A plastic bag filled with soil sits in the middle of 4 concentric circles made of pieces of dried corn and beans.

Marwa Arsanios:
Who Is Afraid of Ideology?

Marwa Arsanios, 'Who Is Afraid of Ideology? Part 3 - Micro Resistencias - Video Still 1'. Courtesy of the artist and mor charpentier.

Since 2017 artist, filmmaker and researcher Marwa Arsanios has been working on a series of short films titled ‘Who Is Afraid of Ideology?’, which focus on ecofeminist and Indigenous communities involved in land rights struggles in northern Syria, Iraqi Kurdistan, south Colombia and northern Lebanon. The complete works are now being shown at Blenheim Walk Gallery, Leeds Arts University, alongside a tapestry piece. Who Is Afraid of Ideology? is an urgent exploration of how the fight against the climate crisis must be rooted within an intersectional struggle against systematic oppression, and a culture that prioritises profit whatever the cost.

The first two films, entitled ‘Who Is Afraid of Ideology?’ parts 1 and 2, focus respectively on an ecofeminist group in Iraqi Kurdistan, and female Kurdish separatists living in a Jinwar, a women-only village in Syria. ‘Part 3, Micro Resistances’ documents the struggle of Indigenous Seed Guardians in Colombia against the extractive and exploitative monocultural farms of transnational corporations. ‘Part 4, A Letter Within a Letter’ explores issues of displacement and land inheritance. The extended version of ‘Part 4’ premiered at Documenta 15 this year. It is set in the artist’s family’s olive grove in northern Lebanon, which is currently being farmed by a Syrian refugee family. The films weave together footage of the women’s everyday lives, images of the land they inhabit, excerpts of text, recorded interviews and phone conversations, alongside the decolonial, feminist, ecological and posthumanist ideas that drive their resistance. While the specific stories of these movements are very different and rooted within their localities, Arsanios connects them through exploring the link between engagement with nature and collective action. In ‘Part 2a woman says ‘it was a calculated decision from the regime not to plant any trees. If people had a strong relationship to land, crops, they would ask for rights.’

Five women sit in a semicircle. They wear long patterned dresses, headscarves and sandals. Their hands rest on their laps while they are talking and smiling.
Marwa Arsanios, ‘Who Is Afraid of Ideology? Part 2 – Video Still 1’. Courtesy of the artist and mor charpentier.

Arsanios develops an ecofeminist lens to communicate a powerful ideology which recognises animacy in the non-human. She uses film as critique as well as to show other ways of seeing and being within the world. The alternative ideology strives for collectivity, reciprocal care and a peaceful coexistence with other beings. At the beginning of the series, Arsanios quotes Pelshin, an influential thinker in the guerilla: ‘My first ecological teacher was my mother. She taught me that we as humans have a place in nature, like trees and birds. I have the right to exist, like all other species in the same place’.

Arsanios’ first film, ‘Who Is Afraid of Ideology? Part 1’ opens with a white line drawing of a plant floating on a black background. This is followed by a shot of the artist walking along a mountain road. She is looking and speaking directly to camera as it pans slowly away from her, but her lips move out of sync with the voiceover, throwing off the viewer momentarily. Her voice outlines an introduction to posthumanist, ecofeminist thought (setting the tone for the subsequent four works in the series), beginning with the powerful lines: ‘We are not outside observers of the world. Nor are we simply located at particular places in the world. Rather, we are part of the world in its ongoing intra-activity’. At one point Arsanios stops, still looking into the camera as it continues to move away. Her figure slowly becomes smaller as the mountain takes over the frame. Then the camera swings up towards the sky and lingers there. With Arsanios no longer in sight, her voice is replaced by the caw of a raven.

Opening ‘Part 1’ with Arsanios at its centre, and the deliberate disconnect between the movement of her mouth and the sound of her voice, foregrounds her role as artist and mediator within the context of Indigenous and partisan struggle. She immediately sets out to break the viewer’s trust in her as the expert storyteller, disrupting the notion of the singular author or voice of reason that has dominated patriarchal and colonial ideology. As Arsanios touches upon in the panel discussion ‘Feminist Naturecultures’ (2020), hosted by Jan van Eyck Academie, she is not interested in speaking on behalf of anyone or creating a ‘fixed image’, but instead positions herself within an ongoing, porous learning process, an important part of which is transparency, or making ‘the backstage visible’. [1] The opening scenes of ‘Part 1’ merge form and ecofeminist theory to establish a striking visual language that underpins the series. The image of Arsanios shrinking within the frame suggests that the focus is no longer on the human protagonist, but has widened to welcome a more nuanced view of the world, which includes the non-human at its centre.

A black circle hangs in a dark room. Grains of golden corn are held within it. The shadow falls on the wall behind with shapes that resemble botanical drawings of seeds.
Marwa Arsanios, ‘Who Is Afraid of Ideology? Part 3 – Micro Resistencias – Video Still 4’. Courtesy of the artist and mor charpentier.

Throughout the films Arsanios makes repeated reference to an omniscient, aerial view, suggesting its modernist, colonial implications. In ‘Part 2’, the viewer encounters a beautiful, quiet and slow-moving drone shot of a flat, snowy landscape. The lines and marks of agriculture and roads scored across it are clearly visible from the sky. As the drone drifts above the land, a woman speaks about the plants that grow in the region, which she forages and uses to treat ailments. The mention of healing burns hints at the drone as a technology of war and surveillance, while the lines of human influence on the landscape appear as scars, or a map of ownership. Here, the woman’s knowledge that is firmly rooted in place stands in contrast to the drone’s-eye view of the landscape, a symbol of the colonial modernity that seeks to oversee and appropriate.

Western ideology situates the white, male human as above all other beings, including ‘nature’, and as the only being capable of rationality. Kathryn Yusoff identifies this as ‘the view from nowhere’ or ‘the God’s-eye view’, [2] while Katherine McKittrick describes traditional geography as ‘formulations that assume we can view, assess, and ethically organise the world from a stable (white, patriarchal, Eurocentric, heterosexual, classed) vantage point’. [3] Arsanios brings us down from this viewpoint into an earthly space, focusing on a woman making medicine from plants using oils, followed by a gentle closeup of a plant and the sound of birds. The same transition is echoed in ‘Part 4’, where a loudly buzzing drone exploring an olive grove drops down into the grass, blades pressing up against the lens.

A snowy landscape, viewed from above. Grey and brown stones and twigs emerge from the white ground. Footprints can be seen in the top right corner.
Marwa Arsanios, ‘Who Is Afraid of Ideology? Part 1 – Video Still 1’. Courtesy of the artist and mor charpentier.

The relationship between the women in the village and the land is rooted within a knowledge of plants that has been passed down through generations. Arsanios is caring and attentive to the non-human as a way of animating this knowledge. Her work connects the rain with the residents of Jinwar, ants moving across a stone, the river running through rocks and sheep grazing in a field. A member of the Kurdish autonomous women’s movement tells of how the mountains have historically been protectors to people who were persecuted, and that in her grandparents’ village, ‘they sing songs to the mountains, not about the mountains’. In Arsanios’ work, the non-human is not merely a background to the story, but a multitude of beings with their own agency.

Alongside the films, a tapestry is displayed that Arsanios produced in collaboration with SAMA Association in Northern Syria. It is made from white fabric with delicate embroideries including fish and mammal skeletons, plants and a section from a topographic map showing land elevation from above, suggesting mountains. In previous exhibitions of Arsanios’ work tapestries were hung vertically, whereas this work is laid flat in a display case. The cold glass is at odds with the richness of the tapestry, where it takes on the appearance of a map viewed from above, replicating the drone’s-eye view referenced in the films. This line of sight, coupled with the allusion to museum collections through the glass vitrine, speaks to the tensions present within showing this type of work in a global north arts institution, as well as the complicity of the traditional museum viewer in the cultural dispossession caused by colonial histories and presents.

A cream piece of fabric embroidered with symbols and images in green, black and blue thread. The tapestry is housed in a glass vitrine.
Marwa Arsanios, ‘Untitled (Tapestry 2)’. Hand-embroidered cotton on linen, 200x60cm. Photo Luke Holroyd.

In Arsanios’ films the unnamed line drawings of plants are reminiscent of botanical drawings in museum collections, extracted from their context and renamed. [4] This act simultaneously appropriated Indigenous knowledge and erased its cultural significance. In contrast, Arsanios shows a woman in Jinwar turning the pages of a book containing pressed plants that is full of notes and diagrams, as she explains their healing properties. The stark and flat line drawings are compared to the vibrant living knowledge of the commune’s herbalist traditions.

In ‘Part 3’ and ‘Part 4’ the artist explores how sight (particularly the patriarchal gaze) is a tool of appropriation for the coloniser. She states that ‘the labour of seeing becomes an inherent condition for belief, and therefore dispossession and land grabbing’. ‘Part 3’ follows the fight of Indigenous Seed Guardians defending their land against transnational corporations in south Tolima, Colombia. Arsanios tells the story of Mariana, a woman who was persecuted by paramilitary forces for her involvement in the land struggle. One of the farmers, Claudina, brings Arsanios to a place where a Seed Guardian was murdered. Arsanios describes it as

‘a place that cannot be fully captured by the camera lens. […] it seems that it’s always a site off frame […] Images that refuse to give us any accuracy of the crime site. Perhaps because the whole territory is a site of crime, of robbery.’

Though the violence inflicted on the Indigenous community is not visible in that singular moment, it is a knowledge that is held and remembered within the earth. The land, which holds the body, remembers the violence through its entangled relationship with it, a notion that the artist explores at the start of the film when speaking of how the borders between the corpse and soil are made complex through shared bacterial cultures.

Arsanios introduces an extended shot, taken from the back of a moving vehicle, showing a road stretching out behind while trees move slowly past. This mirrors the shot of the artist on the mountain road that opened the series. If Arsanios was once the subject, here it is the land. In ‘Part 4’,Arsanios’ voice speaks about how the apparatus of the ‘reverse shot’ captures the landscape ‘in its utmost cruelty’: ‘The reverse shot imposes another labor of seeing, flips time around, and reverses history in order to see its ghosts’. Through an ‘imposed labor of seeing’, Arsanios compels the viewer not to look away from the cruelty of colonial violence. The reverse shot, which looks backwards in time, enacts a historical rewriting that brings out the landscape’s truth, sitting in opposition to the appropriative gaze of the coloniser. A line of text on the screen later reads: ‘Mariana’s comrade says the dead speak from the soil’. Body and soil come together to form a resistance against a silencing of colonial pasts and presents, the landscape transcending the constraints of linear time to give presence to ongoing injustices.

Arsanios’ films call on the viewer to consider the possibility of collectively resisting capitalist exploitation, instead moving towards an earth-bound worldview. Claudina walks down a path in the sun singing an old song: ‘the seeds are dying, I am singing with care and love’. She walks into the distance, becoming smaller as the trees and the path through the tall grass gently take up more room within the frame. The relinquishing of power in this image is hopeful; the viewer is invited to follow her down the path, and together, to tread more lightly on the earth.

Marwa Arsanios: Who Is Afraid of Ideology is at Blenheim Walk Gallery, Leeds Arts University, until 23 July 2022.

Jessica Piette is a writer and curator.

This review is supported by Leeds Arts University.

[1] Environmental Identities #4 – Feminist Naturecultures, [Video], uploaded by Jan van Eyck Academie, Vimeo, 2021, https://vimeo.com/473364933.

[2] Kathryn Yusoff, ‘Geology, Race, and Matter’, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, University of Minnesota Press, 2018, 15.

[3] Katherine McKittrick,’ Introduction’, Demonic Grounds, University of Minnesota Press, 2006, xiii.

[4] Ros Gray & Shela Sheikh, ‘The Wretched Earth’, Third Text, 2018 https://doi.org/10.1080/09528822.2018.1483881.

Published 12.07.2022 by Eloise Bennett in Reviews

2,056 words