The Daily Star

by Jim Quilty



DUBAI: If you have an email account, chances are you’ve received a scam mail. A random trawl through your spam filter will likely turn up some samples of this opportunistic species of spam.

The scam missive always takes the form of a plea, one written by someone (claiming to be a public figure, perhaps not) who casts himself (or herself) as being in dire personal straits and having access to immense wealth.

The afflicted correspondent asks you to deposit a few hundred bucks in an overseas bank account, in exchange for which you will be compensated with a cut of his or her wealth – made useless by present extenuating circumstances in extracting him or her from these present difficulties.

Lebanese artists Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige have transformed this sometimes amusing species of Internet fauna into a profound study in the power of the image in narrative. “A Letter Can Always Reach Its Destination” is one of five works in the exhibition “Spectral Imprints,” curated by Rotterdam-based curator Nat Muller.

In a show dominated by works whose media revisits handicraft practice – porcelain, decorative textiles and handmade paper – “A Letter” is unique inasmuch as it is a video installation. Yet, like the other pieces in the exhibition, the artists say, their work ultimately derives from a centuries-old practice.

“A Letter” is comprised of two components. Arrayed in an anteroom outside the video projection, stacks of unadorned rice paper pamphlets record 45 scam mails – selected from the thousands the artists say they’ve been collecting since the 1990s.

In the video projection, a line of six people are wedged into the frame, standing shoulder-to-shoulder like suspects in a police lineup. Of various ages, races and genders, they all stare straight ahead without speaking. The frame gradually shifts from right to left so that over the course of two hours all 45 figures appear in the lineup.

Before the projection screen hangs a second screen of gauze-like consistency, not unlike a sheet of mosquito mesh. It is “into” this screen that individual figures from the lineup appear to address onlookers.

Scam aficionados will immediately recognize the content of the figure’s earnest delivery. Pitch done, the figure gradually de-materializes, giving the onlooker a few seconds to digest the plea before another figure emerges from the line to speak.

“If you listen, there are patterns,” Hadjithomas said on the opening day of the exhibition. “Usually they are in a state of confusion and they don’t know what to do. They chose you because they really trust you. There is also a religious aspect – so they’re Born Again Christians or devout Muslims. Either they’re sick or their father is sick or has just died so it’s really urgent and they really need someone to give them their money.

“It has all the ingredients of a Hollywood melodrama. If you really listen to them, you have the son of so-and-so, the son of the rebel leader or the wife of the president. [Each scam letter] picks a real world,” she grinned. “If you listen for two hours you feel you really understand more about international conflict.

“For me,” Hadjithomas continued, “these [letters draw upon the] imaginary of colonization, because you have to believe. If you have to believe in corruption, where is it possible [that such corruption can be found]? It’s not possible in Europe, for these people who are writing. It is possible in places like Russia, Africa, Middle East and Asia.”

The 45 figures in “A Letter” are played by non-professional Beirut residents, all chosen because they happen to come from the countries from which the scam mails’ authors claim to originate.

The challenge, Hadjithomas said, “is to make you believe. How do you make an actor work in a way that you believe in him. You know that he’s play-acting but you’re still tempted to believe it.

“You know there are an awful lot of people who send money in response to these scam mails. More that $200 million every year is exchanged, sent, lost – so it’s something that works on people, even if you know it’s a scam.”

Like the other four exhibits in “Spectral Imprints,” “A Letter Can Always Reach Its Destination” was among the 300-odd project applications submitted for the 2012 edition of the Abraaj Capital Art Prize. Announced six months before the opening of ArtDubai, each of the five winners was allotted $120,000 to realize their project, all working in more or less close collaboration with Muller. The exhibition of “Spectral Imprints” was one of several parallel activities held under the aegis of ArtDubai.

The strength of Hadjithomas and Joreige’s work lies in the irony at the heart of it. Putting aside the contemporary vernacular medium that makes it at once exotic and cheesy, the Internet, scam belongs to the age-old tradition of the confidence swindle.

“We discovered that it’s [based on] a very old swindle made in the 18th century called ‘The Jerusalem Letter,’” a version of which is included among the exhibit’s collection of scam, Hadjithomas said. “If you compare them, you see it’s the same model of narration.

“Little by little, while re-reading [these scams, we saw them] evolving. It began in Africa. Then it came to Russia. Then it came to Iraq, then Tunis and Egypt and Libya. You have a sense that it was very clear that it was depicting recent history in a different way.”

By clothing these scams in the flesh and blood of performance, the artists suggest that the scam is as much a narrative genre as more “legitimate” fiction forms, demonstrating that any narrative, no matter how bogus, can be more effective when it provokes empathy rather than alienation.

This lesson was well utilized by an anonymous young man in middle-class attire who used to accost foreigners on Beirut streets with a personal tale of misfortune – he was an AUB student from Damascus, he said, who’d had his wallet stolen – before asking for a donation to pay for a taxi home.

Yet “A Letter” isn’t simple re-enactment. The double-screen mediation creates a space where empathy can coexist with critical reflection.

“You know nearly all of [scam mails] are written in Nigeria. While we were casting, a guy came to read his text and he did it really well – better than the text we gave him. We asked him whether he knew these scams. He told us, ‘I used to write these scams before coming to Beirut.’”

For more information about the Abraaj Capital Prize winners, see



All text courtesy of The Daily Star: Lebanon. For the original article, click here.