For over a decade now, Noel Jabbour has been placing the marginal at center stage, forcing her viewers to take notice of the overlooked. Her photographs consistently expose a human dimension, an angle of vision, or a profound insight, which are usually unseen or ignored. In this, she performs one of art’s important tasks: rendering visible what is otherwise invisible. Jabbour’s art-making praxis has a transformative dimension as well: it expands our range of vision and shows us things that are important to see.
Jabbour was born in Nazareth in 1970. Her early work derived its power from a deliberate affinity with documentary photography. Some of her more recent pieces diverge from reality and move into a more poetic realm. Thus, alongside her reality-based series, she has also created imaginary self-images that re-vision Christian symbols.
Jabbour’s dialogue with Christianity reaches a climax in her MARY MAGDALENE series (2002-2004). In this series, comprised of seven photographs, the artist uses her own body as a vehicle for self-expression, as she fuses her self-image with the figure of Mary Magdalene. Following in the footsteps of the Magdalene, from the Galilee to Jerusalem to the South of France, Jabbour reconfigures the historical and mythical image of Christ’s prominent female apostle. As recent scholars (prominent among them Karen King) teach us, Mary of Magdala was one of Jesus’s most steadfast, beloved and wise followers. Her early spiritual standing was tarnished by early Christian patriarchs some time after the fourth century, when she came to be identified with diverse sinful female characters in the newly codified New Testament. It was her fictitious character as a repentant prostitute that fired the imagination of European (male) artists, who portrayed her voluptuous body and long tresses in a highly sexualized and titillating manner. The drastic shift in her role in Christian tradition from the most spiritual and beloved student of Christ – the first to see him after the resurrection – to a whore whose sensual female manifestations place her in the Eve-like role associated with sin and sex has been related by scholars to Early Christian struggles to remove women from positions of power and spiritual leadership.
Jabbour’s images of her Self as the Magdalene do not portray the body as associated with sin or lacking in spirit. On the contrary, her imagery seems to reject the Christian dichotomy that polarizes body and spirit. Jabbour’s Magdalene begins her voyage at the Jordan River, the site of Christ’s baptism suggesting her purity and deep faith (#1). She moves on to the Judean Desert (#2) – an ascetic and arid site that contrasts with the river’s abundance – suggesting that her voyage is both physical and metaphoric, encompassing the full scope of human experience, ranging from fruitful to barren; from life to death. Dried Out River (#3) combines the symbolism of the two previous images. Both water and lack thereof are suggested as the Magdalene’s journey is imaged as a spiritual quest. In this image, the artist, her long tresses covering her body, appears as an innocent Eve before the fall, within a primeval garden, on the verge of discovery and self-discovery.
Jabbour’s pilgrimage in the dry river bed of potential is followed by Contemplation (#4). Modeled after well-known images – Titian’s 16th century painting is perhaps the best known example – the artist offers a subtle subversion of the subject/object body/spirit dichotomy that governs most male artists’ representations of the sensual Magdalene. Jabbour is both subject and object, displaying both body and spirit. Her partially exposed breast and illuminated patches of flesh fuse with a profound expression of spiritual contemplation and complicates the usual equation of flesh and sin. Jabbour’s introverted expression: closed eyes, deep serenity and mental concentration, and the dramatic light that illuminates her face and her ‘heart’ – detaching them from the darkness that envelops them – convey a metaphysical dimension that merges with the body even as it transcends it without negating its sensuality. Jabbour’s Repentence (#5), further challenges the simplistic polar dialectic set up between the sensual and the spiritual, disrupting our expectations and forcing us to question conventions of representation.
Noli Me Tangere (#6) alludes to Mary Magdalene’s post-resurrection encounter with Christ, one of the most important narrative episodes in the New Testament, that establish her central role as Christ’s beloved disciple. In this photograph, Jabbour poses as the Orans (the palms of her hands spread out in a position of prayer and surrender) – not touching the Divine, yet submitting to its visionary presence. Standing on top of the hill La Sainte Baume, the site where the Magdalene ended her life, Jabbour photographs her Magdalene-Self from a low angle. Seen from below, set against a dramatically vibrant sky, Jabbour-as-Magdalene acquires a spiritual dimension, as she seems to ascend towards heaven.
The final image of the MARY MAGDALENE series shows the artist wearing blue jeans and a wine colored sweater, moving across time and space from the world of early Christianity to the artist’s here and now (#7). Jabbour is seen from the back, sitting on the rocky slope of the hill of Sainte Baume, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. The Magdalene died in exile while teaching the word of Christ. Jabbour, who also resides outside her native land, seems to look longingly towards her place of origin, across the Sea. Separated by two millennia, two women from the Galilee pursue their voyage across the sea. Their journey is both physical and spiritual as it merges past and present, fuses artist and apostle, and unites body and soul.
Gannit Ankori, 'Noel Jabbour', Vogue Hommes International (Fall/Winter 2003-2004), p. 166.
Karen L. King, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle, Santa Rosa, 2003.