Knowing Her Place
Gideon Ofrat

The measure of a person is that of the rug on which she sprawls. The measure of a person is that of the ground under him. In her recent paintings, Fatma Shanan has migrated her spaces to places far from her room, her home, and her hometown—to the faraway virtual spaces of international museums. Here is the rug, unfurled in the office of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Here they are: the desk at the edge of the office and the barricading wall in the background. And here is the artist in the middle of the exhibit hall, observing, touching-but-not-touching the rug underneath her. Has she elevated herself, freeing herself of the rug’s gravitational pull? Or has she died?

Fatma Shanan: “… The body lies inert, physically or emotionally detached from its surroundings. It floats and hovers in a meditative state or a coma of sorts, waiting to be awakened, a skirt draped over it in the manner of a resplendent shroud. […] Body and space are strangers to each other; existential doubt sets in. […] The ‘out of place’ has become the body’s place….”

The rug (and as always with Shanan, it’s an Oriental rug, representing both the east and the imperative of the home, the family. The rug is territory, place, connection, identity. Now, however, this rug-territory has migrated from its place, presumably triggering a dilemma of connection and identity crisis. Fatma Shanan floats over the rug, possibly obligated to it, possibly disengaged from it, and possibly redeemed from its judgment—redemption of the spirit or redemption of the end.

Here she is in another painting: lying on the floor (this time in a museum in Romania), only her lower body visible to us. The space is obstructed. A wreath of white chrysanthemums rests on the artist’s body; a wreath of red gladiolas reposes next to it. Thus field flowers and garden flowers become memorial flowers. But there’s more: Her skirt is imprinted with images of sheaves of grain and a long, twisting extension cord sprawls on her body. It is disconnected. Symbols of detachment, absence of energy, death. The sheaves will never again bud in the field. In 2015, we wrote (in a comparison with Jean-François Millet’s Harvesters), “Shanan’s ‘harvesting woman’—i.e., herself—is doomed to glean the remnants of a dead harvest.”[1]The woman who yearns for the fields, the rising grain, the flowers, she who clothes her body in the buds of that place (the living blossoms, in contrast, have been plucked and disconnected from their soil)—is also the one who sprawls in an existential limbo of non-place.

Here she is in yet another painting, prostrate on a rug that’s been laid on the museum floor, wearing the skirt with its sheaves, the pair of wreathes atop and beside her, and the disconnected extension cord snaking along on the ground. Notice the two large paintings on the wall across the way, hanging with their backs to us: death of the artist, death of the painting. In our 2015 article, we already noticed it: “Her prostration, with her back to us, is that of someone who’s sleeping or perhaps dead. The pink flowers on her blouse return like black stains of fallen leaves on the floor, responding morbidly to the yearning of the budding of spring.[2]

We remember: In 2013, too, we encountered a Shanan painting in which a woman’s figure lies on the floor (of the artist’s home). Her works in the past year, however, have subjected the artist–space relationship to further deterioration. The wall closes in on the verdant garden that’s seen from the room (this time at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). What’s outside is a promised Eden of sorts to which the artist wishes to descend through a window (or, perhaps, to enter the interior in order to protect herself from the discomfort of the exterior?). Throughout it all, the rug, the clothing, and the world are one, together yielding a self-portrait of the artist. In Lara(2017), the florality of the rug encounters that of the girl’s socks (Lara the niece, a look-alike of Fatma Shanan as a girl)—images of flowers, not flowers in nature. And one mustn’t overlook the brown soil that stains little Lara’s feet in the painting. For then, in childhood, the contents of the outdoors (land, fields) and the indoors (rug, room, house) still promise some kind of encounter. The soil on her feet may be a reminder that emphasizes the virtuality of the textile flowers.

Fatma Shanan’s story from the start of her artistic career is something like that: the effort to leave the room—the house as a place and as an imperative—and join the rug in the big world. In her paintings, rugs are taken out to the terrace, unfurled on roofs and streets, dragged into fields, and rolled into furrows. Amid all that, the gap between the artist’s place (the rug) and her identity seemingly wishes to nullify itself. Thus, in a 2017 painting she weaves her image into the rug, blends into the vegetation, mythological figures, animals, and family members. The rug is Fatma and Fatma is the place. But is it so?

For what is this artist’s place if not the unresolved struggle for her place? Here also originates her fascinating choice, evident throughout her oeuvre in 2014–2016, to return to and leave her room, to come back and take the rug, herself, away. To where?—to the Jezreel Valley. Now, Julis, the artist’s Druze hometown, isn’t in the Jezreel Valley. But the Jezreel Valley is a symbol of the Zionist space, of sinking roots in the soil: a landscape that Shanan knew and learned well by as she studied under the painter Eli Shamir in Kefar Yehoshua, in the Jezreel Valley. Thus, when Shanan places herself—she and the Oriental rug—in the heart of the open space where Jewish pioneering since the dawn of the twentieth century experiences its glory, she wrestles with the question of her own place, connection, and sinking of roots. “I paint a rug as something that emerges from a subversive place and as an antithesis of society’s perspective,” Fatma says.[3]

As the rug migrated to the Valley, we asked: Is this where the young artist from the Druze town will manage to find her place, herself? Will rug and soil become one? Later, in her works in the past year, as the rug migrated to museums and other continents and the artist reappears prostrate and aloof, the question seems to have become a crisis that carries a horrific question: Will she know her place only when she’s prone and motionless, wreathed in memorial flowers? Will she unite with the soil only then?

Gideon Ofrat is a world-renowned art historian, curator, and professor of philosophy and aesthetics. He has organized exhibitions around the world, including the groundbreaking 1993 and 1995 Israeli Pavilion exhibitions at the Venice Biennale. Ofrat is the author of One Hundred Years of Art in Israel and The Jewish Derrida.
Gideon Ofrat, “Remarks about Rugs and Authenticity,” in Fatma Shanan Dery: A Single Spatial Continuum(Umm el-Fahem: Umm el-Fahem Art Gallery, 2015, Hebrew), p. 16.

[2]Ibid., p. 15.

[3]Quoted from Hagit Peleg-Rotem, “Voices of a Rug,” Portfolio (online, Hebrew), June 26, 2017. Here we also read, “When she paints a series of rugs spreading across a broad expanse of fields, she opens a discussion of an alternative Zionist vision of sorts.”