What does it mean to have an Arab identity? Are there commonalities between regional identities as one journeys from the Atlas Mountains eastward to the Persian Gulf? This question is posed by the artists in the Middle East Institute’s inaugural gallery exhibition Arabicity I Ourouba. Founded in 1946, the Middle East Institute is a think-tank devoted to both political analysis and cultural exploration of the Arab world; a new gallery dedicated to visual arts is the latest manifestation of this mission. The contemplative gallery layout, professional lighting and full-color exhibition booklet underscore the MEI’s intention to position itself as a catalyst for cross-cultural, artistic dialogue
Arabicity is the term coined by London-based curator Rose Issa to interpret in English the Arab word Ourouba. The term connotes, according to the gallery text, “the state of being Arab” and serves as an overarching curatorial premise: in the modern world, are there unique societal conditions that help to elucidate a concept of pan-Arabism as a cultural identity? The word is ripe for multiple interpretations, which in turn underscore some of the visual themes that appear in the exhibition. Not surprisingly, ethnic identifiers, particularly in modes of dress, are well-depicted in the work she has selected. More intriguing though is the investigation of the Arab “city”, by which I mean the transformation of a citizenry in the digital age. How is “Arabism” defined in societies caught up in rapid modernization of infrastructure? Further, what does this bode for Arab youth who are experiencing a world very different from that of their parents’ generation?
Issa has selected 17 artists from across the Arab world to explore these issues. The works displayed are as disparate as the artists who created them: painting, sculpture, video and textual works create a visual dialogue at times more cacophonous than harmonious. Many of the works contain artistic elements easily identifiable to the Western eye, but here used in perhaps unexpected ways. This demonstrates that contemporary art from the Arab world moves in tandem—but certainly not lockstep—within a rapidly globalizing art world.
It is not surprising that military conflict is a central theme in the exhibition. Yet, rather than focus on the act of war itself, the artists here seem more interested in the lasting effects of conflicts on the human condition. Tagreed Darghouth’s Brighter than a Thousand Suns is the only work that conjures a contemporaneous act of violence. Her subtle abstraction of ocher and yellow tones upon a dark blue-grey background is easily identifiable as a mushroom cloud forming on the horizon in the wake of an atomic bomb explosion. Tellingly, this weapon of war, developed here in our own country, is perhaps the only ordinance not used in Mideast conflicts. With subtle irony Darghouth reminds the viewer that American (and by extension its Western allies’) interests play an outsized role in Arab identity, especially when it comes to political considerations.
More engaging works step back from the violence itself and instead seek to examine its reverberations. Abdul Rahman Katanani’s relief sculptures exemplify the resilience of displaced people in the wake of hardship. In Girl with a Kite Katanani, a Palestinian artist who has lived his life in refugee camps in Lebanon, uses scrap metal and barbed wire to create a simple gesture of innocence. The “waves” within the corrugated material define the girl’s figure within her bright red garment, while the barbed wire adds emotional poignancy to the work speaking to ways in which hardship is endured and overcome. Said Baalbaki’s Trunks conjures similar anxieties around movement, though in this case the displacement occurs in a more mundane context. The work, created in a realist tradition, displays an orderly pile of suitcases, leaving the viewer to wonder who the owners are and where they are going. Interpretations are left to the viewer. Are the owners fleeing tragedy or moving for a brighter future? Perhaps these two situations are not mutually exclusive but can exist simultaneously. In this way the image is potentially a microcosm of the Arab world where tragedy and opportunity can sometimes exist side by side.
But to view the Middle East solely through the lens of nightly television news footage overlooks the more nuanced changes that are occurring in a region undergoing rapid social change stimulated in part by a youth culture that more easily glides between notions of West and East. This thread of thought is documented in Ayman Baalbaki’s exquisitely conceived Al Mulatham which chronicles the shifting mores between generations. The background of Baalbaki’s work consists of printed fabric featuring classically rendered figures who appear to almost float in space. Atop this repetitive motif is the bust of an Arab man whose keffiyeh is composed of thickly-applied acrylic swirls of white and red, completed in a lush, expressionistic manner and positioning the figure in the foreground of the work. The figure’s eyes look directly at us, and it is almost as if he is channeling the spirits of ancestors through his gauze. With his choice of sitter, Baalbaki is alluding to generations of conflict within the Middle East, yet metaphorically, his dramatic contrasting of motifs also underscores the destabilizing complexities of such rapid social transformations.
Other artists are more direct in their pictorial representations. Hassan Hajjaj’s digital print Saida in Blue also captures the bust of a figure, but here the sitter is a woman wearing a traditional niqab, covering the lower portion of her face, leaving only her eyes exposed. Like the figure in Al Mulatham, she looks directly at us, her eyes subtly illuminated by the noticeable application eyeliner, mascara and eyeshadow. Her modernity is further underscored by the pattern of her niqab — a direct representation of a Louis Vuitton pattern. Here Hajjaj captures a woman sliding between multiple cultural roles and norms as she blends traditional modes of garb with a more globalized view of consumerism. The image is a far cry from the images of women depicted in Chant Avedissian’s Icons of the Nile series (a dozen of which hang here in the gallery in a storyboard format) and perhaps tame in contrast with Youssef Nabil’s Natacha Atlas which focuses on the bust of the Egyptian-British singer whose bodice has been hand tinted by the artist to recall old Egyptian portraits.
An image focusing on a woman’s décolletage would have proved problematic to prior generations (indeed, it is still problematic—even criminal— in some areas). But it also demonstrates how the shifting tides of modernity are inextricably tied to the changing roles of women in society. Nabil touches upon this third theme with his representation of female body autonomy. Raeda Saadeh’s haunting Penelope explores this issue from several angles. The complex image features a woman dressed in black, sitting within rebar and rubble, endlessly knitting from a huge ball of yarn. Multiple conclusions could be drawn, but Saadeh narrows our focus, noting that the scene is based on the mythical Penelope of Homer’s Odyssey who waited decades for her husband to return from war. The figure’s quiet demeanor is at odds with the surrounding landscape; her knitting seems a futile act. Yet there is also a sense of fortitude as she sits quietly in defiance of the circumstances. While there is something heartbreaking about her solitary wait—her actions demonstrate a determination to not be seen as a victim. Saadeh makes room for multiple interpretations; heroic is the one which I think suits her the most.
Batoul S’himi also references heroism with Monde Sous Pression Militaire. With a wry sense of humor S’Himi presents us with a literal aluminum pressure cooker, its lid locked tightly in place. On one side is a cutout representing a geographic section of the Middle East. While the sculpture’s humor does not diminish the scorn S’himi feels for a world which requires women to “keep a lid” on political tensions out of their control, it demonstrates how artists of the region are considering womens’ role in society with an increasingly critical eye.
These are just some of the themes that visitors may identify as they walk through the gallery. Some viewers will be struck by the malleability of the Arab language as suggested by the works of Susan Hefuna and Fathi Hassan or by the unique worldview of artists like Mahmoud Obaidi who were born in the Middle East and now reside in the West. The complexity of these themes is both blessing and curse. Issa’s desire to “hone in on” (in her words) a common cultural link becomes bogged down by the overlapping nature of these ideas, each of which acts like a strand of a massive cultural spider web. Simultaneously, she successfully illuminates the contours of these themes for future consideration, as each of these ideas could serve as the basis for a more narrowly-scripted future exhibition. In that regard, Issa has provided the MEI an engaging roadmap for a more artistically-enlightened understanding of the Arab world.
Arabicity|Ourouba runs through November 22, 2019 at the Middle East Institute Art Gallery. For more information, visit the gallery’s website here.