Rami George’s early life was spent in a cult called the Samaritan Foundation. The artist’s mother became entangled with the group in the early ’90s, whisking her two kids from Somerville, Massachusetts, to Guthrie, Oklahoma, where they lived for a brief time in the Foundation’s headquarters: a former jail they called the Monastery. After winning a widely publicized custody battle in 1993, George’s father retrieved the children. Since 2014, the artist has been researching the Foundation and contacting former members. The drawings and video included in George’s first institutional solo exhibition, which was scheduled to open at the MIT List Visual Arts Center this month, stem from an effort to unpack these childhood experiences through art.
The Foundation’s beliefs synthesized New Age practices, Christian esoterica, and wacky conspiracy theories. Cult members practiced the pseudoscientific technique of dowsing—in this case, the use of pendulums to find answers to spiritual quandaries. Despite the group’s spiritualist veneer, its leaders were reputed to be controlling and violent: news reports on their activities often cite ties to the Branch Davidian cult in Texas, and members were investigated in connection with the 1995 murder of filmmaker Allen Ross.
Rami George: Untitled (with my father), 2020, video, 20 minutes 31 seconds. Courtesy the artist.
George’s show at the List Center features a room within a room—a metaphor for buried memories—based on the floorplan of the Monastery’s seminar hall. Inside, a new video plays on a monitor installed alongside displays of printed ephemera. The video directly addresses the role of the Samaritan Foundation in George’s family life. The soundtrack features audio of their father recalling the custody battle, while images of the artist’s childhood home in Somerville, not far from the List Center, play onscreen.
Especially intriguing are George’s works on paper that incorporate dowsing diagrams—templates for interpreting the movements of swinging pendulums—that the cult published. The drawings’ swirling lines have an almost cochlear quality, and some of the works are annotated with cryptic phrases credited to cult founder Linda Greene: desire to merge with godliness, for example, and allow the synthesis to occur. The artist also worked with a musician friend, Joel Midden, to translate these invocations into sound compositions.
Rami George: Untitled (Saturday, October 16, 1993), 2015, video, 5 minutes. Courtesy the artist.
We might see George’s practice itself as a kind of dowsing that uncovers personally significant stories previously obfuscated or kept at some remove. This method applies more broadly to videos by the artist, including one that explores the history of the queer community in Philadelphia, where they earned an MFA at the University of Pennsylvania. The video Untitled (the wars in Lebanon), 2018, examines the culture of their mother’s home city of Beirut. Rather than shooting their own footage, George instead asked Beiruti friends to film short segments around the city, which the artist then stitched together. The soundtrack features a woman with a soft voice speaking English with an accent—a stand-in for their mother, perhaps—reading a diaristic text written by George. Though mediated by a collective production process that spans great geographic distance, the work nonetheless conveys the artist’s personal experience and profound vulnerability.
A version of this article appears under the title “First Look: Rami George” in the March 2020 issue, p. 14.