Occidental College will showcase Lebanese multimedia artist Tania El Khoury’s interactive art exhibition, “Cultural Exchange Rate” Sept. 12-15. The exhibit will conclude with El Khoury’s Core Program lecture. The exhibit is being held on behalf of Occidental’s Media Arts and Culture (MAC) department, spearheaded by Dr. Katarzyna Marciniak, professor of global and transnational media and MAC department chair.
This will be the 11th time the exhibition has been shown, having been disassembled from its previous showing at the University of Michigan in Detroit, according to Marciniak.
After coming into contact with El Khoury’s work “Gardens Speak,“ Marciniak said that El Khoury is a powerful, innovative visionary — a major reason why Marciniak brought El Khoury to the Occidental community.
“One of my commitments is to bring transnational artists to our campus, especially those whose work resonates with Oxy’s ethos around social justice,” Marciniak said.
El Khoury’s pieces have been translated into numerous languages and shown in 32 countries and on six continents. El Khoury studied at Lebanese University, Goldsmiths College and Royal Holloway University of London. While studying fine arts at Lebanese University she met production designer Petra Abousleiman, where they worked on one another’s student projects. According to Abousleiman, “Cultural Exchange Rate“ has been in the works by El Khoury and Abousleiman since late 2018.
Abousleiman received a B.A. in Communication Arts at Lebanese University, and an M.A. in Mass Communication/Media Studies at The New School. As a production designer, she said she considers the spatial experience of the exhibition, determining how to best translate El Khoury’s ideas into a material space.
“[El Khoury is] very inspirational and all of her work is very political, very social, very economic, so it has all these factors coming in together all the time,” Abousleiman said.
According to Marciniak, hosting the exhibit has been years in the making. She knew she had to pitch the idea to Occidental donors after seeing “Gardens Speak.”
A large portion of the funds were granted to Marciniak by the Humanities for Just Communities initiative (HJC) co-directed by Professor Kristi Upson-Saia and Professor Clair Morrissey.
“Humanities for Just Communities is a curricular initiative that aims to demonstrate the power of the humanities to engage with and contribute to social justice issues,” Upson-Saia said via email.
The three-year grant was offered to the Occidental community with a separate theme for each year. This year’s theme is migration and displacement.
“[The themes] were all pressing social issues around which [Oxy’s] humanities faculty have wide expertise,” Upson-Saia said. “They are also topics that demand contributions from humanities in order to understand the nature of the issues and to devise solutions that adequately center the people most impacted by them.”
According to Abousleiman, the process of putting together the installation can take anywhere from a few days to several months, depending on whether or not it must be built from scratch. Each time it is executed, El Khoury and her team adjust the production as needed to ensure its improvement.
“Whenever the set travels, it takes with it a piece of everyone else who came here,” Abousleiman said.
The exhibit comprises of different cabinets for audience members to unlock, each revealing stories of the immigration of El Khoury’s family members. It is broken down into 10 narratives that span about a century.
“People have suffered a lot trying to leave the country to somewhere else but with money that has no value anymore, just overnight,” Abousleiman said. “Every time you cross borders it has less and less value in that sense.”
Marciniak said that El Khoury uses her own family stories to talk about broader issues around immigration.
“We live in a climate that is often xenophobic and racist, encouraging all kinds of anti-migrant, anti-refugee, [and] anti-immigrant sentiments,” Marciniak said. “Those are issues that should concern all of us.”
Contact Shea Salcedo at email@example.com.