Toronto-based artist Nahed Mansour’s recent work annexes representations the figure of “Little Egypt” in American popular culture, exploring the contradictions that arise as she is fetishized and popularized yet cast as an immoral “Other”. Little Egypt’s introduction of belly dancing in her emblematic performance at the 1893 World’s Fair lead to her assertion of self as a performer by her adopting of her stage name, a name which was later embraced by various performers and appropriated by American entertainers such as Elvis Presley. Mansour’s solo show at Articule “Little Egypt Doesn’t Dance Here Anymore” incorporated archival images, album covers, transfer drawings, and video representations of the dancer emphasizing the repetition and commodification of the star. At the entrance of the show, drawings of the dancers on black carbon paper are accompanied with a quote from James Buel’s 1894 Orientalist text; “…and their abdominal muscles were the only portions of anatomy or mind which showed any cultivation, while these, to their shame, were displayed to serve the basest uses”. This attitude of moral superiority and revulsion is contrasted with footage of Elvis Presley’s “Little Egypt” music video, which features white female dancers attempting to perform in Little Egypt’s likeness. In another piece, Mansour transfers 100 portraits of Little Egypt onto American dollar bills, who return the gaze through the eye of Providence. Mansour dissects the exoticism and eroticism of the dancer throughout the show, encouraging the viewer to consider American depictions of the Middle East from the late 1800s to modern post-9/11 reality. In an interview for Yiara Online, Nahed Mansour discusses her research and ideas behind the series.
Eva Morrison: So my first question is: what led you to Little Egypt?
Nahed Mansour: In the last 10 years I kind of switched my work, which was more dealing with language and migration, and I’ve been dealing with entertainment and politics of race and racialization in relationship to cultural icons… So I start with one central entertainer or icon, usually a musician or a dancer, and from there I kind of flush out ideas, whether it’s feminism or issues of race, and tease out some of the social or political historical implications of this artist and their work. I found that to be a really generative way of having my work be really accessible: there are many access points because icons can be such a shared and familiar experience…I’ve been kind of using that as a strategy in terms of starting with a central, familiar figure or entertainer. In this case, Little Egypt is not a household name for many, so unlike other entertainers I’ve worked with, people might not know her…but what I’m trying to show is that we all know Little Egypt in all the representations of belly dancing we see today, so this is more of tracing back into the central figure. But with all the works I’m flushing out ideas of race and gender through these cultural icons.
EM: Elvis is a household name, so there’s that tracing back to the origin of what he’s taking from and commodified. One of the pieces I was really interested in was “Importing Little Egypt” [a collection of representations of Little Egypt that have been graphite transferred onto American Dollar bills], which speaks to how the trope is copied and commodified and repeated in North America. I noticed the bills make up a pyramid shape on the wall, as well as having the “all-seeing eye” as the eye of Little Egypt. What was your thought process behind that piece?
NM: That piece was really fun. Laughs. I read a book that really inspired a lot of the works – very specifically the work that you mentioned– called How the Arabian Nights Inspired the American Dream [by Susan Nance]. The title kind of says it all, which is that all the Orientalist fantasies and stories being told about the Orient, such as the Arabian nights and other popular images that are evoked in those stories, inspired capitalist imaginaries of what being rich looked like. From the beginning, Orientalism didn’t only play a role in people’s imaginations of the East, but also their imagination of wealth. So ideas of having money, and making it, and so much of what the American dream is about goes hand in hand with fantasies around having riches, having women, harems, and all these things. Susan Nance makes this amazing historically informed [argument] around how the American dream in itself is based around the orientalist imaginary of riches. So it brought me to a point which I really want to stress in these works because though they are about belly dancing and exploitations and repetitions of some of these tropes of Arab women, I think much more deeply than that. I’m also talking about economic exploitation and where that fits into a larger picture of the West’s relationship to the Middle East. I was reading a lot about Shriner culture and other kinds of subcultures in the States that borrow from images of the Orient, and I kept being drawn to the role of money and capitalism in this… I just wanted to point to the fact that American Capitalism and the Middle East are so linked from its inception, but also in terms of America’s role in the Middle East now as part of imperialist wars and things like that. So really bridging timelines and bringing the conversation way back and to the present moment.
And then on top of Capitalism’s role in society, I wanted to bring in this idea…that in the emergence of belly dance at the world fair, and with the quote included in the work [“…and their abdominal muscles were the only portions of anatomy or mind which showed any cultivation, while these, to their shame, were displayed to serve the basest uses” –James Buel, “The Three Dancing Girls from Egypt”, 1894] there’s this kind of rejection of this scandalous dancer who was showing parts of her body she shouldn’t be revealing during the Victorian age, where all women were wearing corsets. But actually, belly dancing is really related to the rise of burlesque as a dance form in itself. At the same 1893 World’s Fair, the zipper was first presented as a new invention. The zipper had, in terms of the timing, a lot to do with forwarding the ability of women to undress at a quicker pace, and that was translated onstage with burlesque culture and later, striptease culture. So there’s this idea of women taking off their clothes as entertainment, [but] also empowerment.
I also wanted to speak to the dollar bill being associated with striptease culture and women being able to generate their own ways of survival. […] It kind of connects on both levels; what I see as an empowering form of making money, and how these women were able to create their own livelihood, stepping outside of convention and being attacked for it. The placement of the eye on top of the pyramid, gazing back, is kind of meant to show some empowerment in terms of women making their own money, but at the same time, it also stresses America’s role in exploiting the Middle East and its resources for their own economic benefit.
EM: Yeah, I thought the eye was a really strong kind of way of having the women looking back, and tying it to all sorts of forms of women’s relationship to money and entertainment, and taking that back in a way. I’m interested in the Buel quote you brought up since that was one of the first things I saw when I walked into the exhibition. I thought it was really important because his photo book about the World’s Fair was one of the things that enforced Orientalism’s shift from Europe to the US. Him linking belly dancing to shame in that way, essentially misunderstanding, demeaning, and objectifying the dancers says something about how the show is bringing up the relationship between entertainment and stereotypes and how something like Elvis’ [music video] that was considered “fun” can actually be harmful and dangerous. And that ties to the economic relationship you’re talking about, how it’s represented in insidious ways with the trope of Little Egypt. Clearly, you’ve done a lot of thinking about these issues so I was wondering about how, in your opinion, this entertainment imagery is dealing with Arab-American relations as a bigger societal situation?
NM: Another text that I’ve read that inspired those works, called [Arab-Face, Orientalist Feminism, and U.S. Empire by Sunaina Maira] it’s a great piece, it’s very interesting: she’s an academic and she conducts interviews with women in the Bay area who are taking belly dance classes. And she wrote this text in the 2000’s–shortly after 9/11–and she actually shows how at the height of the war on terror, [the popularity of] belly dance studios actually increased, and it became more of a fashion trend during this time.
Through these interviews, she makes sense of why, at the time when the Middle East was being vilified and dangerous, you also have these everyday women feeling like what they need to do is take a belly dancing class. [Laughs]. She talks about this relationship of fear, but at the same time wanting to imitate in order to understand, control, or claim [it] back… there’s this love/hate relationship that’s very similar to minstrel culture in terms of representations of blackface and vaudeville culture. So again, there’s this thing that happens where it kind of makes sense on a psychological level of why [you imitate] those that you are fighting or those that you fear.
So that [James Buel] quote is the only text in the show, and because it’s the only one, it really takes up a lot of space. I know that people read it and it kind of frames the viewing and because the text is negative, it’s one about shame, I wanted it to highlight the fact that upon its premiere belly dance was instantly viewed as being not only “other” but being immoral and shameful… and then despite that negativity, you see all these repeated images. There’s this contradiction: why, if something is so bad, do you have all these images and imitators? I counted around 150 representations of Little Egypt in the show…So, I wanted to speak to that contradiction of how people fear this, and at the same time imitate it and love it. You know, I’m drawn to those stereotypical images as much as anyone else.
EM: I was wondering, for the Streets of Cairo transfer drawings, where did all the images come from, source wise?
NM: I’ve been collecting in the past 5 years, through research I’ve been archiving images of women who are promoted as or danced under the name Little Egypt or been associated with her. The two bigger drawing works are divided; ones that are more from the Middle East are the earlier versions, and then the North American ones. It’s not exact, but most of the ones from the Middle East are from the 1893 World’s Fair to [around] 1910-20, and the rest are from 1920 up until 1970-80. And the further you go, the more American they get, because representations coming from the Middle East kind of disappear.
More of Nahed Mansour’s works can be found on her website.
Photo credit: Guy L’Heureux.