Arabic: Translated

Date: February,17 2011
Location of Shoot: Beirut
Photographer: Cassandra Mathie
Author: Nadine Khalil

Cassandra Mathie’s exhibit “Arabic: Translated,” very much has to do with the relationship of language to space, whether the personal or private spaces of the home, amid domestic architecture and the emotions, the relations to the people in one’s life, or the more public spaces of the street. By translating her experiences in Beirut into text typed on fragments of notebook paper, she re-interprets and the objects, people, and places around her, labeling her surroundings in a foreign language re-inscribed with Latin characters. These multiple layers of translation reflect a mental map in this Australian woman’s evocative photography.

In Labelled, Cassandra employs the vocabulary terms she needs for household objects in a process of building a limited repertoire of frequently encountered nouns.

And Notes shows how Cassandra documents and notes down expressions and words in her own house, many of which are difficult to translate, such as “na3iman,” fingerprinted on a steamy bathroom glass door.

The text becomes even more intimate in Soubhiyeh with Hoda, which reveals a conversation, partly in English, and partly in Arabic, over a cup of tea, referring to family life and other matters such as domestic chores.

The inside spaces of the domestic arena are then extended to include the outer areas of the city, to the steps right outside the household door. Lost features four juxtaposed images of red shoes on the pavement from different perspectives, until finally zooming in. The downward gaze reflects the sense of isolation that comes with being unable to participate in foreign conversations.

Street takes different cityscapes: a highway, a corner grocery store, an alley, an Arabic restaurant and affixes a typical expression from the region to each one, giving voice to each urban moment. These street encounters record particular experiences with the Arabic language in Beirut.

Bala Wala Shi goes from the urban environment to a more natural one of sunsets and grasslands with trees sparkling in the light. This is Cassandra’s personal photographic translation of Ziad al Rahbani’s renowned song of the same name, combined with images of the artist’s marriage and her more private relationship to Beirut, in an intimate depiction of love revealed in handwritten Arabic lyrics.

The grid-like Bil Arabi documents and recreates, second-by-second, a one-minute conversation in Arabic in an extremely structural format, confining each movement or gesture to a box of a photograph.

And To be Polite reflects a similar linguistic silence that comes with trying to speak Arabic as a non-native speaker, as her face is literally censored, and only the words are made explicit in typeface, designating the struggle for communication.

Jiddo is also hauntingly reminiscent of instances when words cannot be spoken, or are not enough.

Cassandra Mathie's exhibition will be on view at Tawlet restaurant ( in Mar Mikhail until March 17. 

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