Nidaa Badwan lived in isolation for some 20 months in a tiny room in occupied Gaza, under a bare bulb and a single window. After her first hundred days of exile, she began a photographic self-portrait series, titled “100 Days of Solitude.” Fresh from exhibits across Europe and New York City, she’s making her Virginia debut in Declaration, the opening exhibition for the groundbreaking of the Institute for Contemporary Art April 21.
Her exile began after harassment by Hamas militias, something she described as routine. “It happens with women who are ‘different’, who do not walk in the same line, to those who try to walk off the track,” she said. “But no one talks about this, because those who undergo it are ashamed.”
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Badwan was initially placed under house arrest for eight days after a confrontation with Hamas at a youth arts program. She was told she would have to wear a face-covering veil and only travel with male relatives. Instead, she stayed in her room, where she found inspiration in the Gabriel García Márquez novel her work pays homage to, One Hundred Years of Solitude.
“The beauty of this book is that there is a city. Inside this city is a house; inside this house, there is a room. It looks a lot like my situation, or my room: Inside this house, inside this city, isolated from the world,” she said. “It is the same story of this city.” Macondo, the city of Marquez’s story, may not exist under that name, but for Badwan, it is real nonetheless.
The bold colors and strong play between light and shadow in each portrait, mixed with the partial obscurement of Badwan’s face, have drawn comparisons to Caravaggio paintings, surprising her. “I did not know Caravaggio until I finished this project and people in Italy started talking about the resemblance to him,” she said. “I went to see his paintings and I was shocked, as if I had been there with him when he was painting his works. I immediately sensed how he thought, what was going on inside his head…”
Her work is time intensive and painterly, both in the process and end result. She said her work takes time because she only uses natural light. “For every picture it takes almost a month because I study the light, the shadow, the position, all the details that want to put in the picture, to have a work like a painting,” she said.
Loneliness is a central theme in her work, something she describes as both universal and deeply personal. “Loneliness is a very personal thing, very special. Everyone can feel differently from the other,” she said, separating the theme of loneliness in her work from the political conditions of life in Gaza. “Under occupation, or without occupation. When you’re alone, you do not ask yourself what’s out there.”
The Institute for Contemporary Art is a fitting space to show this work, which was born out of seclusion and isolation. The spacious modernist building, designed by Steven Holl Architects of New York, is situated along Broad St. between Belvidere St. and Pine St., on the border of the neighborhood rebranded as the Richmond Arts District in 2012.
“It’s a public space, intended for conversation and bringing people together,” Chief Curator Stephanie Smith said when I met with her in February. “It’s been intentionally designed with windows and skylights to be porous and open. We want to be a convening place for conversations.”
That intention extends to the two entranceways. One door opens on Belvidere, the other on Pine. They’re equal in size and scale, Smith noted, saying, “There’s no front door here. We have a campus and a city entrance. The goal is to create a shared spaced between VCU and the city.”
The open design of the ICA, the way it connects two segments of the city, is a strong contrast to Badwan’s work. Her photos are tightly composed, almost cramped, and full with color, symbols, and meaning. They’ll be placed on open walls in an expansive room with soaring ceilings. Directly across from her solitary scenes will be a collaborative installation with fabric and thread, designed to bring strangers together in conversation.
Smith, a recent hire at the ICA, came to Richmond in 2016 after a prestigious career that’s included long stints as the chief curator of both the Art Gallery of Ontario and the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art. She described the recent staff turnover and construction delays as not unusual for such a large project, but was confident about the opening, saying, “It’s a short runway for an exhibition of this scale. It’s all really intense and really exciting.”
In addition to Badwan’s work, the non-collecting institution will open with a wide slate of works, including the anti-racist sculptural series REWIND by Paul Rucker, a citywide exhibit by Detroit-based printmaker Amos Paul Kennedy Jr., and a media installation by Peter Burr and Porpentine Charity Heartscape.
Smith described the variety of opening pieces as part of the mission of the institute, connecting local, national, and international artists all in one space from a variety of disciplines. “The exhibit is diverse in all the ways you can think about that, culturally, artistically,” she said.
Although many of the exhibits make strong statements, Smith said none of them had been chosen to fulfill a particular agenda, saying, “We’re a public institution. We don’t take a political stance in support of a particular policy or person, but we do take on ethical or moral stances.” Above all, she says they “stand behind freedom of expression and art,” which she describes as having a transformative power.
Badwan’s work touches on many political topics, especially those relating to Israel and Palestine, but Smith described the work as political only in the lowercase-p sense, used to describe personal politics and the important choices individuals make in their lives. “She’s someone who was dealing with an intense situation and her response was to pull inside and imagine another world,” Smith said. “She chose to respond to [imprisonment] with art in a really disciplined way.”
Badwan expressed a similar sentiment when asked about political content in her work, describing it as, “Zero. In art, I like to talk about things that interest me. Politics do not interest me.” Although she describes her self-isolation as an act of political protest, she sees the art that came out of that period as transcending mere politics.
Even before Smith knew Badwan’s story, though, what first drew her to Badwan’s art was the power of the imagery, which she saw in 2016 in New York City. “The work is beautiful. She has an exquisite sense of space, color, and composition. Visitors who don’t know anything about the backstory can be drawn in just by the imagery.”
The work makes statements about gender and discrimination, most notably in a piece Badwan identified as the most important. It depicts her playing an oud, a lute common in the Middle East, to silence a hostile rooster. In one interview, she describes the rooster as symbolic of men, particularly in Arabic symbolism, and is blunt about the message, saying, “With my gesture, I invite the rooster to shut up and let me be free to express myself and my art.”
Despite the restrictions on her personal life imposed by Hamas, Badwan enjoyed a rich creative life inside her room, and she made plans to debut “100 Days of Solitude” in East Jerusalem. This too, was restricted, although this time by the Israeli authorities, who refused to let her exit the Gaza Strip to attend.
After her self-portraits gained attention in 2015, largely through her social media presence on the website 500px and an interview with a New York Times reporter, she was finally able to leave Gaza. Before she received her invitation, to Monte Grimano and Montecatini in Italy, she told the Times interviewer that her situation was dire, saying, “I’m ready to die in this room unless I find a better place.”
It’s a sentiment expressed on her 500px profile too, where her one-line biography reads, “Finding a Safe Place”, and in notes, she’s written about her self-portrait series, where she wrote, “In the first months of self-imprisonment I contemplated committing suicide.”
The invitation to Italy came via the diplomatic efforts of a Franciscan, Father Ibrahim Faltas, of the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem. Since her arrival, she’s taught at the University of Design in San Marino, and exhibited new work in Denmark, Berlin, France, and the United States.
I asked her if Italy and Europe had proven to be that safe, or better, place. Her answer was conflicted. While she enjoys greater freedom in Italy, she also described a sense of loss.
“I feel like I’ve entered this game called “Solitude” and it’s like a video game,” she said. The move from Gaza was like successfully progressing through a video game only to encounter greater difficulty. “I passed the first level, I won, and now I move to the second level. The theme is different, but it is a higher level of the solitude I had inside my room.”
She still feels isolated, but within a new context, she explained. “In the first level I was locked inside my room, inside a closed city, and there I had my world. But now the opposite has happened. Now I have the whole world, free, all open, but I do not have a room. I do not have my room.”
Photos Courtesy of Nidaa Badwan