Joana Hadjithomas and  Khalil Joreige, "Postcards of War" from "Wonder Beirut" series (1997) (all images courtesy Mori Art Museum)

Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, “Postcards of War” from “Wonder Beirut” series (1997) (all images courtesy Mori Art Museum unless otherwise noted)

Arab Express: The Latest Art from the Arab World was a unique and timely exhibition at the Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum. The show was curated by the museum’s Nanjo Fumio and Kondo Kenichi, who also wrote essays for the catalogue, along with excellent contributions from Arab art historians Nada Shabout and Salwa Mikdadi. The exhibition featured 34 artists from Arabic-speaking countries (including one collective), 11 of them female, and covered ten countries. It included 18 photographers, five video artists, nine artists that use new-media performance and installation, and only three painters.

The title Arab Express is apt in that the exhibition focused on artwork created since 2000, a time just before the trauma of 9/11 and the American/NATO wars that then spread like a virus across the region. Between those events, as well as the Arab Spring of the last two years and the civil wars in Libya and Syria, it as if time and the political pulse have quickened to the point of either exaltation or exhaustion.

For the exhibition, the Mori Art Museums curators divided the artists into three categories: Everyday Life and Environment (11 artists), The Image of the Arab: Gaze from Outside/Voices from Inside (11 artists), and Memories and Records, Histories and the Future (12 artists). One could argue about whether these categories are too general and banal or useful in situating the work in a larger context. My feeling is that the categories are good organizing poles and probably necessary from a curatorial perspective, but they can seem limiting and artificial to the artist.

Rula Halawani, “Intimacy” (2004) (click to enlarge)

Within the show itself, the three sections work to humanize the Arab person, identity, and community in a relentless and sophisticated fashion. The cumulative effect is to make the visitors feel and experience deeply the palpable complexity of the Arab personality in the 21st century. Concomitantly, the uselessness and outdated nature of the old Arab stereotypes seem overwhelmingly obvious. Orientalist molds and mindsets have been shattered; they are useless in this fast-paced and modern society. Extant and emerging and shape shifting, fed by 24-hour local satellite television and the ever-expanding hyperlinks of the internet, the new Arab reality seems global, changeable, and extremely complex. The visual artists of Arab Express offer a unique response as they apply the tools of the modern international art practicum.

From the outside, one feels that art being produced in the Arab world is both far from falling into the postmodern dustbin of ultrabanality and free from the prevailing international style that embraces the dead end of mass consumerism and the overwhelming power of money in the art marketplace. Rather, these artists are concerned with the seminal issues of a creative identity and with building from the ashes a resilient and fascinating communal history — something that’s been utterly lacking or misrepresented in the West. These artists want to witness the sacred communities, families, histories, and traditions that give Arab culture its most memorable and positive qualities.

Section 1: Everyday Life and Environment

Sadik Kwaish Alfraji’s combinations of family photographs and garments rescued from houses abandoned during the American military occupation of Iraq resonate with the fear of impending death and loss. A drawing of a large, looming figure portends an alienated future, currently born out by the statistic that there are five million orphaned children in Iraq today.

Reem Al Ghaith laments the hyper-urbanization of her hometown of Dubai with an installation of neatly ordered, miscellaneous construction-site debris. One senses a desire for a more grounded, local, green urbanism  policy for the UAE, which would be preferable to the current situation: Dubai as a work in progress forever, tending toward a sprawl without end. Lebanese artist Group Atfal Andath stages warm and cozy souvenir group photograph sessions that border on the superbly surreal yet remain homey and charmingly kitsch. Rula Halawani, a female photographer from Palestine, captures the hidden power of encounters at checkpoints between IDF soldiers and civilians coming to/from the occupied territories. No faces are shown, only a ballet of hands gestures that remain ever remote.

Jeffar Khaldi, “Special Report” (2009) (image courtesy Gallery Isabelle Van Den Eynde, Dubai, UAE) (click to enlarge)

Mohammed Kazem’s photography focuses on the all but invisible army of migrant laborers in the UAE that sustained the construction boom and, in the process, added their own identity to the region. One senses alienation and disconnectedness creeping as Khazem captures tiny echoes of the vast changes occuring in Dubai, which no one notices or documents fully.

Amal Kenawy created an amazing video: “Silence of the Lambs,” which depicts men crawling in subservience in the streets of Cairo. The Egyptian uprising began a month after it was shown. Some that say her arrest for this video was a factor in the Egyptian gathering for freedom in October 2011.

Jeffar Khaldi’s vibrant paintings of layered memories from his childhood are fraught with disturbing juxtapositions of war, urban destruction, and massacres. He is one of finest contemporary Arab painters working today — his stylistic cuts and overlays of drips and postmodern abstract gesturing combine with the dreamy drawings of childhood memories to create scenes of deep, primal power. They suggest personal transformation and escape from the horrors of the Lebanese wars, and yet the utter indifference of death in these pictures seems paramount. Khaldi’s art conjures a dizzying trip to recover one’s sense of self, an attempt at an escape from the slaughterhouse of the Middle East, but to where?

Also interesting to ponder are Hassan Meer’s continued photographic explorations of his home country of Oman. His series of Rejection and Wedding photographs feature veiled men and women and are photographed in situ in private domestic spaces. The pictures are strange and arresting, making me feel a bit flummoxed because they create and contain so many possibilities — but that, to me, is the key to great art.

Hassan Meer, “Wedding Memories 1” (image courtesy of AB GALLERY, Lucerne, Switzerland)

Maha Mustafa’s (Iraq) black fountain installation spews oil madly (well, it’s a black liquid), yet there is a sense of beauty lurking here. Elegant and ugly, quiet and mysterious, it is a supremely conceptualized piece.

Videos capture performance artist Ibrahim Rashid (Iraq) struggling underwater at the bottom of an indoor swimming pool with black plastic bags taped around his head and torso — a frightening metaphor for the psychological result of nonstop anti-Arab hatred. Or is it meant to be a torture video, not unlike a Guantamamo Bay torture training session? Or is it a reference to Sartre’s No Exit in the face of the amorphous fear of death and drones?

Section 2: The Image of the Arab: Gaze from Outside/Voices from Inside

Standouts from this section include Adel Abidin’s carnivalesque displays of the words  “I’M SORRY”: it’s what Americans always say to him when they find out he is an Iraqi citizen. Jananne Al-Ani (Iraq) shoots remote aerial views of the Jordanian desert that seem to contain hidden information in a pinched, elegant, and mysterious manner. Osama Esid’s (Syria) large, formal, color portraits of Arab street workers give the subjects a sense of timelessness and importance in a quasi-documentarian style. Maha Maamoun, one of the founders of the Contemporary Image Collective in Cairo, likes to poke fun at old stereotypes by collaging together old Egyptian films that deal with tourism and the Giza Pyramids. Sharif Waked (Palestine) re-creates a martyr’s homemade video — replete with green headband and Islamic banners — but emasculates it with an overdub of the artist’s reading from Arabian Nights.

Section 3: Memories and Records, Histories and Futures

Ebtisam Abdulaziz (UAE) has contributed a conceptual piece, for which she’s taken the shapes of the Arab Nations and refashioned them into a puzzle based upon statistical references to each country’s amount of cultural spending. Another installation artist was Ahmed Basiony, who was murdered by a sniper in Tahrir Square on January 25, 2011. This promising visual artist was known for his performance pieces that highlighted personal endurance and risk, such as a video that shows him engaging in repetitive and exhausting exercises in a retail window area without rest or water.

Zena El Khalil, “Xanadu, Your Neon Lights Will Shine” (2010)

Zena el Khalil (Lebanon) paints spectacular miniatures flooded with Arabic details and geometric motifs, but her subject matter is ultra-political. She portrays the four political leaders of Syria, Iran, Palestine, and Lebanon in peaceful group in repose as they all play music on various wind instruments in an imaginary late-night jam session. Precise technique and amazing humor — especially in rock music titles such as “Peace Will Guide the Planets and Love Will Steer the Stars” — give the paintings layered, parable-like meanings.

Abdulnasser Gharem (Saudi Arabia) has an interesting biography: he’s a military officer with a special consciousness for the rural underprivileged. In his installation/performance piece on view, he spray-painted an Arabic expression onto the surface of a road in a tight, repetitive manner — white letters on black asphalt, tens of thousands of times — at a spot where a large number of villagers had died in an unusual flood.

Abdulnasser Gharem, “Siraat (The Path)” (2009) (click to enlarge)

The well-known Lebanese artist team of Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige creates work about the many wars in Lebanon and their negative results. They’re also concerned with creating an enduring narrative of history to make the past more apparent and lasting. Their Wonder Beirut series is a complex mission to rescue old photographic negatives of Beirut by reprinting them as souvenirs of a lost era. One artist allegedly burned his negatives of Beirut cityscapes to match the carnage and then lost them, only for the negatives to be rediscovered years later and reprinted into new postcards!

Emily Jacir’s (Palestine) video recreation of Lydda Airport in British-mandated Palestine in the 1930s is like a religious shrine to freedom and travel. Suha Shoman’s (Palestine) photographs of worshippers in public create a sense of musculature poetry and unified spiritual energy. Lastly, photographs by Akram Zaatari (Lebanon) of the June 1982 Israeli invasion of his country taken from the balcony of his house shows huge artillery and aerial bombardments thrusting skyward in mushrooms of black and grey death — angry, roiling clouds, almost flower-like in shape, rosettes of destruction and dismemberment.

Summing Up

Thanks to the Mori Art Museum for this large and challenging exhibition. I would have wished for more painters, printmakers, and sculptores, and maybe some artists from North Africa, but this show sets a standard for capturing a moment in history when a new artistic vocabulary has taken hold. Arab Express could have been cynical, dreamy, inchoate, or overreaching, yet in the end, it was honest. Arab artists are contributing to world culture in real time, offering new ways of seeing and experiencing and sharing their reality. The question is: will this grow and become a two-way street?

Maha Mustafa “Black Fountain” (2008)

Western, especially American, mass media and culture have demonized the Arab world relentlessly. The artistic process offers us a chance to move beyond that and come face-to-face with a multivalent Arab identity. It’s time for the Arab Express to begin its journey, and for all of us to join  the trip to new realms of cultural understanding.

Arab Express: The Latest Art from the Arab World was on view at the Mori Art Museum (Tokyo, Japan) from June 16 to October 28, 2012.

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Christopher Kuhl

Christopher Kuhl is visual artist working in painting, photography, and video as well as a cultural writer based in Atlanta and New York City. He is a contributor to European Photography, Art...