February 28, 2018

“if you Like you can show my works in galleries”

February 27–March 23

Flaxman Library, Main Collections Exhibition Cases

Sharp Building, 37 S. Wabash Ave., 6th floor

The Flaxman Library cases display three DHL packages and their contents of documents and artworks as sent to Art Chicago in 2004. Art Chicago, the antecedent of EXPO Chicago was known then as “America’s most established international art show”1 and thus earned attention and interest from artists all over the world.

The DHL packages include the following items:

  • 36 photographs, 8.9 cm x 5 cm
  • 21 drawings using black pen, A4 size
  • 16 paintings, 40 cm square
  • 10 drawings on photo paper, various sizes
  • Eight drawings using ink, A4 size
  • Three DHL shipping envelopes, 32 cm x 28 cm, 46 cm x 32 cm, 47 cm x 37 cm
  • Two hand written letters, A4 size
  • Two DHL Shipment Air Waybill, A4 size
  • One photocopy of Iranian passport, A4 size
  • One VHS tape, PAL system
  • One drawing, 14.5 cm x 6.8 cm

The artwork was not included in Art Chicago that year. After 14 years in private storage, the packages and their contents, artworks and documents displayed here, made their way into my possession. Last year I lived with a former administrator of Art Chicago, and as she moved to Sweden, she began to unearth her archive of materials from almost 20 years living in the same apartment on Chicago Avenue and Ashland. As she packed her belongings she found these packages from an artist holding an Iranian passport living in Afghanistan. His accompanying letter disclosed some awkward desperation and an intimate relationship with an undisclosed woman associated with Art Chicago with whom he spoke.

Over time I became the “lady” he addressed in the letter asking her to “sleep with my works”. I slept with his work pouring over it all of my ambitions and desires, attempting to learn from it while simultaneously being repulsed by his overt gestures. In his words, “you are my Love,”2 I read his desperation to be shown in the U.S. and his unfortunate unprofessionalism, sending the packages directly to administrators of the art fair without established, prior gallery representation. All of this reflects my own insecurities and concerns as an artist today. In his broken English I see, amplified, my own foreign tongue. In his pleas and forced maner, I see my own hopelessness.

In many more ways this artist became something of an alter ego as I related to the work and the few Farsi phrases disclosed on the back of his letter. In his proclamation, “This project is about AFGHANISTAN,” I could see my own position as a Palestinian artist, constantly framed in the geopolitics of war and terrorism from the U.S. gaze and context. As a Middle Eastern artist pigeonholed and defined by this identity and my ambivalent desires to break free of or play with these signifiers, I feel a strange kinship with this undisclosed artist sending his work to the West and in some ways catering his art for Western audiences. Exhibiting the unidentified artist's archive of paintings, drawings, video art, and photographs within the exhibition, however concealed, serves to question my own authorship and the ethics of curating such work. Accompanied with my own explorations and recreations of his work, I share, here, my sketchbook of attempts to mimic and learn through the process of copying his drawings and techniques. Only showing the backs of his work, however, and not disclosing the artists name, I question my own responsibility, using his work without his permission while simultaneously inserting his work into Art Chicago’s exhibition catalogue as my own intervention.

Special thanks to Jose Luis Benavides for his tireless effort, patience, and support in writing this statement, Jenny Knowlton for her years working with Art Chicago, and Alexis Brocchi for digging through Expo Chicago’s archives.

- Qais Assali


  1. Announcement featured in E-Flux, March 29, 2004

  2. For this statement I have kept all original capitalizatations from the undisclosed artist's letters to Art Chicago.