“You’ve picked a good time to arrive, it’s an important time for me,” says Eliyah Mesayer as she opens the door to the basement underneath a residential complex. We walk along in the dark, through first one, then another long basement corridor before she stops in front of a door and opens it. The mood changes completely as we step into a kind of magician’s cave, an eccentric workshop from somewhere completely different. We are in Vermundsgade in the northwest district of Copenhagen, but we might just as well have been in New York or Beirut. We might also have stepped into a completely different decade.
Everywhere, on shelves and tables, are small and large abstract sculptures, most of them done in black-stained wood. The adjoining rooms are full of the same. In a corner, behind more sculptures, is a man bent over a computer. Artist Galvin Harrison introduces himself and says that if there is anything I want to know, I just have to ask. Instrumental music, probably the tones of an Arabic oud, flows out from the speakers, and I’m already holding back hundreds of questions.
Mesayer puts on coffee and shows me to a tidy desk, her workplace. She has been an artist in residence here since the spring of 2020. Galvin Harrison was the one who invited her to work in these premises, which form the core of The New Generation (TNG), a neighbourhood development project that aims to inject new life into the area and which is part of the City of Copenhagen’s overall urban renewal plan.
Mesayer works on her projects here. But this is also where she meets young people from the area who drop by to make sculptures. This is just one of many projects that take place under the auspices of TNG, mixing and mingling with Mesayer’s own projects in a very special way. You don’t have to spend much time talking to her before you sense that this is more than just a practical arrangement; it is also about community. The people dropping by are family and colleagues. Mesayer introduces me to several of them as they come to hand over something, arrange something, or just have a cup of coffee.
From citizenship to the National Gallery of Denmark
On the notice board above her desk hangs an official document from the Copenhagen Police bearing Eliyah Mesayer’s full name. It is an official note of permission to stage a protest rally on 12 November 2020. The note states that the route starts at Krakas Plads, just outside the building we are sitting in, and that the purpose of the event is to move a sculpture to the National Gallery of Denmark, where it will be placed in one of the galleries. The list of materials involved include a “handcart and small speaker on cargo bike.”
“It’s up there because I was officially made a citizen that year, and this was my first official act as a Danish citizen. However, the police had sussed it was not really a protest rally in the usual sense and escorted us in their car all the way,” Mesayer says and smiles.
Citizenship is a concept that crops up quite a lot when speaking to the young artist. The fact that Mesayer – who was born in Kuwait in 1987 to a mother from a Bedouin family – was not made a Danish citizen until the age of 32 has not only greatly influenced her life and opportunities; the issue is also at the core of her artistic activities. A prominent example is the ‘Illiyeen’ project, named after the nation for stateless people that Mesayer has developed over the last few years. In its Qur’anic origins, the Arabic word Illiyeen means “the exalted, the most sublime.” It is also the root of the name Eliyah.
As yet, Illiyeen has its own postal service, which was Mesayer’s graduation project from the Jutland Art Academy in 2020. There are also Illiyeen uniforms, and an Illiyeen national anthem, premiered at her aforementioned performance at the National Gallery of Denmark. There are also two black-and-white, semi-abstract films (Illiyeen I, 2019 and Illiyeen II, 2020), which, like Mesayer’s other photographic work, stem from an interest – inspired by pre-Islamic alchemy, especially Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan (721–815), also known as the father of chemistry – in the fundamental elements of photography and the chemical processes behind it.
Usually, nations are defined in spatial rather than temporal terms. But since Illiyeen is not rooted in a specific demarcated place or geographical area, the stateless citizens are connected by something else, such as human interaction or chemical compounds. These are some of the aspects unfolding in the various parts of Illiyeen that now exist.
On the handcart that the small procession brought along from Krakas Plads stood a large abstract sculpture stained black like the many sculptures in the TNG workshop. Mesayer refers to it as “the chapel,” and it looks rather like a magic organ or a sacred casket. Upon arrival at the museum, it was carried up into a gallery of art from the 1890s that includes several major works of Danish Symbolism: paintings such as Ejnar Nielsen’s, And in His Eyes I Saw Death (1887) and Joakim Skovgaard’s, Christ in the Realm of the Dead (1891–94).
In this setting – which also includes Niels Hansen Jacobsen’s sculpture Death and the Mother (1892) – Mesayer and two performers (Angel Wei Bernild and Stine Victoria) carried out a five-hour performance; all three of them wore black Illiyeen suits with what the artist calls “royal details in blue and gold.” Mesayer and Angel also carried a pair of long poles in their hands. From a crackling tape recorder, the Illiyeen national anthem played, over and over again, while Angel sang and Stine Victoria handed out the lyrics to the audience.
You specifically wanted your performance to take place in this room. Why?
“It’s all about death and rebirth, and the same holds true of the art in this room, such as the incredible Niels Hansen Jacobsen sculpture with the grim reaper with the scythe on its back. The lyrics of the Illiyeen hymn are about the fact that we need a political death in order for us to rise again. Each time the anthem ended, a series of drumbeats sounded, giving us seven or eight steps to take up new positions, which we’d stay in while the anthem played. At one point, I knelt in front of the grim reaper. My figure, holding the long staff, became a kind of battle cry. People stayed there for a long time. I think they perceived my attempt to relate to death in some way. The nation exists within me, but must also die in order for it to live.”
In the last part of the performance, Mesayer stepped into “the chapel,” which had been placed in front of the Skovgaard painting – an overtly religious motif in which the divine light shining through the Christ figure almost seemed to flow through Mesayer, too. An almost exalted mood was further enhanced by the last stanza of the Illiyeen hymn: “Our swords bend / Cutting into horizon / And the gates of death / Will shine in awe / In awe of the mighty migrant.”
There was an almost sacred air about the situation in the end, about the new nation, about you. What role did you take on there?
I was present as a persona protecting the chapel – a guardian, not with any kind of high rank. But in the last two hours, something else happened. I held the staff in another way, slammed it into the ground, and stepped up into the chapel where I remained for the rest of the song. The chapel was placed exactly in front of the figure of Jesus in the painting, so I somehow stepped into that space, right into the middle of the painting’s light source. I think it looked dramatic because I could feel it with my own body.
The mighty migrant
The stateless state of Illiyeen appears to encompass many branches and movements. This not only applies to the many different people and institutions involved at different levels, but also extends to its several aesthetic offshoots. For example, Galvin Harrison and TNG’s black-stained wooden sculptures merge seamlessly with Illiyeen’s black cloaks and uniforms.
What kind of relationship exists between your aesthetic and Harrison’s?
“I wanted to play the anthem from some kind of chapel, and many of Galvin’s sculptures have that kind of quality, so he went back to one of his sculptures and continued building on it, making room for our tape recorder and inserting a few steps so I could step inside it. He also made our staffs along with some of the young people from TNG. But yes, it’s funny how it coincides with my aesthetic, which has always looked like this,” Eliyah says, pointing to her coal-black clothes with matching military boots.
“Galvin has been making these sculptures for a long time, maybe even back before I was born. But we have a common mission. That kind of dynamic calls out to be used. It’s the black-clad Bedouin meeting a hardcore sculptor with a matching style. We have been very lucky in meeting each other, and new people keep entering the mix.”
“Our collaboration often grows so close that we can eventually read each other’s body language. And that’s important, because even though we talk about a given scene and the atmosphere before we start, we have no script and don’t do rehearsals; it’s not a wedding, you know. At the museum, all we had to do was nod to each other in order to know what was going to happen – or if I needed some water. I don’t really like to use the word ‘family’, but that’s what we are.”
But it’s also quite refreshing to hear the word ‘family’ being used instead of ‘collective’, which may be slightly overused in an art context?
“True. But on the other hand, there’s something corporate about ‘we’re family’ too,” Eliyah says in a broad American accent, laughing.
Given your Bedouin background, the term ‘family’ also takes on extra significance.
“That’s right. We’re a tribe, too.”
You also all dress entirely in black, which is quite distinctive. Some might even say overwhelming, especially when using the colour black on uniforms in a procession. What do you think about that?
“To me, the colour black means something quite different. In Bedouin culture, it is the colour of courage and pride. You can see this in the portrait of my mother, which I have used in several works, showing her dressed in traditional Bedouin clothes, completely black.”
Are there other aspects of Bedouin culture that those in the know will recognise in your aesthetic?
“My Arabic dialect is still Bedouin; I have no emphases in my speech – what is known as kasra. To many Arabs, this sounds very fluid, giving rise to new interpretations. That was why I thought it would be interesting to use it here at Krakas Plads, close to Mjølnerparken. Also because there is a new generation with a new language here.”
So what do they hear when they hear you speak?
“They hear the poshest version of Arabic, similar to a kind of official Danish, a bit like the Queen’s New Year’s speech. For example, we do not say ‘thank you’ after eating, but ‘eternal table’. It’s all very poetic and also a bit serious. There are blessings all the time, which is not to say that you mention God all the time; it’s more about blessing nature, the earth. It’s a humbler approach: you never speak beyond your own reach. For example, if I did not have a table, I would never say ‘eternal table’.”
What would you say instead, then?
“I would say sufra, which means serving up food on the floor. You constantly adjust the language in relation to the speaker, so it is a very personal language.”
The term Bedouin itself is derived from the Arabic badawi, which means “nomadic inhabitants of the desert.” It refers to the nomadic tribes living in the deserts of the Middle East, the Sinai Peninsula, and the Sahara. However, the formation of states and the establishment of fixed borders have generally made it difficult for the Bedouin to move around. Mesayer and her siblings were all born in Kuwait. None of them live as Bedouins anymore, but other parts of her family still live the nomadic life in the traditional way.
“Unfortunately, I don’t know much about how my family is doing at the moment – for example, about how they’re dealing with the pandemic. Time is a completely different concept there. There is no internet; news reaches you when it reaches you. My grandmother lives in the Bashra area. She has a plot of land now, but it’s in the middle of a huge desert area, so it is still very isolated. My mother can reach her if she wants to, but there is no real reason to do that. They already live in a bubble and get no visitors from outside, so they actually live quite safely and know how to cope with that kind of isolation. I have thought about this a lot during this time, because I know many who have struggled with a sense of loneliness, while I myself am good at being alone. I’m used to disappearing for one or two weeks, maybe even a month at a time.”
Where do you go when you do that?
“I leave art behind altogether and go on a kind of mental journey where I focus on nature and find a sense of acceptance of things just happening the way they happen. When I say ‘nature’, I also mean family, children, the most natural parts of life. I disappear into everyday chores and find a great sense of calm in it. After all, having to continue building a nation every day is quite a mouthful.”
Bodyguards and alchemists
One early morning, a few days before the performance at the National Gallery of Denmark, I notice an Instagram post by Den Frie Centre for Contemporary Art, announcing a performance by Eliyah Mesayer due to take place in front of the venue in half an hour. I finish my coffee, leave the café, and set off on my bike.
A special atmosphere of stampeding road users and solemn guard parade infuses the Oslo Square that morning. In front of the venue’s COVID-closed front door is an Illiyeen guard clad in uniform, cloak, and mask. The other guard, the artist herself, is doing rounds of the square, parading back and forth. Some of the busy morning cyclists turn their heads, others pay her no heed. On her back, Mesayer carries a device to which seven black flags are attached. They flutter after her as she walks. In a state that is not defined by a geographical location, the nation’s flag must be carried by the citizens themselves.
It was a fascinating situation right in the midst of Copenhagen’s morning rush. You acted like guards dressed in beautiful uniforms, rather like the ceremonial Swiss guard protecting the pope in the Vatican. But what does it mean to stand guard in front of Den Frie?
“We were Illiyeen guardians, and we had defeated the institution. That’s why I was walking around the building and calling the army home, saying, ‘We have won!’ The guards take care of the nation, but they also activate it. During the hour the performance lasted, Illiyeen also had an art venue: Den Frie belonged to the state of the stateless.”
Could you say little more about the guards? What does it mean that they simultaneously take care of the nation and activate it?
“I actually call them bodyguards, and they are partly inspired by the Palestinian artist Khaled Hourani, who with great difficulty arranged a loan of a Picasso painting from the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven to The International Academy of Art Palestine in Ramallah. This was the first time ever that a modern masterpiece was on display for a Palestinian audience. The painting was attended by two guards throughout the exhibition period, and during that short period Ramallah can be said to have had, in a way, a modern museum. I was particularly fascinated by what the two guards symbolised; they were physically legitimising a Palestinian state.
“The first time I used my bodyguards was in Lisbon in 2019, when I gave a lecture at Hangar Residency and I showed the first Illiyeen film. I had decided in advance that I would show up in the persona of the alchemist who had mixed all these images, texts, and sounds, all these voices. But I know from experience that people very quickly start asking personal questions – ‘Where are you from?’, ‘What is your religion?’ – and then I retreat into myself a little bit, because I’m trying to preserve this persona. So I brought along a bodyguard who wore the uniform, so you could tell she was part of the nation. She was instructed to interrupt people who asked personal questions. She was so good at it; she could almost tell just by their tone of voice when a question like that was coming.”
What sort of question might that be?
“Well, for example, at a lecture in Bergen Kunsthall this guy said that the Americans had brought the Gulf War to an end. I replied that historically, it wasn’t quite like that; they just arrived at the tail end of a war that had lasted much longer. He didn’t like that answer, and I could tell he would like to have some sort of confrontation about it. That’s when the bodyguard stepped in, she went over to stand in front of him, looked him in the eyes and nodded at him. Then she turned to me and nodded again. The effect of that is quite intense, it really interrupts the conversation completely. People looked at each other, bewildered. I had agreed with the organisers that we should just move on to the next question. It was quite a powerful moment.”
Just as the guards simultaneously guard and activate the nation, could the bodyguard also be described as someone who both protects the alchemist and facilitates the alchemical process itself?
“Yes, the alchemist and the bodyguard are very closely connected. A basic mantra in alchemy is: One never translates, one transforms. The bodyguard specifically enables that process. And I have struggled for a long time to be allowed to transform – instead of constantly having to translate and explain. That began a long time before I went public with my art.”
“When I studied at the Jutland Art Academy, my alchemical processes were often criticised for not being real photography, just something about Islam. Many would quite simply not accept that they were not about that, so I spent a lot of energy defending myself. I remember one particular teaching situation where things got heated. Fortunately, Yvette Brackman was an external teacher that day. Had it not been for her presence that day, I actually don’t think I would have the courage to speak out now. She cut through the discussion and told the whole school that everyone has a responsibility to raise the level of education and make an effort to grasp what other students are doing, especially for a group critique.”
“It was around that time that the FCNN (Feminist Collective No Name) contacted me and we did a video interview about being a ghost in white institutions. That opened up so much. I began wearing a kind of uniform, a suit, and from that point on we would just talk about everything on a whole different level. It’s been such an exciting journey, and now I just live in such a fantasy world. I haven’t even had the time to crawl after my graduation, I got off to such a flying start. I’ve always dreamed of being able to work politically and poetically at the same time, and that is how it is now.”
The Mesayer Foundation for Stateless Youth
The political aspect of Eliyah Mesayer’s work has its wellspring in her own upbringing as a stateless citizen in Denmark. Crucially, this status has affected her opportunities for getting an education. Having dropped out of high school, Mesayer spent a year working on a Faroese mini-cruise ship that docked in Bergen, Aberdeen, Thorshavn, and Seyðisfjörður.
“We sailed to Bergen every Wednesday, and I fell completely in love with that city, so I applied to the Art Academy in Bergen,” Mesayer says. “I promised my mother to have a backup plan, so I trained as a florist while saving up enough money to go. Although the school wanted to admit me, they weren’t allowed to do so because I was stateless. Incredibly, two professors at the school kept a place for me for the two years it took before I was allowed to study and bring the Danish student grant with me to Norway.”
“In Bergen I met the amazing professor Eamon O’Kane, who inspired me to move forward with my alchemical processes. Other teachers had a harder time relating to the pre-Islamic aspect, but Eamon delved into it and helped me understand how it could be used for something more than just pointing towards my background – that it could be about art and about the history of art today. I just didn’t have the words to explain it myself at the time.”
Actually, Mesayer would have liked to have taken her MA in Bergen, but then she would have had to go through the application process all over again, meaning that she might have had to wait for another two years. Instead, she took a year off and was then admitted to the Jutland Art Academy. Her studies there also involved six months on exchange with the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen and a residency at Hangar in Lisbon, one of the few places in the Schengen area where she could stay as a stateless person.
“I ended up spending very little time at the Jutland Art Academy,” Mesayer says. “I actually thought I would live in Aarhus and be closer to my family in North Jutland, but I never settled in, so I moved to Copenhagen and commuted. Rector Judith Schwarzbart helped me. She showed me around Copenhagen. For example, she showed me the Royal Library, the reading room in The Black Diamond; she knew I needed a place where I could immerse myself.”
Mesayer’s lack of citizenship prevented her from taking a course in pre-Islamic art at Oxford University, which was high on her wish list. However, she was eventually allowed to follow the course online without getting credit for it. In the spring of 2020, she finally obtained her Danish citizenship, just a few months before completing an education that was in many ways governed by her stateless status. Her experience from this process prompted her to set up the Mesayer Foundation, which has helped other stateless young people obtain citizenship since 2019.
How does the Mesayer Foundation work?
“It’s about advice as well as financial aid. They come here and sit next to me with all their papers. I don’t do the work for them, but if they get stuck, I can often help figure out who they need to ask, and that keeps the process from stalling. It’s quicker for me to determine where they are at in their process. For example, they might not be able to apply at all until three years from now, when they are self-sufficient. It took me eleven years to get citizenship, so I know exactly how frustrated they are, and now I’m in a position to pay it forward, helping them a little along the way.”
You raise money, for example, by holding an art auction on Instagram. What are those funds used for?
“Money is the main reason why many people put off their applications. Taking the citizenship test costs DKK 815 [EUR 110] and applying for citizenship costs DKK 3,800 [EUR 510], and the Mesayer Foundation helps out in this regard. The last auction brought in enough for four people. I think young people should apply as soon as they turn 18 so that they avoid getting caught up in red tape during the course of their education, the way I myself was. Things can get complicated so quickly. Just take this pandemic situation where you might have no job and apply for cash benefits, and then you might suddenly find that it takes longer before you can apply for citizenship.”
Sailing into the Port of Copenhagen with black sails
This coming Sunday, the Mesayer Foundation will hold its second art auction. Mesayer is a little overwhelmed by the sheer number of artists who have agreed to contribute works. At the same time, Illiyeen is in demand. An exhibition in a mailbox in Frederiksberg, the Copenhagen satellite of Kunsthal Aarhus, has just ended, and the next step will be a contribution to a performative exhibition at Copenhagen’s Thorvaldsen’s Museum, where various artists have been invited to exhibit on three empty plinths. The vinyl version of the Illiyeen anthem and an Illiyeen version of the flags traditionally used as table decorations for Danish birthday parties will be among the exhibits.
What will happen to Illiyeen in the future? What dreams does the nation have?
“Illiyeen now has a postal service, a national anthem, and uniforms. Because I work with an entire nation, my practice is suddenly very extensive, almost infinite. You could also make a bakery or a national dish, things can just go on and on. Galvin and I dream of something really big: the Illiyeen fleet arriving in the city, sailing into the Port of Copenhagen on black sails. We have already started looking for boats to acquire.”
It’s starting to rain outside. The windows open up on a narrow outdoor space running along the basement room; there are a few plants there.
“Part of the urban renewal project is about getting a garden,” Mesayer says. “There are plans to establish an entire park of mint that will meander through the entire area; this is something the residents have wanted for many years.”
Ah, to make tea?
“Yes, exactly. So a little rain for the plants is a good thing. I live in Sydhavnen in an allotment, and my lawn turned completely yellow last year. I wanted a jungle inside, a wisteria over my bed! That could be great. Aww, what’s going on with the pandemic has made a romantic of me, made me all colourful,” Eliyah Mesayer says, laughing. “Soon, you will only see me in white.”