Noah Simblist: Alia Farid: Water Holds a Poetics of Relation

Alia Farid: Water Holds a Poetics of Relation

By Noah Simblist

Burnaway, 2022

In his seminal 1997 text, Martinican writer, poet, and philosopher Édouard Glissant called the waters that carry ships the “blue savannas of memory and imagination.”[1] The space between shores is an abyss marked by uprooting and re-rooting, but if we stay in between these states, a poetics of relation starts to emerge. The passage of migration can be defined by the pining for a place of origin that slowly dissolves into memory, or a future harbor that soon becomes familiar, crystallizing new patterns of the everyday. But the poetics of relation found in the place in between allows for a measurement of one’s self through difference.[2]

Glissant was born and raised in Martinique, a Caribbean island under French colonial control in the Lesser Antilles.[3] Another Caribbean island that is subject to colonial rule is Puerto Rico, an unincorporated territory of the United States. The subjugation of Martinique and Puerto Rico might be seen as examples of the evils of colonialism, most notably the withholding of their autonomy and self-determination, prompting progressive scholars like Glissant to argue for the countries’ emancipation. But Glissant was hesitant to rush toward nationalism; instead he looked to the geography of the Antilles as a metaphor for a new kind of political structure, imagining that each island could represent a form of identification and their agglomeration would form a kind of politics that embraced multiplicity. He was interested in the particular creolization that the Caribbean produced, a mixing of traits that didn’t align with the colonizer but at the same time resisted the rush toward a return to one’s ethnic roots that was appealing to others in the African diaspora.[4] Glissant helps us to think about how water characterizes a particular materiality for borderlands—they are spaces of indeterminacy that can also become a metaphor for new kinds of civic determination. In this sense, the Caribbean Islands are not subjects to be seen as victims but, on the contrary, their creolization provides an opportunity to invent new forms of political subjectivity. This conceptual territory, even as it is found in the metaphor of water, permeates in particular the work of artist Alia Farid.

Born in 1985 Farid grew up between Kuwait and Puerto Rico and continues to work between the two locations to this day. Like that of Puerto Rico, Kuwait’s history and geography are shaped by water, albeit in very different ways. Puerto Rico is an island prone to the heavy rains of increasingly severe hurricanes. Kuwait, on the other hand, is largely desert, being at the northern tip of the Persian Gulf, but Kuwait City began as a fishing village in the sixteenth century.[5] Just above the country’s northern border with Iraq, near Basra, there is marshland that was a traditional source of fresh water for the region. Farid’s recent video Chibayish (2022) is titled after the marshland and follows a group of boys herding water buffalo through the miry terrain. They romp through the reeds, splash in the marsh’s shallows, and call their flock with sounds that combine Arabic language, animal mimicry, and song. This borderland was a site of contention during the Iran–Iraq War in the 1980s and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Following this failed invasion, then-President Saddam Hussein ordered the partial draining of the marshland, producing an ecological and social disaster that included the displacement of much of the local Shi’a population and the near eradication of an ancient and rare wetland. Farid’s video offers us an impressionistic vision of what’s left of this greatly diminished community.

Farid similarly address the waters at the border between southern Iraq and Kuwait in In Lieu of What Was (2019), first presented at Portikus in Frankfurt, and In Lieu of What Is (2022), recently presented at Kunsthalle Basel. Both are large, off-white resin sculptures that are augmented representations of vessels commonly used to transport water from these marshlands. The sculptures reference a traditional practice in which water was brought from Iraq in vessels along the Shatt al-Arab River in boats used by pearl divers. Today, however, most water in Kuwait is treated in desalination plants, a process that requires an enormous amount of electricity. Thus, Farid’s sculptures raise questions about the ecological sustainability of water consumption in the region.[6]

The working title of Farid’s most recent body of work is Migration of Form. The artist founded the project on research about migratory patterns that mirror her own. Following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Farid’s family temporarily relocated to her maternal family’s home in Puerto Rico. Her family’s story is one droplet within a wave of migrations from the Middle East to Latin America during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In upcoming exhibitions at the Power Plant in Toronto, Chisenhale Gallery in London, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Farid will show works that grew out of a larger archival project that looks at Arab immigrants in Puerto Rico, with a particular focus on the island’s Palestinian population.

One thing to note about this project is that Puerto Rico, while technically a territory of the United States with limited sovereignty, has a long-standing connection to both the Caribbean and Latin America. Prior to U.S. colonial control, it was a part of the Spanish Empire and, in some ways, has more in common with its neighbors to the south than to the north.

There are over 700,000 Latin Americans of Palestinian origin in sizable enclaves within Chile, Honduras, and El Salvador. One migration wave was precipitated by the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the early twentieth century, but other significant drivers include the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which followed the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948,[7] and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, a devastating slew of events that produced an estimated 7.2 million Palestinian refugees worldwide.[8] According to Farid, many of the Palestinians in Puerto Rico came through immigration pathways that follow these histories. Thus, the Palestinian community on the island can be traced from the Ottoman-era Levant through Latin American communities in Chile, Brazil, and Colombia.[9]

For Migration of Form, the artist posted fliers asking for any Puerto Ricans with Palestinian roots to contact her and then gathered photographs and documents from the respondents. She was looking to identify the public spaces where these immigrants connected with each other and found Islamic centers, pharmacies, gas stations, restaurants, and clothing stores—all Palestinian-owned or operated. The visual and material cultures of these spaces are important. One research image depicts a mosque in Ponce, Puerto Rico’s second-largest city. The mosque’s orange-striped minaret rises above the more common vernacular architecture of the island. In another image of a shop interior, a large photograph of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem hangs next to a drawing of an Arab man. The man in the drawing pulls a rope attached to a ship that seems to have a miniaturized version of the Al-Aqsa Mosque on top of it. The image of Al-Aqsa, the third holiest site in Islam, is a common trope within the Palestinian diaspora, but its portrayal as being mobile is curious. Perhaps, it signifies the way in which Palestinian immigrants carry the memory of Jerusalem with them.

Farid pays close attention to vernacular material and visual culture when looking at Palestinians in Puerto Rico. In her growing archive we can see idiosyncrasies, whether they be mosque architecture or signs for comida Arabe (Arab food) advertised in a Palestinian restaurant. Farid is producing woven textiles in Alexandria, Egypt, as part of this archive, preserving a tactile everyday materiality. She embraces and highlights the idiosyncratic visual nuances of the visual culture of this community that she has found and eschews minimal forms.

While much of Farid’s work seems to grow out of her biography, the artist resists the tendency to act as a native informant. Indeed, her work evokes obscured histories that push against standard U.S. or European narratives, but she does so by inhabiting Glissant’s poetics of relation: by finding through lines that connect seemingly disparate regions where creolization is already underway, cultural spaces distinguished by complex histories of emigration and immigration.

For this reason, I love her film At the Time of the Ebb (2019), which takes place on Qeshm, an Iranian island in the Strait of Hormuz. The work depicts the celebration of Nowruz Sayadeen (Fisherman’s New Year) with a group of people dancing, singing, and playing music in a small pink room. Some wear white cloths stretched over their bodies as they bounce like ghostly apparitions to the rhythm. A different scene takes place on the beach, where figures with their faces painted white don tall, conical hats and woven beards. They hold palm leaves and chase after one another, followed by groups dressed as animals including water buffalo and camels. The pageantry seems syncretic, surreal, and resists the authoritative gaze of ethnographic film. Instead, viewers are invited to sit in the space outside of what can be categorized or understood. As we watch this film, we feel the affective pull of images and sounds and are encouraged to be present with them—like standing on a beach and feeling each wave of water lapping at our feet. The fishermen celebrating Nowruz Sayadeen feel grateful for the water that sustains the fish, which, in turn, sustain them. But to be present with the waves produces a feeling that is equally available on the islands of Qeshm and Puerto Rico. It is a feeling that Glissant understood from his history on the island of Martinique. It is a feeling that is physical and yet filled with metaphor when we are reminded that water is what binds us together, despite the appearance of distance or difference.

[1] Edouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 7.
[2] It should be noted that Glissant was describing the Middle Passage, the horrific transportation of enslaved Africans against their will. While I am not conflating this experience with other forms of migration, I am suggesting that the diasporic condition can account for multiple histories. Glissant begins with the African diaspora to describe a multiplicity of identities.
[3] Since 1946, the French National Assembly has categorized Martinique as an Overseas Department of France, though in the years following World War II, campaigns for full independence and tensions between the West Indian populace and French colonial power have grown. As with many other territories located within the island group, colonial forces have treated Martinique as an offshore account or foreign-based asset.
[4] Édouard Glissant, Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays, trans. J. Michael Dash (Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1989), 235.
[5] Michael Casey, The History of Kuwait (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2007), xi.
[6] Kunsthalle Basel, “Alia Farid in conversation with Elena Filipovic at Kunsthalle Basel,” YouTube video, 14:51, March 18, 2022,
[7] Referred to by Palestinians as the nakba, or the disaster.
[8] Ronaldo Munck and Pablo Pozzi, “Israel, Palestine, and Latin America: Conflictual Relationships,” Latin American Perspectives 46, no. 3 (April 2019): 4–12.
[9] Alia Farid, interview with the author, April 30, 2022.

Burnaway, October 10, 2022