Nomadic Sisterhood

In Denmark, the International Women’s Day was about women of the nation cast in bronze and women of the desert of flesh and blood.

Zahna Siham Benamor performing at O-Overgaden, 8 March. Photo: Christian Brems.

It was 8 March, and the Danish Minister of Culture Jacob Engel-Schmidt had hijacked the agenda the day before by issuing a press release and a proclamation about “more statues of women in Denmark.” Boom. There you go. The balance must be redressed. Open doors were pushed, and nationwide media welcomed the news with open arms, sparking a barrage of voxpop and feel-good discussions: which women from history deserve to be cast in bronze or carved in granite? Don’t forget to have women artists make the actual statues, and so on.

That’s all very well and good, not least the fact that mainstream feminism now also emanates from Christiansborg. A resounding “yes” to having visible role models, something to see oneself reflected in. But why, then, did I suddenly feel so tired? Perhaps because it’s never about art. Most public statues are representative depictions executed in a reactionary aesthetic which I don’t particularly want to see any more of. By the afternoon, when the host of a cultural radio show pointed to “that delectable Lara Croft” as a possible candidate for a statue, it became obvious that the Women’s Day was also getting a little too long for the media. 

My own women’s day began in the morning at O-Overgaden with a press conference that was in some ways quite the perfect 8 March event. The atmosphere was relaxed yet serious. Tea and coffee, rye biscuits, and cheese and grapes, were provided while director Rhea Dall introduced the exhibition featuring Zahna Siham Benamor and Apolonia Sokol.

Sokol talked about her friendship with Benamor. The two artists met as 8-year-olds at the French School in Copenhagen; Sokol because of her French ancestry, Benamor because of her Algerian parents’ French-colonised ancestry. Therefore, Danish later became the preferred, ‘neutral’ language of their sisterhood. As young women, they met again in Paris when Benamor ran away from home in Copenhagen with the help of her father. That journey and her father both feature strongly in her spoken-word performance works. At the time, Sokol was living in her parents’ disused theatre in Montmartre. Many will know her life story from the award-winning documentary by Lea Glob. “A film about the making of a female artist. It’s food for thought to note just how many people needed to see exactly that,” as Dall remarked.

Installation view, Apolonia Sokol, Me as Wandering Jew, 2024, oil on canvas, Zahna Siham Benamor and Apolonia Sokol, The False Jericho Rose, O-Overgaden, Copenhagen. Photo: David Stjernholm.

Danish-French-Polish. That is how Sokol is generally referred to in Danish media these days. But what if she moves to a new country? Can someone have four nationalities in front of their name? More? When does it stop making sense? Does it make sense at all? Not for Sokol, who is tired of answering the question of where she feels most at home. The exhibition features her painted self-portrait representing her in the form of the cultural cliché she feels most trapped in: the Wandering Jew. She wears a long black coat over her naked body and carries a walking stick in her hand. “It’s a way of taking back the violations,” Sokol says.

Following the same principle, Benamor is portrayed as a Berber, the descendants of the nomadic peoples of North Africa who were there before the Arabs came. “Barbarian” means “stranger” in Arabic – those who speak “bar-bar,” an incomprehensible language. Benamor too has led a life of endlessly answering the same parroted questions: “But where do you really come from?” “I come from the desert. Where the Jericho grows,” was the answer provided in the performance she delivered later in the day.

When I returned to the venue that evening, the outside looked as if it were the entrance to Christianshavn’s new, hot club. Never has the queue for a vernissage at O-Overgaden been so long. Inside, the venue was filled to fire-authority-decreed capacity when Benamor stepped out in a white dress sewn from a parachute. “Parachutes de France,” read a blue logo glimpsed on the skirt. A Berber parachuted down, walked through the desert, her bare arms smeared in white pigment and her face hidden by a black veil. A wedding and a funeral in one.

Then a heavy drumbeat began and Benamor said: “The doctor gave me fentanyl and said something about excitement.” She recited the words clearly and with abrupt, emphatic intonation, almost like a string of performative speech acts. “See the sea as a face,” she told us. The audience was quiet, a single, vast, attentive collective ear that lined the walls in several layers.

In the second part of the performance, Benamor removed her veil. She no longer hid her face, and held the microphone in front of her in one outstretched arm, pulling back the cord like a taut bow. This is the archer pose from Algerian resistance dance, and also the pose that she strikes in Sokol’s portrait of her. The first time I saw her do it was about a month ago, and I just died. It has to be the coolest performance pose these days.

Benamor directed the bow towards the audience in small jerks as she danced with rocking movements to the accompaniment of raï, the popular Algerian music featuring female singers. Sometimes she sang along to the Arabic chorus, at other times she just moved to the music – a little like a child singing in front of the mirror with a hairbrush in hand, practicing and enacting their performance. It all comes from some new yet ancient place that seduces and is hard to grasp. The work oscillates and alternates between song and dance and word pictures being shot into the air by the poet’s tense bow: “Like hiding in the cave to find the light.”

“I cut words like a rapper,” she proclaimed in a more reciting sequence. And although I wouldn’t have wanted to do without Benamor’s insistently present, performing “now,” I also felt a really strong need to read her words. Calling all poetry publishers in Denmark: who will reach out to the Berber, the rapper, the poet, and the performer?

On a plinth in the centre of the exhibition lies a dried plant. It is a Rose of Jericho, a type of rootless plant that crosses borders in the North African desert when it is tossed around by the wind; it unfurls and turns green if put in water. Here, of course, it is a symbol of the nomadic sisterhood, but it is also the polar opposite of the concept of the statue and the statuesque that had been circulating in the media all day.

Towards the end, many of us were sitting on the floor in the dark around the rapping Berber in the white parachute dress. We were part of a living, experimental artistic community which felt a great deal more relevant than having the nation and history carved in granite.

Zahna Siham Benamor striking an archer pose during her performance at O-Overgaden, Copenhagen, March 8, 2024. Still from video by Olivia Chamby Rus.