Inscription: of Truth to Size

Spivak on Jamelie Hassan's Inscription
By Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
Book cover of Inscription, by Jamelle Hassan
Editor's Note: Rungh Reprints is a series of occasional archival reprints which will feature significant pieces of writing that need to be revisited to link pasts, presents and futures. This essay is from the catalogue of the 1990 Dunlop Art Gallery show by Jamelie Hassan, entitled Inscription. Curated by Peter White.

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In the Dunlop Art Gallery in the Regina Public Library in Regina, Saskatchewan, where I look at Jamelie Hassan's Inscription, I stop at Inscription, the title piece, before I enter the gallery space. The entire exhibit is an act of solidarity with Pakistani-British writer Salman Rushdie, whose novel The Satanic Verses provided an excuse for the late Ayatollah Khomeini to issue a death sentence against the author in the name of Islam. In the title piece, Jamelie Hassan inserts Rushdie into the company of other censored writers from the Arab world. Their names are block-printed on the glass case. Covers of their books, imaginatively reproduced by Hassan, are on display. And on the base are bright brass bowls, made by Egyptian artisan Aly Aly Hassan. In the bottom of the bowls are pools of India ink, replenished every day. Under the ink, in some of the bowls, is the proper name of the censored author. In others, merely an Islamic motif. The ink dries in different patterns every day, covering (something that might be) the proper name of the author. I read this simply: it is a miming of the trace left by the laws of nature in the ink of writing by which the author covers over her proper name. For writing is that which makes sense in the absence of the writer. That is why writing is censored. It is too powerful.

I walk in to Meeting Nasser, a video installation1Monika Gagnon has given a lovely reading of this piece in "Al Fannanah ’l Rassamah: The Work of Jamelie Hassan," Third Text 7 (Summer 1989), p. 23-32.. I work this out like a puzzle that mimes the ways in which our "truth"-s are woven together.

Jamelie Hassan, whose parents came to Canada in 1914 and 1939 from Lebanon, grew up in an Arabic-speaking household. Yet she is not merely nostalgic about the place of origin. She sees it as a place in the history of the present, not just in the history of her own displaced migration. The installation is a text-ing (a weaving, as in textile) of that seeing. Hassan "sees" the place of Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918–1970), the "Liberator" of Egypt, through the writing of one of the censored writers named in Inscription: Naguib Mahfouz, censored precisely by Nasser:

We live in an age of unknown forces, invisible spies and day ghosts. I keep releasing images from my imagination and memory. My information about contemporary brutality remained based on the imagination until many years later the locked hearts were opened to me, explaining the mysterious events I failed to understand while they were taking place.

(adapted from Al-Karnak)

This is a text about the restitutions of truth to history through rememoration. Because Hassan recognizes the place of origin as a place other than simply an endorsement for herself as cross-cultural Canadian "other," she can respect the immigrant as agent of historical rememoration. The photographs lining the walls in this installation were found among family papers.

Who is the little girl presenting the bouquet to Nasser in the blown-up photo on the wall, overshadowed by grinning men? Is it Jamelie Hassan, herself younger? We cannot know. Nor can she. All we have is another blown-up snapshot on the wall, of herself full face, without Nasser. With Nasser, the little girl's back is turned to the camera.

A simple sign – nothing as heavy as a metaphor or a symbol – of the recovery of identity in politics. You can't have a true fit, just the approximate size, a hand-me-down to others who must stage the same collective origin as yourself.

(Experience is a staging of experience. One can only offer scrupulous and plausible accounts or mechanics of staging … One of the most tenacious names as well as strongest accounts of the agency or mechanics of staging is "origin." I perform my life this way because my origin stages me so: national origin, ethnic origin. And, more pernicious, you cannot help acting this way because your origin stages you so. The notion of origin is as broad and robust and full of affect as it is imprecise. History lurks in it somewhere. To feel one is from an origin is not a pathology. It belongs to the group of grounding "mistakes" that enable us to make sense of our lives. But the only way to argue for origins is to look for institutions, inscriptions; and then to surmise the mechanics by which such institutions and inscriptions can stage such a particular style of performance.)2Excerpts from "Stagings of the Origin," paper presented at the University of Cambridge, May, 1990.

The video monitor mimes the scene (or stage) of the writing of history. This girl, dressed quite like the girl in the photo, faces us. She is Elizabeth Hassan, Jamelie's niece. The photo of meeting Nasser is behind her on the small screen, as well as blown up on the wall of the gallery. Again and again, this agent of rememorating history turns her back and "enters" the picture in the picture, though the superimposition is never adequate. Again and again, she moves forward and reads the lines. The (ethnic) Canadian – who is the nonethnic Canadian? – has her face turned back and front. She must understand the place of origin as politically present without her. She must also speak that politics to the metropolis in the words censored in that other space, but translated into the metropolitan language. The child reads an adaptation into English.

Jamelie Hassan, detail from the Satanic Verses, from The Triology, 1990. Photo credit: Patricia Holdsworth, Regina.
Jamelie Hassan, detail from the Satanic Verses, from The Triology, 1990. Photo credit: Patricia Holdsworth, Regina.

The child as agent of reading a history written elsewhere, for this space, prompted by the artist's audible whispers for the big words: "imagination," "event," "mysterious." This is a much more complex and overdetermined scenario than claiming otherness. But the agent of history has her own lesson to teach. It is a lesson about learning, learning "the practice of freedom" after the "act of liberation."3Michel Foucault, "The Ethic of Care for the Self As A Practice of Freedom," in James Bernauer and David Rasmussen eds., The Final Foucault (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1988), p. 113-14. Little Elizabeth Hassan tells her artist-foremother confidently why she still needs prompting. She can still only read big letters – in English, of course. She has stepped off the staged origin. She is a Canadian, the agent of new Canadian history.

(If I should dwell on this apparently minor moment, about the size of letters, in this exhibit about the written word, entitled Inscriptions, my catalogue essay would become interminable. To catalogue is to inscribe an account or a legend – legein – that is a downward movement – kata – from the being-there-in-the-gallery of the exhibit. A downward movement – as in "scrolling down" on my computer screen as I inscribe my essay in my temporary dwelling place across from the temporary home of Inscription, the hotel across the park from the gallery in the library. The child as reader of writing speaks again and again of the size of letters on the electronic stage – a simulacrum of the opening up of history. (It is interesting that she might be making a "mistake," she might be meaning the "size" of words. Just such a mistake is Hassan's patronymic, her father's first name transposed by the immigration agents seventy-five years ago. The comradeship with the Egyptian artisan of the brass bowls – Aly Aly Hassan – is fake but real.)

This measure of the unit of learning, the size of letters, may be the place of the techne or (art) of art and history. The child's repetitiveness in the work of art "makes the expert speak, the expert who isn't going to delay saying": the work represents the text-ing of history.4Jacques Derrida, "Restitutions of the Truth in Painting [pointure]," in The Truth in Painting, tr. Geoff Bennington and Ian MacLeod, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 314. The following two passages are from p. 225 and 292-93. If we believe we can restore the (personal, political, historical, cross-cul- tural) "truth" of art, we are silenced by the child/apprentice-in-art who reminds us that one learns inscription letter by letter. Therefore one must think of restitution not of truth in art (or peinture) but of size (pointure). ["Restitutions: Of Truth to Size] … ‘Number of stitches [the size] in a shoe or glove' (-Littre) … ‘But truth is so dear to me, and so is the seeking to make true, that indeed I would still rather be a cobbler than a musician with colors' (Van Gogh)." Restitutions: Of Truth to Size of Letter. How different to learn the agency of reading the borrowed script of history from talking about learning.

One is not only disappointed when … academic high seriousness, … [the] severity and rigor of tone give way to this "illustration." … One is not only disappointed by the consumer like hurry toward the content of a representation, by the heaviness of the pathos, by the coded triviality of this description … and one never knows if it's busying itself around a , [a] "real" [child], or [children] that are imaginary but outside [the artwork] … One is not only disappointed, one sniggers.

The limits of theory, the limits of representation, restitutions of truth to size. The rest of this misleading downward scroll, this catalegein, this essay (or attempt) at a catalogue, must proceed under the sign of that snigger.).

I saw a child sit in front of the video monitor, and rise. Was this the child who had written in the visitors' book: "For a child this is confusing"? If so, Jamelie has anticipated her. Part of Jamelie Hassan's diverse cultural activities is to place "art" in the living areas of the Embassy, a working-class hotel in London, Ontario. "When people sleep with art," she says, "some respond to it, some write or make their mark on it, some take it away, some turn away, some do nothing. Last week a fight between N'Amerindians and taxi-drivers blood- ied Spring Hurlbut's tree-column in the Beaver Bar."

How fragile these fragments. Like the shards, the ceramic kerchiefs with the "real" names of the "disappeared," Jamelie's representation of the kerchiefs of the mothers who held vigil in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires. Yet with such fragments is the substance of history mantled and dismantled in a series of everydays. Political art that respects this history, forever the present ruin of a past pushing into an intact utopia, changes minds as drops of water groove stone. Jamelie Hassan has anticipated this. No quick fixes here.

From Meeting Nasser I step back to "Is This Pornography?" This is the first installation of The Trilogy, focusing on Rushdie's three novels: Shame (1983), Midnight's Children (1981), and The Satanic Verses (1989). …

"Is This Pornography?" begins with a dial phone and an answering machine, and a little clay figure in a nest of shredded paper. Four messages on the answering machine, in "real" time, play on, over and over, easily drowned when people speak. A bland Anglo voice promises to return Jamelie's art work, pointing incidentally and without fuss at the working of the institution that is the condition of possibility for an exhibition for a practicing artist. Then the artist as artist, away from home, leaves a reassuring message for her son. In between are two grotesque "real" obscene phone calls that Hassan has defused by citing them as "art." (Although this particular installation relates to Shame, in my viewing it undoes perhaps the weakest part in the denouement of The Satanic Verses, the destruction of Farishta and Alleluia through anonymous telephone messages.)

"Is This Pornography?" is blazoned in large golden letters on the gallery wall. The question was asked in 1987, by one customs agent in Brownsville, TX of another, about a pre-Columbian Mexican figurine that Ms. Hassan was bringing in from Mexico. Hassan was suspect because she was perhaps born in "Arabia," although she assured the good men that she was Canadian.

(Among the many rave comments in the visitors' book, three or four citizens of Regina decide to answer for the customs agent's colleague: "Yes, this is pornography." Drops of water on stone … ))

In a flash of genius the artist places by the side of this recorded exchange a virulently misogynist passage from the celebrated 12th- century Arabic romance of Layla wa Majnun. No "cross-cultural" us- and-them-ing here. In the middle is an enlarged photograph of the stylized, naked, haughty figurine. Standing against the wall are two huge bold-stroke watercolour and gold-acrylic representations of these figurines, one young, one old, on slightly buckling cardboard. The tackiness of the material gives a special pleasure to this post-colonial viewer. Much of global cosmopolitan public culture is a mix of hi-tech, hi-track, trad, and post-mod. The cardboard fits right in with the tiny figurine on the telephone table, another piece of real fake, nestling in its tacky nest of shredded-paper-in-rumpled-brown. It makes sense that the packing paper should be printed mostly in an East Asian script. In transnational global economy the Asia-Pacific is plausible in Mexico. I must confess I am more excited by all this than the textual connection of the 3 + 1 ladies with the three sisters in Shame.

The next station – Midnight's Children – has powerfully wrenched the title of Rushdie's novel from its context. I applaud Jamelie Hassan's feeling for "becoming involved and taking a stand on issues that may not necessarily affect you directly,"5Interview with Diana Nemiroff, in catalogue essay for Songs of Experience, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, May 2 – September 1, 1986, p. 101. especially in the face of the fierce turf-battles in radical cultural studies, where the only possible politics seems sometimes to be the politics of identity in the name of being the "other." But this is my own turf! This puts my own identity in parenthesis! I was awake as a child upon that midnight, between the 14th and 15th of August, 1947, when an India divided into India and Pakistan became independent. Hassan makes me learn the ropes. She has unmoored the date away from Rushdie's India and Pakistan and given it over to the children of Egypt, who seem, to most spectators in Canada, to be the children of Palestine. And I say, it's all right.

Yes, they will trample me underfoot, the numbers marching one two three, four hundred million five hundred six, reducing me to specks of voiceless dust, just as, all in good time, they will trample my son who is not my son, and his son who will not be his, and his who will not be his, until the thousand and first generation, until a thousand and one midnights have bestowed their terrible gifts and a thousand and one children have died, because it is the privilege and the curse of midnight's children to be both masters and victims of their times, to forsake privacy and be sucked into the annihilating whirlpool of the multitudes, and to be unable to live or die in peace.

(Final paragraph from Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie)

Jamelie Hassan, Midnight´s Children, from The Trilogy, 1990 Photo credit: Patricia Holdsworth, Regina
Jamelie Hassan, Midnight's Children, from The Trilogy, 1990. Photo credit: Patricia Holdsworth, Regina.

On the wall, flanked by the photographs of children, is a large brass plate by Aly Aly Hassan inscribed "Midnight's Children" in English and Arabic, with "Salman" in Arabic in the centre. The final sentence of Midnight's Children, written in a spiral on the wall, now speaks the fate of the dispossessed children who lost a country in 1948, although neither photograph nor novel represents them.

Part of this installation is a large brass table with wooden legs, focused on the theme of fortune-telling, reading the thick coffee grounds in the bottom of an Arab coffee-cup. These inscriptions, like the random tracings in ink, haunt Jamelie. After Meeting Nasser, I find it easy to understand that the traces of the future at the bottom of these cups are the photographs of children, her own son among them, fired into the porcelain. If the ink in the bottom of the brass bowls reminds us of the power of writing, these traces in the bottom of the coffee-cups resonate with the precariousness of the future. How easy to pick up a cup and smash the child's face! We will see the "original" cup, from her mother to the artist, on the pile of books at the foot of the fountain in the next installation. In between are those little ceramic open-books that you find in hobby-shops, with photos of the flames consuming The Satanic Verses.

Move now to The Satanic Verses, the "final" installation inside the room. No re-constellation here, no tracking of the random trace, no sign-language. This installation refers to "what really happened." These are newspaper crowd-shots of book-burning Bradford Muslims. The censors and pornographers and children and writers of the other installations enrich from a distance this scene that "is rich by reason of the poverty of its objective context."6Michel Foucault and Ludwig Binswanger, Dream and Existence, tr. Forrest Williams and Jacob Needleman, Review of Existential Psychology and Psychiatry 19.i. (1984-85), p. 44. The great ladies of Shame and the little girl in Nasser make the point that there are no women here. Not overdetermination but only superimposition is the form. Some of the newspaper photographs are blown up and stuck on pictures of the awful modernist fountain in the Bradford public square where the book was burnt at the stake. What sign can you make when the sign is turned into a thing for the flames? I look at the bewildered faces of the male children, the fanatic faces of the igniters, the dull faces of the media men and ask: do they read? In the name of that most philosophical religion whose opening injunction is "read"? The death of a human being is to bring the possibility of narrative to an end.

It seems right that the relationship between wall and floor here is stark, not subtle. Cut from banal public fountain to soft-stone much-mended junk-antique cake-tier found-fountain on sturdy well-made octagonal three-legged wood table made by the artist's son. All those books burnt on the walls have floated to the foot of this fountain – a great pile of ragged Satanic Verses, some in plain brown wrappers, easy reference to booksellers' cowardice. A bullet-case wrapped in script …

If you look for it, there is a heavily-coded bit of history – book history in one corner of these photographs that will lead you right out of the gallery into the last installation of the show. It is the late nineteenth-century campanile of one of Bradford's public buildings, clumsy imitation of the soaring masonry of the Italian Renaissance, pointing back, in Venice and Urbino, to the so-called Moorish centuries before the fall of Constantinople. How brilliant, then, to make us move to "the real thing" on video-tape, the 10th-century minaret of the Al Ahzar mosque in Cairo, in "the present" of the Islamic world, to bring that call to prayer into the library in the Canadian prairies.

Book cover of Inscription, by Jamelle Hassan
Jamelie Hassan, image from installation Mom, Youre Gonna Blow It, 1990. east display cases, Dunlop Art Gallery, Regina Public Library, Regina, Canada. Photo credit: Patricia Holdsworth, Regina.

This is the last installation, Mom, Youre Gonna Blow It which is what Jamelie's 16-year-old son Tariq says when she decides to reveal to Aly Aly Hassan what he is really making his brass stuff for. Hassan keeps the text of the conversation printed in front of the video monitor, separate from the 3½ -minute soundtrack of Muslims at prayer, played every half-hour. Unlike the frozen-faced migrant Muslims of Bradford, these men, photographed from above, move in a certain flow. The static affective sub-culture of the migrants, when it fetishizes the origin, is kept separate from the dynamic fluidity of the place of the origin "in the present." The Bradford Muslims have not graduated into the truth of size. Hassan mimes the "sovereignty" of Islam in Egypt, by translating the dialogue on paper.

In her halting Arabic, Jamelie puts Aly Aly on the spot, makes him admit that he personally would not kill Rushdie if he were standing in his shop. And she locates Aly in the praying crowd. Simple gestures: to intervene in the Arab artisan's "practice of freedom," to humanize the Muslim crowd for her own Canadian audience.

Of course, it doesn't always work. The first evening at closing time, standing in front of the final piece, I overhear a young staff person say "I love writing – committing to paper – it really takes my stress off." "Ah Inscription! You are at home in this public library," think I. But the last day, leaving in the afternoon, with the Sunday crowd coming and going, I heard the (same?) staff woman speak across to the checkout lady, "That thing is sure loud today!".

I thought then of Sartre's example of l'acte gratuit – shouting in the Library. Jamelie Hassan's "noise(s) in the Library" is not just an existentialist's free act. It is the clamour of her responsibility, to the trace of the historical other, in herself, as agent of history. She breaks the peace of the complacent identity of metropolitan Canada by noisily breaking apart the imaginary institution of "cross-cultural alterity."


  1. Monika Gagnon has given a lovely reading of this piece in "Al Fannanah 'l Rassamah: The Work of Jamelie Hassan," Third Text 7 (Summer 1989), p. 23-32.
  2. Excerpts from "Stagings of the Origin," paper presented at the University of Cambridge, May, 1990.
  3. Michel Foucault, "The Ethic of Care for the Self As A Practice of Freedom," in James Bernauer and David Rasmussen eds., The Final Foucault (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1988), p. 113-14.
  4. Jacques Derrida, "Restitutions of the Truth in Painting [pointure]," in The Truth in Painting, tr. Geoff Bennington and Ian MacLeod, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 314. The following two passages are from p. 225 and 292-93.
  5. Interview with Diana Nemiroff, in catalogue essay for Songs of Experience, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, May 2 – September 1, 1986, p. 101.
  6. Michel Foucault and Ludwig Binswanger, Dream and Existence, tr. Forrest Williams and Jacob Needleman, Review of Existential Psychology and Psychiatry 19.i. (1984-85), p. 44.
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is University Professor, and a founding member of the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society.
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
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