The New Museum | July 16 – September 28, 2014
The museum’s façade and lobby vinyls of “The One and Only Madinat New Museum Royal Mirage” luxury hotel are by G.C.C., a collective of eight artists with roots in the Gulf. The salmon-pink marble foyer, artists’ portraits as sheikhs, and the gold ingots dispenser provide a blast of Gulf prosperity. Are we going to see large-scale, slick paintings quoting Islamic iconography created for the oil rich like those seen in Sotheby’s landmark Doha auction? Thankfully not. The curators have resisted the seductions of market-driven art. A surprising number of the 45 artists have never shown in New York and do not have gallery representation. The New Museum exhibition presents “under-recognized artists,” subjective narratives, complex post-colonial histories, diverse voices, and reflections on trauma to build a rich portrait of the contemporary Middle Eastern psyche. It breaks new ground.
Here and Elsewhere is the largest exhibition of contemporary art from the Arab world to hit New York, although the Queens Museum of Art, MoMA and the Grey Art Gallery have hosted smaller exhibitions. The political works are timely considering recent events in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Gaza. Marketable Internationale styles (art ripped from any context) do not have this impact. The 45 Middle Eastern artists challenge the clichés of residual Orientalism. The weighty 277-page catalogue, produced in cooperation with Bidoun, is well worth the read. One usually associates such in-depth scholarship with Catherine David’s Contemporary Arab Representations, and Beirut’s Arab Image Foundation. New Museum Artistic Director Massimiliano Gioni and his curatorial associates Natalie Bell, Gary Carrion-Murayari, Helga Christoffersen, and Margot Norton have done remarkable research.
Abdullah Al Saadi’s “Camar Cande’s Journey” (2010 – 11), an Arab Emirates version of “Platero y yo” (Platero and I), chronicles a 35-day journey in the northern United Arab Emirates by the artist, his donkey, and dog. The small watercolors created along the route possess an old-fashioned charm, lack pretention, and recall Victorian travel diaries. American graduate art students might follow suit, forgo student loans, and purchase a donkey and a watercolor bloc. The sketchbook as personal narrative is also present in the work of Anna Boghiguian, Rokni Haerizadeh, and Mazen Kerbaj. Boghiguian’s sketchbook combines Cairo’s Arab Spring with Egyptology via the artist’s unconscious. Haerizadeh’s photographs of current events over-painted with mythological figures combine an unconscious dimension with radical politics. Keraj’s pages, with captions like “Real News from my Brain,” present a comic book version of the Arab interiority.
“Asia speaks by virtue of the European imagination, which is depicted as victorious over Asia.”
—Edward Said, Orientalism
The artists present their narratives in their own voices. This is no literary European fantasy like Burton’s pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. Arabia seen through European eyes is replaced by Ahmed Mater’s updated version of the hajj. Mater’s “Leaves Fall in All Seasons” (2013) video shows Mecca as a construction site being renovated to accommodate 12 million annual upscale pilgrims. His videos were shot by the workers (some of whom are from Southeast Asia) and document their labor disputes. The video portraying the replacement of the golden crescent atop the 1,900-foot-tall Mecca Royal Clock Tower tells the story of the old Mecca versus the new.
Cartography plays an important role in this exhibition and charts diaspora, psychological displacement, and shifting national identities. The Ottoman Empire was essentially without boundaries. The Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916), and the Balfour Declaration (1917) allowed England and France to carve up the Middle East, without any regard for the inhabitants or their wishes. America’s quest for oil is a continuation of this grand scheme. Moataz Nasr’s “Missing Parts (Ice Cream Map)” (2008) Marwan Rechmaoui’s “Untitled 22” (2005), a map of 22 black rubber Arab states, are earlier examples of Arab artist cartography. In Bouchra Khalili’s eight videos entitled “The Mapping Journey Project,” (2008 – 11) the voices of immigrants describe crossing borders illegally en route to Europe. Khalili, a former journalist, states, “I work with documentary as a kind of travel companion.” Khaled Jarrar’s video “Infiltrators” (2012) shows Palestinians using ladders to scale Israel’s concrete wall, a challenge to shifting boundaries and a potent reminder of the roots of the current regional conflict.
Many works reflect on the realities of violent conflict. Lamia Joreige’s project “Objects of War” (1999 – ongoing) presents videos in which each participant describes an object saved as a memento of the Lebanese Civil War (“Objects of War Nºs 1 – 3”) and the Israel and Hezbollah war of 2006 (“Objects of War Nº 4”). Joreige says, “these testimonials, while helping to create a collective memory, also show the impossibility of telling a single history of this war.” We hear from Christians (east) and Muslims (west), the two sides of Beirut’s former “green line.” Etel Adnan’s “Sitt Marie Rose”is her memento housed in one of the long vitrines holding each video participant’s object. Adnan is Lebanese, with a Maronite mother and a Syrian Muslim father. In her video she describes a party, where when she tells a stranger her Muslim surname and he makes a hand gesture of slitting her throat. The participants float in and out of Lebanon’s post-colonial mosaic. One woman wonders if her car was blown up because she is “too French.” An Iraqi artist, Rheims Alkadhi, works with others to create an object as a link to their lost homeland. Twenty-one Palestinian women collectively knotted a strand of hair together to reach 40km to Jerusalem. “Hairs from the Hairbrushes of Palestinians” (2013), from the project “Collective Knotting Together of Hairs,” (2012) ties an object made by the women to the wish to return.
The show’s title Here and Elsewhere is borrowed from the film Ici et Ailleurs by Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Gorin, and Anne-Marie Miéville. The film’s earliest footage was shot in Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria; unfortunately, King Hussein’s 1970 raids killed many of the Palestinians who were part of the film. Four years later Goddard and Miéville reworked the film as a montage including TV broadcasts and scenes of a leftist French family. The film became a reflection on the use of images as instruments of political consciousness. Here and Elsewhere examines the many ways photographic representations are used in the Arab world, from gritty journalism to staged idealized portraits to manipulated and altered images.
Studio photography features prominently in the show in the work of Hashem el Madani, Van Leo, Akram Zaatari, and Fakhri El Ghezal and to a lesser degree, Shuruq Harb. Akram Zaatari is one of the founders of the Arab Image Foundation, an ambitious archive to preserve Middle Eastern photographic collections. Here, Zaatari shows three large photographs of Studio Shehrazade (the photographic studio of Hashem El Madani). The series is titled“Objects of Study/Studio Shehrazade – Reception Space” (2006). Zaatari, the archivist cum artist, uses other photographer’s subjects to tell the story of Lebanon during the past 50 years. Van Leo (Levon Alexander Boyadjian, 1921 – 2002) was an Armenian whose family fled the Ottoman genocide in Turkey to settle in Egypt. Obsessed with American movie star postcards, Leo photographed actors, actresses, and opera singers, giving us a view into Cairo's theater and film culture. The photographer Hashem El Madani provides a window into the post-Nakba Palestinians in Lebanon. From 1970 – 72, he photographed students at the United Nations-run school in South Lebanon, students and teachers of Aisha Om el Mo’minin School for Girls, and Palestinian and Syrian resistants. His work preserves a record of status and social identity. In another set of photographs from 1955 taken at Studio Shehrazade, Saida, same-sex couples kiss mimicking films (public kissing between people of the opposite sex was forbidden.) In an era when many people did not own cameras, the studio photographer functioned as an optical diary.
Wafa Hourani, a Palestinian, was born in Hebron—where he was shot at 17 with an Israeli exploding bullet. Hourani now lives in Ramallah. His model of the Palestinian refugee settlement “Qalandia 2087” (2009), portrays an imaginary version of the camp 100 years after the First Intifada. Different sections of vast cardboard settlement, complete with live goldfish, portray histories and architecturally chart changes between 2009 and 2087. In 2019 the Palestinian Mirror Party (P.M.P.) has taken over and has covered the separation wall with mirrors. In 2085 the concrete wall is removed and replaced with mirrors on both sides. Israelis and Palestinians face their darkest selves and are hopefully transformed through reflection. This futuristic vision provides a transformative alternative to the ongoing tragic loss of life we are witnessing.
With Gioni’s visionary leadership, the curatorial team has successfully expanded a post-colonial European perspective, and dodged the problems of Orientalism (defined by Edward Said.) The artists’ diverse origins and international wanderings weave a complex tapestry, challenging simplistic regionalism. In its ambassadorial function, the art contradicts media stereotypes, and helps viewers grasp the region’s social and political histories anew. The use of simple materials and heartfelt stories come as a relief after the cynical materialism of the Jeff Koons exhibition. It is refreshing to see an exhibition largely devoid of expensive fabrication and containing work by the artist’s own hands. The matchbox art of Mohamed Larbi Rahali and the elegant collages of Ali Jabri offer a lesson for young artists. Using simple materials Rahali and Jabri have humbly and elegantly reworked these simple gems over time.
The exhibition also offers viewers a bridge into the future of a post-Arab Spring world. In what could be called Gulf Futurism, artists such as Maha Maamoun and Wafa Hourani present visions for transforming their cultures from within. In Maamoun’s video “2026” (2010), a sci-fi time traveler, lying blindfolded in a hammock, describes Giza with crystalline buildings linked by glass bridges. With vulnerability and bravery the artists have produced art that inspires, informs, resonates emotionally, and gives us a bridge into the complexities of the Middle East while offering a way forward. This exhibition is a must see.
ANN MCCOY is an artist, writer, and Editor at Large for the Brooklyn Rail. She teaches in the Yale School of Drama, graduate design, and was given a Guggenheim Foundation award in 2019.