Paris, 17 April 2015

Today I spoke with Navine G. Khan-Dossos. She is erudite and eloquent, and she has a mission. Her work deals with one of the key topics with which Europe is now wrestling, namely, Islam and the ensuing issues of terrorism and the imagining and fear of the ‘Other’.

Navine serves as a bridge between the Western and Muslim perspectives. Her biography contributes to this process. Navine (b.1982) grew up in London and lived for a year in Kuwait (2003-04) where her uncle was the British Ambassador. She was staying with her uncle and aunt in the Embassy’s residence when the second Iraq Invasion began.

She experienced first-hand how the machinations of politics and the media molded reality. The reporting was not always consistent with her own experience. The desire to express different perspectives is also reflected in the adaptation of her name. Her ‘worldly name’ Navine G. Khan-Dossos, an anagram of her British name Vanessa Hodgkinson, opens other doors.

A work that I dearly wanted to see but missed is the series Converts, which was produced recently during her residency at the Jan van Eyck Academie, Maastricht. I am amazed how her research has brought forth delirious paintings.

She created paintings on all three walls of her studio. The starting point for Converts is women who have converted to extreme forms of Islam and sought to join ISIS in Syria. This artist typically seeks her own approach. In a subject area where most interest generally falls on the men, Navine has shifted the focus onto the women.

The three wall paintings are a cross between a sketchbook and a diary in that they were repainted every one or two weeks. Events in her own life but especially news events led to the addition of each new layer, numbering twelve in all. A sliver of the previous painting remained visible, resulting in an accumulation of images and references.

Protagonists from news headlines are transformed into abstract colorful patterns. These include Hayat Boumeddiene, the girlfriend of one of the Paris terrorists, who fled to Syria to join ISIS, Sarah Harrison and other female journalists who are active in Wikileaks or working with Edward Snowdon, and Haruna Yukawa whose beheading by ISIS was captured in an execution video.

Using patterns, Navine interweaves the Western and Muslim worlds. Aniconism, the shunning of images, especially of divine beings or other living creatures, dominates Islamic art. In her work involving the media or image-making processes, Navine abstracts or deforms the image.

The image is in fact filtered in a way that produces critical distance. The basis for a pattern can be a color wheel, a target, a flag or the ‘Refresh’ icon on the computer. Komt Hier Aan Deze Gele Vlaktes (Come Unto These Yellow Sands), the work commissioned by Probe, seems to be a continuation of the Converts series.

I find it fascinating that Navine links the desert with the ‘Other’. She suggests that the desert is the locale of the ‘Other’, the place where the stranger dwells. She finds evidence for this in the Orientalist literature and painting of past centuries, as well as in contemporary online images and texts.

It makes me think about the rocky inhospitable desert where Osama Bin Laden hid, but also about the velvety sands from Lawrence of Arabia or Walt Disney’s Aladdin. The ISIS execution videos have again called the world’s attention to the desert. Navine portrays the desert as a place of fantasy and lawlessness or perhaps even godlessness.

The execution videos compress these two meanings. The landscape as propaganda and lure to attract European youth to the Caliphate. Navine was surprised to discover the exotic desert in the middle of the Netherlands: the Veluwe. The locale of the ‘Other’ is not a projected fantasy thousands of kilometers to the East but can be found in our very midst! All good reasons to put the Veluwe sand drifts in this panorama.

The yellow-grey sand with patches of red moss, bordered by a row of trees, is again translated into a pattern. Just as in the Converts series, where the TV test pattern broke up the mold motive, here we have a so-called aerial calibration target.

This is a kind of barcode in the landscape that aircraft, satellites and drones can focus on. This motif is not chosen accidentally. The Deelen Military Aviation Field is located near the Hoge Veluwe. I look forward to scanning this desert with my own eyes and letting my thoughts go to myself and the ‘Other’.

Nanda Janssen