In “Which Yesterday Is Tomorrow?” collaborator artists Dahlia Elsayed and Andrew Demirjian reimagined a future rest stop by riffing on their Southwest Asian and North African (SWANA) heritages. Drawing on the traditional caravanserais and coffeehouses of the Islamic world, they aimed to transform a tiny gallery into an intimate oasis of communal interaction and sensorial delight, where friends and strangers could break from the relentless frenzy of daily life, take in the sights, sounds, and smells, and ponder the histories and rituals of people and goods on the move. As part of this endeavor, they enlisted contributions from several other designers, artists, and poets, mostly from the SWANA diaspora.
On March 14, 2020, the show’s opening day, Transformer had to close because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Soon after, I challenged myself to write a review, thinking I could check out the show from the gallery’s street front and take it from there. The view from the window didn’t disappoint. The floor-to-ceiling installation popped with color, its all-over design and lounge décor enticing passersby. The shutdown had, in fact, positively affected the project in unforeseen ways. Shifting to a mostly virtual platform amplified the theme of cultural exchange, which drew in part on the multi-lingual
performances and riddle games of wandering minstrels. With travel no longer an option, the show was now able to link people from across the globe “without a visa control at the border,” as Elsayed explained during a panel. And the show could grow as an ever-expanding online hub.
Visual documentation and programming on Transformer’s website clarified Elsayed and Demirjian’s vision of an artistically fluid and connected alternative to the war-and-calamity stereotype of their home region. Their extensive research and collaborative process came into better focus, and a few follow-up exchanges shed additional light on their concept of interrelated zones for engagement—a chill space by the window, a low table and floor seating for discussion, a meditative zone featuring an altar-like construction, a participatory station titled Poetry for Alpha Wave States, and an enigmatic art display. Some activities could be held remotely, such as the panels and walk-throughs; other events had to be cancelled, including poetry and sound performances and weekly, pre-sunset coffee pauses; and still other experiences, like the ambient music, could only be grasped through the imagination.
Elsayed and Demirjian’s rigorous planning and attention to detail held the promise of unfettered enjoyment, starting with the setting itself. As close-up video footage revealed, the vibrant colors and repeated motifs of Elsayed’s rugs, cushions, and wallpaper brimmed with energy, their idiosyncratic mash-up of postmodern and tribal design flattening into a stylized geometry of artificial hues that paradoxically conveyed the illusion of depth. The altar, an imposing blend of secular and sacred architecture, turned out to be a private memorial for a deceased friend who had encouraged them to question their Eurocentric tendencies and look eastward for input. The warmth and coziness of traditional Middle Eastern interiors came through in the overlapping carpets on the floor and walls, while cushions with handles bolstered the message of hospitality and adaptability.
The same modularity marked Demirjian’s immersive sonic and textual landscape. His spellbinding audios, which improvised on old wind and string instruments, enveloped the gallery through four portable speakers. Their sculpted lulls partnered to great effect with the audio poetry station, where the simple, cross-cultural act of prostration over a painting by Elsayed done in conductive ink released a series of whispered readings along with beneficial alpha waves. On the adjacent wall, each artwork in Souvenirs from a Borderless Future grafted a future take on to the past; contributions included Sayran Barzani’s traditional Kurdish cap updated with symbolic jewels and coins and Negar Ahkami’s recycled Styrofoam cup and saucer decorated in Persian miniature style.
On the last day of the show’s scheduled run, I was able to tour the gallery. Straightaway, my eyes and mind began making connections among the various components. This brief visit reinforced what I had gleaned remotely—the show’s runaway success and its potential to be a model for others that may have to stand on virtual merit alone. Timely and timeless, “Which Yesterday Is Tomorrow?” prompted rethinking of a whole range of issues, from colonialism and diaspora to trade and refugees. In subtle and unpredictable ways, it encouraged a reimagining of the dynamics of community and the restorative function of the coffeehouse, now the ubiquitous site for anonymous workspaces and social gatherings. It also fostered a reassessment of personal practices and conditions. With the continuing uncertainty of what comes next, the challenge posed by this provocative show concerned not only which yesterday is tomorrow, but also which present we will choose to shape the future.