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Contemporary art from the Middle East has only begun to emerge from obscurity in the past decade. Its struggle for recognition by the mainstream art world stems from an indefinable hesitation, lack of understanding, and the absence of established standards by which to evaluate it. A handful of major museums have started to collect this art seriously, while others continue to resist such acquisitions, often dismissing them as derivative and of questionable quality. Two recent exhibitions that focused on contemporary art from the Middle East and helped to put it on the map were Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking, organized by Fereshteh Daftari at the Museum of Modern Art, and Word into Art: Artists of the Modern Middle East, curated by Venetia Porter at the British Museum.
Without Boundary was an intimate show, featuring thirty-four works in a wide array of media ranging from painting and calligraphy to animation and cartoon by seventeen established artists of diverse backgrounds mostly active outside their countries of origin—yet all with ties to the Islamic world. The works of two U.S. artists, Bill Viola and Mike Kelley, were included to illustrate the fluidity and reciprocity of Islamic art across geographical and cultural boundaries and to add a layer of complexity. Word into Art was a much larger exhibition showcasing the British Museum’s growing collection of contemporary Middle Eastern and North African calligraphic art as represented by eighty artists. The artists were a mixed group; some live and work in their home countries, others in diaspora. Some are at the forefront of the contemporary art scene, while others are young and emerging. Both exhibitions were accompanied by comprehensive catalogues.
Although the two shows shared some common features, their intentions and emphases were quite different. While Without Boundary focused on the themes of “Islamic or not” and “exile,” Word into Art concentrated on the use of a culturally specific art form, calligraphy, in contemporary Middle Eastern and North African art. While the former aimed to frame this art within a global and cross-cultural context, the latter exhibition was more focused, reflecting a deep and long-standing commitment by the curator and the organizers at the British Museum to collecting this art. Nevertheless, both shows grappled with the challenge of introducing a relatively unknown category of art to a largely Western audience with the hope of partially correcting political and cultural misconceptions currently rampant in the Western media and facilitating a judicious understanding of this region of the world.
Without Boundary was the first major post-9/11 exhibition of contemporary Islamic art in the United States. Its objectives were manifold: to question the validity of the term “Islamic” with regard to contemporary art, to explore the notion of “exile” as it applies to this art, and to illustrate how these diasporic artists revise and subvert traditional canons of Islamic art. This was achieved through an examination of five characteristically Islamic themes that served as the organizational basis of the exhibition: “Text versus Calligraphy,” “Beyond Miniature Painting,” “Looking under the Carpet,” “Identity in Question,” and “On Spirituality.” The works were, for the most part, visually compelling. Three of the exhibition’s strongest works were Shirazeh Houshiary’s Fine Frenzy (2004), Mona Hatoum’s Prayer Mat (1995), and Kutlug Ataman’s 99 Names (2002). In Fine Frenzy, the first work viewers encountered upon entry, Houshiary transforms a penciled word into a web of markings that dissolve into formless abstraction through repetition and erasure. Although we know the word is Arabic, it is not decipherable. This work alludes to the mystical poetry of the Persian master Jalal al-Din Rumi, who frequently refers to “veiling” and “revealing” as dual metaphors for manifestations of the Divine. Here, outer appearance is understood as a veil hiding a deeper reality.
Hatoum’s Prayer Mat, a small yet potent work, perfectly embodies the two key themes of the exhibition, “Islamic or not” and “exile.” It speaks to the unsettling and painful aspects of exile. Here, a prayer mat, a secure covering on which a practicing Muslim prays, is transformed into a surface of upright pins too uncomfortable to stand on. The piece also embeds a compass pointing in the wrong direction (not Mecca). In this work Hatoum expresses her own feelings of alienation and displacement during the civil war in Lebanon. Ironically, Hatoum is not a Muslim, but a Lebanese Christian who chooses to use a quintessential Islamic art form (a prayer mat) to make a deeply personal statement.
Another poignant work is the 99 Names [of God] by the Turkish artist Kutlug Ataman, a multi-screened video installation showing a man in the various stages of zikr (the Sufi remembrance ritual). The repetitive and incremental quality of the zikr is graphically illustrated as the man builds up to an uncontrollable, almost hypnotic frenzy. According to the artist, this work is a visceral response to 9/11, although it can also be interpreted as an ultimate expression of devotion to a Higher Being. Unfortunately, this installation was housed in a separate gallery far from the main exhibition, which caused some visitors to miss seeing it.
Though certainly an important contribution to contemporary art-world discourses and exhibition strategies, the show may have been conceptually too ambitious. How does one visually illustrate the problematics of an abstract and ambiguous term like “Islamic” to an uninitiated audience? As demonstrated in Daftari’s catalogue essay “Islamic or Not,” this is more effectively achieved in writing than through an art display. Furthermore, the title Without Boundary seems misleading since the works in the exhibition were examined largely through the prism of Islamic art rather than mainstream contemporary Western art. If the show was intended to illustrate the fluidity and global nature of contemporary Islamic art across national, ethnic, and religious boundaries, why were its divisions based on unmistakably Islamic themes?
The theme of “exile” was addressed more persuasively since most of the participating artists live and work outside their native countries. Although an important overarching theme of the exhibition, it was not represented in the catalogue as a separate chapter. However, a panel discussion organized at the time of the show was devoted to this subject, accentuating the connection between the works and this concept. Pieces that eloquently communicated this theme were Hatoum’s Prayer Mat, Shirin Neshat’s Speechless (1996), and selected pages from Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel, Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood (New York: Pantheon: 2003).
The notion of “exile” also raises a number of relevant questions. What are the characteristics of diasporic art? Is there a distinct visual vocabulary that characterizes this category? What are the artists’ relationships with their homelands, if any such connections remain? Does one have to be outside one’s country of origin to experience and express the pains of exile? Can exile be considered a universal phenomenon? Finally, why are most of the artists in the exhibition living in exile? This last question was not adequately addressed in the exhibition or the catalogue, perhaps to avoid discussions of the political or personal reasons for their displacement.
Critics at the time of the exhibition found the choice of works in Without Boundary too apolitical and cautious, given that the Islamic world is one of the most politically charged and volatile regions today. In the few cases where political themes were suggested, it was done in an understated and inconspicuous manner.
The catalogue for Without Boundary, which is more than an accompanying document, contains several stimulating essays by stellar writers and scholars, including the Turkish Nobel Prize winner for Literature Orhan Pamuk and postcolonial theorist Homi Bhabha. These and other texts are followed by color images of the works in the exhibition and short biographies of each artist. In many ways, the catalogue is more successful in fulfilling the aims of the exhibition than the exhibition itself, and it is clearly intended for an intellectually sophisticated readership, such as a scholar or graduate student with a grasp of critical theory, rather than for the average New York museum visitor.
Daftari’s “Islamic or Not?” weaves a discussion of the objects in the exhibition into her essay, illustrating how they articulate the themes represented. However, her decision not to include catalogue entries for each work is somewhat of a drawback, as individual entries would have provided a more in-depth understanding of the objects, reinforcing their relevance to the themes. Her essay begins with a detailed discussion of the definition of the term “Islamic” and its ambiguous relationship to contemporary art. Her rationale for stressing the use/misuse of this term is outlined briefly in the essay’s endnotes. The reader would be better served if this rationale were expressed more fully in the body of the text. According to Daftari this theme is explored in order to break down the binary thinking we are so accustomed to applying to the cultural production of this part of the world and to emphasize the textured and multi-layered nature of a diversity of cultures through the art they are producing today. The term “Islamic” resonates differently with each artist. For example, Neshat associates her art directly with Islam; Houshiary, Ataman, Y.Z. Kami, and Viola are inspired by the spiritual and mystical dimensions of Islam, while others such as Shahzia Sikandar, Shirana Shahbazi or Kelley see only a peripheral connection. Furthermore, as Daftari is well aware, the term “Islamic” has been traditionally applied to the art of the pre-modern era produced in societies whose ruling elite and patrons were predominately Muslim. It is a purely academic construct devised by Islamic art historians to place a vast and varied area of the world under one umbrella, and it has never been used solely to refer to art produced by a Muslim artist. Hence, when applied to contemporary art, its relevance becomes more questionable, even pointless.
A charming lyrical piece in prose by Pamuk follows, which can be considered an extension of the exhibition itself—a work of art in yet another medium: text. It demonstrates the power and role of the word as a transmitter of meaning. Written by a writer of Muslim origin now living in exile in the West, this piece fits nicely within the catalogue. Pamuk, who fled his native Turkey after being repeatedly threatened for his outspoken views on the “Armenian question,” is included not only for his politics but as a highly esteemed writer and artist who knows Islamic art first hand. His acclaimed novel, My Name is Red (Erdag Goknar, trans., New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001), reveals a deep understanding of artistic production at the Ottoman court.
In his contribution to the catalogue, Pamuk writes in the voice of a traditional work of Islamic art, perhaps a manuscript. He ingeniously depicts the delicate relationship between the reader/viewer and the artwork as text, each dependent on the other for existence. However, we as modern readers/viewers appear to burden the text with alien and unnecessary layers of meaning, which bring it pain. He suggests that the spirit of the artwork roamed freer and was enjoyed more genuinely in its own time than it ever will be today. Back then, there was a silent consensus about its meaning that can no longer be duplicated. Instead, today each of us brings an added layer of meaning to it that weighs down on it, and as a result, we risk missing the meaning altogether.
Pamuk’s piece is followed by one from Bhabha, whose writings often attack the Western production and implementation of binary oppositions such as center/margin, civilized/savage, enlightened/ignorant and them/us, which he aims to destabilize. His essay entitled “Another Country,” written in his signature theoretical style, examines the relationship between time and art. Bhabha argues that “the artists of Without Boundary refuse the shuttered view in which ‘civilizational’ polarities are set up to impede the free and fair representation of cultural differences” (30) and asks whether art forms like calligraphy and digital imagery should be “dated” differently? As seen vividly in the work of Sikander, Ataman, Shahbazi, and Janane al-Ani, the synthesis of “time-lagged traditions of manufacture” (painting, embroidery, calligraphy, weaving, and portraiture) and current technological processes such as video, animation, and cartoons is a distinguishing feature of this art. Bhabha contends that it is the palimpsestical layering and movement across time zones and cultural boundaries that endows it with power and texture.
Word into Art: Artists of the Modern Middle East was a more straightforward exhibition with a particular focus, but at the same time managed to grapple with important issues of cultural identity. Both the exhibition and its catalogue were devoted to the recurring theme of calligraphy and how artists from the Middle East and North Africa use the traditional visual vocabulary of Arabic letters as a point of departure and an integral expressive element. The works, which were drawn almost entirely from the British Museum’s own impressive, growing collection of contemporary Islamic art, demonstrate how each artist celebrates the aesthetic powers and plasticity of the letters, while simultaneously pushing the boundaries, even sometimes subverting traditional canons. The artists manipulate letters, often transforming them beyond recognition, using ingenious and innovative methods, materials, styles, and daring compositions. Some use letters for purely aesthetic reasons, while others use them more instrumentally as writing, signs, or ciphers that allow the artists to grapple with issues of socio-political orientation and cultural and religious identity. For some artists this resonates with the sacred tradition of Islam and the Qur’an, while for others it is an undeniable part of their cultural heritage and a natural vehicle for expression.
The parameters of the exhibition were clearly defined. The exhibition’s eighty works were divided into four sections: “A Sacred Script,” “Literature and Art,” “Deconstructing the Word,” and “Identity, History and Politics.” These divisions reflect the multifaceted nature of Islamic calligraphy and its ability to convey a broad spectrum of finely nuanced messages. Both the show and catalogue engaged directly with contemporary political, religious, and global issues, illustrating the versatile nature of this art form while also examining the aesthetics and content of the works. Among the most striking contributions were an untitled calligraphic composition by Hassan Massoudy, a drawing by Mahmood Hamadani, and a silkscreen by Laila Shawa.
Massoudy, an Iraqi artist living in Paris, merges Chinese brush-painting with Arabic calligraphy. His characters embody the dynamic energy and immediacy often associated with Chinese calligraphy as well as the work of such masters of Abstract Expressionism as Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell. Massoudy often incorporates texts and poems drawn from world literature—for example, Sufi writings by Ibn ̒Arabi, excerpts from philosophical texts by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, poetry by Charles Baudelaire, etc.—into his compositions. The energy conveyed by the Arabic letters combined with the meaning of the subtexts make for a complex and pleasurable aesthetic experience.
Iranian-American artist Hamadani’s drawing is from a series entitled Requiem (1999). His piece reflects the tension between order and chaos, with abstract calligraphic markings congregating densely alongside a horizontal line at the center of the page as though pulled by magnetic force. As the markings move away from the central line, they float freely toward the top and bottom edges of the paper creating an airy effect.
Palestinian artist Shawa’s Children of War, Children of Peace (1995) is a two-part work highlighting the plight of Palestinian children, the forgotten victims of the seemingly never-ending conflict. Her subject is a young boy from the Sheikh Radwan refugee camp in Gaza who carries a stick. She superimposes multiple photographs of the young boy over a background of bright-colored graffiti. In Children of War, Children of Peace, the traces of these writings, now deliberately made illegible, have merged into the background, while serving as an evocative reminder of the grim realities of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle and the fate of children involved in it as expressed through the juxtaposition of conflicting elements in a poster-like composition.
Word into Art effectively presented the scope and variety of the calligraphic art of this region in great depth. I wonder, however, if a smaller number of works would have encouraged the viewer to linger, contemplate, and absorb the calligraphy and its messages more meaningfully.
The accompanying exhibition catalogue is itself a scholarly achievement along with being creatively designed. The illustrations of the works are accompanied by quotes written by the artists themselves or lines of poetry or prose by famous writers, thereby adding an additional layer of meaning and aiding the viewer in interpreting the art. The catalogue’s texts are clearly written and easy to follow. The most engaging sections are “Literature and Art” and “Identity, History and Politics.” “Literature in Art” expresses the artists’ consistent admiration for classical and modern Arabic and Persian poetry and the writings of Sufi masters. “Identity, History and Politics” concludes the volume and demonstrates the ways in which the words embedded in these works are only one element in the total composition, and interact closely with provocative images to depict the volatile and devastating current history of the region.
Exhibitions such as Without Boundary and Word into Art help us better understand contemporary Middle Eastern and North African societies. In an overheated political climate in which we are constantly bombarded with demeaning stereotypical images of the peoples of this region lumped together under the label of Islam, such shows aim to open dialogue and allow viewers to experience a more nuanced and realistic portrayal of these societies. This is, however, a tall order. No single exhibition can be expected to definitively perform this task. Given that the study and presentation of contemporary art of this region is still in its infancy, we must applaud these two shows for daring to venture into this territory.
Senior Research Associate, Department of Islamic Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art