Zaghareet - Youyou, Intercative Video Art Installation

Curator Mahmoud Obaidi


Varley Art Gallery, Solo Exhibition, 2019

OFF Biennale Cairo, Egypt, 2018

CICA Museum, 2018

Ululations, known in Arabic as “zaghareet,” are loud, rhythmical, high-pitched howls capable of expressing lamentation, joy, or reverence. Like the clapping of hands at the end of a Broadway play, zaghareet’s trills can have a euphoric, commemorative connotation; like the playing of trumpets at a burial, the arresting wails can signal a community in mourning. From Kashmir to Istanbul and Jerusalem to Fez, women’s zaghareet pierce the air for birth, love, and death, a primordial expression of group emotion. But while clapping is a gesture now known by people the world over, many western societies remain unaware of the symbolism and significance of the zaghroutah, despite its centrality to the lifecycle ceremonies of legions of cultures spanning North Africa, Asia Minor, the Middle East, South Asia.

I was born and raised in the southern Iranian city of Ahvaz, and at milestone events it was tradition among women in my family to perform zaghareet. When I moved to the big city (of Tehran) at 17, many aspects of the feminine realm around me changed – the colorful floral-print dresses we all wore in the south were replaced by more urban wardrobes, for example –, but I remember being comforted to see that even in the most globalized and westernized communities of the capital city, women continued to practice zaghareet at their special ceremonies. The practice transcends socioeconomic hierarchies and ethnic categories, too.

Over time I became fascinated by the radical range of the zaghroutah’s psychic and emotional expressivity, as well as the multicultural value it offers in an essentially female/feminine performative space. A mode of communication that predates language, ululation also has compelling universal and even primal qualities. There’s an altogether strong possibility that the eight women, myself included, practicing zaghareet on gallery screens in Markham today connect in an unbroken line to the queens, mothers, seamstresses and poetesses of ancient Alexandria, Persepolis, Sumer, and beyond.

To explore the power of zaghareet to call forth this shared sense of human experience, I invited seven women artists from around the world to record themselves while performing this archetypal cry. Each woman’s performance was given its own screen in a single-wall, multi-channel video installation. Then, in collaboration with a New York-based team of coders specializing in algorithms for heat and movement sensitivity, we programmed sensors capable of activating each video independently.

Depending on their pace, if a visitor proceeds organically along the exhibit wall, there will be instances when each performance is sparked in sequence, one after the other; times when only a single video is playing, allowing for closer enjoyment of a particular style of the intercontinental oral tradition; and yet others when all performances are going in unison, creating a wonderful surprise for the audience.

Even if they are not ululating themselves, my hope is that the interactive element of the exhibit allows visitors to come away not just astonished at the mesmerizing sound of zaghareet, but more aware of their own power as the catalysts of the ceremony, and finally, more curious about global cultures and their contemporary transformations.

Furthermore, I have a strong sense that the zaghroutah operates on the same plane as motherhood and the maternal instinct. Just as a mother fusses and coos over her baby, the cultural practice of zaghareet partakes of the same pre-linguistic mode of communication. The encounter is a two-way street: as the mother puts on a show to entertain her baby, she is equally enchanted by them. There is no judgment and no separation, only the sounds of a madar (Persian for “mother”) who is thrilled, no expectations. My intention is for the Zaghareet exhibition to make room for that same space of pure connection and exchange, where nothing is good or bad, and the electricity of love and awareness flows freely.

Whether living in the Middle East, Nova Scotia, or New England, everyone experiences feelings of joy and sorrow, celebration and lamentation. Zaghareet is my way of conjuring that safe space where we can breathe for a moment and ask ourselves to affirm what it means to be human. Ultimately, the conscious participation of the audience is what will steward this piece to become more than an art installation. If you, the visitor, feel like a part of the chorus, you will be the light passing through culture’s prism to illuminate the human condition.

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