“Hosting” a Protest: Anna Dacqué’s Feminist Response to Sleep

“Sleep does not deny the possibility of revolution, but is one of its necessary conditions, forwithin itself it carries the potential for awakening, for being reborn, for starting anew.” [1]

 – The Book of Sleep (2017) by Haytham el Wardany

Sleep has been politicised in the history of resistance from labour movements to political movements and gained popularity in the 1970s as a form of protest. Yet much less has been spoken about the non-violence act of sleep for women across time. The travelling exhibition Sleeping with Vengeance, Dreaming of a Life, curated by Ruth Noack, takes on the multiple facets of sleep beyond its restorative function. Berlin-based artist Anna Dacqué highlights the power of sleep through which it becomes a site empowering women to articulate their struggles that pervade through time and space. For these women, being asleep is not a state of nonchalance or powerlessness. Rather, it is an ‘unconscious’ subversion of repressive powers and a safe space where dreaming offers the imagination of a new reality and the awakening of new beginnings.

Presented at the Württembergischer Kunstverein in Stuttgart, Germany, in its most extensive iteration, Noack conceptualised a working-in-progress exhibition that aimed to challenge the conventional pressure for shows to display completed and large installations. [2] Amongst the fourty-nine works in the exhibition is an artwork by Anna Dacqué in which she plays ‘host’ to this exhibition. Instead of creating new works of art, she, in her own words, ‘reproduces’ three significant works by three different artists. Under the umbrella title hosting works that belong in this exhibition, 2019…, the artist acts as an intermediary by claiming to “put [herself] in the feminist service of the exhibition.”[3] The decision to ‘reproduce’ the works may appear as a mere budgetary necessity, since it would have been very expensive to install the original works that constitute her ‘reproduction’: Camille Pissarro’s Le repos, paysanne couchée dans l’herbe (1882), Gülsün Karamustafas’s (who is also another participating artist of the show) Prison Painting 6 (1972), and Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s Sultana Dream (1905). However, Dacqué’s deliberate intention to intervene with such an approach calls for attention: what does it mean to ‘reproduce’? 

To reproduce could mean to repeat, to re-enter or perhaps, to give life to. These works individually reiterate similar struggles of women and their stifled role in societies of repressed voices, freedom and the state of powerlessness. Having reproduced these three works for the exhibition, Dacqué provides the space for these issues to re-enter the present discourse. It is 2019 and yet the same issues still exist, the tiresome repetition of feminist rhetoric still goes unheard.

Entering through the salmon-pink and royal blue curtains central to the exhibition, one is not visually guided to begin with a specific work. Yet, the work that flanks the exhibition is Dacqué’s first reproduction, Camille Pissarro’s Le repos, paysanne couchée dans l’herbe (1882), conspicuously hung next to a large text banner that presents a quote by author Haytham el-Wardany (fig. 1). Almost lost behind the banner, the work is a print the size of a postcard (similar to those purchased at the museum gift shop) placed in an oversized framed (fig. 2). It is at the height of the French political unrest that Pissarro captures this calm image of a female peasant taking a nap by the field. This reproduction, though questionable, is devoid of the painterly quality of Pissarro’s art and juxtaposes a seemingly small and helpless lady against the large frame of emptiness. Dacqué seems to suggest the scene as a small fragment of an infinite amount of possibilities. The image of labourers sleeping during and at the site of work recurs in the exhibition, such as in Jürgen Stollhans’ China’s Dream, here as a rhetoric of resistance to capitalism, the violence inflicted onto the body, and the subversion of spaces of productivity.

However, sleep is also more than resistance to reality. Its subversive potential includes the possibility of a new beginning, or an alternative reality as the quote at the beginning by Haytham el-Wardany espouses. In the second part of her work (fig. 3), Dacqué invites one to listen to a narration of presumably the first feminist utopian novel Sultana’s Dream (1905) by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain while looking at the reproduced print of Gulsun Karamustafa’s Prison Painting 6 (1972). Through this audio-visual experience, one is no longer merely looking at the depicted female prisoners lying under a colourful blanket. The viewer is forced to enter their state of consciousness/unconsciousness – their dreams. In the novel Sultana’s Dream, the protagonist wakes up in an alternate paradigm called “Ladyland” where, unconventionally, the roles of men and women in Bengal are exchanged. Easily dismissed as a childish fantasy, this dream speaks of a revolutionary resistance against the reality of gender inequality in Bengal and other parts of the world. The clever installation of the two works superimposes Sultana’s Dream onto the dreams of the political prisoners in Prison Painting 6 where women are asleep under their brightly-coloured blanket in the limited space of the prison cell. Similarly produced at the height of political unrest in Turkey following a military coup in 1971, the original painting documents the turbulent times when women could be incarcerated for being vocal and political. In this iteration by Dacqué, one can imagine that they, too, are dreaming of a utopia where, like the men, women do not have to face political repression when making their voices heard.

Unfortunately, an uncontextualized image of sleeping similar to these works could be criticised as signalling incapability and vulnerability, connotations that have plagued the depiction and description of women. Even though the three original artworks were never in contact or directly influenced each other, as a host, Dacqué has brought them into a conversation that transcends time and space. The same acts of protest and struggle have unfortunately prevailed the test of time. Provoked by cultures of oppression, these works in turn appear to share an essential solidarity. By illustrating the effect of sleep in empowering these women with the possibility of a revolution, Dacqué in her re-presentation vocalises their dreams and struggles that when presented on their own may only remain unarticulated for these women. Hence, in her servitude to this exhibition, the artist re-produced a transcultural space to subvert the oppressive portrayal of women and sleep and (re)insert the often hidden voices of women into the discourse of the exhibition. 

However, while one recognises Noack to be unconventional and critical in her curatorial direction, it still leaves the question whether it was an artistic or curatorial decision to place the reproduction of Pissarro’s work, separately from the other two artworks.  A visitor who has read the exhibition guide provided at the entrance would learn how Pissarro’s work is not just part of Dacqué’s reproductions but also the central inspiration for Noack from the beginning of this project. Albeit not the original work itself, situating an adaptation of the Le repos, paysanne couchée dans l’herbe at the so-called ‘beginning’ of the exhibition hall signals its importance in framing the exhibition. Yet, the postcard in the frame, without the strong context of Dacque’s intervention shown in the other side of the room, can cause viewers to relegate it amongst the plethora of works on display. Nonetheless, while the feminist discourse recurs in the exhibition, Dacque’s sub-curatorial intervention along with Noack’s curatorial frame carved out an important space for visitors to leave the exhibition wide-awake at the gendered aspect of the depiction of sleep.

[1] Haytham el-Wardany, 2017, The Book of Sleep (Cairo: Al-Karma Publishers) quoted in Ruth Noack, 2019, Sleeping.
[2] “Württ. Kunstverein Stuttgart: Sleeping with a Vengeance, Dreaming of a Life,” accessed 11 January 2020, https://www.wkv-stuttgart.de/programm/2019/ausstellungen/sleeping-with-a-vengeance-dreaming-of-a-life/.
[3] Anna Dacqué, 2019, “Brief notes”.

Quoted Sources:
Dacqué, Anna, 2019, Brief notes provided by the exhibition team of Sleeping with a Vengeance, Dreaming of a Life, accessed December 8, 2019, unpaginated.

Noack, Ruth, 2019, Sleeping with a Vengeance, Dreaming of a Life: Exhibition manual, (Stuttgart: Württembergischer Kunstverein, 2019).

el-Wardany, Haytham, 2017, The Book of Sleep, (Cairo: Al-Karma Publishers) by quoted in Ruth Noack, 2019, Sleeping with a Vengeance, Dreaming of a Life: Exhibition manual, (Stuttgart: Württembergischer Kunstverein, 2019). 

“Württ.Kunstverein Stuttgart: Sleeping with a Vengeance, Dreaming of a Life”. Accessed 11 January 2020. https://www.wkv-stuttgart.de/programm/2019/ausstellungen/sleeping-with-a-vengeance-dreaming-of-a-life/