'Heartbreak' Exhibition Announcement


RUYA MAPS is pleased to announce the exhibition ‘Heartbreak’ to coincide with the 58th Venice Biennale, 11 May – 24 November 2019. Taking the classical story of Dido and Aeneas as its starting point, the exhibition will include the work of nine contemporary artists, each exploring the theme of heartbreak.

From personal to political, the works in ‘Heartbreak’ will align with RUYA MAPS’ mission to support artists working in, or concentrating on, areas of political instability, while addressing the need for a wider global conversation about loss, betrayal and exploitation. The exhibition will be RUYA MAPS’ first presentation in Venice and will include work by Majd Abdel Hamid (b. 1988), Talar Aghbashian (b. 1981), Lana Čmajčanin (b. 1983), Maryam Hoseini (b. 1988), Imad Issa (b. 1953), Farah Khelil (b. 1980), Randa Maddah (b. 1983), Füsun Onur (b. 1938) and Christiana Soulou (b.1961).

The story of Dido and Aeneas is a fitting starting point, as it touches on aspects of grief and sorrow that extend beyond personal distress into collective experience concerning land, country, fate and historical necessity. Their story is also a tale of East and West; Dido is an Eastern queen betrayed for the foundation of a Western city destined to become an empire.

Virgil describes the love between Dido and Aeneas in his epic The Aeneid, which relates the story of the foundation of Rome. Aeneas, a Trojan prince and refugee of the Trojan War, alights on a journey that takes him to the Italian peninsula. During his journey, Aeneas meets and falls in love with Dido Queen of Carthage (located in modern day Tunisia) and stays with her for many months. The foundation of Rome relies on Aeneas’ abandonment of Dido and when Aeneas leaves Dido commits suicide.

Tamara Chalabi, Director of RUYA MAPS and co-curator of ‘Heartbreak’ has said: “Our exhibition follows the map of the ancient world, reaching east to Persia and west to Rome, to trace this journey of heartbreak. In recent and current times, over this extended area, notable cultural and political trauma – through the loss of countries and the loss of lives in war – contribute to the loss of the past and a loss of hope. We are exploring the voices of artists who negotiate their lives and creativity from heartbreak to heartbreak, because of their love for a person, a family, a social group or a country.”

Paolo Colombo, co-curator of ‘Heartbreak’ has said: “Through a series of new commissions and never-before-seen works, ‘Heartbreak’ will explore the interconnections between individual histories and collective devastation: heartbreak both intimate and social. We have selected artists from areas of rich cultural heritage within the wider map of Aeneas’ travels until his encounter with Dido.”

A number of the works on display explore the collective heartbreak felt by communities experiencing war and conflict. War as the origin of Dido and Aeneas’ story will be explored by Talar Aghbashian in a series of newly commissioned acrylic paintings. These are comprised of imagined landscapes that transcend time, with an abstract quality inspired by myths, symbols and characters from Virgil’s world. Drawing on these different narratives, they reference ruin and devastation, using images of ancient statuary, bas-reliefs and totems, as well as hair and body parts, in an effort to investigate the effects of war on the land.

Shown along with these works will be a number of short films by Imad Issa who was one of the first artists to make work addressing the Lebanese Civil War (1975–1990). The films are often surreal in content and experimental in approach. In one, a figure gives a speech to an empty theatre; in another, a man buries his own injured hand which had been hit by a bullet during the war. Issa has lived in Lebanon all of his life and much of his work refers to personal torment in relation to war in his country. Also on display will be a series of clay sculptures, consisting of heads with nails and stones impaled in them, which can be seen to express the cultural destruction visited on humanity by the violence of war.

Continuing the interrogation of violence as a source of heartbreak, Majd Abdel Hamid will present a new commission about Tadmur Prison, which until recently was one of the most notorious and barbaric prisons of the current Syrian regime. He has created embroidered reproductions of the floor plans of the prison that will be displayed in a vitrine and accompanied by a stream-of consciousness audio narrative. Abdel Hamid is preoccupied with the ways in which we consume and process violence and these themes will be particularly pertinent here as the prison was not only a site of extreme brutality but was also demolished by ISIS in 2015, after they broke in and freed its prisoners. Tadmur, also referred to by its Greek name Palmyra, is known internationally primarily for the loss of its antiquities. Abdel Hamid’s work recognises the additional importance of the loss of this prison as a location for grief, experience and memory. A physical point for mourning is created through the complex embroidery – a site for heartbreak.

The mapping of heartbreak will be developed in Lana Čmajčanin’s commission, a work that consists of around 100 maps, presented as though in a war room in a back-lit table installation that will show the various delimitations of territory in the Mediterranean area, particularly in the Balkans and the Middle East. The work examines cartography as a means of extending and securing state hegemony. Colonial border drawing and the forced creation of nation states have and continue to trigger trajectories of violence and migration with enormous global consequences. Visitors will be encouraged to interact with the work, moving the maps around the table, reflecting the ways in which human actions affect our conception of the world.

The exhibition will also include a selection of several works by Füsun Onur that explore the fragility of the domestic. A doll’s house, a mixed-media sculpture with a spinning music box mechanism turning a miniature chair and several mixed-material embroidered frames will be on show, all contributing to the artist’s creation of a dream-like world that evokes the delicate and transitory qualities of childhood. Onur’s substantial career has seen her employ everyday materials in a variety of ways to deal with nostalgia and the sense of longing for that which cannot be retrieved. The economy of means of her work makes it so that her three-dimensional forms are distillations of complicated and layered structural constructions. Much of the work is extremely delicate and a number of the works which will be on display in ‘Heartbreak’ have never travelled before.

Onur’s sculptures will be exhibited alongside a commission by Farah Khelil interrogating feelings of memory and nostalgia for her hometown Carthage, which was also the mythical homeland of Dido. Khelil will present mixed-media works that deal with issues of solitude, memory and imagination at the intersection of the private and public spheres. One work incorporates a bedside table, painted postcards, photograms and sections from dictionaries, as well as a video collage to articulate tensions between personal and collective histories, nature and culture. Another work, Spheres, consists of a series of postcards of modern day Tunisia that investigate the obliteration of landscape.

A number of the commissions directly concern Dido’s experience of heartbreak. Christiana Soulou makes figurative drawings which invoke Renaissance draughtsmanship and illustrate literary or historic characters in a deceptively gentle form, with echoes of Pisanello and Hans Bellmer. For this show, Soulou has created a new body of drawings informed by Virgil’s epic poem. In the same room The Death of Dido by baroque painter Andrea Vaccaro (1600–1670) will be shown, as well as audio of ‘Dido’s Lament’ from Purcell’s 17th-century opera Dido and Aeneas.

A counterpoint to the Dido and Aeneas story will be presented in Maryam Hoseini’s commission, which responds to the 12th-century version of the legend of Layla and Majnun by the celebrated Persian poet Nizami (1141–1209). The poem tells the story of a forbidden love which causes Layla to be imprisoned and Majnun to descend into madness. The story offers two useful reversals of the exhibition’s narrative, firstly by exploring a well known Eastern love story and secondly by presenting an equilibrium in the gender exchange – whilst the woman suffers most in the Roman story, both lovers in the Eastern story end in despair and eventual death. Hoseini’s work creates new environments – imagined spaces in which social interactions become more fluid and new possibilities for the body, intimacy, shamelessness and pleasure are introduced into the everyday. For ‘Heartbreak’ Hoseini is producing a series of paintings investigating the story of Layla and Majnun through the female lens, questioning the story’s accepted tropes. They are inspired visually and thematically by Timurid period manuscripts of Nizami’s ‘Khamsa’ anthology, which includes Layla and Majnun. The works will be displayed alongside a film of a play of the poem by the Egyptian poet Ahmed Shawqi, featuring renowned singers Asmahan and Mohammed Abdel Wahab.

The exhibition will also include two video works on the theme of heartbreak. Randa Maddah is a Syrian video artist from the Golan Heights, a Syrian region occupied by Israel since 1967. She will show the film In View (2017), which deals with imprisonment, occupation and containment. Shot from the rooftop of the artist’s home in Majdal Shams, which is located on the ceasefire line that has cut through the Golan Heights since 1974, this video connects the populations on both sides of the border via a complex construction of moving mirrors. The mirrors place the Israeli and Syrian military encampments on the same view line, thus ‘subjecting’ both sides to the same systems of oppression. For Maddah, the work provides a fragmented vision of her fragmented self, exploring lost identity and erased memory.

An additional work by Majd Abdel Hamid, a film entitled Wait For Her, will be shown in the same room. The title of this work refers to a love poem by well known Palestinian writer Mahmoud Darwish (1941–2008). In contrast, the content of the film is a stateless person waiting hopelessly for the return of electricity in a dilapidated building in Beirut, home to many displaced people. Dipping his feet in water to keep cool, the man appears listless and disillusioned. A narrative voiceover jarringly repeats lines from Darwish’s poem in a dispassionate, monotonous tone that mimics the style habitually used by regional newsreaders, even in the relation of terrible political and military events.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a catalogue published by RUYA MAPS.

About ‘Heartbreak’

Curators: Tamara Chalabi and Paolo Colombo
Commissioner: RUYA MAPS
Address: Ca’ del Duca, Corte del Duca Sforza, San Marco 3052, Venice
Nearest Vaporetto: Accademia or San Samuele

The exhibition will run 11 May – 24 November 2019. Opening hours are 10 am – 6 pm, every day except Mondays.