Dr Glenn D. Lowry, Director of the Museum of Modern Art, delivered an enlightening lecture on contemporary art in the Middle East, highlighting the condition of ‘in-betweenness’ that prevails in the making of art that is both rooted in local concerns and engaged with universal issues, at the Yarmouk Cultural Center on Monday, Nov 20 evening, as part of the Dar Al Athar Al Islamiyyah’s 23rd cultural season.
Dr Lowry directs an active programme of exhibitions, acquisitions, and publications at MoMA, New York. A strong advocate for contemporary art, he has lectured and written extensively in support of contemporary art, artists and the role of museums in society, among other topics. He is a member of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s board of trustees and serves on the advisory council of the Department of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University.
He began his lecture by sharing that the Middle East should be looked at in an expanded, deterritorialized way, that the idea of the in between, or in-betweenness, helps us understand contemporary Arab artists’ work. Strategies such as mapping and invented or re-imagined histories provide a conceptual frame that enables many artists from the region to deal with highly charged social and political issues that also places them in a conversation with artists elsewhere in the world.
He argued that the idea of the Middle East is a problematic construct and there is a need to expand the idea of it today to include large parts of Europe now inhabited by sizeable populations of first- and second-generation immigrants from the Middle East, the majority of whom are Muslim. He pointed out that the rapidly changing demographic in many European countries is part of a phenomenon that the French historian Olivier Roy described as deterritorialization, the decoupling of those who believe in Islam, from specific regions or civilizational areas.
He shared that these new Europeans participate in a Muslim community that no longer has anything to do with traditional definitions of territory or space, and needs to be considered in abstract or imaginary terms. The Middle East for this community becomes an idea as much as a reference to a specific area and signals a set of associations and practices connected to, but not limited by, the region, and it embraces multiple populations living within and beyond the region.
Dr Lowry pointed out that this idea of an expanded Middle East is also true for the art world in general and shared how it has become global in scope and in practice. He shared that Arab artists have found a way to work within this global ecosystem – they have patrons from the Middle East and elsewhere in the world, their work frequently appears at major art fairs and at auction, museums and critical publications.
“Many of them share a hesitancy and ambivalence at being identified either by their country of origin or the region at large, not to mention by their religious or cultural affinity. They see themselves as partaking in a cosmopolitan network, and the open and fluid exchange of ideas and images this enables. They may live on occasion, or even for the most part, in a nomadic condition, but their work embraces rather than rejects the possibilities this condition creates,” he revealed.
He shared that their work deploys different media from film and video to photography and performance, print-making and painting. “The diversity of media these artists use allows them to find multiple means of expression, and their cosmopolitanism, in this context, becomes a means of asserting their contemporaneity — an affirmation of their access to, and familiarity with, the most progressive artistic practices and ideas available anywhere in the world, enabling them to create their own artistic community in an otherwise unsettled world.”
The artists Dr Lowry stated that the artist he discusses in his lecture are by no means the first generation of artists from the Middle East to engage with modern or contemporary art and pointed to the Oman Circle Collective and the artists of the Emirate’s Fine Art’s Society, artists from Lebanon, Turkey, Syria and Iraq, and the active art community in Kuwait that goes back to the late 1930s and includes artists like Mojeb al-Dosari, and continues today with artists like Munira al-Kazi, Sami Mohammed and Thuraya al-Baqsami,
The idea of in-between-ness as a lens through which to think about the work of many of the artists grows out of the way many of these artists see themselves and their practices. Hrarir Sarkissian, a Syrian-born Armenian whose early work focused on places of execution, juxtaposes the brutal murders that took place throughout Syria under the Assad regime with the almost banal nature of the locations in which those events occurred. In 2006 he went to Armenia for the first time, and his series In Between developed out of what he called “the inconsistency in his own identity”
He shared that issues of location and displacement — personal and national, intellectual and emotional, regional and historical — are central to the work of many artists associated with the Middle East. He gave the example of Dina Haddadin a Jordanian artist and architect, whose work focuses on sites of transition.
He opined that Sarkissian and Haddadin’s concern for place and identity, as well as their sense of intellectual and aesthetic dislocation is paradigmatic of a larger set of social and political concerns shared by many artists in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world. “To this end I want to argue that the Middle East should be seen not as an isolated or foreign place, but as a kind of case study for how we locate ourselves in time and space in a rapidly changing world whose social and cultural mores are in flux.”
The conditions of dislocation and territory that artists in the Middle East interrogate grow out of similar social and cultural dislocations that shape our collective anxiety about the post-modern condition in which we live. In betweenness, he defined as a discursive, active and fragmented space, in which signs and symbols are not fixed and can be appropriated and reused in new and unexpected ways which may be another reason why so many of the artists considered here are so comfortable working across media.
He highlighted the work of American-born Jordanian artist, Oraib Toukan, in ‘The New(er) Middle East’, inspired by Condoleezza Rice’s plans for the region and Peters’ map. The work is a puzzle in the shape of a territorial map of the Middle East made from suspended foam-magnet shapes. The installation invites visitors to assemble and re-assemble the map as they wish.
Dr Lowry then drew attention to Zineb Sedira, an artist of Algerian descent, born in France in 1963, and now working between London, where she lives, and Algiers, whose work offers a more personal look at territory by examining her family’s land in three closely related projects of 2016, a photographic diptych Un Reve de Pierres and the videos Tracing a Territory and Land of My Father. In all three works, Sedira returns to her family’s ancestral holdings between Algiers and Constantine in a region called Petite or little Kabilye. The region was renowned for producing revolutionaries during early colonial times and during the war of independence. Her father’s tribe, the Hachem, fierce fighters, owned large tracts of land expropriated by the French in 1871 after the failed Mokrani Uprising against colonial rule. Alone, or with her father, in the videos she ruminates on this land and her family’s history.
With the Mapping Journey Project of Bouchra Khalili, a Moroccan artist who lives and works in Berlin, Dr Lowry pointed to the use of the idea of mapping to convey yet another kind of knowledge. Begun in 2008, long before the current refugee crisis, and completed three years later, the Mapping Journey Project is the result of her interest in how people fleeing from political and economic problems were recharting the region as they moved, often illegally, through countries and across borders. The Project, consists of eight stories, each revealed on a single-channel projection. Each journey begins with a map of the Mediterranean basin and the hand of the storyteller cropped at the wrist and as the story unfolds, each person uses a thick permanent marker to trace his or her route on the map. The journeys begin in Morocco, Algeria, Sudan, Somalia, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, and each has the goal of reaching Europe. One of these, is centered on Israel and the Palestinian territories and it describes the difficult, even torturous experience of trying to travel from Ramallah to Jerusalem without having to encounter official checkpoints, reminding us that even the shortest and simplest of journeys can become complicated by arbitrary borders and the politics of occupation.
He delved into Lebanese filmmaker Rania Stephan’s ‘Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni’ that examines the life of one of Egypt’s most glamorous movie stars of the 1960s and 70s. Using vintage VHS clips from Hosni’s eighty-two movies, made between 1959 when she was a teenager and 1991, Stephan reconstructs her life through her acting career, while providing a vivid portrait of the social and cultural changes Egypt underwent during this period through a rapid montage of images and sounds from these movies. The grainy images and poor sound create an eerie backdrop to this unfolding drama
Ahmed Mater, a Saudi Physician and artist has been working on a major photographic project, The Desert of Pharan: Unofficial Histories behind the Mass Expansion of Mecca, since 2008 Dr Lowry shared that Mater, through his contacts, was able to gain almost unlimited access to Mecca enabling him to reveal it in new and unexpected ways as a city of contradictions; the holiest site of Islam but a massive and kitschy tourist center, a forbidden place for all but Muslims yet known around the world through a small number of clichéd images; a city with an ancient history built around the Kaaba now being overrun by modern construction and high rise hotels that look like Big Ben. Mater’s photographs provide dramatic aerial views of Mecca, to desolate and forgotten corners of the city, from the Kaaba and adjacent demolition, to the shops and hotels around it; from its leading citizens, to the almost invisible migrant and illegal immigrants, and the people who inhabit its streets, to the construction workers transforming those streets into the new Mecca.
Dr Lowry discussed the work of Wael Shawky, an Egyptian artist born in Alexandria in 1971, who uses the retelling of history to reexamine regional conflict. Shawky’s most ambitious work to date is the trilogy Cabaret Crusades comprised of The Horror Show File which deals with the first crusade of 1096, the Path to Cairo, which examines the aftermath of the first and second crusades, and the Secrets of Karbala which looks at the complex and conflicting interactions between Christians and Muslims, Sunnis and Shia and the shifting alliances amongst them during this period.
The final artist discussed in the lecture was Walid Raad, born in Lebanon and educated at the University of Rochester and Boston University, best known for the Atlas Group, a project that ran from 1989 to 2004. Its goal was to research and document the contemporary history of Lebanon, with particular emphasis on the civil wars of 1975-1991. The Atlas Group established a website and produced films, videos, photographs, notebooks, performances, and documentation based in large part on the fictional archives of one Dr Fakhouri. He shared that Raad’s intent was to show how the impact of personal and collective trauma — the result of the devastating wars in Lebanon — effect memory. By examining the way history is constructed from random events, and making evident the way we use information to create narratives, the Atlas Group challenged people to think about the underlying structures of what we know.
He informed that Raad’s most recent project begun in 2007, and still evolving, is Scratching on Things I could Disavow: A History of Art in the Arab World, a kind of manifesto on the current artistic condition in the Middle East. It grows out of Raad’s simultaneous fascination and skepticism with the emergence of art festivals, forums, and workshops, historical and contemporary art museums, foundations, art catalogs, theoretical and historical texts, art schools, journals, and collections. The project aims to engage with the progressive as well as the reactionary, the predictable and unpredictable forms this new infrastructure will have on the making and experiencing of current, past, and future works of art and other cultural events.
Raad is concerned with how the vast wealth of the Gulf, and the creation of museums and collections in the region, will affect the making and consumption of the visual arts in the Arab world.
Dr Lowry concluded by stressing that to understand the work of many artists from the region we need to think of the Middle East in an expanded way, that all of the artists discusses use the strategies of contemporary art that are familiar to European and North American audiences, but deploy them to engage trenchant social and political issues, and finally that the idea of in betweenness helps us understand the way these artists explore the liminal space between fact and fiction, the observable and the imaginary.