Art

Four Questions About Contemporary Arab Art

(all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
1985 poster designed by Marc Rudin and published by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

I admit to feeling crippled by the New Museum’s Here and Elsewhere show. As the first major show of art from the “Arab world” in a New York museum, it stirs a huge well of emotions and frustrations about a topic that needs volumes to unpack. To their credit, curators Natalie Bell and Massimiliano Gioni have done a solid job of bringing together a lot of important work, but there are many shortcomings in the recent renaissance of Arab art, and although many of the issues aren’t specific to this show, they are evident in it. This is an attempt to understand some of them.

The Title

The Here and Elsewhere catalogue
The ‘Here and Elsewhere’ catalogue

The introduction to the New Museum’s Here and Elsewhere exhibition catalogue reads in parts like a long apology for their decision to survey contemporary Arab art. In their conceptual framing for the show, Bell and Gioni explain that there is “an anxiety about gratifying the audiences’ pre-existing expectations that artists represent a certain attitude or condition — perhaps accidentally catering to viewers’ desires.”

What Bell and Gioni do well in the exhibition is bring in a wide cross-section of work from artists with connections to a certain geography; what they don’t do well enough is communicate clearly what we are looking at. The result is that most people probably walk away with a vague notion of what art from the Arab world looks like, which is what their essay suggests they are trying to avoid. It is a confusing paradox that proves that intellectual posturing often obscures underlying issues. My favorite word salad from the catalogue is:

In this sense, the cultural specificity of Here and Elsewhere is not so much an essentialist framing of the work of artists who, to varying degrees, are connected to the Arab world. it is rather a refusal of a pluralist, neoliberal paradigm that reduces difference in the name of a universality that only recapitulates the homogenizing forces of the global economy.

If artspeak were a game show, this would win big. To argue that the New Museum functions outside of a neoliberal paradigm, with exhibits that anoint future art stars (like theYounger than Jesus triennial), support local gallery programs (staging solo shows by market-friendly artists like George Condo, Elizabeth Peyton, Chris Burden, and others), and employ curators who regularly organize biennials, the most neoliberal homogenizing force in the art world, is disingenuous.

The title of the exhibition is derived from a film project by directors Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Gorin, and Anne-Marie Miéville, who were commissioned by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) to create a work about the revolutionary group that was waging a war to reclaim their homeland. Originally titled Until Victory: Thinking and Working Methods of the Palestinian Revolution (Jusqu’à la victoire: Méthodes de pensée et de travail de la revolution palestinienne), the film-essay eventually became less a documentary and more a reflection on the status of image-making, and was given the new title Here and Elsewhere (Ici et ailleurs). Bell and Gioni evoke the film in the title of their show, the second time in the last year Gioni has used an artwork to frame a major exhibition (his exhibition for the Venice Biennale, The Encyclopedic Palace, was named after a project by Marino Auriti). I suspect it is a tactic to move some responsibility from the curator onto an artwork that we’re lead to believe encapsulates the issues at hand.

Maybe it is relevant that the exhibition is titled after a once revolutionary project that was defanged by artists in favor of a cinematic experiment. Here and Elsewhere is similarly just standard international contemporary art with different points on the map as a frame of reference. “The artists in this exhibition share Godard’s complicated awareness of the danger inherent in the economy of images,” Bell and Gioni write, and then suggest that the whole exhibition is akin to an act of witnessing without committing to much else. In this context, witnessing is a type of tourism. Bell’s travel itinerary for the show was nonetheless impressive: “I traveled to Amman, Jerusalem, Ramallah, and in Morocco to Tetouan, Tangier, Rabat, Casablanca, Marrakech, and to Algiers, Sharjah, and Dubai.” I assume Gioni visited two of the most important contemporary Arab art hubs: Beirut and Cairo.

The Geography

sdfas (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
Bouchara Khalili’s ‘Mapping Journey’ project floats in front of photos by Yto Barrada.

“Middle East” is, of course, a Eurocentric term. Here and Elsewhere instead employs the term “Arab world,” which gives the impression of a region more homogenous than it actually is. Both phrases are used daily in the media, in universities, and in governments, because people’s understanding of the world changes slowly. Whatever people may tell you, there is little that citizens of Rabat, Morocco, and Aleppo, Syria, share that they don’t also share with people in Tabriz, Istanbul, or even Paris.

The term “Arab world” erases minorities and diversity in favor of a hegemony of the majority. Imagine if the phrase “Christian world” or “English world” was used to describe the United States, Canada, Australia, the UK, Ireland, South Africa, and much of the Caribbean. Arabic is the majority language of many of the countries in the region, but this is only because nationalism and media infiltration have erased the historical polyglotism. Few “Arab world” countries retain their linguistic diversity (Lebanon, Algeria, and Somalia are exceptions); most have given way to unilingual realities. It is curious to note that the term “Arab” is often affixed to the official name of “Arab” countries that have a sense of anxiety over historic or present-day diversity (Syrian Arab Republic, Arab Republic of Egypt, United Arab Emirates).

When the curators say that they are trying to explore “typecasting life in many Arab countries,” they are in fact propagating that mode of thinking. I didn’t see much in the exhibition that punctured that reality. In their efforts to present images that are oblique, fragmentary, and lacunose (all words they use in relation to Yto Barrada’s photographs but also endemic in works by others in the show), they don’t make the case as to how these traits are in any way unique to the region.

The Diversity

Kader Attia's "Repair, Culture's Agency" (2014)
Kader Attia’s “Repair, Culture’s Agency” (2014)

While “Arab” is a generic term whose meaning varies from country to country, it is often used to whitewash the real diversity in each nation. Here and Elsewhere is actually more diverse than most shows of its kind.

Kader Attia’s “Repair, Culture’s Agency” (2014) tackles the problems of linguistic minorities in the Arab world perfectly. A repaired bust is paired with the kind of writing board that was often used to teach the Berber minority of Algeria Arabic. In light of a tool used to assimilate a native population into the mainstream of a nation, the notion of repair takes on new meanings. The marble statue depicts a French First World War soldier who was operated on by one of the pioneers of modern plastic surgery. He connects the violence of war and assimilation and makes plain that the scars have never healed. The Berbers in Algeria have been impacted by many levels of imperialism throughout history, and that violence wasn’t only at the hands of Europeans.

Mekhitar Garabedian's "Learning Piece: Be Patient, My Soul" (2006)
Mekhitar Garabedian’s “Learning Piece: Be Patient, My Soul” (2006)

Mekhitar Garabedian’s “Learning Piece: Be Patient, My Soul” (2006) goes one step further than Attia’s work it confronting its connection to the region. Born in Aleppo but raised in Belgium, Garabedian attempts, in the video, to learn an Armenian song associated with the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) political party. His Armenian accent is comical for those of us who can understand the language, but the song has connotations the artist is either unaware of or chooses to ignore. While he sees the song as a symbol of revolutionary struggle, he largely ignores the fascist undertones of this particular political movement — as recently as 2012, the ARF helped anti-LGBT terrorists evade prosecution in a firebombing in Yerevan. Cultural revival, for Garabedian, is an idealization rather than a reality with actual impact.

One thing the exhibition definitely gets right is its inclusion of Armenian photographers like Van Leo of Egypt and Hrair Sarkissian of Syria. They represent the contemporary tradition of a long history of Armenian photography in the region. As with Jewish photographers in modern Europe, Armenians were a minority often associated with the medium, particularly during the Ottoman period. Whether it was Abdullah Frère in Istanbul and Cairo, Yessayi Garabedian and Garabed Krikorian in Jerusalem, or Antoin Sevrugin in Tehran, Armenians often introduced photography and were its most serious practitioners. Van Leo and Sarkissian also continue another tradition of Armenian photographers throughout the 20th century, as documentarians of power and its dynamics.

Other Armenian photographers who were not the in New Museum show, like Yousef Karsh in Canada and Ida Kar in the UK, are part of the same tradition. Karsh once explained that his personal experience with the Armenian Genocide, which pushed hundred of thousands of Armenians from Anatolia into Arab-dominanted regions, triggered his aesthetic interest in the dynamics of power and how it’s portrayed. Coincidentally, Karsh was from the city of Mardin, where everyone, including Armenians, long spoke Arabic as their mother tongue, and Kar lived in Egypt with her first husband during the 1930s. For Van Leo, that fascination with power translated into portraits of himself in the role of an artist, a magician of images, while his portraits of Egyptian movie stars betray a clear interest in how celebrity auras are constructed. In the case of Sarkissian, one of the most amazing photographers working today, power is more ominous; his Execution Squares series (2008) probes the power of absence in places where well-attended public executions once took place regularly. Minority artists around the world are often the most sensitive to the whims and machinations of power, since it impacts their lives more negatively than majority populations. Considering the importance of photography in contemporary art from the Arab world — a fact emphasized by curatorial selections in Here and Elsewhere — this tradition is an important part of that history.

Rokni Haerizadeh, who was allocated a room in Here and Elsewhere for his hybrid drawings, represents a new breed of Iranian artist. When I met him earlier this year at Dubai’s Isabelle van den Eynde Gallery, he (along with his two partners, Ramin Haerizadeh and Hesam Rahmanian) staged an exhibition that frequently referenced the hypercommercialized UAE and its stereotyped garishness. His work is satirical, and it distorts media imagery until they become caricatures of reality. He pokes fun at the global capitalist culture of consumerism, where people are constantly buying into the world around them, whether it is through products, imagery, or worldviews. When I interviewed the trio earlier this year, they all told me they felt a sense of freedom in Dubai. It may seem odd to think of Dubai as an island of freedom for artists, but compared to Iran and many other nations in the region, it’s certainly more open. I personally know gay men from neighboring countries, including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, who travel to Dubai to be themselves. Freedom is relative.

On the notion of freedom, there are two major LGBT artists exhibited in the same gallery in Here and Elsewhere who are lovers. If they were heterosexual, I strongly believe their romantic relationship would be mentioned in the literature and on tours. Yet there is no mention of their relationship in the catalogue or on wall labels, and it was omitted during a curator tour I took recently in the museum that included a stop in the gallery. I will not out them, but this definitely raises questions about why the information was excluded and if the decision was curatorial or perhaps influenced by funders. The problem is not unique to art from the Arab world, as the same often happens with exhibitions featuring the work of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, who were once lovers. It is possible the artists asked that the information be left out, but that also raises important questions about what it means to be an LGBT artist from the region today.

The Funding

GCC's (2014)
A detail of GCC’s “The One and Only Madinat New Museum Royal Mirage” (2014) at the front desk of the New Museum

Beyond this exhibition, the recent revival of “Arab world” art history has been largely funded by the monarchies of the Persian Gulf. (The members of the Gulf Cooperative Council, aka GCC, hate it when people use the “P” term, even though it is accurate.) These states have an interest in propagating a pan-Arab vision, which suits their foreign policy objectives (notice how no one seemed to mind when the UAE and Egypt joined forces to bomb militants in Libya, as if it were normal that the UAE would have an interest in that sovereign nation).

The fact that some of the most autocratic regimes are supporting this latest revival of art from the Arab world — not to mention extremist political movements in the world today — makes many people uncomfortable. While the New Museum exhibition steered clear of governmental funding from the monarchies, MoMA PS1’s GCC: Achievements in Retrospective exhibition was “co-produced” by the Sharjah Foundation.

During a 2010 TED Talk, Sheika al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, chairwoman of Qatar Museums and a sister to Qatar’s emir, explained: “We are revising ourselves through our cultural institutions and cultural development. Art becomes a very important part of our national identity.” What this means is unclear, but alarm bells went off for art world observers when, earlier this month, a New York Times investigation revealed that Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (along with other oil rich nations) are buying political influence in the US through think tanks. The price tag for influence peddling in the art world is usually lower than in politics, even if it is harder to uncover. For instance, the Guggenheim Foundation has yet to reveal how much they’ve been paid to franchise their name for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. The Louvre franchised their name for $520 million, but that was only part of a larger $1.3 billion package, which includes art loans and consulting, with the Emirate.

Iran’s Shah did something similar in the 1950s–70s, using art patronage to give his regime a patina of cultural sophistication even as his government repressed most of its citizenry.

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Black Panthers with members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization in …
In 1969, Eldridge Cleaver (left) of the Black Panthers held a press conference with members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization in Algiers, Algeria, during the Pan-African Cultural Festival.

Telling the stories of artists from Arab-majority nations is not an easy task. What Here and Elsewhere does is — despite the artspeak — start the conversation. The exhibition catalogue is a crucial part of this exhibition, and I highly recommend it to everyone interested in contemporary art. For far too long the stories of the so-called Arab world, including its art, have not been told in North America except through the distorted prism of terrorism and war. Now we have to wait and see if this exhibition is a turning point for future shows and serious investigations about contemporary art from the region, or if it just another mark on a checklist of inclusivity.

Here and Elsewhere continues at the New Museum (235 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through September 28.

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