Guest contributor Jonathan Stevenson / The New Museum’s abundant exhibition of Arab art “Here and Elsewhere,” named for and inspired by Jean-Luc Godard’s searching 1976 documentary, suggests that Middle Eastern artists in some ways have an advantage over others. Conflict and repression are so deeply embedded in their experience that they could fairly be held to less exacting formal and aesthetic standards than their counterparts in United States, Europe, or even Latin America. In these places, relative political stability allows artists to stand aloof from politics and minutely focus on technique or metaphysics or something else still if they so choose. Arab artists generally can’t afford that luxury.
[Image at top: Anna Boghiguian (b. 1946 in Cairo, lives internationally). Boghiguian created an installation of her portable, unframed paintings and collages on paper, set on freestanding shelves. Each piece is heart-wrenchingly visceral and speaks eloquently to the experience of a displaced artist.]
A mere slice-of-life video like Ramallah artist Khaled Jarrar’s Infiltrators, showing Palestinians desperate to get from the West Bank to Israel, illuminates a historic political plight. Some recognition of a kind of perverse content superiority arises in one of Lebanese artist Lamia Joriege’s Objects of War videos, when a Lebanese man born in 1975 comments that he wouldn’t give up his war-riven childhood for anything. While a large and expanding diaspora attests that not all Arabs feel umbilically tied to their tragic poignancy – an engaging installation by Bouchra Khalili of Morocco takes viewers through several tortuous emigration pathways – the remarkably high number of artists who were born expatriates or went away to school only to return to their homelands reinforces the point.
Unlike some of the insular and formal shows that might materialize in major Western art hubs, this one is not vulnerable to the charge of emotional or political sterility. At the same time, there is nothing inferior about the work, which cumulatively conveys the somberness and the anger of the region. The conceptually-based installation pieces grab the most attention, but
plenty of fine paintings, drawings, collages, and sculpture are included in
the show. The superb expressionist painter Marwan’s forlorn figures, painted when he was living in Berlin in the 1960s, seem troubled and diseased, reflecting the post-colonial instability of his native Syria and foreshadowing the vileness of life under the oppressive Assad regimes. A room dedicated to Etal Adnan includes both paintings and the original typewritten (and marked-up) manuscript for The Arab Apocalypse, an epic poem she wrote in 1989.
Palestinian painter Suha Traboulsi’s pre-Minimalist minimalist paintings, from the 1940s, are exquisite; but they may archly reference a serene reductive sensibility that is no longer feasible for an artist in the intensely political Middle East. Especially telling in its stunted hope (or bemused resignation) is Wafa Hourani’s room-sized model of the Qalandia refugee camp in the West Bank, circa 2087: sixty-plus years down the road, it will still exist as a segregated enclave of modular buildings, the main improvements being better public services, more satellite antennas, and muscle cars for its residents.
The show occupies five densely packed floors, and comprises the work of 45 artists from twelve countries; it can be overwhelming. Yet a large and varied quantity of work is necessary to do justice to the complex political history and cultural heterogeneity of the region, and perhaps to immunize the show against any Said-esque charge of condescending “orientalism.” The curators have provided clear historical context while avoiding bland or sanctimonious political exposition. On the fifth floor, for example, an array of images (e.g., photographs and magazine covers) and objects (e.g., political pamphlets) succinctly traces the political evolution of the region from the postwar heyday of Arab nationalism, when states were the prime movers, to the present post-9/11 epoch, in which non-state actors are the most dynamic players. The rest of the work establishes its own historical record of sorts. Some, like that disdaining the oil-fueled excesses and abuses of pious Gulf monarchies, is a bit didactic. Still, it’s hard to argue with its complaint. And there’s wit and irony to leaven and enliven the inexorably grave Middle Eastern discourse. Where Tunisian photographer Fakhri El Ghezal zones in on the empty frames that used to showcase deposed dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Iraqi photographer Jamal Penjweny has his subjects cover their faces with images of the late Saddam Hussein. The sardonic message of these opposite approaches is the same: gone but never forgotten.
Their circumstances may afford Arab artists bragging rights to higher embattlement, and therefore a notional entitlement to in-your-face political stridency and guilt mongering. But the artists in this group tend to be sophisticated and undogmatic. Although the Quran features prominently in some pieces, the take is sometimes ironic, and most of the artists seem implicitly secular or at least liberal. In any case, they consistently manifest a nuanced and cogent awareness of geopolitics and cultural interplay. In the video installation This Lemon Tastes of Apple by Iraqi Kurdish artist Hiwa K, two minstrel types walk the streets of an Iraqi city during a violent demonstration, jauntily playing the melancholy, ominous sub-theme from Sergio Leone’s brutally elegiac Once Upon A Time in the West (1968) on a harmonica and a guitar. In that movie, his spaghetti-western magnum opus, the tune’s final rendition occurs when Charles Bronson, as the avenging Man With No Name that Clint Eastwood originated, squares off against an evil railway henchman played, against type, by Henry Fonda. It’s a singularly clever appropriation for Iraqis, to whom the United States, against putative type, often can’t help but look like the bad guy. In Lebanon-based Marwa Arsanios’ wryly perceptive and heavily layered “meta” video piece on gender roles and Middle Eastern politics, a Tunisian actress is supposedly getting ready to portray an Algerian freedom fighter drawn from the 1966 Italian-made classic The Battle of Algiers in a new film by flipping through old women’s magazines featuring gun-brandishing models as well as recreating a terrorist bombing achieved by feminine wiles.
“Here and Elsewhere” is unabashedly a course in regional politics as well as a spirited and panoramic art show. Perforce it makes a strong case that in the Middle East art and politics are practically inseparable. Don’t miss it.
“Here and Elsewhere,” New Museum, New York, NY. Through September 28, 2014.
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