Still Life on Ceiling
The Dangers (Real and Imagined) of Cross-cultural Interchange
by Linda Swanson
A nineteenth century still-life painting of a watermelon graces the ceiling of Basmabeyinci Konag in Turkey, evidence of Western artistic influence on visual traditions in Islamic lands.1 A knife is somewhat convincingly painted stuck into the center of the melon, completing an unremarkable and predictable image, unless one considers its unorthodox location. Although (or perhaps because) the painting is accomplished in its rendering of form and space, the context of ceiling is jarring. Perspectival Western painting relies on the context of wall and the reference to window to complete the illusion. Likewise, Western ceiling painting extends the illusionistic space upward, usually opening to a painted sky. However, in the Turkish painting we look “up” into an “in” space. Despite the artist’s faithful copying of the Western pictorial style and subject matter, it remains essentially a wall painting stuck on the ceiling. Even the trompe l’oeil (“fool the eye”) illusionism can’t reassure us that fruit, plate and knife won’t tumble down on us!
I was worrying about that knife the other day while thinking about bellydance in the United States. No, it wasn’t my fear of sword dances, or of water glasses or candelabra tumbling down on me during performances, but rather the issue of context, how the surrounding culture frames meaning or content. I had been watching a Mona El Said workshop video—during a drum solo she releases into an orgasmic shimmy moaning, “I’m so happy; I’m so relaxed.” It was a clear reminder to the workshop participants and to myself that this dance is indeed about sex; it is not just sensual and empowering and formally gorgeous and all those other adjectives we prefer.
We prefer these adjectives because they are a better fit to our late twentieth century American context. Sleight-of-word tricks (“sensual” exclusively replaces “sexual,” etc.) dilute content even as we advocate for the dance. In my own enthusiasm to expound on the ideas behind the dance—how it interfaces with my feminist stance, how it respects my body, etc.— one could even get the impression that only feminist intellectuals bellydance! Mona El Said is, well, that knife in the watermelon, about to come unstuck and hit me between the eyes. As I watch her, I feel and believe the sexual motive of this dance. Then I notice the context of my own culture which frames her illusion and whack, the knife comes unstuck. So how do we advocate for this sexual dance in the context of our own culture?
Sex is at once both universal in meaning in our lives and provincial in its social representation. This paradox places Middle Eastern dance on shifting ground for both the dancer and the audience. Much Middle Eastern dance in this country is ambivalent about how content and context interface, and understandably so. How does a dancer integrate the deeply sexual motives of Middle Eastern dance with our own culture of repressed female desire, clichéd (as opposed to authentic) sexual representation, and gender discrimination based on Christian beliefs of biological inferiority? Education can reframe meaning somewhat, but our own ambivalence sometimes undermines even these efforts. Our ever-present cultural context can produce hesitation and self-consciousness in our bodies as we debate quoting or speaking authentically in the voice of an integrated sexuality.
Like the Turkish painter, one can learn all the techniques. One can study with an Egyptian dancer (like Mona El Said) via workshop or video, learning the movements and even the choreographies. But the literal presentation of an uninterpreted choreography can remain awkward or academic in the different social context of this country. What does sexual (re)presentation look like in American dance? Ballet and much modern dance do not provide models, and the pastiched sexual representation of marketing and media is misleading at best. Two extremely different approaches illustrate possible responses as American dancers negotiate this space of (re)presentation:
Travis Jarrell, a true source and resource of our New Mexico dance community is an artist who sensitively combines her training in Middle Eastern, East Indian, modern, ballet, and Central Asian dance. She uses the word “lover” to describe performing to live music and she harbors all the annoyance of being abandoned when that music is not available to her. This vital relationship of dancer and music is subtly yet clearly expressed in Travis’s performance—not by the cut of a costume or a delirious shimmy, but through the exquisitely crafted movements of vulnerability and strength, and an unbounded generosity that abandons itself to music and audience. (All we could hope for in a lover!). Here the content settles satisfyingly into context and authenticates experience.
An alternate dialogue is found in Carolena Nericcio’s FatChanceBellyDance troupe in which content is developed integrally within the context of late twentieth century American (and I might add urban) culture. Controlled and precise, no one in the troupe is about to collapse, orgasmically or otherwise. As a “tribe” of dancers subtly communicates a group improvisation, mirrored movement reflects sexual energy, pairing contains that energy, and doubling suggests self, partner, and reproduction. American Tribal Style privileges female desire over sexuality, empowerment over vulnerability, display over intimacy. It is authentically what it purports to be—American. (Carolena herself has stated that American Tribal Style is probably the least “authentic” of bellydancing styles.) Indeed, one of the successes of this style is that it is not ambivalent about the relationship between content and context.
When cultures cross-pollinate (how about that for sexy verbiage?), results can be misinterpreted, negative, or hilarious, but they are always energized. As we bring this dance into our bodies and into our culture, we can use that energy to find personal resolutions to this dilemma. Can a Western interpretation of this dance hope to allow for both its own context and yet retain an essence of original content? I have no conclusions about any of this, only a sincere interest to be part of the ongoing dialogue. In the end I reassure myself that the painted knife can’t really drop out of the watermelon above my head and that through this artistic cultural mixing (and shift of content to a new context) I have seen something no one culture could have imagined.
1. Still life from the ceiling of Basmabeyinci Konag, last quarter of the 19th century. From plate in Wijdan Ali’s Modern Islamic Art: Development and Continuity, ISBN 0-8130-1526-X, University Press of Florida, 1997, page 8. Reprinted with the permission of the University Press of Florida.
Linda Swanson, M.F.A., is a visual artist and professor of studio art and art history (specializing in feminist art history) at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design, where she is chair of the Art Department. Her own work takes the form of painting, prints, and installations and deals with the connections between gender/identity and exotic/domestic. Her work has been shown extensively in the New York metropolitan area and appears in the collections of major museums. Email: Linda.Swanson@santafeuniversity.edu.