The scene opens to the white noise of the forest, its deep hum pierced lightly by crickets, and we see her caged body. The contrast between the roaring freedom around her, and the confines of her existence are stark.
License III by Tamara Al-Mashouk straddles the line between anarchy and submission. It is at once the fuel for a feminist revolution and self reflective of the stakes of burning everything down.
It is a work about an Arab woman, about all Arab women, but it does not scream of orientalism. It is real, it is contemporary, it is the image of the new generation of Arab youth who will be the change.
The camera zooms in and out of focus on certain parts of her, circling her, the way one would survey a wild animal in holding. It seems like she’s been there forever.
There is a sense of foreboding (interestingly, foreboding for him, the captor, yet imminent freedom for her, the hitherto captive).
Then, cut out, and cut back to “the moment of release.” She walks slowly from a corner where we see the flicker of a flame. She is the source of light.
Considering her newfound freedom, the movement we expect is a quick flee, yet she is not doing that. In fact, she is remaining within and close to the structure, but navigating it in maneuvers that the architect/captor may never have expected. She has proven that she is beyond and above his understanding and preemption. She is the fittest of mind here.
As she begins to speak, the flame takes center screen, its crackling prominent.
Her voice, so intimate and close, her enunciation, not only in the interest of phonetic clarity, but more so for clarity of meaning. Don’t you mistake me, mistake this, now, as your own. This is mine, and I will be elaborate in my actions, clear in my words.
And with her words she speaks Almashouk dashes any doubts that may have existed about the meaning of this art–it is indeed about longtime female subjugation, the rebellion against it and gradual emancipation from it.
Through select elements she illustrates that subjugation in some of its daily varieties: the gown we see is made out of latex; the clinical feel harkens back to days when women could be (and were) placed in mental institutions at the whim of their male “guardians” who thought their behavior was misaligned with that of a “proper woman.”
The cube covering the head is also made of latex. It erases her features, her individuality, she is interchangeable, dispensable, as the captor would have it. Interesting to note is the fact that before the shooting of this video and in the second iteration of the series: License II, the model sat still in the installation as a projector shone a variety of images onto the cube, which sat on her still shoulders as she carried on her body what was forced upon it, without consultation or consent.
Almashouk places the work in a specific time, a specific climate in which a feminist upheaval begins, with a nod to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign with her line ”I Sat in Stone Davis” and then I burnt her down; the ceiling I built for us to personify them. Stone Davis: a hall in Wellesley College- an all women’s college and both the artist and Hillary Rodham Clinton’s alma mater. And ‘her’: the glass ceiling, the male dominated (corporate) culture and limitations imposed on the ascension of women.
Adding further complexity, the artist highlights yet more constraints in the position of women straddling identities within cultures. And we hear that story in the Arabic words spoken. The narrator understands the cultural nuances well, the stereotypes and expectations, the red lines that are not to be crossed.
“How do I walk through your halls and under your gaze, between your heaven and your hell, with my hand in hers?” She is adept at navigating that environment. The disconnect between the English and Arabic voice overs speaks to her own duality. They are different voices, the two women have different narratives.
It is a surprisingly seamless reversal of roles, or states of emotion. The hefty structure that controlled her–the seemingly weak, frail and dependent woman– it is in her movement and in her words that an undeniable strength and confidence is felt. And finally, with a slowing pace and a steady pan upward, Almashouk gives us time to reflect on the burning structure, to take notice of the stunning gradual erosion that is occuring.