Fragrant bukhoor in art at the MIT List Visual Arts Center

Today we went to the MIT List Visual Arts Center in Cambridge, MA to see this exhibit by Sudanese-Canadian artist Azza El Siddique, titled In the place of annihilation, where all the past was present and returned transformed (2022). My main motivation was to experience the scented component, bukhoor, the olfactory sculptural medium. The bukhoor is a central feature of “[t]he work’s atmospheric evocations of the long, multilayered histories of ancient sites, precious resins, and traditions[.]”

When I first entered, I could smell sandalwood and some incense, but it was much fainter than I’d expected.

As a lover of wire art and the minimalist aesthetic, I also appreciated the steel frameworks, which were based on the floor plan of the Nubian deity Dedwen’s birth house. Other references to history and mythology were drawn using MIG and TIG welding techniques to sketch figures onto stainless steel panels.


In the middle of the room, 2 digital screens showed video loops: one, the molecular structures of ingredients in the bukhoor incense; the other, macro images of said ingredients, which include sandalwood chips, resins (frankincense, amber, and oudh), as well as bottles of European perfumes for export to North African markets. I couldn’t really tell what those perfumes were, nor get a good picture, but I would imagine that they contributed the least to the aroma of the bukhoor.

The altar is built of stainless steel with cutout designs illuminated by heat lamps underneath, which not only enhance the ambience with a red glow but serve to slowly melt the bukhoor, which is bound together with sugar. Five bukhoor sculptures in the shape of waterlilies appear to be in various stages of dissolution.

I leaned over to sniff the most disintegrated specimen, waving my hand over it frantically to try to pick up more of the scent. At this point, the museum guide explained that with the HVAC running all the time, the fragrance was not as strong as the artist probably would have liked. Even so, it emanated the impression of a warm, dry amalgam of resins and dark woods.

I found the visual aspect of seeing the consequences of releasing the fragrance to bring home the transience of scent—although the olfactory output is invisible, its creation (via transformation of physical states) is visible; a reminder to take nothing for granted.

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