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Little Egypts

On Display, Kimmel Galleries, December 2017, 1hr 30min

with Alia Ayman + Nathalie Moreno

Wearing a typical bellydancing costume, an uncanny plastic doll mask and painted like an automaton, Little Egypt (Juliana) stands in the center of the diorama, hips moving in the same circular motion for the duration of the performance. Outside, there is a Carnival Barker (Nathalie), with a purple glitter beard, calling to the passers-by and onlookers and handing them ticket-like cards that contradict her ballyhoo words, each with one of five different quotes from critical texts by Edward Said, bell hooks, Malek Alloula, Marianna Torgovnick, and Christina Cogdell. Alongside the Barker is the Juggler of Boobs (María)–wearing a monstrous pink bowler hat with boob eyeballs, a bra top with boobs on the outside, a light-up jacket, and juggling light-up boob balls. Thomas Edison (Alia), in the suit and top hat, observes the scene through an antique camera lens. Behind Edison is the cinematographer, filming the scene, and behind the cinematographer is the audience.

Regarding how imaginaries are constructed through what is included and left out, the performance relates to the frame–the framing of Orientalist scenes, the camera frame. Through this, it has a recursive quality of looking, which is made explicit through the cinematographer filming Thomas Edison filming, by using a technique of mise en abyme that subverts multiple gazes–white, male, colonizer, filmic, spectatorial. Additionally, there is Little Egypt’s awareness
of being looked at, by the spectators and the cameras, that exposes the artifice or fiction implicated by the framing of the diorama. And the cameras themselves also created a distance between the window and the audience to gawk comfortably, but when the Barker asked audience members to approach the window, they were hesitant, unsure, uncomfortable. However, Little Egypts did dance in public spaces like this to attract people into sideshows and cabarets, and audience members were usually emboldened to “step right up” to the Other, as the barkers gave their spiel. In this way, the performance also calls to the way in which Arabs and other colonized people have been portrayed as exotified others and put on display along with “freaks” in museums, sideshows, and human zoos. With all of these parts, the performance involves the possibility of a reflexive consciousness of the act of looking for everyone involved. Recalling these histories by distorting them and pointing out their methods and tropes can aid in understanding how dominant Western forms of knowledge production construct narratives of “backwards” and “primitive” populations, to justify racial hierarchies and military interventions.

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