PARALLAX: A multimedia art piece exploring diaspora and displacement

“My work was just a reflection, or narrative, of my own life and the life of many others like me, for whom home has become a foreign place. This is a predicament of the modern age: crossing borders to live in foreign lands and communicating through scraps of papers with quickly jotted notes.”
— Zarina Hashmi

“I am made to leave I am made to return”
— Marwa Helal

Par·al·lax (noun)
A displacement in the apparent position of an object along two different lines of sight.
An astronomical method of measuring distance between objects in outer space.

PARALLAX is an abstract narrative multimedia art piece exploring themes of migration, displacement and fragmented states of be/longing in being caught between two home/lands, through the metaphorical lens of interplanetary migration. It draws on my personal experience as a semi–second generation Lebanese American, born in the U.S. to immigrant parents who fled Lebanon during the civil war, later returning to Lebanon to raise their children. After growing up and graduating university in Lebanon, I returned to the U.S. as an adult re-immigrant in 2015, settling in the metro Detroit area, yet remaining constantly torn between both lands.

BACKGROUND

PARALLAX is an art piece commissioned by Science Gallery Detroit for the exhibition Future Present, on view at 1001 Woodward Ave., Detroit, MI from Sept. 11-Dec. 11, 2020. It culminates from concepts I had been formulating long before I was approached by SGD, across years of grappling with issues of migration, displacement and diaspora, and longtime preoccupation with outer space and identification with narratives of interstellar travel and the void.

Not long after PARALLAX was formally conceived for Future Present, Lebanon, which has long suffered from extreme instability leading to widespread uprisings against corruption since late 2019, was hit with a disastrous economic crisis. The Lebanese pound crashed and plummeted in value, and an already struggling and impoverished people were thrown into even further catastrophe — all in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. Then on August 4, 2020 an ammonium nitrate explosion decimated the port of Beirut, laying destruction to half the city, killing hundreds, injuring thousands, and displacing hundreds of thousands.

Dealing with the unspeakable terror and trauma of everything Lebanon has been going through from afar is too difficult to try to describe or make sense of. It is constant grief, guilt, anger, sickness. At a certain point, between the economic collapse and the horrific August 4 explosion, it felt meaningless to continue work on an art piece dealing with my anxieties around my homeland, from the comfort of my stable living situation, in a country whose funds and sanctions and imperialist agendas continue to further Lebanon’s deterioration.

Diaspora and migration, especially spurred by survival, are devastating conditions but also privileged ones, the privilege to be able to leave and live with stability elsewhere while a homeland burns and its people are crushed. At once this separation is also inherent to the Lebanese condition, to grow up with the idea of getting out — the number of Lebanese people in diaspora vastly outnumber those in Lebanon, carrying our own form of Lebanese brokenness that is precisely compounded by that separation. In eventually pushing through to complete the piece mere days before the exhibition opening, it is this state of being, from afar, on fire for a homeland on fire, that I hope PARALLAX expresses.

Lebanon remains in ruin and in need of all of our help. A list of ways to donate can be found here. The commission fee I received for this art piece has in large part been donated across various aid channels.

CONCEPTUALIZATION / MANIFESTATION

PARALLAX explores the state of involuntarily voluntary migration due to a homeland’s instability and the constant push-pull of leaving and return. Which is which, when the initial migration is driven by war and seeking refuge? What does it mean to immigrate to and make a “home” in a nation complicit in the continued war and destabilization of the native one and its surrounding region — instigating that immigration, while also being hostile to it, and constantly seeking to Other, defame and destroy the native identity, and impose a hegemonic colonial worldview? PARALLAX expresses the diasporic condition of being in a state of permanent displacement, in suspended animation between two home/lands and not fully belonging to either one. Yet simultaneously being entrenched in compounded grief and trauma around the different but not dissimilar ongoing crises, deteriorations and injustices unfolding at once in both places, each one carrying its own scars of colonization and systems of privilege and oppression.

The piece formulates and presents an abstract narrative around the turmoil of immigration and diaspora using the setting of space travel — drawing on current realities of global instability and rapidly growing ideas and efforts towards humans leaving Earth and settling on a new planet. Parallels emerge around the struggle of chasing a “better” life vs staying and trying to preserve our home; how our identities and ways of life exist outside of a home land/planet, especially in a new setting that is inhospitable; and bleak realities of colonization.

In the art piece, a multi-layered back and forth journey manifests across a lenticular accordion structure, producing the parallax effect of two different vantage points based on which side the lenticular is viewed from — two sides of immigration at odds with one another: on one hand, seeking a more stable way of life, and on the other, the turmoil of displacement. In a play on a comics-esque grid, different colored panels make up pathways running back and forth between two planets on either edge. Inside the panels, bilingual English and Arabic text — each running across a different side of the lenticular; Arabic from right to left and English from left to right — and continuous yet fragmented imagery around home, travel, grief, distance and belonging delineate a bi-directional state of being caught in a push and pull between the two sides. The fractured appearance of the lenticular when viewed head-on further demonstrates a fractured mental and emotional state as both sides collide and splinter one another.

Formally, the piece melds design and craft, rejecting false distinctions between the two as the layout designed with the aid of tech software comes to life through material experimentation and a multimedia final fabrication of paper, paint and ink across a hand-built 2 x 3 ft. foamboard and wood accordion structure. The piece itself ends up being a physical testament to the oscillating condition of diaspora, as it is made from paper that I have carried back and forth between Lebanon and the U.S. across the past six years, not finding the right project for it until this one.

In interpreting immigration through the extreme lens of interplanetary migration, the crushing terror, desolation and isolation of traveling through space becomes a metaphorical framework for the debilitating experience of displacement and migration into the unknown, particularly as refuge and escape. The alienness and hostility of a new planet reflects the allienness faced by migrants to a new land completely foreign from their native one; and the abandonment of leaving a broken Earth to make a new home on a new planet reflects the abandonment of a broken homeland.

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