Begin in Smoke, End in Ashes

25 Apr–2 Jun 2019
Begin in Smoke, End in Ashes
Azza El Siddique

The New Yorker, New York Times


An Evocation

Sight, smell, and sound: these are the invitations issued into Azza El Siddique’s work. The installations in Begin in smoke, end in ashes are an evocation of both memory and spirit, a testimony of transmutation. The materials used by El Siddique—liquid, solid, light, smoke—continually transmute into other forms of matter over the course of the exhibition.

A transformation of site, the artist’s exhibition combines materials and objects to elicit questions of form, time, and substance. The fragile lines of El Siddique’s assemblages at first appear to divide space in a seemingly arbitrary way—they neither prescribe movement nor direct flow—yet careful reflection reveals that they present a demarcation that both underscores and challenges compartmentalization. El Siddique’s insertions widen space, even though her blockages are too delicate to effectively function as barriers. These subtle architectural cues rework space to engage viewers experientially, situating them in relationship to El Siddique’s contemplation of the nature of the world.

Rather than undertake a wholesale interrogation of the order of the universe, El Siddique’s installations gently prompt the viewer to consider memory, loss, belonging, belief. Like call-and-response chants, the repetition of her slip-cast forms in various stages of becoming and undoing suggest dynamic cycles between individual and collective, repetition and rebirth. The intentional, slow degradation and distortion—the dissolution of clay into water, the dissipation of smoke in the air—suggest an acquiescence to the elements, albeit one carefully controlled by El Siddique.

As the water in the installation becomes muddied with a suspension of clay, it is also transformed into a kind of primordial soup: a mash-up of origin stories and creation myths. El Siddique’s inclusion of bukhoor—traditional Sudanese incense blended from sandalwood, frankincense, myrrh, and other fragrances—adds another layer of complexity, serving as both sensory experience (for the viewer) and mnemonic prompt (for the artist herself). Nostalgia for a past that cannot be recreated is a hallmark of displacement and dislocation, of life interrupted, of living with absence made constant. And yet those of us who live in the diaspora incorporate fragments of (fragrant) ritual and tradition as a way to reach into our histories and to access legacies.

Echoes of religiosity, spirituality, and myth intertwine through El Siddique’s work, not unlike the curling tendrils of smouldering bukhoor. The scent of the incense is reminiscent of meditation and worship, the forms of Anubis and of the Magi, the ancient cosmologies referenced in words projected onto a wall.

In Begin in smoke, end in ashes, El Siddique explores immense cosmologies at a piercingly intimate scale, presenting an extra-temporal exploration of history that is both universal and personal: Where do we come from? How do we get there? And what forms do we assume in the journey towards wherever we are going? This exhibition is an evocation to respond to these questions of self-definition and relation.

Nehal El-Hadi