Between Bodies: Hoda Tawakol

21 November 2020 - 25 February 2021

Death has never been more alive. Rising tolls seep into our daily newsfeeds; images of the deceased pile up in worldwide media; and mortality rates are on (nearly) every global leader’s lips.


For her second solo show at Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, Hoda Tawakol fathoms death less as an end than as a promise of renewal. In works ranging from large-scale textile pieces to more intimate sculptures, Tawakol freeze-frames an instance of transition, a moment teetering between presence and absence, physical and ethereal.


Liminality is her realm. Here, the body reigns, and the cocoon is the ideal metaphor for this in-between state. The works capture a brief suspension within a transformative cycle, notably the passage beyond death, witnessed by the ancient cocoon-like figures of mummies, sarcophagi, and pyramids.


Tawakol revives charged rituals. She revels in both the materiality they require, and the temporality they inhabit. Her very gestures are liminal, suspended between the ancient and the contemporary.


Wrapping, moulding, binding, freezing—such are the steps that ‘embalm’ her Mummies (2020), a series of nine plump totems. The artist crams nylons with rice, squeezing, twisting, and sculpting the swelling bulges, before enmeshing them in netting.  The fleshy assemblages are then ‘frozen’ in resin, channelling ancient funerary techniques that used the viscous material to mummify for eternity, a gesture that undergirds the entire show’s sense of ‘fixing’ a moment between states. Undulating blobs, mangled male genitalia, bulbous charnel abstractions—the works defy easy reading precisely because they conflate an uncanny myriad of corporal contortions and gender allusions.


Tawakol is a sculptor of textile; throughout her practice, fabrics are endowed with a force hoisting them above mere material swathes. They become entities, bristling with breasts or puckered by protuberances. In Tawakol’s hands, fabric is like skin, a sensual membrane between intimacy and exposure. Sarcophagus No. 1 (2019), for example, vibrates with vitality: the left side of the coffin-like enclosure is made of tufted ‘bandage’ fabric, peaking in rounded mounds like some perky mammary landscape, while the right ‘lid’ refracts a rainbow light in uneven silk shafts. The body is physically there—by its scale, its wadded materiality—and yet absent, abstracted. Similarly, the eyes dripping from Sarcophagus No. 2 (2020) emblematize sight. As a presumed soul peers out through the fringes of tentacular eyes on the right (eerily echoing hair that would continue in post-death growth), a cacophony of bandage-wrapping techniques—strapping, binding, criss-crossing—animate the twin lid. 


Revivifying, bright-hued dye bleeds through these fabric works like an insidious witness. A diversity of unpredictable hand-dyeing techniques—batik, spotting, painting, tie-dye—creates background vortexes, like portals propelling suspended souls to another state. Or, in the case of Sarcophagus No. 2, the tie-dye ripples stare out at us like an iris—a single über-eye intensifying the chorus of dangling ceramic-eye gazes. Irregularly dyed silk is the backdrop to Sarcophagus No. 3 (2020), riddled with busty amulets and neatly punctuated by a transversal collar, a yellow, spine-like token, and a crotch-level patch pricked with wild, fin-like wads: the viewer finds a legibly mirrored morphology in the here-but-not-quite body evoked by the two-and-a-half-meter-tall work.


The pyramid, unsurprisingly, rises as a site of transition in Tawakol’s cocoon-like, death-as-new-beginning universe. One of a series of fabric works, Pyramid No. 1 (2020), composed of hand-sewn constellations of paint-dyed silk, is a flattened, aerial sweep of a pyramid cluster—a drone’s-eye view hovering over a shift in perspective. Watercolour, often a medium of experimentation for Pyramid and Sarcophagus studies, oozes through a series of works on paper (2019-2020): the familiar shapes of Mummies and Sarcophagi throb with colour, as Tawakol’s hallmark iconography—pendulous, fruit-laden date palms—endows the images with an amplified fertility. A second series of works on paper, Immaculate (2018-2020), relishes the unpredictability of dyeing: whether on paper pleated from a central point, or block-folded according to the Japanese shiboiri technique, the ink does what it wants, with the blind determination of a bodily fluid. Immaculate No. 12 (2018), for example, is a scream of colour, yet it functions as a witness to some vivid, fluid act, bearing the traces of a bodily secretion. It throbs resolutely, like an image striving to be read in a shroud.


Throughout her practice, Tawakol has wrapped uncomfortable questions (particularly relating to the manipulation of women’s bodies) in sharp-witted, spirited works. Like the liminal states she navigates in Between Bodies, her strategy is double—vivacious yet critical, vaguely salacious yet earnest. While her lens on the afterlife may offer glimmers of hope to some in our current moment of biological uncertainly, Tawakol’s works in Between Bodies perform a far more daunting task—they bring us nose-to-nose with our finitude, suggesting it may only be the beginning.