JEHAD NGA: the Corrupted
By John Hutt
The glitchy, colour corrupted images that make up Jehad Nga’s The Green Book Project seem like they have been pulled off of a destroyed hard drive. Images that were forced from the unwilling grasp of some digital purgatory and thrust into the light of day. The images are imperfect, but they’re imperfect in the way only digital images can be. We can see the underlying code has been tampered with, corrupted, or the software was compromised.
In many ways this is true. These are images pulled from the ether of departing data fleeing the Libyan civil war. This is mass surveillance. Mass surveillance that does not actually care about content or identity. Nga’s parents are from Libya, but left for America where Jehad was born. In 2011, when he returned there, he imagined seeing a “romantic kaleidoscope” of images in the wake of the fall of Gaddafi’s regime. He wrote that his personal conflict during this time brought him to a point where his relation to breaking news was less immediate in his work than understanding or making a connection with the surreal new reality. The Green Book Project is the artist’s attempt to do this.
In the distorted images of sharks and basketball players we see a chaotic kaleidoscope, we see a surreal world, that only becomes focused with more context and understanding.
To appreciate The Green Book Project does not require an understanding of the Libyan conflict, the his- tory of the artist – a celebrated photojournalist, nor even the history The Green Book itself. What the work is is an attempt to come to terms with the immensity of what had happened in Libya when Gaddafi fell. The only understanding is in the attempt and deconstruction of attempt itself.
However hard to grasp, context is always helpful. Jehad Nga is mostly known as a great photo jour- nalist. His earlier work in Iraq documents soldiers. His work in Libya entitled Libya – The Fall shows abandoned buildings, decomposing photographs, and sights from Libya during the war. The Fall could be seen as a companion piece to The Green Book. What Nga was grasping at in Libya - The Fall is more plainly seen in his later project. Ironically, the images are anything but plain. They do not show a scene distorted by war, but rather they are damaged by their own context. The Green Book Project cannot be separated from The Green Book. In fact, it is essential to its existence.
Prior to 2014, The Green Book was required reading throughout Libya. A treatise of sorts that contains the world view and political theories of Muammar Gaddafi. The Green Book, inspired by Mao’s red book, was constantly revised throughout Gaddafi’s life and contained everything from ideas on how to dismantle capitalism and abolish money, restrictions on women working after having a child – thus removing kindergartens, to the unethical nature of professional sports.
It is a messy book, and regardless of its stance on direct democracy was used as a tool in Gaddafi’s Libya that would come to define his reign.
As the red book was placed on a pedestal in China, the constitution is considered infallible in the United States, The Green Book was a source of propaganda and faux-revolutionary theory in Libya. During the early days of the Libyan civil war (2014 - present) dissenters burned The Green Book as a symbol of rejection of the ruling powers. When Gaddafi was killed the book was removed from libraries and stores, but the population still knows its contents.
It is from this background that Jehad Nga draws his inspiration for his Green Book Study.
During the civil war, the government of Libya was harvesting the data that was being sent out from the country, so Nga did the same. Nga set up a satellite on the roof of a farmhouse in Tripoli and collected outgoing data, and then programmed it to only save the pictures.
In order to take those pictures and turn them into the unclear and puzzling works in The Green Book Study, Jehad Nga converted the files into the 01010101010001111s that make up the code of the image, and then pasted contents of The Green Book into them. The result was images that contained within them – if they were not totally corrupted after converting them back to images – the book that defined a time in Libyan history.
It’s something that is from the surface a found document. Like a negative that has been spoiled, a digi- tal image with corrupt code is covered with lines and colour that seem to tear it apart, stopping any simple reading of the subject beneath.
The 24 representative photographs that survived Ngo’s process seem to be pretty benign for leaving a country in the midst of a civil war. There is one picture of guns and one picture of a shark. A few bodies in water. Not dead bodies, just shimmering female forms.
Green Book Study relies on high concept and an explanation for the images to be appreciated fully. Not least of which is a new type of found photo in the age of digital reproduction, actually gleaned from someone’s internet traffic. However, from a surface level the interesting found objects from a time in history represent the side not often seen among the images of sodomized dictators, gold plated guns, destroyed homes and ongoing chaos. It all seems very normal. Normal but corrupted by the text of a green book.
To read the full article of Jehad Nga click here.