No Context: Death Metal and Burkas

Today now marks the tenth installment of No Context, a weekly Sound of the City column written by the inimitable Zach Baron, a writer who's left his words all over the Voice and Pitchfork, and here covers music and art, and the fluidity between the two. Thus far, Baron's covered as disparate subjects as Paper Rad at MOMA, R. Kelly's "Trapped in the Closet," Social Registry Fest. This week, he's back to the gallery, writing about an Egyptian artist who claims to be kindred with Muslim women in burkas. Yes, read on.

No Context

by Zach Baron

Nader Sadek: “The Faceless”
Michael Steinberg Fine Art
September 6th – September 25th

So at Michael Steinberg Fine Art the Egyptian artist Nader Sadek—a New Yorker these days, by way of Cairo and Minneapolis—is showing “The Faceless”: six mixed-media drawings involving a burka-clad woman interacting with various aspects of black and death metal culture—skulls, tentacles, devils, decaying castles. A soundtrack, limited when I was there to a tinny set of headphones, runs further with the metaphor: metal luminaries such as Morbid Angel’s Steve Tucker (who already did duty in Cremaster 2), Emperor’s Trym, and Obituary’s Ralph Santolla trade riffs and blast beats with Middle Eastern music stalwarts Omar Faruk Tekbilek and Raquy Danziger.

“For a while now, I've been interested in exploring what different cultures perceive of as extreme. 'The Faceless' grows out of years of walking the crowded streets of Downtown Cairo dressed as a full-on death metal fan (i.e., long black hair, long-sleeve Morbid Angel/Deicide t-shirts, and an overall grungy look). Then, in a sort of twisted reversal, I decided to walk the streets of New York's Times Square in the black garb of a fully veiled woman. The intense reactions I got in each case confirmed for me the potential of this project,” says Sadek in his press release. “I hope that by reflecting back to the audience their paranoid fantasies, which totally oversimplify the reality of Middle Eastern and death metal culture, that my work will get them to question their own prejudices and sense of the extreme.”

In a way Sadek’s got a point. Metal culture (black and death metal culture anyway, but I’ll spare all of us the headache), already fetishized from within as a kind of dramatically and intrinsically antisocial behavior, has picked up a second constituency in the art world, which in turn shorthands it out as a quick aesthetic reference and template used to signify “misfit,” “outcast,” “churchburner,” etc. Similarly, Muslim iconography is often referenced for the same reason, in order to indicate people too serious for this world, the anti-capitalists and anti-godless-societyists and pro-moralsists, etc etc etc. The two even share a color scheme, if you count black as a color, and admit some flexibility between silver and gold.

Why Sadek, who ostensibly grew up on the streets of Cairo in a Deicide T-shirt, would buy into this equivalency, or even buy into the separate art-world valences of “metal” and “religion,” is more inexplicable. Banks Violette’s “metal,” for instance, is an unapologetically tweaked and aesthetic creation—there’s no pretense that Violette’s doing anything but raiding an artistically interesting community in service of artistically interesting ideas. Same with, say, Terence Koh crossing a Larry Craig-style toilet stall with a church confessional booth. In neither case is the artist making any real claims about hacking prejudice or bringing light to the blind, etc; in fact, both are sort of getting off on the cheaper senses of their source material, a choice you get the sense they thought through and are more than fine with.

Probably my favorite Sadek piece is a drawing of a woman, clad in a black Moslem veil, standing on a mountain of sludge while making out with a kind of bestial Satan figure, called “Formulas Fatal to the Flesh (Don’t Ever Leave Me).” There’s humor here—it's hard, in fact, to imagine a scenario in the godless West where this image wouldn't be funny—but the general vibe is that Sadek's not too interested in the lighter side of his juxtapositions. Ditto for the soundtrack, which is anything but a smooth integration of, say, the teentaal and the simsimaya with ripping solos and double bass. “Crushing with hatred eyes, your truth is all you see,” goes the vocal, “Killing with twisted mind, all those who don’t believe,” while traditional Middle Eastern rhythms and sounds interpolate with otherwise speedy metallic carnage. It sounds exactly as disjointed (and hilarious, if we’re going to be honest here) as it is.

This without mentioning some of the priceless quotes that came out of the process, such as this one here, about why Nile, the South Carolina death metal stalwarts, didn’t participate in the project despite fifteen years of celebrating Egypt in song: “NILE's music revolves around ancient times — this is a project about contemporary culture.”

Anyway do I really have to even point out the brutally false equivalence of walking down the street voluntarily dressed as a Hessian vs. being culturally inculcated since birth to wear a robe that covers all but your eyes and feet? Even accepting both acts as voluntary, surely it’s easier to go home and get a haircut and a shower when someone calls you gay for looking like a girl than it is, say, to be forced by a potentially racist government or schoolteacher to take off your veil at school. And as far as rebellion goes, metal’s tepid conflict with mainstream Western religious hypocrisy has to pale against a pious Muslim’s discomfort with the lack of any religion at all in the Western world, right?

Sadek, whose bonafides in both camps are more or less impeccable (childhood in Cairo, great mask for Mayhem), would suggest that these are things he knows, when he steps out of his studio at the end of the day anyway. Which is maybe something he should do more often.

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