18th September - 18th December, Thessaloniki
[…] The last mosque that was built in Thessaloniki was Yeni Djami (=New Mosque). It is the only mosque ever built outside the city walls, at the Hamidiye area· It was constructed in 1902 at the cross-section of Archeological Museum Street (Haci Hayri Pasa) and Praxitelous Street (Sezai Pasa) by Dönme, the Thessaloniki Jews that converted to Islam, many of which resided in the nearby area at the time. After 1925 it was used as an Archeological Museum. According to the architects that studied the monument, this mosque is “an amalgam of influences and styles, revealing the mix of European and Islamic culture and identity of its builders”, “a typical work of eclecticism, where renaissance and baroque lines prevail, but with obvious Byzantine, Islamic and neoclassical influences”, “a static, plane, geometric building, which creates a strong impression, stemming primarily from the stability of its construction and the symmetry of its clear geometric forms”.
Vasilis Demetriades, Topography of Thessaloniki during the Period of Ottoman Rule, 1430-1912, Society for Macedonian Studies [=Macedonian Library n. 61], Thessaloniki, 1983
The 3rd Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art opened up some of the city’s mostly closed historical buildings pertaining to parts of its history which are somewhat hidden today, as is the case of Yeni Djami. It seems as if cities hide traces of contested parts of their past thus denying elements of what contributed to making them what they are today, just as persons might deny aspects of their origins or of their bodies which might hold pain, anger or shame for them.
Having placed Thessaloniki at the centre of our curatorial proposition, we positioned works in a privileged encounter with some of these hidden facets of the city and enabled them to mirror, echo or enter into a dialogue with certain cultural, social, historical, and political dimensions of Thessaloniki, while some connected to the broader context of current political and social upheavals in the region.
Yeni Djami (New Mosque), a two-story Ottoman monument built in 1902 by the Italian architect Vitaliano Pozeli, was a place of worship for a community of crypto-Jews who affiliated with Islam while secretly practicing a form of Judaism called Sabbateanism. The Spanish origins of this congregation are visible in the building’s architecture, along with the Star of David which is a reminder that the congregation had converted from Judaism and Islamic calligraphy which also recurs throughout the building. After 1924, the Yeni Djami housed Greek refugees from the Asia Minor Catastrophe and, in 1963, it became an annex of the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki. Since then, a number of Roman and Early Christian archaeological remains can be seen in its courtyard. These, together with the diverging architectural, decorative, and cultural elements of Yeni Djami, make it into the intriguingly, hybrid, and most interesting building that it is today; one that speaks better than most of the rich and complex history of Thessaloniki. The building is beautiful and has a spiritual ambience which exudes poetry and mystique.
The polymorphous character of Yeni Djami and its captivating atmosphere struck both me and the artists and dictated the choice of works by Moataz Nasr and Marwan Sahmarani and the commission of new pieces by Mounira Al Solh, Nikolaj Larsen and NaoKo TakaHashi. It was to become a meditative space for reflection within the Biennale. Still, we were going -and are still- through a period of unprecedented social uprisings and economical and social crises in the region, not least in Greece, that saw many artists joining the civilian activism movements in countries such as Egypt, Syria and Yemen among others. Naturally, references to dictatorship, systems of control, scarcity and human trafficking permeated the works that we wanted to show in Yeni Djami. However, the point was not to make a commentary or to pass judgment on what is going on in the region, but rather to allude to the conditions that influence and, to a certain degree, determine the lives of millions of people in the Eastern Mediterranean region at this juncture in time, while connecting to the individual dimension and paying homage to solidarity and spirituality at a time of disillusionment.
The works that are being shown in Yeni Djami include newly commissioned pieces for the Biennale and for the specific context of Yeni Djami and older, existing works of particular relevance to the Biennale’s curatorial proposition and to Yeni Djami’s character and history.
Mounira Al Solh’s work, While Guy Debord Sleeps, is about scarcity and the systems of control in periods of conflict and crisis. The work consists of a large, closed, wooden box housing a series of drawings about the use of electricity for torture and about the history of electric power in the region. While Guy Debord Sleeps is visible only by candle light, during power-cuts which the artist will inflict on the Yeni Djami exhibition and on the visitors according to a strict regime of three weekly power-cuts, such as those that the citizens in Lebanon, Syria, and Cyprus suffer due to the government corruption, the mismanagement of scare public resources, the use of power-cuts for the intimidation of civilians and the efforts of governments to curb social uprisings.
Al Solh’s practice is about the flux between fiction and fact where irony, poetry and humor simultaneously come into play. Her works often take a polymeric form and partly emerge from the public’s reckoning of her formal and conceptual tricks and the processes that some of her works engage the public.
Over recent years, Nikolaj Larsen’s documentary-like work has increasingly dealt with human trafficking and illegal immigration in Europe and with the living conditions of cheap-labor immigrants, especially in the Arabian Gulf region. His work focuses on individual stories within wider tragedies. In Ode to the Perished, a suggestive sculptural installation made up of concrete canvas™ -a material used to build temporary military shelters in battlefields- Larsen pays homage to the thousands of bereaved illegal immigrants who lose (and continue to lose) their lives in accidents of human trafficking turning the Yeni Djami into a temple for their souls.
Merge and Emerge is a three-channel video installation which shows the mesmerizing dance of Sufi whirling dervishes. Merge and Emerge is part of a larger group of recent works by Moataz Nasr which relate to spirituality, love and human unity. Through dance, Sufis reach a higher state of consciousness which raises them above difference and conflict into a perfect state of peace and balance; a call by the artist for unity and solidarity in the midst of the looming dangers of division and conflict at a time of otherwise promising possibilities.
A great deal of Nasr’s work is concerned with the history and politics of Egypt and of Arab countries. He uses painting, film, installation, sculpture and video in works that tend to vacillate between idealism and a certain cynicism, a sign of his disillusionment with politics in his native Egypt and in the wider region.
Olaf Nikolaj’s work deals with materialism, memory, relational aesthetics, and with the ordinary realities of everyday life. Repetition is an important part of his work where he often integrates scientific facts, universal algorithms, and symbolism. Olaf Nicolai’s Escalier du Chant is split over different venues of the Biennale. For this work, the artist commissioned several composers to create songs that referred to political events of significance to them. In Yeni Djami, we chose to include Mika Vainio’s song. Instead of relating to a certain political event, the Berlin-based composer “(…) first created a musical situation, and then found press reports which (…) to him, described the horizon of the piece”, thus placing politics at the service of his artistic creation.
The Dictators, one of Marwan Sahmarani’s most representational works, is an old series of paintings which is particularly poignant today, in the context of the recent removal from power of several Arab dictators.
Sahmarani is interested in the politics of the human body, religion, and violence, especially in connection with war and conflict in Lebanon, where he currently lives and works. He relishes color and plasticity and his paintings are baroque, thickly impasted and textured. The energy of the artist’s painting motions often drown the representational elements in dense scenarios of tension and drama.
NaoKo TakaHashi’s installation Our Gilded World in Progress uses native trees from Thessaloniki for their semiology which relates to growth, continuity and wisdom. The work engages the public in actively reconstituting bare tree branches into leaf-baring branches, thus symbolising popular solidarity and cooperation, where communities come together for constructive action in times of crisis. In the same spirit, TakaHashi’s sound-installation in the Yeni Djami narrates a text by the artist which relates to Thessaloniki’s stray dogs and the caring community that looks after them: a local story of compassion.
TakaHashi’s work deals with the ambiguities of individual identities and the impossibility of translation from thought to voice, between languages and between mediums. Her practice involves meticulous processes as well as elements of sound, music, performance and writing. Often based on simple albeit profound ideas, she expands subjects and matter into richly and delicately layered works which themselves become gateways into wider realms of emotion and poetry.
Mahita El Bacha Urieta