BUT A STORM IS BLOWING FROM PARADISE:
Contemporary Art of the Middle East and North Africa
THE GUGGENHEIM MUSEUM | APRIL 29 – OCTOBER 5, 2016
“The angel of history […] would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from paradise. It has got caught in his wing with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm is what we call progress.”
– Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of Time
On its third and last stop (following forays into South and Southeast Asia and Latin America), the Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative ventures into the Middle East and North Africa. But a Storm Is Blowing from Paradise... fills the fourth and fifth tower levels of the Guggenheim with seductive works on paper, elaborate installations, large-scale sculptures, and magnifying videos. The curator, Sara Raza, has brought together sixteen artists from across the region, for whom the visual heritage, complex history, political trauma, and contemporary turbulences is a platform for a critical exploration. While her approach—which takes as a point of departure the region’s long history of abstract art—seems familiar at first glance, the show unfolds into something much more nuanced.
The region’s modern history resembles that of many non-Western cultures: its transits to today’s global world are marked by the historical disruptions of colonialism, giving way to the dictatorships, revolutions, and wars that have resulted in the current unhinged situation. The artists of But a Storm Is Blowing from Paradise...—most of whom lived their life crossing many borders—stand in the contemporary and reexamine this shift, its roots, meaning, and consequences.
A delicate serenity surrounds the exhibition. In all its sixteen large-scale pieces there are traits of the region’s quiet and abstract visual tradition, rooted in Islam’s aniconic relationship to representation. At the entrance is Mohammed Kazem’s Scratches on Paper (2014), a large unwinding scroll of blank paper with nuanced scissor marks, which the Emirati artist considers rhythmic gestures. The vanishing scars of the empty paper hold memories of a musical event. On the other side is Susan Hefuna’s Building (2009); influenced by long walks in New York’s gridded streets, the nine small and abstract line drawings resemble maps of imaginary metropolises. The two poetic pieces give way to the rest of the exhibition which, while equally gentle in appearance, reveals itself to be increasingly conceptual, political, and emotionally charged.
Two large installations face one another. On one side is Kader Attia’s Untitled (Ghardaïa) (2009), which models the Algerian city (a UNESCO World Heritage Site celebrated for its unique architecture) out of couscous. Mounted on the neighboring walls are photographs of Western Modern Architects Le Corbusier and Fernand Pouillon. Wondering about the colonized city’s undeniable—yet often ignored—influence, Attia recreates it as the popular Algerian dish and invites the West to consume his heritage. Across the hall sits Abbas Akhavan’s Study for a Monument (2013 – 16). On four large sheets of white fabric, native plants of Mesopotamia are sculpted in rusting bronze. Nearly extinct after all the years of war and destruction, what was once a symbol of the region’s prosperity has become a mere reminder of the devastation.
Here the artists’ move beyond representation is not solely driven by their heritage: the irrational nature of their trauma demands it. In Latent Images, Diary of a Photographer, 177 Days of Performance (2015), Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige meditate on Beirut and its rapid social changes since the horrific civil war. Basing their archival project on the works of an aging fictitious photographer, Abdallah Farah, the artistic duo create an enormous installation of 345 books—ordered, dated, and closed shut—which is accompanied by a two hour long video that goes through the books page by page. But the photographs have been replaced by their authors’ short descriptions. Each sentence is a call for an imaginary reconstruction of the image. Varying from outdoor observations to intimate moments, the hundreds of statements come together to create a moving narrative beyond all possible documentations, a poignant reminder of the shortcoming of the medium in depicting the absurdity of war-stricken life.
Rather than a handicap, for these artists the unique visual approach becomes a tool to delve into contemporary problems. Nadia Kaabi-Linke focuses on Venice’s Ponte del Sepolcro and the illegal street vendors—primarily of African, Arab, or South Asian origins. Ordered to form an arch and hung from the ceiling is a huge floating installation of steel rectangles. This is what the artist calls her documentation of the issue. In this work, titled Flying Carpets (2011), she meditates on their constant flight over the bridge in fear of the authorities. The heaviness of the structures contradicts flying as the horrific reality mocks the orientalist myth. The parallel chords holding the structure become bars of hanging cells. Kaabi-Linke creates a space to contemplate injustice and reexamine the history of the old center of trade, Venice, and its forgotten foreigners.
History is engaged through architecture in Mariam Ghani’s A Brief History of Collapses (2012), a two channel video-installation that parallels the history of two buildings—born on modernity’s hopes and since repeatedly destroyed: Germany’s Fridericianum (built in 1779) reconstructed, and Afghanistan’s Darul Aman Palace (built in 1929) in ruins. Rather than a cautionary tale of neverending war, in Ghani’s narrative both buildings become shrines for the past’s refusal to vanish in the face of the challenging present. Told as a folktale, Ghani begins by comparing the West’s “there was once” with the region’s absurd introduction “there was and there was not.”
This is the world of But a Storm Is Blowing from Paradise…: a culture captivated by poetic irrationality and uncertainty. Here, rather than running away, the young artists embrace it all unapologetically and face today’s globalized reality.