Asad Faulwell’s portrait series, Bed of Broken Mirrors represents an ongoing fascination with the spirited Algerian women who fought against the French colonials in the Battle of Algiers. The solo show’s name comes from the lyrics to Frances the Mute, a trippy, hard rock dirge by The Mars Volta that Asad listened to on repeat while he worked on this series in his studio, a converted garage attached to his Los Angeles bungalow. Interestingly, he’s friends with Amir H. Fallah, who also is deep into a portrait phase, and the two pretty much keep to themselves but often visit one another’s studios.
Seated in futuristic white bucket chairs in the back room of Lawrie Shabibi, Asad and I talked Middle Eastern Studies, collage technique, and Kafka. We read a lot of the same books in school and he knows his Edward Said well. Bed of Broken Mirrors is a series of portraits that reference super Orientalist paintings by Delacroix and Picasso, which depict Algerian women lounging, scantily clad on harem daybeds—more overgrown sexual fantasy than any sort of accurate portrait of their lives. Despite the stereotype, Asad’s still got nothing but love for the master painters: “Picasso and Delacroix were coming from times in which it was normal to think about the Middle East like this. I understand what they were doing, but I wanted to counter it and offer an update that is relevant for the contemporary world.”
Asad first got the idea for this series when years ago he screened Battle of Algiers (1966) as a student and was interested in the way that gender is treated by director, Gillo Pontecorvo. The film focuses on the struggle for Algerian independence that took place in French Algeria (then the country’s capital) in the 1950’s and 60’s. It documents (and arguably even romanticizes) the courageous resistance of the National Liberation Front (FLN) in the face of French colonial forces.
Much of the film is preoccupied with the female Algerian resistance fighters who risked and in some cases sacrificed their lives. Asad noticed that none of the women who fought in the real Battle of Algiers actually appeared in the movie version. It seems that after the war, they returned to their homes only to be shamed by their own communities for having broken with traditional gender norms. He read several dry academic tomes on the war, but these volumes rarely mentioned the women, even in the footnotes. They were virtually forgotten. He remembers it was then that, “I realized that these women’s stories had not been told and they are important.” He spent almost two years doing research, trying to discover the women’s names and learn their stories, and could only turn up one out of print book. He came up with a pocketful of black and white photographs and a few memories.
Bed of Broken Mirrors is the artist’s homage to the women of Algiers. Because the country did not create a monument to honor their sacrifice, the series is meant to serve as a marker. Of the style he says, “I tried to paint the women as though they are half living and half monument. The black and white makes them look like statues.” And what of the eyes, with vines growing from the sockets and mascara running from the lashes? “The hollow eyes reference the unhappy story and the flowers growing from them are meant to symbolize the future generations listening to these stories and literally growing from them.”
After seeing a few too many exhibitions around town in which Arab women are depicted as voiceless, sexualized, or just blatantly objectified, Asad’s show is a breath of fresh air. I was so happy to discover work that addresses gender, yet presents women with strong voices narrating a story that goes well beyond their physicality. At the same time, the portraits acknowledge the femininity and vulnerability of the women of Algiers, the runny mascara showing the pain they experienced in being cast out by the same community they sacrificed everything to liberate. Any gal with a decent pair of heels can relate to what it’s like to have raccoon eyes from runny makeup after a heartsick cry. In the Southern region of the USA where I am from, we refer to those kinds of tears as an ugly cry (an alternative to a demure single tear wiped dry by a manicured finger. An ugly cry demands loud nose blowing).
The portraits were created using an interesting combination of paint and collage. From far away they almost look as though they’ve been embroidered with bright floss, a nod to the traditional hand stitching that has always been a way for the region’s women to tell a story. Up close, I learned that the texture has been created using layers of paint. Snipped photographs of the women have been collaged in, adding a factual element to the otherwise surreal canvases. I wish the gallery had provided chairs because I felt I could spend a whole morning with the women, looking into their eyes and waiting for them to slip me their secrets. This is a stunning show that demands a visit to Lawrie Shabibi.