shorten the distances between places. It is eclectic, sensual, politically committed and global in its references. Her legacy from the London art community is, as Brian Fawcett has put it "an extraordinarily well informed indifference to style." (Brian Fawcett, "Provincial Essays" (review), Vanguard, April, 1985, 50).
Fawcett also writes about "the extraordinary fecundity of London, Ontario as a breeding ground for artists from a variety of disciplines over the past thirty years..." and "the secret of London's ongoing vitality probably lies partially in its relative geographical isolation..."
London artists are often identified with the London regionalist movement of the 60s, which centred around artists like Greg Curnoe and critics like Barry Lord. Hassan is part of a succeeding generation of London artists that is much less intimidated by the demands of art centres than provincials ever were. Hassan adds to her legacy from the London art community, an extraordinarily well-informed interest in the problems of culture and ordinary people's suffering in a brutal world.
Primer for War had its debut at the New City of Sculpture exhibition in Toronto in 1984. As the piece gains momentum (author's note, 1991: the piece was bought by the Art Gallery of Ontario) and as Hassan's work gains a wider audience, we might ask ourselves what it is about the work that is capturing our imagination. Somehow, we sense that her work successfully addresses subject matter from everywhere: the plight of Argentina's missing people became part of Desaparecidos of 1981; the war in Lebanon has figured in much of her work (i.e. the Lebanese Tiles of 1983); the struggles of minorities in Canada is spoken about in Hong Kong, for Dave and Lucy of 1984. Hassan's work generates the expansive feeling that artists have the moral right to address anything. Working out of the small city of London, Ontario, Hassan creates permissions for other artists, especially those from outside major art world centres, to sidestep the problem of provincial art versus the dominant trends in favour of an engagement with wider problems.
Hassan's work can look classically restrained, as does Primer for War, the work featured in this exhibition; it can look generously expressionistic, as do her watercolours; or sumptuously decorative, as does her Bench from Cordoba (1982), a piece which splendidly replicates a bench Hassan saw during her travels in Spain. Hassan often makes installation art: most notable in the context of this exhibition may be her Is War Art (Beyrouth) of 1980, which imaginatively brought home to London Hassan's witness of the war in Lebanon in the late 70s. That work involved dismantling part of a brick wall at London's Forest City Gallery (a gallery that Hassan had helped to found) so that an interior filled with documentation of the devastation of Beirut was revealed. In allusive ways, Primer for War expresses dismay at the possibility of a nuclear war in which Beirut's destruction would be repeated everywhere.
Primer for War
Cultural issues become hot political issues in times of tension between the superpowers. Hassan's Primer for War includes passages excerpted from a book published during the early years of World War I by J. William White which rationalizes an entry into the conflict by the United States: the book is a militarist's plea for involvement. These passages, along with photographs taken by Hassan in West Germany, are affixed to ceramic books. The books are arranged on a specially-built bench. Hassan's photographs from Germany (a pivot of East-West conflict), the pew-like bench, and the ceramic "bibles" amount to a visual critique of deeply-held beliefs about the possibility of war.
Without oversimplifying, we might define our culture as ultimately reducible to a military stand-off between the Soviet Union and the United States, a culture where individual artistic works are forced to find a place whether they become propaganda or not. The Primer for War is being exhibited in the Upstairs Gallery during the "International Peace Conference: Women's Alternatives for Peace" which will convene on the campus of Mount Saint Vincent University. As Hassan's exhibition opens, ships from NATO fleets will gather in Bedford Basin, visible from the university's campus and, through windows, visible from the Upstairs Gallery. The ships will participate in a celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Canadian Navy. Hassan's appropriated texts may be read through a background of celebration and criticism of military military preparations in Halifax during the summer of 1985, may lead the viewer to update their reading of Primer for War's chapter headings:
"What Evidence Exists as to the Real Reason, the Fundamental Cause of this War?"
"Is There Any Evidence Which Tends to Show Why the Present Time Was Selected By Germany to Precipitate the War?"
"What Are the Principles Represented by the Opposing Forces in This War?"
"In Addition to the Evidence Already Presented as to the Mental Attitude of the Average German Toward His Own Race and Toward Other European Races, Are There Any Facts Tending to Show His Real Attitude Toward America?"
What is the Attitude of German-Americans Toward This War and Toward the Principles Involved?"
"How Much Reliance is to be Placed Upon Statements Emanating from Germany at this Time?"
"What is the Truth as to the Preeminence of German 'Kultur,' of German Civilization, of German Achievement in Letters, Arts and Sciences?"
"What are the Duties of America at this Time?"
"What, in the Light of this War, Should Be the Aim of This and Other Civilized Countries for the Future?"
The Primer for War statements are chapter headings for the original text called Primer of the War for Americans, written and compiled by an American and draw their energy from fear -- in our case, fear of nuclear war. As stressed by the artist Conrad Atkinson on a recent visit to Halifax
...a central fear in Europe, and from my observations in Halifax it is becoming a central fear here also...is that our society is not simply heading toward a consuming war but is actually consuming the products of war right now; in other words, war is consuming us already. We live in a kind of military-industrial complex, as was first pointed out by President Eisenhower in the fifties. He saw it as the greatest danger facing us and lots of workers and intellectuals now see the military-industrial complex as the main focus of power.