Somewhere Between Self-Assertion and Stereotyping: The Art Scene in the Arab World and Exhibition Policies since 9/11
The video installation Interview with Three Artists (2008) by Mo Nabil, an artist from Cairo, satirises the stereotypical image of the Lebanese, Egyptian, and Palestinian artist as it has often been presented in exhibitions over the last decade by curators from Europe and the USA. The video is divided into three parts. In each part, the artist himself dresses up as one of the three stereotypes, each of which is reproduced in nine small images that fill the film frames. Although the gestures and facial expressions are the same in every image, they are staggered to create a serial impression. A text containing each artist’s fictitious explanation of the work he is planning for an exhibition runs along the bottom of the screen. It quickly becomes clear that the artist is concentrating on exactly those phenomena in his country that are currently the focus of interest in Europe and the USA, e.g. the Lebanese Civil War, the sprawling metropolis that is Cairo, the wall that separates Israel and Palestine. There is no room for his personal experiences and views.
Since the Gulf Wars, and in the last decade in particular, there has been a noticeable increase in interest in contemporary artists from the Middle East, North Africa, and Iran, and an increase in demand for corresponding exhibitions. This interest was undoubtedly magnified by the events of 9/11. Examples of such exhibitions include DisOrientation in the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin in 2003, Arabise Me in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London in 2006, Word into Art in the British Museum in London in 2006, Di/Visions in Berlin in 2007–08, and Unveiled in the Saatchi Gallery in 2009. The broad scope of these exhibitions serves to introduce the public to contemporary artistic practices in the Middle East, North Africa, and Iran while at the same time explaining their contexts in lectures, podium discussions, and film screenings. On the one hand, these exhibitions benefit from the increased level of funding made available since 9/11 as a result of the need to educate and enter into dialogue. At the same time, they also have a new responsibility within the context of a climate that has been characterised by xenophobia and Islamophobia since 9/11. Exhibition concepts are considered with the utmost care and have to stand up to massive criticism from a variety of sources. They are particularly exposed to increased vigilance by those critical of the Orientalistic viewpoint. For this reason, they cannot avoid addressing cultural processes of perception and the power mechanisms of cultural identity concepts.
Curators exhibit what they consider to be important and what they think is in line with the public’s interest. For this reason, those artists who address relevant themes are selected, which can mean that the artists allow themselves to be corrupted by the expectations of the curator and/or the public. This results in clichéd images, stereotypes to which the artist is pinned, an image he can no longer shake off, a generalisation that is ultimately devoid of meaning and free of identity. Attributes become set in stone. The problem of many exhibitions that focus on specific regions is the fact that they place too much emphasis on the context from which the artist comes.
In a diary-like text, Jack Persekian, the curator of DisOrientation – 16 arabische Künstler aus den Nahen Osten [DisOrientation: 16 Arab artists from the Middle East], describes his journey to each of the artists who were to feature in the exhibition. His report describes a region marked by political unrest and conflicts that make it virtually impossible to travel from one country to another to find the individual artists. On the one hand, the text suggests that it must be almost impossible for artists not to address the geopolitical nature of the situation that prevails in their respective countries; on the other, this non-art context risks moving too much into the spotlight. The reader gets the impression that artists should be respected simply for their origins alone and that every one of their works has to refer in some way to the specific problems of their native countries. As a result of this perception, the exhibited works are rated less in terms of their artistic quality and more in terms of their geopolitical background. The very designation ‘Middle’ or ‘Near’ East reveals the predominance of the Western view. Since 9/11 in particular, the media have portrayed this region as a threat, which automatically forces curators to explain in their exhibition concepts that ‘there is more to the Middle East than terror and terrorism’. According to Nada Shabout, a statement such as this immediately transfers artworks and events into the realm of the non-aesthetic.
The art historian Saleh M. Hassan noted that most post-9/11 exhibitions featuring art from the Middle East exclusively portrayed an image that reflected Western fears with regard to both the region and Islam instead of critically considering their complex history and aesthetic aspects. One of the trends in this respect is the obsession with gender relations. By way of example, he lists a number of exhibitions including Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking at MoMA in New York in 2006, Harem Fantasies and the New Scheherazades at the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona in 2003, and Breaking the Veils: Women Artists from the Islamic World, an exhibition organised by the Royal Society of Fine Arts in Jordan and Femme-Art-Méditerranée in Greece that has been on tour since 2002. It might be surprising that such clichés could originate in Arab countries too. In this respect, it becomes clear that there are also examples of self-orientalisation. Saleh M. Hassan praises the exhibition Without Boundary for its attempt critically to address questions of modernity and the problems associated with the category ‘Islamic art’. However, he goes on to say that that the exhibition presentation and the interpretation of some works in the exhibition catalogue steered the problems raised by the curator Ferestheh Daftari in one direction only. The author Homi Bhabha, for example, only analysed Mona Hatoum’s Keffieh (1993–99) in terms of religion- and region-specific internal gender problems, completely ignoring the work’s multiple layers, i.e. its historical, socio-political and poetic dimension, the active role played by women in the Palestinian resistance, the state of siege, and the female figure that frequently symbolises Palestine. Homi Bhabha, says Hassan, pandered to the typical Western discourse with its narrow focus on the oppression of women in the Middle East and in the ‘Islamic world’.
Contrapositions in Arab artistic practice
Questions regarding the representability of war and the criticism of hegemonical portrayals of history in the area of tension between power and media representation are characteristic of a post-Orientalistic engagement that characterises Lebanese art and has become even more topical since 9/11. One aspect of the artists’ critical method is intermediality, which is particularly suited to pulling the carpet out from under the manipulating dominance of a single medium – whether it be television, newspaper, or poster – by focussing the recipient’s attention on the media aspect of the message. Saleh Barakat and Sandra Dagher, curators of the Lebanese Pavilion at the Biennale in Venice – a pavilion that was opened for the first time in the wake of the July War in 2006 (the 33-day war between Hizbollah and the Israeli Army) – highlighted in the foreword to the catalogue the problems they faced as mediators of current positions in Lebanese art:
‘What story should we tell the international audience about Lebanon now? Should we promulgate the image of the war-torn country or should we present another image?’
After all, the works are of course marked by the social and political conditions under which they were created, and by a certain political top-heaviness. In other words, the curators face a dual responsibility of critically addressing their own contemporary history while at the same time avoiding the trap of resorting to threatening stereotypes. In response to the many and varied reactions to the July War, an entire edition of Art Journal was dedicated to the Beirut art scene in June 2007. In their article ‘Mining War’, Hannah Feldmann and Akram Zaatari invited readers to consider the following:
‘Art, we insisted, could not be made to represent geopolitical identities without falling back on extreme simplifications.’
Alternative exhibition practices
But has not the interest in the Arab art scene gone hand in hand with an unprecedented opening-up of the art scene over the last ten years, despite the danger of the creation of clichés in region-specific exhibitions? The curator Rose Issa, who lives in London and specialises in art from the Middle East, North Africa and Iran, says:
‘Many artists worry about being pigeonholed. However, I have not seen a British artist or an American artist being offended by being labelled British or American. So what we have here is a matter of confidence.’
Not everyone shares Rose Issa’s confidence that sooner or later artists from the Arab world will experience the same kind of trust that is currently placed in Western artists. One particular exhibition concept that has frequently been used in recent times escapes the often involuntary geopolitical categorisation and generalisation by adopting a formally aesthetic approach that allows works from a variety of eras to be put in a common field of reference. The 2010/2011 exhibition Die Zukunft der Tradition – Die Tradition der Zukunft [The Future of Tradition – The Tradition of the Future] at the Haus der Kunst in Munich made reference to the memorable exhibition Meisterwerke muhammedanischer Kunst [Masterpieces of Muhammadan Art], which took place 100 years ago. The exhibition Die Macht des Ornaments [The Power of Ornament], which was held in the Orangerie of the Belvedere in Vienna in 2009, created a temporal link between Vienna at the turn of the nineteenth/twentieth century and the present day; between Gustav Klimt’s Water Serpents and artists like Adriana Czernin, Parastou Forouhar, Shirin Neshat, Raqib Shaw, or Philip Taaffe. Again, in 2007, the Blind Date Istanbul exhibition at the Sakip Sabanci Museum in Istanbul juxtaposed pairs of abstract works from the Deutsche Bank collection and Ottoman calligraphy from the Sakip Sabanci Collection. Another example is the exhibition entitled Taswir – Islamische Bildwelten und Moderne [Taswir: Islamic Image Worlds and Modernism], which was held at the Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin in 2009/2010. The concept on which this exhibition was based was that of an image atlas like the one created by the art historian Aby Warburg in the 1920s. On the basis of series of images, Warburg tried to make similarities in form and expression directly visible across temporal and spatial boundaries. Accordingly, the exhibition investigated the many synchronous and diachronous relations between Western and Eastern image worlds in order to counteract the idea of cultural circles that are hermetically separated from each other and to allow for a global, cross-cultural view of art contexts. The aim in doing so was not to achieve either completeness or system, but to arrive at a ‘new definition of the knowledge about a modernism that is not only shaped by Western influences when dealing with the visual, musical, and performing arts,’ wrote exhibition curator Almut Sh. Bruckstein Çoruh in a text on the exhibition.
While exhibitions like Blind Date Istanbul make it possible to go into greater detail and to focus on specific questions, exhibitions with a broader scope run the risk of making concessions and simplifying complex historic processes in order to facilitate comprehension. The beholder is confronted with classic artefacts that seem to have been ripped out of context because of the lack of chronological and geographical arrangement with references to dynastic systems. At the same time, when it comes to contemporary works, one can criticise the fact that they run the risk of being de-individualised or even misinterpreted, interpreted in the light of the fact that they belong to Islam, regardless of whether there is a religious link or not.
De-orientalisation through globalisation
A new, globally active generation of artists, curators, and academics is increasingly calling for a consciously de-orientalised view on the world stage of art. Three documenta curators attended the Home Works-Forum in spring 2010, which took place in Beirut for the fifth time and was organised by Ashkal Alwan: Catherine David, who launched the long-term project ‘Contemporary Arab Representations’, Okwui Enwezor, and the future documenta curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. Other participants included Andrew Ross of New York University, the curator and art historian Nada Shabout of the University of North Texas, the author and curator Shumon Basar from London, and artists such as Walid Raad and Hito Steyerl. One of the main themes was the museum quarter that is currently being built on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi. The aim is that by 2018, the island will house a luxurious residential area the size of a small town with a wealth of leisure, sport, and cultural facilities. The main attraction will be a cultural complex comprising five monumental museums including the Louvre and the Guggenheim Museum. It is all about developing an immense infrastructure and about an affluent country investing in its own future. It is a mixture of concepts that addresses all needs. Art and culture are not only included as sub-sections of the whole, they are also intended to be the heart of the project to foster tourism in Abu Dhabi and to keep an educational promise.
The scepticism one might feel at the prospect of such a mega project arises out of the question as to whether one can create the structures first and worry about the content later, whether one can inject the financial capital first and develop the human capital later. How can an overall cultural package that has been bought in from outside without any link to the local culture and traditional art practice establish itself in the locality? Guggenheim boss Thomas Krens plans to use the same tourist marketing campaign concept for Abu Dhabi as for Bilbao: an unspectacular city is given a new focus in the shape of a museum that pulls in the crowds. There are also plans to give local artists in this, the largest of the Arab Emirates, a platform. In Bilbao, however, local artists only got a chance to exhibit in the museums ten years after it was first opened.
In view of the political gulf separating East and West, however, Saadiyat Island would be more than just an imported culture package. As Zaki Nusseibeh, vice-chairman of the Abu Dhabi Culture and Heritage Authority (ADACH), says, Abu Dhabi wants to build bridges to the international art scene and at the same time align its own traditions with a globalised world, unite with the universal global civilisation, and – leaving religious differences aside – foster openness through art. But ambitious mega-projects such as this that seek global validity also have to be sold to the local population and have to get people involved. Abu Dhabi wants to make sure this happens by setting up a number of new courses from Humanities to Museum Studies and Culture Management. To date there has been hardly any public debate about the country’s cultural objectives, which means that the Emirates Foundation has set itself the goal of taking action at ‘human level’. Among other things, the foundation provides scholarships to those involved in creating culture in the Emirates.
In the small neighbouring emirate of Qatar, plans to establish a museum quarter with a broad scope are no less ambitious. In 2008, the Qatar Museums Authority – the umbrella organisation for all the country’s museum projects – opened the Museum of Islamic Art, the silhouette of which has been a defining feature of the skyline of the capital Doha ever since. In late 2010, it was followed almost all at once by the QMA Gallery, the Al Riwaq Art Space, a small and large hall for special exhibitions, and the Museum of Modern Arab Art (Mathaf), the only one of its kind in the region. Unlike the United Arab Emirates, Qatar is focussing more on development from the inside out, i.e. for the promotion and exhibition of its own collections and artists. The Mathaf is home to Sheikh Hassan Al Thani’s comprehensive collection of Arab modern art. After an initial major exhibition in Doha, Sheikh Hassan Al Thani’s desert photographs will travel to several locations in Europe, the USA and Asia, making the works accessible to an international audience.
The balance that Abu Dhabi is striving to achieve, between museum projects with a global scope and smaller programmes tailored to provide individual support, has already been implemented in Qatar at least in the concept of its two museums. In this respect, the Museum of Islamic Art and the Mathaf create a balance: while the MIA rises proudly out of the water, the monumentalism and elegance of I.M. Pei’s design impressing the onlooker, the Mathaf remains true to its principle of the ‘human level’. In a renovated and modernised school building close to Education City, the new campus built to house several international universities, the collection is open, inviting, and appeals to the young. The arrangement of the collection and all the information material are easy to understand. The plan is to organise a complementary, comprehensive range of workshops. The website – with its light blue and pink tones and handwritten font – allows for user interaction. It remains to be seen how the Mathaf is received by its target group. There are still no additional training opportunities for museum and culture work in the country.
Opening up by means of a common discourse?
is an art historian and cultural researcher. Since 2010 she has been the Exhibitions Manager at the Qatar Museums Authority in Doha, Katar.
Lotte Fasshauer's Ph.D. At the German Orient Institute Beirut examines the work of the Lebanese author and video artist Ghassan Salhab in the context of contemporary artistic practice in Lebanon.
Translated by Aingeal Flanagan
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
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