Alana Chloe Esposito reviews the New Museum’s Here And Elsewhere, a show which many have dubbed the USA’s best show of Middle Eastern art to date.
On the day before escalating tensions with Hamas saw the Israeli Defense Forces to launch a ground invasion of Gaza, an exhibition opened at the New Museum in New York, which presents that region’s thorny history through documentary-driven works by 45 artists and artist collectives from 15 countries with various degrees of connection to the Arab world. It invites reflection on the process of recording, interpreting, editing and presenting historical narratives, both personal and collective.
The show’s title, Here And Elsewhere, is taken from Jean-Luc Godard’s 1976 film-essay Içi et Ailleurs, which was originally intended as a documentary on the Palestinian struggle, but which morphed over several years of filming and editing into a reflection on modes of representation. To paraphrase the show’s associate curator Natalie Bell, the propagandistic narrative gave way to something far more insightful: a commentary on the practice of relying on hyper- bolic stereotypes or fictional testimonies to construct representations that promote a particular idea.
In this vein, the New Museum’s thoughtful exhibition, curated by a team led by Massimiliano Gioni, who has previously mentioned an interest in art from the Middle East and who was recently promoted to Artistic Director, was intended from the outset to focus on “artists who were looking critically at the function of images or thinking critically about different modes of reportage,” according to Bell. “Yes, I am interested in art from the Middle East,” says Gioni. “I did a whole show because I thought there was great work being made that was not being shown here and obviously, it also served as an opportunity for me to learn more and get to know artists better and to engage with them now and in the future.”Bell further explains that at its core, Here And Elsewhere (both the film and the exhibition) grapples with what it means to be an artist: “No matter what your medium, you select and edit and narrate what you want to show your audience, rather than merely acting as a conduit for images or experiences.”
SLANTS OF DOCUMENTARY
The curators say they had no specific criteria in mind during a research phase in the spring of 2013 that saw the team cull the work of over 800 artists. The final selection represents a wide array of practices revolving around photography, film, archives and historical narratives. While many names are familiar – Akram Zaatari, Rokni Haerizadeh and Hassan Sharif, among others – the intergenerational group also includes lesser-known artists, whose work references the Arabic-speaking world, while defying the notion of it as a homogenous or cohesive entity. The idea to produce a show of Arab artists at the New Museum gradually took shape over several years as Gioni was conducting research relatedtohisworkascuratoroftheeighth Gwangju (2010) and 55th Venice biennales (2013). As a result, various approaches to documentation dominate the exhibition.
The first of these is a personal reportage exemplified by the short videos of Abounaddara, a collective of self-taught filmmakers dispersed throughout Syria. Speaking on a panel at the New Museum, group member Charif Kiwan stated their intention to embrace ambiguity and refrain from judgement in their interviews of Syrians from all walks of life. Part of their aim is to shed light on those resisting the gravitational pulls from either side of the ideological divide between the Assad regime and the “ugly Jihadis”, who are often conveniently overlooked by the mainstream media. Their highly empathetic video Everything Is Under Control, Mr President (2009) allows viewers to connect to each interview subject, whether pacifist or sniper, victim or perpetrator. For Kiwan, a duty to portray all Syrians first and foremost as human beings justifies lending sympathy to killers. “We want viewers to be touched by the situation and avoid condemnation, ”he says, adding that “maybe even I would kill in a particular situation”.
Another approach relies on anchoring an analysis of the present in past or future histories, real or imagined. For instance, Wafa Hourani’s Future Cities series envisions the Palestinian refugee camp Qalandia in 2047, 2067 and 2087 respectively 100 years after the UN partition plan, the Arab-Israeli War and the First Palestinian Intifada. According to Hourani’s projected narrative, in 2019 the Palestinian Mirror Party covers their side of the separation wall with mirrors; in 2085 the Qalandia checkpoint becomes a free-speech zone and in 2087, concrete from the wall is removed and replaced with mirrors on the other side. Qalandia 2087 (the only one from this series on view) is a diorama of the camp consisting of atmospheric details such as strains of music emanating from cardboard houses with light-box windows and balconies and public spaces populated by toy cars and tiny plastic people and vegetation that Hourani hopes “will give people the sense of walking through the streets”. He admits that making art about the future is “merely a polite way to talk about the present” but it also carves out room for introspection, which can be hard to accomplish in the present. Simply imagining the removal of the separation wall without struggling through the painful act of self- criticism would be insufficient to bring about the long-term social and political changes Hourani craves. His mirrors serve the dual purpose of exposing the dangerous powers of illusion and confronting the sometimes inconvenient truth that the first Intifada was also partly responsible for the erection of the separation wall.
Yet another approach was born out of the struggle to digest the torrent of conflict- related images and news updates that tend to desensitise us to the brutality and/or tragedy at hand. Through painterly gestures, Haerizadeh, for one, transforms YouTube images of political protests and demonstrations into grotesquely humorous, fantastical scenes in works such as Subversive Salami In A Ragged Briefcase (2014). “Sometimes, you feel the scenes don’t even make sense with each other, but this is how history is written and I find this interesting,”he notes in the catalogue’s roundtable discussion on the past. What ties these approaches together is the artists’ recognition of what is at stake in their chronicling of their social and political realities.
TESTIMONY, NOT TENSION
Reflecting “not so happy times” as Gioni put it, the show is quite dark and several works are heart-wrenching. Some audience members teared up during the panel discussion between Khalil Joreige, Kiwan and Khaled Jarrar, who could only participate via Skype after being detained for no discernible reason by Israeli security officers en route to New York. Yet overall, flickers of optimism embedded in the deeply human works reverberate through the show.
Perhaps inevitably, reactions of early visitors to the show have been split. While many voices are lauding it as the best representation to date of Middle Eastern art in New York, if not the USA (a claim I agree with), others, particularly from the Middle East, feel that the predominance of art relating to conflict on view perpetuates a stereotypical view of the region’s artistic output. Not being Middle Eastern myself, I have no right to challenge the views held by people of the region. I concede that the proportion of art related to conflict I’ve seen in exhibitions or on studio visits in Cairo, Amman, Dubai, Sharjah and other places over the past several years tended to be lower there than here.
And yet, I was impressed by the frank discussion of this very issue on wall texts, press materials and especially in the hefty catalogue co-edited by Negar Azimi and Kaelen Wilson- Goldie of Bidoun. It includes roundtable discussions with some of the participating artists as well as a fairly comprehensive and critical overview of the history of Contemporary Arab art shows in the West by Media Farzin.
To me at least, the show takes great pains to avoid replicating the pitfalls of, on the
one hand, exhibitions such as MoMA’s 2006 Without Boundaries: Seventeen Ways Of Looking, which was criticised for whitewashing cultural specificity for the sake of following the dictates of a relatively staid, globalised Contemporary art scene; and, on the other hand, the plethora of short-sighted shows across the USA and Europe since 9/11 that reduced all art from the region to overly simplistic statements about ‘Arab’ issues such as the veil. As Bell told me, “there’s no single style or set of formal attributes that can identify something as ‘Arab art’ and that includes references to conflict”.
Moreover, as the third Gaza war in six years has recently come to an end; and with the casualty and refugee/internally displaced persons rates in Syria respectively estimated at over 200,000 and 6,000,000; and in the wake of revolutions that have so far failed to bring about the desired social and economic progress in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, what’s wrong with focusing on art that deals with conflict and strife? No artist, Arab or otherwise, should feel compelled to take on a particular trendy subject matter in order to gain international recognition. For the same reasons, curators should not feel pressure to exclude strong work just because some consider the subject matter to be cliché.
It seems valid to present good art that responds to the high concentration of political turmoil and suffering across a region that, while not homogenous, is united by language, religion and history. If nothing else, it engages audiences who might not readily have access to information about the Middle East beyond the mainstream media accounts. Would the critics prefer not to introduce these artists’ perspectives to New Yorkers? Do they not, at the very least, applaud the show instigating (or furthering) this very debate? Besides, most of the work on view here is more about personal testimony or first-person narrative than about politics for politics’ sake.
It’s hard not to think of this exhibition within the context of the wider global trend of people documenting and sharing the minutia of their lives. These works are far more potent than Instagram images of what one ate for lunch or vacation snapshots, but they are all selfies in the broader sense, expressions of who we are. If these artists can say, “this is my experience, my interpretation, my story” in a way that New York audiences can relate to, then there is hope for sustained reflection on how, in the words of Bell, “both knowledge and history are processes of writing, editing, revising ever-expanding sets of images, memories, or even objects.”
Also, it is worth mentioning that for many of the artists, this is either their first time showing in New York or at an American museum or both, so in terms of exposure to new ideas and opportunities for cross-cultural interaction, both they and the New Museum’s audience stand to gain something. As Gioni notes, “perhaps by looking elsewhere, we can all better understand our ‘here’.”
Photography by Benoit Pailley. All images courtesy New Museum, New York.