Two SWANA Artists’ Vision for a City of the Future

It’s typical to think about museums as repositories for history and art, but a residency at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, has enabled a pair of artists to reimagine them as a cultural crossroads where one might access both the past and the future. In a new exhibition, resident artists Dahlia Elsayed and Andrew Haik Demirjian present “artifacts” from an imaginary SWANA-inspired (Southwest Asian North African) city of the future, borne out of their hopeful vision.

Their installation, titled Souvenirs From the Future, is the centerpiece of a gallery showcasing two years of the museum’s Cultivate and Grow Artist Residency Program, which touched off in 2020 with an immersive installation by Yasmine Nasser Diaz. Diaz’s world included a bedroom scene that tells the story of two contemporary teenage sisters; Elsayed and Demirjian present the city of “Mustaqbaaaahpolis” (“future-breath-city”), a metropolis built on the interchange of ideas, aesthetics, and knowledge in a system free from “extraction, time scarcity, and exploitation,” according to the artists.

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“We thought about the museum, particularly an ethnographic museum, as a perfect site to expand a narrative,” Elsayed and Demirjian told Hyperallergic. “Specifically, how do you move beyond the well-worn narratives that are based in trauma/displacement/violence and repair the possibility of futurity? Of joy?”

“Shirt for Birdwatching” (2022) and footwear, all designed by Dahlia Elsayed and Andrew Demirjian for life in Mustaqbaaaahpolis (Sarah Rose Sharp/Hyperallergic)

Artifacts of Mustaqbaaaahpolis include calendars, maps, household items and clothing, and reinforce the values of a culture that exists outside of time and beyond modern-day economics.

The exhibition space is crowned by a “Sound Lamp” which projects original compositions by the artists through “horns” on all four sides. These objects, and the colorful geometric motifs that pattern many of the artifacts as well as the floor and walls of the space, hint at existing elements of Muslim culture — such as the call to prayer and restrictions on figurative art — without explicitly citing religious influence. The reinforcement of Mustaqbaahpolitican cultures is evident in the artifacts themselves, from a calendar based on 77 day-cycles with names like “Cycle of Kindness as a Currency” to a Backgammon-like board game titled “The Game of No Winners” and a “Shirt for Birdwatching.” A series of tissue boxes, titled “Tissues for No Tears” (2022), are meant to be used during the “Celebrations of Remembrance for Those Who Suffered Under the Tyranny of Extractive Economics” parade — an event that would consist of collective weeping followed by dancing.

Dahlia Elsayed and Andrew Demirjian, “Sound Lamp” (2022) (image courtesy AANM)

The effect is aesthetically engaging, but most significantly, it opens up possibilities for a future beyond the projected disaster of our current vantage point — in Elsayed and Demirjian’s own words, “an alternative to the crisis of the present.”

“The opportunity to contemplate alternative futures disrupts the cycle of despair,” the artists said. “We thought of this installation as an antidote to the slow cancellation of the future that we’ve all been experiencing over the last several years.”

Dahlia Elsayed and Andrew Demirjian, “Sound Map of Mustaqbaaaahpolis” (2022) (Sarah Rose Sharp/Hyperallergic)
Dahlia Elsayed and Andrew Demirjian, “Tissues for No Tears” (2022) (Sarah Rose Sharp/Hyperallergic)
Dahlia Elsayed and Andrew Demirjian, “Some Typical Plates” (2022) (Sarah Rose Sharp/Hyperallergic)
Dahlia Elsayed and Andrew Demirjian, “A Game for No Winnners” (2022) (Sarah Rose Sharp/Hyperallergic)


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