Nobuyoshi Araki is a Japanese art photographer known to many on Tumblr as the tag tied to pictures of languid and rope bound Japanese women. Araki also shoots cities (Tokyo, mostly) and flora, but in the Arakiverse, flowers are never just flowers, nor are cracks in the pavement, or bananas, obviously. His lens, he famously said, “has a permanent erection.” Fully clothed, Araki women are always still in a state of undress. Completely naked—suspended “M ji kaikyaku tsuri shibari” (hanging letter M, open leg binding) or “sakasa ebi shibari” (reverse shrimp binding)—they wear only their humanity, with asanawa rope. Araki calls his process, “making love, naked love.” Gravity is essential. As is grace.
Nobuyoshi Araki is important—press releases will say “Japan’s greatest living photographer”—though rarely exhibited in America’s #prudestablishments. Notorious but underrepresented, reblogged and so auratic, he is why I came, for the first time, all the way to Jersey City. I came to see the largest and most comprehensive showing of Araki’s work ever held in the United States of America, which opened early this month at Mana Contemporary, an intriguing and odd new art center at the end of the PATH.
The show features more than 100 works from one distinguished private collection, including a wall of Araki’s books (he’s published more than 450), a partition of positives (reverse negatives), and literal piles of polaroids. Around a bend, the documentary Arikamentari plays. With no subtitles, the film imparts a sense of the animation of the artist but offers little more context than the rest of the white cube show. The only writing on the wall: “To observe life as well as death embraced in life, or life embraced in death. That is the act of photography.”
Foregoing textual anchorage, the experience of seeing Araki at Mana is not much different than seeing his images reproduced online. The models look great printed lifesize, and there’s something exciting about looking through a positive, as he might, deciding what’s worth blowing up, but no secret meaning was revealed by a screenless viewing. That’s not a putdown of the show, exactly, it’s more to say that the Araki vision translates across platforms. Whether we are in a new gallery in an old industrial part of Jersey or scrolling online, the same questions arise: What freedoms lie in restraint? If these women could speak, what would they say? Is Araki the Terry Richardson of Japan; his trashy exploitation lost in translation and turned into art overseas? Or is he progressive like Mapplethorpe? Trying like Schiele? How wide is his lens? How thick is his—?
The questions came to me, but all Arakinquiry seemed indulgent and banal after I travelled to MECA, the Middle East Center for the Arts, on the third floor of Mana. There they are showing, in collaboration with the Umm El-Fahem Art Gallery in Israel, a collection of video art by six Palestinian women who live and work in Israel, namely Nasrin Abu Baker, Iman Abu Hamid, Fatima Abu Romi, Raida Adon, Anisa Ashkar, and Manal Mahamid. The videos range from a few to nearly thirty minutes, and, while Araki got a gloss of a walkthrough, at MECA, I sat and watched it all.
I did not understand much of what I was watching. Confronted with an alluring unfamiliar, I grasped, as one does, for things I knew. Raida Adon’s The Body Recalled (2012) is the first, the longest, and most prominent video; it’s what beckons you in. In it, I recognized a ceremony—a beautiful woman with a braid like Rapunzel and kohl black eyes starts out in some homosocial cabal. She, our heroine, is also pictured alone: sitting on a surreally high chair, looking like Alice after “DRINK ME”; drowning in a clear tub of water, face painted white, like a Japanese horror film Ophelia, or like Snow White in her glass casket. Cut through scenes in a desert, our lead chops off her iconic braid and hangs it on a tree decorated with similar abandoned braids. In the end, she trades her female cohort in for a man. She hops into this man’s arms, falls into him, succumbs, is carried away. I get something: man, woman, community, matrimony, hair is a symbolic object. But that’s a sketchy interpretation at best.
After seeing the show, I met Raida Adon in Mana’s onsite restaurant. Admitting to my ignorance, the only question I had for her was the most basic: what is it about? A translator sat between us as she explained:
The video explores the relationship between a man and a woman on their wedding day, incorporating elements of both Arab and Jewish culture. The fascination with hair stems from the practice among Arab and Jewish women of cutting off their hair following their wedding. The loss of one’s hair mirrors a loss of power. The coffin-like bath of water reflects a sense of being suffocated by marriage. The end, when the protagonist is picked up by the man, can be seen two ways: as a fairy tale, with the husband carrying the wife away, but it was also inspired by image of an animal being sacrificed and carried away by its owner.
This kept happening: I could “get” some of what I was looking at at MECA but its socio-political context was mostly lost on me. I initially understood the show’s title—“Voices from the Interior”—as referring to the domestic sphere of women in and outside of the Arab world. A majority of the videos take place in the domestic spaces, with recurring images of marriage ceremonies, laundry, and other household chores. My interpretation was not wrong, but it was lacking. I missed the other interior: the interiority of being a Palestinian in Israel.
“This community is known by a variety of terms: Arab-Israeli, Palestinian-Israeli,” Tyler Waywell, a director at MECA patiently explained to me, “One term that is not used in English but is common in Arabic is ‘Palestinians min al-dakhil,’ which literally translates to ‘Palestinians from the interior.’” He continued on:
As a group, they are looked at as somewhat foreign both within Israeli society and the Arab world. As ethnic and religious minorities in a Jewish state, many Israeli Jews see them as something of a “fifth column,” foreign and potentially disloyal to the state. However, cut off by Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and the diaspora, this group is often also looked at suspiciously by other Arabs, who see them as somehow corrupted by their Israeli citizenship, as well as their knowledge of Hebrew and Israeli culture.
“Sorry for all the historical/political background,” he apologized, unnecessarily.
As a reader, I want to learn something from a review. As a writer, I want to be expertly educated on my subject. Thus the seeking out Araki; I can write about Araki. I can’t write much about the work in “Voices from the Interior”, yet. But I felt compelled to air it asap (even while airing my ignorance), because, as a critic, I want to encourage readers to experience things I think are worth experiencing, and MECA right now is that. In a city as filthy with art as New York, it’s still rare to see something you haven’t seen before. Exhausted online, the tortured nudity of Araki’s photographs no longer provoke, but an empty dress floating in an empty lot, as in Raida Adon’s short video “Fasatine” (2012)—that commands you to know more.
Nobuyoshi Araki and Voice from the Interior: Palestinian Women Artists will be on view at Mana Contemporary through August 16, 2013.