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Scenes From a Contemporary Arab World


August 1, 2014

The curator on the New Museum exhibition Here and Elsewhere, Arab stereotypes, and upturning “the way the West packages the East.”

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Rokni Haerizadeh, Subversive Salami in a Ragged Briefcase, 2014. Gesso, watercolor, and ink on printed paper. Courtesy the artist and Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, Dubai

In Here and Elsewhere, the New Museum’s immersive, five-floor exhibit of work by more than forty-five contemporary artists from over fifteen different Arab countries, none of the gallery floors are arranged by theme, place, age, or visual style. Viewers are encouraged to withhold any preconceived notions. As you walk each floor, many of the works grab you not by bright, vivid color or sensual texture, but by their usage of text, familiar objects, and/or stark, black and white contrast. Closer inspection is invited.

The title Here and Elsewhere is borrowed from the 1976 French documentary Ici et Ailleurs, directed by Jean-Luc Godard, Anne-Marie Miéville, and Jean-Pierre Gorin. The film took nearly six years to finish due to an ideological separation between Gorin and Godard. It begins with a heavily pro-Palestinian narration by Godard, a seemingly pre-determined story about the conflict. Only fifty-five minutes long, the film concludes with Godard questioning his own authority to narrate, and ends with a message reflecting on the complexities of politics, ethics, perception, and how those ideas are woven into the media. This New Museum exhibit—which also includes artists’ narration of their own work through an audio tour—is a continuing reflection on Godard’s realizations.

Here and Elsewhere was curated by Massimiliano Gioni, newly promoted from associate director and director of exhibitions to artistic director of the New Museum. Gioni was also artistic director of the 2013 Venice Biennale, and is known for curating groundbreaking exhibitions, combining voices from a number of areas in order to investigate current issues, often outside mainstream thought. Here and Elsewhere showcases artists of diverse histories who have received little to no exposure stateside. Financial support was received from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, and major collectors Elham and Tony Salamé, Lebanese fashion entrepreneurs; additional support was provided by other collectors, including Ahmad Abu Ghazaleh, CEO of private jet charter Arab Wings, and his wife Sirine, and Malek Sukkar, CEO of waste management company Averda, and his wife Maria.

In his opening remarks about the exhibit, Gioni said, “We ask if there is not such a thing as Arab art, just artists individually.” Paintings, drawings, sculptures, documentary films, installations, and photography explore vastly different aspects of contemporary Arab life and culture: Dubai artist Hassan Sharif’s assortment of scrap objects, from flip-flops to pieces of wire to old newspapers, in works like “Cloth and Paper” (2013) and “Suspended Objects” (2011), alludes to the physicality of waste in a rapidly developed society; Etel Adnan, a Lebanese artist, poet, and essayist, includes her seventy-three-page poetic work, “The Arab Apocalypse” (1989), complete with her own symbols and annotations alongside several untitled paintings depicting graphical suns; and photojournalist Tanya Habjouqa’s photo series, “Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots” (2013), examines the use of cell phone communication to show the spread of news and images that may otherwise be censored in mass media.

The exhibit has already caused controversy: one of the participating artists, Khaled Jarrar, was refused the right to leave Palestine to attend the opening. His film piece, “Infiltrators” (2012), documents Palestinians repeatedly attempting to break through the wall to Israel.

I spoke to Gioni by phone a few days after the opening and the formal announcement of his new tenure. He was soft-spoken, but earnest, about the representation of Arab artists in New York and how he hopes to challenge Western stereotypes of the Arab world.

Haniya Rae for Guernica

Guernica: You mentioned that many of these artists, indeed a lot of contemporary Arab artwork, hasn’t been shown in New York. How is art from Arab artists generally received here?

Massimiliano Gioni: I can say that around 96 percent of the artists in the show have never shown in New York. But I don’t think it’s because they’re Arabs. It’s because their work is less friendly to the general public. It’s not always popular. People want to see things that are visually beautiful. Many of the artists in the show engage in controversial subjects, dealing with topics that are more difficult to penetrate in the spaces of galleries. If you think about how work is seen in New York, the vast majority of what we see is shown in galleries.

That’s the first hurdle for this type of work, which deals more with stories, confessions, or sentimental reportage. It’s not very market-oriented. More generally, art in the United States is a kind of visual entertainment focusing on expected narratives. Many of these stories are not familiar to the American public.

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Bouchra Khalili, Mapping Journey #7, from "The Mapping Journey Project," 2008-11 (still).
Video, color, sound; 6 min. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Polaris, Paris

Guernica: Khaled Jarrar was barred from leaving Palestine to see the exhibition. What was your reaction to this? Have there been difficulties for other artists?

Massimiliano Gioni: My reaction obviously is that I’m very sad he couldn’t be here. The limitations of basic freedoms are quite sad, particularly for the people of occupation. Unfortunately, the tensions between Palestine and Israel in the last few weeks have complicated things.

The sad thing is that somehow, it is a type of event that mirrors the artist. You take it into account, and you’re reminded in this specific case what the artist’s work is about, what his life is like, and how life mirrors art. Luckily, this was an outstanding case. Being Palestinian in general is not easy. The other Palestinian artists in the show were either in Jordan or abroad, and haven’t faced many issues.

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Khaled Jarrar, Infiltrators, 2012 (still). Video, color, sound; 70 min. Courtesy the artist

Guernica: This is the first museum-wide exhibition featuring contemporary art in the Arab world in New York. Did you need to gain support to make it happen?

Massimiliano Gioni: The New Museum is a very open-minded museum, and we bring to New York a lot of information that isn’t easily available within the city. That’s just what we do. Internally, there was no need for support. Anyone who has kept their eyes and ears open in the last few years, or has grown up in various other countries, sees a lot of different types of work, and knew this was a timely subject. There was no internal resistance.

The financial support wasn’t different for our other shows. We received a significant grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, which looks at things that get less support than others. There was a quite interesting and significant group of supporters embracing this project. Others were drawn because they recognized themselves in the work or in the artists.

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Hrair Sarkissian, "Execution Squares," 2008. Archival inkjet print.
Courtesy the artist and Kalfayan Galleries, Athens/Thessaloniki

Guernica: Some of the artists may have similar backgrounds, but the bodies of work differ significantly. Are there any unexpected common threads among the works?

Massimiliano Gioni: One is that there’s a transparency of images. I’m not saying all Arab artwork is about that, but we focused on a particular attitude, and the art that comes with it. We looked for work that presented images where we wondered whether or not they could tell us the truth. That was a consistent preoccupation in many of the works.

We didn’t want the show to feel preoccupied by this fictional story that burdens all of Arab culture. We wanted it to feel contemporary, which is what the exhibit is about.

We also kept a skepticism of mainstream media and official histories and grand narratives. You witness the artists acting as witnesses, but they provide a point of view that’s less monolithic. It’s less official in a certain way. Many artists are speaking in the first person singular, as a reaction to dubbed-over media commentary. The thought is: “Enough with how we’re represented by the media. Let me tell the story.”

Another thing is the insistence on the physicality of the work. Holland Cotter’s review in the New York Times points out that it’s a show very much about touch. There are plenty of media and documentary pieces, but many of the artists are also working with their hands and leaving their own traces. That’s an undercurrent throughout the show, related to the question of transparency.

If you look at the drawings of Mazen Kerbaj and Rokni Haerizadeh, you get the impression that somehow when an artist is leaving marks or other impressions on a piece of paper, the artist is also revealing his or her subjective point of view. That’s left to the problem of truth again. Many of the artists are not pretending to have an objective point of view. They’re revealing the subjectivity. But that makes it more objective to us, because they’re not pretending to be objective.

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Mazen Kerbaj, "Beyrouth, juillet-aout 2006" (Beirut, July-August 2006), 2006.
Ink on paper. Courtesy the artist

Guernica: The artists involved span several generations, and the work represents changing issues within the Arab world. Are there any differences between what younger and older artists are portraying?

Massimiliano Gioni: Within this show, and in the way I think of shows, it’s always intergenerational. It’s a strategy to push new commodities. As a joke I always say: Unlike milk, it doesn’t have an expiration date. I’m more interested in the synchronicity. I look at how they coexist.

In some Arab art exhibitions that have happened, there’s always this idea that the East is more traditional; they show a lot of works on calligraphy and religion. We wanted to stay away from that. I think that kind of work is a stereotype of Arab culture. We didn’t want the show to feel preoccupied by this fictional story that burdens all of Arab culture. We wanted it to feel contemporary, which is what the exhibit is about. Maybe there are some traditional things, but they are more about the way the West packages the East.

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Akram Zaatari, Hashem El Madani-Palestian resistant, Studio Shehrazade, Saida, Lebanon, 1970-72. From "Objects of study/The archive of Shehrazade/Hashem el Madani/Studio Practices," 2006. Gelatin silver print. Courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut/Hamburg

Guernica: Were there any artists who refused to participate? If so, why, and did their reactions influence you in any way?

Massimiliano Gioni: In the exhibition catalogue we quoted some of the reasons why some artists decided to turn down the invitation to be in the show. Some were more tortured and conflicted than others. What surprised me the most is that all of them had accepted to be in other geographical shows, and particularly some where the parameters were more confused or problematic, such as shows that brought together “African art.” Others had no problem showing in Arab museums, like Mathaf, the Arab Museum of Modern Art in Qatar, and sadly, some admitted that they accepted to do so because the institution paid for their work and the production of their pieces, which to me simply sounds quite hypocritical. So I am not sure all the reasons for not being in the show were really sincere or particularly intellectual.

Obviously, when working on the show, you register and listen to every opinion and point of view, and in some cases, you may try to adjust your premises. From the very beginning, we were clear that we were not trying to define some kind of “Arab identity” or to present a unified style for Arab art; or even that we were trying to construct an overall unified image of Arab art and culture. So we tried to stress these ideas even further. We also wanted to make clear that within various artistic expressions from various Arab countries, we were focusing more on works in which the artists were looking at their own roles as witnesses of historical events and changes.

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Wafa Hourani, Qalandia 2087, 2009. Mixed media installation in six parts, sound, 216 x 364 in. Nadour Collection. Installation View: Haus der Kunst, Munich. Photo: Wilfried Petzi

Guernica: You traveled to a lot of countries to visit artists and their studios. What struck you the most about the different ways in which artists make work?

Massimiliano Gioni: I think it’s impossible to simplify and generalize. I can say that perhaps more than in other projects I have worked on, artists had a stronger role in talking to us about other artists’ works.

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Yto Barrada, N du mot Nation en arabe, Tanger (N of the Nation in Arabic, Tangier), 2003. Chromogenic print. Courtesy the artist and Sfeir Semler Gallery, Beirut/Hamburg

Guernica: What have been the reactions so far?

Massimiliano Gioni: They seem positive, which is nice. I think that there are a few things I’m proud of, which I don’t know if people notice when they see the work.

I hope that the show goes against the idea of the traditional in terms of Arab culture, and that viewers see that it’s not traditional, and that it provides a less simple view of the countries and cultures experienced.

Similarly, I’m happy that we stayed away from images of women in a hijab, and we are proud that we have no veiled women. We didn’t want any of those stereotypes confirmed. We hope that when others experience the exhibit, and see the work being made by these artists in these countries, their ideas about Arab culture are maybe less exotic.

G

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2 comments for Scenes From a Contemporary Arab World

  1. Comment by Trish on August 5, 2014 at 4:12 pm

    Very glad to see Arabs pushing toward showing the West, esp. USA what they really all about. Too many still think everything is 635AD and nothing has changed when it has. Keep pushing this and I will be passing these on to my friends and relatives for their “education.”

  2. Comment by J. on August 6, 2014 at 1:00 pm

    GREAT (and needless to say timely) project/show. However: an image of a woman in a hijab, veil, burka, etc. is not (nec.) a stereotype; and to studiously avoid such while presenting/representing visual culture in a part of the world where such is common does not address what has (in the past; in the West) made it sometimes a stereotype — namely, no other images of women, i.e., realistic diversity.

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