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Spelling Allah in neon: naturalizing narratives in modern Middle Eastern art

Image from LACMA.org

The most universal image in art—a mother and child—now appears in oils on wood, on the third floor of the Yale University Art Gallery. “Motherhood,” a work by Egyptian female artist Inji Efflatoun, depicts a rural woman cradling her infant. In the mid-1800s, a sculptor whose work is far better known in the United States also took inspiration from those everyday scenes of the fellah, or rural laborers. Before sculpting the Statue of Liberty, Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi took a trip to Egypt. To mark the new Suez Canal, he proposed an 86-foot tall female statue, in the traditional Arab clothing he had seen, called “Egypt Carrying the Light to Asia.” Unsuccessful, he simply lifted some inspiration from his Egyptian proposal when the French made their gift to the Americans in 1886.

Efflatoun’s 1950 painting is one of 19 works in the exhibition Modern Art from the Middle East, at the YUAG from Feb. 24 through July 16. Co-curated by Yale’s Frauke Josenhans and Kishwar Rizvi, and Mandy Merzaban, the Founding Curator of the Barjeel Art Foundation, the exhibition is composed entirely of works on loan from the Foundation. Based in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, the Foundation is the brainchild of Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, a UAE commentator and collector. Al Qassemi also provides almost all the funding. His venture is one of only a few public collections of this scale in the region, and a key player in a revival for modern Middle Eastern art.

“We probably wouldn’t have had this show 10 years ago,” sighed Rizvi during our gallery tour. In the past 10 years, she’s seen a tremendous surge of public collection and scholarship on modern art from the region. Al Qassemi began collecting in 2002, but launched the Foundation quite recently, in 2010. Last week, on Mar. 31, the YUAG, the History of Art Department, and the Council on Middle East Studies jointly organized a symposium titled “Writing/Curating the Middle East.” There, Linda Komaroff, Islamic art curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, opened a panel discussion by acknowledging that she used to believe there was no connection between modernism and Islamic art. As Rizvi told me, there’s a popular “end date” in the field of Islamic art history — roughly mid-1700s, or the beginning of colonialism. Many survey art history books abruptly end their coverage there. Komaroff now wonders why it took her so long to question this cut-off. The YUAG’s exhibition sharply challenges it.

When Rizvi and Josenhans began contemplating their selection for Modern Art from the Middle East, they quickly decided to define new chronological and geographic boundaries. The works come from artists working in Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria between the 1950s and 1980s—encompassing the rise of nationalism after the collapse of colonial mandates, and the subsequent rise of pan-Arabism.

The curators also wanted to stay away from buzzwords and headlines. Rizvi and I spoke of the recent exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Works by Iranian, Iraqi, and Sudanese artists were displayed next to wall text reading: “This work is by an artist from a nation whose citizens are being denied entry to the United States, according to a presidential executive order issued on January 27, 2017.” The museum seemed to be making a statement: given the first major step taken by the Presidential administration—a “travel ban” affecting several Muslim-majority nations—art from the region mattered even more.

But according to Rizvi, it has mattered since the post-9/11 era. Because of the YUAG’s strong pedagogical mission (four fleets of students trooped through the exhibition in the 40-odd minutes we were there), Rizvi has focused on looking at the Middle East as a complex region. We agreed that responding to the political flare-ups of the moment through art can be powerful.  But merely responding can constrain public discussion of the art to the limits of the moment’s debate. “I don’t mean to critique my colleagues at MoMA, but there are ways to do it that can be a bit more synthetic, that you can tell certain types of stories, and ultimately that can have more of an impact than just the political gesture,” said Rizvi.

In her curatorial choices with Josenhans, Rizvi sought to “naturalize narratives.” The YUAG’s exhibit would not, then, focus on visual tropes. Instead of a veiled woman, Inji Efflatoun’s portrait depicts an Egyptian mother. The image is related to a source of inspiration for the Statue of Liberty, the icon that many protesters referred to during the fight over the travel ban, as Rizvi and I discussed. Another work, “Erotic Composition” uses a few fine, blurry lines in pale pink and orange to depict a female nude form.

The exhibit would also choose not to focus on the “refugee crisis,” perhaps the single most recurrent headline of 2015 and 2016. Yet, in Marwan Kassab Bachi’s “The Three Palestinian Boys, a hauntingly forced perspective causes the viewer to look up with the subjects, expectantly, towards nothing at all. Though the work is from 1970, it’s difficult to shake the echos of last year’s photos of young men from the Middle East migrating along the train tracks of Eastern Europe towards uncertainty.

Two works depict the construction of the Aswan High Dam in 1960, built as part of Egypt’s modernizing thrust led by President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Although artists had been commissioned to depict it, the works cannot be categorized as pure propaganda. Abdel Hadi El-Gazzar’s “Untitled” conveys a fascination with technology, in its intricate ink diagram of a fantastical machine. It’s gobbling up scraps and outputting order—a new industrial nation. It leaves the viewer, though, with a sense that if one wire snapped, the whole operation would hit the skids. Similarly, Effat Naghi’s “The High Dam,” a monumental blast of layered black acrylic, exudes vitality. It’s almost a celebration, but I had to agree with Rizvi: “You can see it as building something, or something falling apart.”

When you enter the exhibition from the YUAG’s permanent collection of modern art, you don’t immediately see the wall text to your left, titling the exhibition, along with a helpful map of the Middle East. It’s clever. Any ordinary visitor wouldn’t know they had stepped into a highly focused selection. At a show in Tehran in Nov. and Dec. 2016, the same effect was deployed. In The Sea Suspended, Tehran’s Museum of Contemporary Art displayed 40 works from Iran, and 40 from the Arab world, on loan from the Barjeel Foundation. One room showed only Arab art, one room only Iranian works. One room showed both together. It was seamless, remembers Sultan Al Qassemi, the founder and financial backer of Barjeel. “That’s exactly the kind of theme, the kind of art, the kind of setting that we should be looking at.”

Rizvi has encountered many private collectors in the region, and considers Al Qassemi’s collection quite unique, especially considering the cost and labor required to loan the works out. “It’s reorienting the whole story of the Middle East just now,” said Rizvi. “It can’t be always just about refugees, death, and destruction. It’s there, it’s important, but it’s not what the cultures have produced.” In addition to bringing this message beyond the Arab world, Al Qassemi also plans to focus on more regional exhibitions. He wants to bring modern art “from the Arab world, to the Arab world.” For the Iranian exhibition, he made a specific request that the 40 non-Iranian works include several from neighboring nations with a history of tension, including Saudi Arabia. With 20,000 visitors in seven weeks, the exhibition was a stunning success.

The Barjeel Foundation collection stems from Al Qassemi’s personal collection. His dream, however, is to empty his home and warehouse of his acquisitions through loans. “In terms of accessibility, we’re definitely out there,” he says. Catalogs, essays, and interviews can be downloaded from the Foundation’s website. The Foundation has 19 exhibits and 914 works available on the Google Arts and Culture platform, and regularly posts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Al Qassemi himself is perhaps best known on Twitter, for translating speeches and news from Arabic to English during the Arab Spring, outstripping major news outlets. “All my students knew him from his Twitter feed, nobody knew him as a collector!” Rizvi mentioned, during our gallery tour.

Al Qassemi founded Barjeel in March 2010, before the Arab Spring impelled him to commentate through the Twittersphere. He considers the pursuits as different mediums, with the same message. “It’s translating the Arab world, it’s making the Arab world accessible, whether it was my work as taking Arabic language speeches and news into English, or allowing people to view works of art online.” In the immediate aftermath of the Arab Spring, Barjeel bought a piece from Egypt, called “The people want the downfall of the regime.” The gallery in Cairo refused to ship it. The owners feared accusations of exporting the revolution to the Gulf. So Barjeel had the piece, done in neon lettering, shipped in four pieces, one for each word in Arabic: The People / Want / The Downfall / Of the Regime. Four different crates arrived in Sharjah in 2013. The piece has not yet been shown.

Al Qassemi knows that had he bought all his pieces without the intention of showing them, he could have bought twice, even three times as much work by avoiding the costs of insurance and shipping. But that isn’t his philosophy. “Owning them really isn’t an achievement, it’s showing them—that is an achievement.” There’s a dearth, Al Qassemi says, of institutions like his. “And there’s a hundred thousand that do the same thing for European art. We have so much to catch up with.”

Komaroff, of LACMA, told her audience at the symposium, “The Middle East has become best known for things other than the contemplative beauty of art.” And perhaps new exhibitions such as the MoMa’s have caught public interest because the Middle East has a greater, tragic urgency. But Modern Art from the Middle East seeks to draw the eye to a subset of the region without losing sight of the rest of it. The Barjeel Art Foundation seeks to spread that perspective across the world.

Ten years ago, Komaroff would never have bought works of Islamic art in neon or video. Now, the LACMA’s collection boasts a set of music video inspired works and the word “Allah” done in neon calligraphy, reflected on and on in an “infinity box” of mirrors. For modern and contemporary artistic depictions of the Middle East, it’s a brave new decade.

One Response

  1. I congratulate Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi for familiarizing Middle Estern arts all over the world through his Barjeel Art Foundation

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