On ViewThe Mosaic Rooms
June 25 – September 26, 2021
Fehras Publishing Practices’s research began in 2015 when the Berlin-based artist collective was tasked with cataloging renowned Damascene novelist Abd Al-Rahman Munif’s precious private library. This opportunity led eventually to a monograph and an exhibition in Berlin. More importantly, it prompted publisher Kenan Darwich, dancer and performance artist Omar Nicholas, and journalist Sami Rustom, who together make up Fehras Publishing Practices, to delve deeper into Munif’s era and map out the main protagonists involved in publishing in the Middle East in the immediate postwar years.
This ongoing research project, now titled Borrowed Faces (2018–present), traces several funding sources for publishing in the Middle East with imperialist motivations: the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), the Franklin Book Programs, and the Afro-Asian Writers’ Association (AAWA). Fehras Publishing Practices’s project focuses on the period between the Bandung Conference in Indonesia on April 18–24, 1955—as well as the publication in 1956 of Richard Wright’s The Color Curtain, which examines the conference—and the release of Edward Saïd’s Orientalism in New York in 1978. All three of these events are now recognized as important landmarks of post-colonial theory avant la lettre.
Borrowed Faces: Future Recall at The Mosaic Rooms in London is Fehras Publishing Practices’s institutional debut in the United Kingdom. The venue in Earl’s Court is the cultural arm of the Palestinian A.M. Qattan Foundation and one of London’s mainstays for contemporary culture in the Middle East. The exhibition characterizes the Middle East as one of the main arenas of the Cultural Cold War between the 1950s and the 1970s. It sheds light on the United States’ neo-colonial desire to re-educate the Global South by translating and distributing American books in Indigenous languages under the auspices of the Franklin Book Programs, organizing exhibitions, and publishing more than 50 center-left-leaning literary journals worldwide through the CCF.
Reminiscent of the successful “little magazines” which launched the European avant-garde at the turn of the century, the literary journals published by the CCF were expected to have a similarly seismic impact in the Global South. In 1966, a series of articles in the New York Times revealed that the Central Intelligence Agency was the primary funder of the CCF. This sealed the fate of the organization forever and alienated many of its affiliated cultural intellectuals. For example, the CCF-financed periodical Hiwār in Beirut ceased publication shortly after the revelation, while the editor of the literary journal Encounter in London resigned.
Borrowed Faces: Future Recall also touches upon the Soviet-backed, but formally nonaligned, AAWA, which sought to establish cultural contacts amongst literati from Africa and Asia. With a bureau in Colombo, Sri Lanka, the association organized conferences and gatherings in Tashkent, Cairo, Beirut, New Delhi, Almaty, and Luanda between 1958 and 1979. Unfortunately, despite entertaining post-colonial commitments, the AAWA still fell prey to the intricacies of neo-colonial translation. In a revealing move, its trilingual literary quarterly Lotus, available in Arabic, English, and French, eschewed other languages indigenous to the Global South in favor of Arabic.
Upon entering the Georgian building that houses The Mosaic Rooms, we encounter an intellectually stimulating and thought-provoking research hub in the first gallery on the main floor. This contains several magazines and book copies, academic monographs, and an interactive digital archive installation that allows visitors to add to the records. The institutional bodies, the literary periodicals, and the main protagonists of the project (novelists, translators, distributors, collectors, and publishers) are mapped out in great detail—both in the monographs on display and in the digitized archival records.
The exhibition also includes two performative elements: a photographic novel that shares the larger project’s title, four extracts of which are being presented in the second gallery on the main floor, and a digital collage embedded in an audio installation in the basement. These two projects provide a welcome opportunity for the artist collective to reflect on documentation, collecting, and archiving as artistic practices. In carrying them out, Fehras Publishing Practices’s three members took on fictional female alter egos—Syrian American researcher Hala Haddad, Iraqi translator Huda Al Wadi, and Haifa-born cultural activist and bookstore owner Afaf Samra—as a way to (time) travel to Beirut in the 1960s and engage with their research findings in a livelier, more accessible, and playful way.
The photographic novel Borrowed Faces spreads over 136 pages and was first issued in an edition of 500 in both Arabic and English in 2020. Its photographs are digital collages of Beirut in the 1960s and 1970s, drawn from the Lebanese Ministry of Tourism archives, and have been montaged with portraits of the artist collective. Blending fact and fiction, the plot follows the fictional alter egos adopted by Fehras Publishing Practices as they form a friendship and uncover the hidden truths of the local book market and publishing scene. At The Mosaic Rooms, 21 image spreads are laid out in vitrines, detailing four different scenes from the novel.
In the basement, the final part of the installation, titled Future Recall, follows our three protagonists into the future as they sneak into the archive of the CCF, which is now part of the University of Chicago. While COVID-19 restrictions stymied Fehras Publishing Practices’s travel plans for 2020 and moved most of their archival research online, the artist collective was able to see the funny side of things, and imagined a fictional entry into the archive, which they restaged using various repurposed colonialist myths like the magic flying carpet. A nine-minute-long audio/sound installation details the collective’s connection to the CCF.
Borrowed Faces: Future Recall provides a thoughtful introduction to publishing activities in the postwar Middle East and its intricate links to the Cultural Cold War. While the conceptual and reading-intensive format of the exhibition might alienate some visitors—several visits to The Mosaic Rooms are encouraged to fully grasp the extent of the presented research—they are at liberty to forgo the archival section for the more playful photographic novel. The research, however, is exhaustive. Were Borrowed Faces a history dissertation, it would doubtless be included on lists of essential reading for generations to come.