‘In 1831 Alexis de Tocqueville came to America to study the prison system, the political and social character of American society, government, religious life and deep racial and social inequality of a ‘moral’ society. His Democracy in America studied the fading of aristocracy and eventual emergence of a democratic order, but warned that this can create new forms of tyranny. He said Americans had the vice of selfishness and egoism, and when they started to make a lot of money, individualism was accented. De Tocqueville didn’t condemn individuality if it went in the right direction, for people to work together for a common purpose, as it would counterbalance the Tyranny of the Majority.

De Tocqueville felt that with expanding bourgeoisie or the selfishness of individuals, the society would be so in love with seeking pleasure, that it would not even be aware of the despot leading them, because the despot would camouflage his behaviour and that despotism, under democracy, would be more dangerous than the oppression under the Roman Emperors of the tyrants of the past.

"The People's People" by Anna Boghiguian, 2017 Exhibition view Galerie Sfeir Semler Hamburg, photo by Volker Renner, image courtesy: The New Museum
In democracy the despotic powers acts like a protective parent who keeps his children perpetually infants and guides his people like shepherd would guide his flock. In the system people use their thinking as a writer enclosed in a fence. The majority of the population is living in a fence, and if they leave the fence, then their chances of being politically active within the system are ruined.’

This text is written by artist Anna Boghiguian on a wall in the New Museum, and it forms one of the pieces in her new show. She intelligently alert us – although it might be a bit too late for that – or better underlines for us, the coming to fruition of Tocqueville’s warning; how democracy is turning sour by despotic powers on the rise throughout the world, and especially here in the US.

Anna Boghiguian at The New Museum. Image courtesy: Cristina Guadalupe Galvan
Coinciding with a big week for the arts in New York City – revolving around the art fairs Frieze and TEFAF – and with an influx of people coming from across the world, the New Museum decided to open two sociopolitical and self-critiquing shows. And maybe they are an example of the countrywide awakening, that personally, I can see as the only upside of this so-called president.

The exhibitions, curated by Natalie Bell, are the first US solo shows by two Middle Eastern artists: Anna Boghiguian (Cairo, Egypt, 1946) and Hiwa K (Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, 1975). Both artists are well-known in Europe – Hiwa K received the 2016 Bode Prize at Documenta in Kassel and MoMA has several works by Boghiguian, who has been nominated for the 8th edition of the Artes Mundi award, one of the largest contemporary art prizes in the UK – but less so in the US.

Screenshot of Hiwa K’s video at the New Museum. Photo Credit: Cristina Guadalupe Galvan
Screenshot of Hiwa K’s video at the New Museum. Photo Credit: Cristina Guadalupe Galvan
Boghiguian’s show The Loom of History – made out of mixed media collaged paintings, cut-out paper figures and hand-painted text on the gallery walls – addresses subjects that have long animated her practice, including wars and revolutions, histories of materials and labour, and the ancient roots of modern imperialism. In particular, a number of works in the show address the economics of the cotton trade and its fundamental relationship to slavery in the United States – a violent and abusive history whose legacy has shaped racial inequities that persist today. But overall, it feels directly aimed at our current and sad political situation, and the quoting of de Tocqueville’s text particularly relevant.

The Loom of History, located in the first ground floor gallery is the antechamber and seems almost the backdrop for Hiwa K’s show Blind as Mother Tongue (2017), which features several video works that take up the social, political and economic histories specific to the artist’s hometown in Kurdish Iraq. Especially poignant is one video located in a foundry, where several skilled men are recuperating the metal from ammunition shells. It’s highly dangerous work, since some of them can still be filled with explosives. The images of the remnants of war in such large quantities, and how that has become a second economy is incredibly powerful. A lot of them are from the Iran-Iraq war, and as they say ‘there are more than 40 countries that sold weapons to Iraq and Iran (US, Germany, Italy, Japan, China, etc), from the developing countries as well. (…) Most of them were selling weapons to Iraq and Iran at the same time.’ Hiwa K’s (see DAMN°67 for an interview with artist) work is a privilege for the audience; it is history with lower case. He is opening, for us, the door to these first-hand stories so we can get a glimpse of the reality of how people’s lives are affected and transformed by these conflicts; shedding a light on the war industry complex that is the real engine of western capitalism. In another video, he narrates how so many births happened right after the war, because the rape of women is a war practice. All these stories rarely make it to the international press, and even when they do, they don’t have the closeness and affection that this artist obviously has.

In the science fiction film Barbarella (Roger Vadim, 1968) there is a scene where Jane Fonda is talking to a male actor about how in the past – when humans were still in an underdeveloped stage – they had these things called weapons, and they would murder each other for many different reasons. They couldn’t understand it since in their society arms and war didn’t exist for such a long time. If we can dream it, we can do it… But for that to happen humans will have to find a way of making peace a profitable endeavour.

Anna Boghiguian, The Loom of History + Hiwa K, Blind as the Mother Tongue, both at the New Museum, South Galleries, New York, newmuseum.org


"Woven Winds. The making of an economy-costly commodities" by Anna Boghiguian, 2016. Pencil, watercolor and gouache on paper, 41,8 x 29,5 cm. Photo credit: courtesy of the New Museum