A troubling homage to the hired help



BEIRUT: A dark-skinned woman with long black hair, dressed in jeans, sneakers and a simple yellow T-shirt, vacuums a rug.

Behind her, a large window reveals a view of a blue sky, marbled with fluffy white clouds, and the tops of a row of tall pines.

Captured in a bold, highly textured oils by Lebanese artist Rima Amyuni, this scene depicts an ordinary moment in the life of the artist’s maid, Dany. Entitled “Dany with Pine Trees,” the piece is one of a series of eight paintings and two charcoal drawings currently on show at Agial Art Gallery, all of them featuring Dany.

Painter Tagreed Darghouth held her second solo show “Fair and Lovely” at the same venue in 2010. Her works focused on maids suffering abuse from their employers, and the high number of runaways who end up on Lebanon’s streets.

Amyuni’s exhibition doesn’t seek to elicit the same kind of reflection upon the predicament of Lebanon’s migrant domestic workers. An artist who prefers to paint from direct observation, often taking the landscapes around her house in Yarzé as her subject, Amyuni paints Dany much as she might a tree or a flower.

The fact that she chooses to return to Dany as a subject betrays the affection the artist feels for her employee. The choice of exhibition title, “A Tribute to a House Fairy,” was no doubt selected with good intentions. Yet its faintly patronizing tone exemplifies some of the troubling issues embedded within this show.

Born in 1954, Amyuni studied art in London and New York. Her bold, colorful canvases are executed in a faux naive style – a deliberate decision to work as an outsider artist, gallerist Saleh Barakat says.

Her portraits capture Dany posing at Amyuni’s request – sitting beside a vase of sunflowers or standing in the artist’s studio in a startling mauve suit – as well hard at work around the house. Dany vacuums. She irons. She peels potatoes. Amyuni paints it all.

To display these paintings at all, the gallerist suggests, is something of a daring move for a commercial gallery. After all, who would want to hang a picture of a maid in the living room?

Barakat sees the work as subversive, a means of bestowing status upon a class of people whose existence and rights in Lebanon are often completely overlooked. This highlights one of the exhibition’s problematic aspects. Issues of social class, ethnicity, power and agency are raised, but not addressed – a herd of elephants left to knock about the room.

What would really be subversive, of course, would be to show artwork by a migrant domestic worker or laborer. That seems unlikely to happen any time soon.

Amyuni’s tribute to her employee shows a woman defined by her work. The one painting that seems to capture something more – conveying a sense of the subject’s individuality – is entitled “Dany and Elizabeth.” In it, Dany stands in the street, hand extended toward a black woman of a similar age.

The two figures are captured with their hands almost touching, fingers curled, as though about to bump fists. The distance between their hands is small enough to be bridged by an extended index finger, but looms as large as the thumbnail-width chasm between God and man in Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam.”

In his catalogue essay “The Painter and her Model,” art critic Joseph Tarrab writes that, according to Amyuni, “Dany readily lends herself to the one-hour sittings” and “favorably comments” on her portraits, even when they are unflattering.

By contrast, Dany’s friend Elizabeth, a domestic worker from Kenya, didn’t like Amyuni’s painting – and said so. “While as usual Dany appreciates,” Tarrab writes, “Elizabeth, shocked, recoils, feels abused, scorned in her dignity, wounded in her humanity, working herself up to a hysterical crisis that requires her sending off to her country.”

It’s lucky that Dany is such a fan of Amyuni’s work.

The artist chose to exhibit the painting regardless, Tarrab writes, because “here, there is no philosophical, ethical, metaphysical, social, political or other background … The problems that she faces are purely pictorial and the finished canvas is the solution.”

What Elizabeth might think of this statement is impossible to say, but some visitors to the gallery might find it a little hard to swallow. Amyuni’s colorful, figurative paintings may or may not appeal on an aesthetic level. In either case, to divorce them from the complexity of the social and ethical issues from which they emerge, and which they arouse, would be to do them a disservice.

To deny art’s ability to address complex subjects and provoke independent viewpoints is to undermine its worth.

Rima Amyuni’s “A Tribute to a House Fairy” is on show at Agial Art Gallery in Hamra until Jan. 30. For more information, please call 01-345-213. – See more a
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