Taking its title, But a Storm Is Blowing from Paradise, from a painting in the exhibition by the exiled Iranian artist Rokni Haerizadeh, the third edition of the Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative focuses on contemporary art from the Middle East and North Africa. Curator Sarah Raza refers to her lean exhibition in the press release as an “intricate jigsaw puzzle,” bringing together pieces by 17 artists from countries and states that include Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. The show examines issues of migration, colonialism, and history through the prism of geometry. Raza claims, also in the press release for the show, that its “confluence of narratives thus ‘smuggles’ certain inconvenient truths about history and memory into the realm of the exhibition.” However — Haeirzadeh’s subversive painting notwithstanding — the choice of works stays clear from the more violent concerns of territory, nationalism, and identity that have rocked the Middle East and been central to the work of many artists from the region. Shielded under the canopy of geometry and architecture, the show is a tame though aesthetically pleasing display of art that refers to the turmoil of Middle Eastern politics only tangentially.
Beginning with Susan Hefuna’s grid drawings placed at the entrance of the exhibition, the viewer is invited to contemplate subtle evocations of loss, destruction, and fading memory. Inspired by the geometric grid of New York City, Hefuna’s network of lines in nine parts, “Building” (2009), conjures a shifting, invisible metropolis. In the work, child-like drawings of oval and rectangular forms that faintly resemble Islamic latticework are drawn with Indian ink on two sheets of tracing paper and placed one on top of the other. Faint lines visible in the bottom layer appear and disappear like the palimpsest of an underlying historical city. Unlike the Egyptian artist Anna Boghiguian’s more disturbing portrayal of life in her native country (which is not included in the show), Hefuna (who divides her time between, Cairo, Dusseldorf, and New York) engages with architecture and history at a more conceptual level. Nostalgia for yesteryear, and even an ancient past, keeps us at bay from the politics of the present.
A similar kind of wistfulness can be seen in Kader Attia’s reproduction of a scaled model of an Algerian city made from couscous. Originally designed by the modernist French architects Le Corbusier and Fernand Pouillon — large-scale photos of whom hang nearby — Attia’s deliberate use of grains native to Algeria in his recreation of the city, “Untitled (Ghardaia)” (2009), alludes to the politics of cultural appropriation and French colonization that still shape his homeland. The piece claims an Algerian identity that emerged through the anti-colonial struggle. Resembling an elaborate, ephemeral sandcastle, Attia’s city is symbolic of the past, but also holds aspirations for a better future. For many of the artists in the exhibition, the incorporation of Islamic geometry suggests the early rhetoric of Pan-Arabism that came with the casting off of European domination.
The Tunisian artist Nadia Kaabi-Linke submerges issues of identity in her highly conceptual sculpture, “Flying Carpets” (2011). Suspended from the ceiling in the exhibition’s second gallery, it consists of thin, vertical, stainless steel strips that make up a large grid. Mimicking the movements of African migrants who must flee from the police, leaving their temporary sales perches on the Ponte del Sepolcro in Venice, the shimmering metallic lines and the shadows they cast on the walls create a marvelous evocation of flight. The migrants’ elusive identities are perfectly conjured by the seemingly kinetic nature of the sculpture.
One gets a sense of urgency only from a few works in But a Storm Is Blowing, like Abbas Akhavan’s “Study for a Monument” (2013–16). Bronze sculptures of dead plants that thrived on the banks of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in Iraq lie like corpses on a white sheet in the gallery. Highly tactile, these seemingly charred objects foreground the trauma of war. Unlike the mostly conceptual pieces in the show, Akhavan’s monuments and Haeirzadeh’s surreal paintings of demagoguery in Iran — which subvert and demonize the autocratic Mullah regime through embellished stills of YouTube videos of protests and arrests — depict a reality that cannot be ignored. Although Raza’s vision to showcase the continued use of the geometry and mathematics that originated in the region is laudable, the exhibition would have far greater resonance if strident political works accompanied the geometric pieces to represent a region in enormous political turmoil.
But a Storm Is Blowing from Paradise: Contemporary Art of the Middle East and North Africa continues at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1071 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through October 5.