Upon entering Alia Hamaoui’s latest solo exhibition, ‘Scaled Reiterations’ at DKUK in Peckham, you are met by The Boy, The Snake and The Charmer, a totemic sculpture complete with a painterly, textured surface of dyed sand. A three-dimensional translation of Jean-Léon Gérôme’s infamous 1879 painting The Snake Charmer, described by critic Jonathan Jones as a “sleazy imperialist vision of ‘the east’"* and widely recognised as the poster-work of Orientalism, Hamaoui’s monumental sculpture engages directly with the fallacious, problematic and misleading portrayals of the Middle East prevalent within Western art and culture. Herself of bi-cultural - Lebanese and British - heritage, Hamaoui is naturally inclined to question the continuing misrepresentation of Middle Eastern society and is attentive to the frequency and ease with which her own ancestry becomes a “homogenised construct for Western convenience”.†
Similarly, through artworks such as Blurry Sets and In The Eye of The Serpent, Hamaoui identifies moments within contemporary cinema when violent acts have occurred against the backdrop of a picturesque, alluring sunset. These scenes typify the questionable commodification and exploitation of the ‘exotic or the ‘tropical’ by the mainstream media and the tourist industry, often to the detriment of local communities and local culture, as well as the whitewashing or glamorization of a location’s past. Whilst Blurry Sets - Hamaoui’s first foray into video work - collages such found footage from supposed cinematic classics like Apocalypse Now, Lawrence of Arabia and Star Wars: A New Hope alongside the appearance of an animated serpentine insignia, the artist’s In The Eye of The Serpent series of ocular reliefs present the same sequences of sunlit savagery rendered in dyed sand, a favoured material of Hamaouis that itself retains inherent associations with popular touristic souvenirs and the commercialisation of an area’s natural resources.
Finally, while the vibrant palette of flaming oranges, aquamarine blues and blushing purples appeal to the viewer aesthetically, and the rich textures of sand-coated jesmonite, glistening glass wax and patchwork embroidery tantalise the audience haptically, Hamaoui simultaneously contemplates the very act of ‘looking’ through consideration of both the exhibition’s location and replication of the ‘gaze’ evident in the aforementioned Jean-Léon Gérôme painting. Presented at the alternative hair salon-cum-art gallery DKUK in South London - where instead of the conventional, uncomfortable and unrequited mirrored stare, the clientele are invited to gaze upon artworks during their haircut - Hamaoui’s exhibition serves as a meditation on this unique practice and manipulation of the ‘gaze’. Embodied throughout the exhibition by the repeated serpentine motifs, with snakes often depicted within popular culture as mesmeric, deceptive and seductive creatures and the act of snake charming regularly employed to allegorise duplicity and cunning, Hamaoui’s subversion of the ‘gaze’ entices the viewer to perhaps unknowingly engage with the artworks more subtle conceptual underpinnings.
*Jean-Léon Gérôme: orientalist fantasy among the impressionists, Jonathan Jones, The Guardian, 2012
† Alia Hamaoui: Interview by Charlie Mills, YAC | Young Artists in Conversation, 2021