“It takes time to free oneself from the trauma of abuse, to fetch resources from within oneself so to become a respectable person again and learn to stand against and keep away from any abuse, from the other as well as from one’s own.”                

                                                Agnes Btffn

Absence involves something or someone being away, the time during which this something or someone is away, the state of being withdrawn from a place or a relation, or the state of being without something, another signifyer for lack. Absence can ignite want - can trigger desire. Absence and presence go together. They are not the same but it is impossible to think one without the other. Without presence, absence becomes meaningless. Without absence, presence is taken for granted and has nothing to be measured against. This linguistic dynamism comes into play in "Absence" - a remarkable art-poetry-performance project - and the relation between words and meanings underlines its ethical implications.

Anyone vaguely familiar with psychoanalysis, which is both a symptom and an analysis of western patriarchal culture, will recall that out of the two sexes it is the female who is associated with absence. Woman lacks what the masculine subject 'has'. If man is the positive, woman is his negative – not in a yin-yang complementary dynamic, but rather in a hierarchical setting, where one is more superior to the other. The masculine subject defines his own fragile identity vis-à-vis this perceived female lack – in that what cannot be seen or grasped cannot be felt to be there.It is impossible for me to write about “Absence”, without referring to this sexual difference and the repression of women by men as a near-universal, historical and contemporary phenomenon, however liberated we may feel in this corner of the world. “Absence” is saturated with gender, and constitutes a formidable feminist statement on several levels.

The installation/performance is based on a poem by the Stavanger-based writer, Norwan. It is the force of this text and the urgency of its author’s voice that fuses with and motivates “Absence” as an art project. The name, Norwan, does not really exist – it is a literary creation, a living-writing necessity, an identity-veil. Norwan is the pseudonym for an Afghan woman poet, a refugee who has come to safety in our town, through ICORN. Norwan’s true name and identity must remain a secret – her name uttered in our context (in our town) could put her relatives’ lives in danger. She protects her loved ones through concealing her self from the world. What happens to identity, when the given name becomes impossible? What does it mean to be Norwan, an Afghan woman poet in Stavanger? How does it feel to have given oneself a name but to become nameless at the same time?

The poem, “I am blame my name is woman” was first published in a local newspaper blog on 7th March 2011, just ahead of International Women’s Day. Norwan’s poem is a desperate cry from the voiceless, subjugated, raped, beaten and tortured Afghan woman, exchanged as a commodity in a clinical transaction between men.  It is addressed to the women of the western world, who celebrate their own success, and in the process become blind to their otherwordly sisters’ endless suffering and humiliation. It is a wake-up call, sounding loudly from Norwan to the women of Norway and probably well beyond.
In December 2011, Sahar Gul became known to the world, as she emerged from her torture chamber, unable to speak. At fifteen she became a child bride, kept in captivity in a bathroom in the basement of her in-laws, who tried to force her into prostitution. She resisted this humiliation, resulting in devastating physical abuse and torture from her captors before she was finally released from her domestic dungeon after close to six months detainment. Since then, she has been recovering in hospital and her abusers have been sentenced in court. Norwan writes: “Looking at her pictures, I can’t stop my hate for wild, ignorant families and the men who inflict such violence on women. Sahar Gul is one of thousands of women who share the same destiny. She was lucky she was released. Although she remained silent, tolerating the pain and torture, she became a voice for other women.” This is her story, narrated by Norwan:

I am blame my name is woman

Today I have something to say
Today I have something to share
I am sure you know me
You know me from the headline of the news
You read me on the women magazine
You watch my pictures in the walls of exhibitions
You see me but you don’t feel me
You know me from the address of violence
You know me, but you don’t know me
I am an Afghan woman
My name is Sahar Gul
I am from the tribe of voiceless women
We are famous in the grave
Not like you, not like her
My face shame to look in the mirror
My nose is cut, my ears are tear
My hands burns
I am blame, my name is woman
I live behind the history curtains
My job is cooking, my house is kitchen
Every day I wash my desires with the dishes
Every day I am pregnant of sorrow
But nameless, nameless, nameless
Help me, Hear me, women!
Here and there and every where
In the world when …
You celebrate your success

Written in English, “I am blame…” demands that we see and hear the cries of a woman whose name is Sahar Gul. It is an interpellation – in the sense that it interrupts and urges its reader to both see herself in the mirror and reflect on and feel the other woman. It is a feminist injunction that stops you dead in the tracks through a heartbreaking appeal to social responsibility, solidarity on behalf of womankind with this kind of woman. Such an appeal strikes a sensitive spot: along with increased gender equality in the west, global feminist activism has lost some of its determination. Feminism is not one movement for all. Identity politics have come to dominate debates within activist and theorist circles since the 1970s, leading to an awareness of how well-meaning white women can be seen to operate like colonial masters by wishing to bring ‘enlightenment’ to the dark continent, whether the ‘other’ woman wants it or not. To summarize these discussions, we have arrived at a place where we must recognize that ‘women’ cannot be defined as one homogenous class, equally oppressed, with a shared destiny and a common goal for liberation – there are simply too many differences, too many cultural and individual distinctions to take into consideration. The subjugated third-world woman has perhaps been let down and left to her own devises as a result of this recognition of western feminist diversity. Within academic feminism the notion of woman itself is no longer a stable entity, as discussions rage around biological, psychological, social and cultural models for comprehending and assigning gender and sex.

Meanwhile, across the globe, there are those who have no reason whatsoever to doubt their classification as women, not least because this label allows for incredible injustices to be made against them. These women are living the reality of their sex: at worst, to “be a woman” is to be raw material or commodity.

Agnés Btffn has heard and been moved to act, as witness and medium. She has entered into an important dialogue with Norwan’s pleading text and Sahar Gul’s heartbreaking testimonial. The artist has taken it upon herself to embroider the entire poem on a large piece of cloth, while reciting the text to her audience. It is an almost endless task, painstakingly slow and emotionally draining.The artist has situated herself in an abandoned and empty glass-walled office space at Tou Scene (Atelierhuset). On the walls are pasted copies of Norwan's poem, background information, images of the battered Sahar Gul (documentation). On the floor are piles of cloth for people to sit on during the performance. It is the same fabric as that of the embroidery project. This particular tartan cloth consists of faded old curtains from the Tou Brewery office block, the location of the installation and performance. (It is a reference to a stanza from the poem: “I live behind the history curtains”.) The thread is made up of extracted threads from this curtain fabric, making for a very condensed and integrated approach to concepts, content, materials, materiality, situation, place, displacement, identity, belonging, estrangement.
The stitches are in Hardanger-seam, a traditional Norwegian embroidery technique, usually executed with white thread on white fabric. This very style in itself thematizes presence – absence: it is essentially made up of stitched decorations around geometrically patterned holes, making absence stand out, making beauty out of what is not there. Embroidery used to be women's work, a way of elaborating everyday objects, or creating purely decorative objects. Embroidery is not usually a medium for artists, or rather we do not consider the embroiderer an artist. I recall learning about 1970s feminist art works (like Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro, "The Dinner Party") that have explored embroidery or other 'female' decorative art techniques, as a way of bringing the stitch into art and bringing traditional women's work into another context (like bringing the everyday and ordinary into the extraordinary art gallery). In 1995, Tracey Emin's infamous tent, entitled "Everyone I Have Ever Slept With", was covered in appliquéd names, thus entering into a conversation with this particular women's art history.

There is something intimate about sewing by hand - a labourious process which brings you close to the material, close to the motif in that it takes time to produce it. Embroidery has lingering or meditative qualities but also functions as a way to create order. Today, there are both men and women who engage in counter-resistant 'guerilla embroidery', creating unconventional or rude slogans akin to street art statements. In this context, though, in 'Absence', the use of textiles has a personal meaning and history. By engaging in such a technique, Agnes is entering her French grandmother’s domain – she had learned the Hardanger stitch whilst holidaying in Norway when the artist was a child. From the programme accompanying the installation, Agnes writes that she would like to “invite the public to take part in the transformation I make of the gifts I have been offered, the poem from Norwan and the Hardanger stitches from my grandmother.” There is a twist through this particular stitch, confirming the artist's own Franco-Norwegian bi-culturalism – as well as linking Agnes to the identity of the other woman in the poem, and the act of writing that Norwan has committed and she has become committed to convey.

To me, the grandmother-association is tangible in a personal way, as she recites the part of the poem where the woman ‘washes the dishes in the tears of her desires’. Not because my grandmother suffered in any way like Sahar Gul. But I feel her in the expressions around lack of opportunity – to have one’s choices confined by patriarchal social conventions, to be worn out by repetitive menial tasks like washing up, or washing the laundry by hand. It reminds me of my maternal grandmother in particular (born in 1904), who was a bright young woman filled with inspiration and purpose, but became the uncomplaining housework martyr who channelled all her own longings into her husband’s career, instead of making something of her self, for her self. My paternal grandmother (born in 1908) got one step further: she studied medicine as a young woman but then fell in love and got married, a happy event that signalled an irreversible transition into feminine domesticity (although she didn't stop reading, thinking, learning). This kind of female sacrifice, is also part of recent history in western culture – and the fact that I now have choices and possibilities should not obscure my knowledge of the thwarted desires and potentials of my ancestral mothers. I see the embroidery, the fancy knitting patterns and the artistic weaving, the flower arrangements and the gardens, the beautifully seasoned and presented food – all these ‘non-necessities’ represent creative drives channelled into domestic labour.

I have been to view Agnes’ project twice: once at the opening and once to the last performance. Two strong ideas came to me as I met with Agnes’ “Absence”. Firstly, that the work bears the qualities of penance and repentance. To repent is to confess and be reconciled, actions underlined by the desire to be forgiven. Forgiven for what? Forgiven for seeing but not hearing or feeling the Afghan woman? Forgiven for celebrating success when the nameless woman, “pregnant of sorrow” washes her “desires with the dishes”?

The second immediate association comes from seeing Agnes’ figure, as she sits with crossed legs on the floor, almost draped in the long fabric she is working with. The material spreads out on the floor behind her, like an exuberant bridal veil. The first time I was there, I sat down with her. She was looking towards her lap, shaking with emotion as she spoke the words out loud. The scene reminded me of the mater dolorosa, except this particular mother is not grieving for her only dead son but she is grieving for all the abused and forgotten daughters of the world, who reside at “the address of violence” and “are famous in the grave”. Thus, “Absence” creates a living sculpture, a moving pietà for the “tribe of voiceless women”, with Agnes’ as a real and symbolic figure of sorrow and compassion. She is a witness to the trauma, to the pain and humiliation. But she is not merely observing the trauma of the other woman/women, she involves herself in it/she is involved. It takes some strength to carry this heavy load, to stick one’s fingers into it and still be clear-headed enough to sublimate the feelings and make meaning out of the meaningless (to create art out of sorrow and violence and hatred).

The second time I came to “Absence”, the performance had evolved. Agnes was singing the poem. She still has a magnifying glass hanging from around her neck but her headlamp had been replaced by a table lamp. A homemade burqa, in the same curtain fabric as the poem, had been attached to a doorframe. It has a face grill, embroidered in Hardanger stitches and a little metal heart (‘I love my burqa’), to take some of the poison out of the costume, to make the burqa less of a threat to the artist's personal integrity. We even played games with it, with my five-year-old son: Agnes tried it one to show us, then he tried it on, looking like a little tartan burqa-ghost. What is it like to be inside - as an Afghan woman, as a western woman, as a boy even? I have never really considered the inside-experience when it comes to the burqa, have never identified with the woman wearing it - she is an other, with whom I have no contact. I probably do not even wish to have contact with her, precisely because of the burqa she is wearing, which consitutes a thin but permanent boundary between her world and my world. Norwan, although disliking the burqa, has come to use it on occasion in order to protect her identity in Norway, e.g. when photographed in the local paper, even in the profile picture on her blog (entitled "Writing under burqa"). It is a bittersweet revenge – to turn the symbol of oppression into an item of protection: to come out from behind the history curtains but to have to show herself through the veil, concealed.

As a text, as an artefact, as an event, this performance is so tightly woven together that it would seem improper to deconstruct it in its entirety. It affects heart and soul, mind and body by infiltrating my being in the world, me being in this particular place. It is about getting involved and working through trauma, rather than disassociating or repressing.

I’ve touched on a few aspects and hope to have left some things behind, so that more people will want to seek it out and sit with Agnes after Tou Camp is over. So far she has embroidered seven letters. There are many more to go. Perhaps it will never be finished, and perhaps this is a good thing, as it means we are still hearing Norwan’s plea – still reciting her words, singing them even in order to bear the pain of witnessing this violent injustice. I hope that there will be invitations to take this project elsewhere – to allow it to travel and touch people outside Stavanger. It is a long and arduous process, beautiful and painful to partake in.

Go sit with Agnes as she spells out Norwan’s plea and keeps the words alive in the fabric. Don't hurry out, just because you feel uncomfortable. She needs you there to hear her lamentation, to be a witness to the witness, to feel your presence, to know she is not alone.

I leave ID-CAMP touched by Absence, feeling every fibre of Agnes' materials, the threads of Norwan, and hear Sahar Gul's story recounted in my mind again and again.

Birgitta Haga Gripsrud, norwegian art historian and blogger......................................................