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Promoted in the press release as “the first museum-wide exhibition in New York City to feature contemporary art from and about the Arab world,” Here and Elsewhere brought together over forty-five artists from more than fifteen countries. The ambitious exhibition, curated by Massimiliano Gioni with Natalie Bell, Gary Carrion-Murayari, Helga Christoffersen, and Margot Norton, included many artists who had not previously exhibited their work in New York. Despite its expansiveness and regional arrangement (and the fact that many reviewers referred to it as such), the curators were insistent that the exhibition was not a survey. Rather, Here and Elsewhere sought to investigate how artists are responding to the history and contemporary events—frequently intertwined—of the region. This is reflected in the curators’ choice of title: Jean-Luc Godard, Anne-Marie Miéville, and Jean-Pierre Gorin’s 1976 film Ici et ailleurs (Here and Elsewhere) began as a pro-Palestinian film documenting the training camps in Jordan, yet ultimately ended up as an examination of the problematics and politics of documentary representation. The artists in Here and Elsewhere are all presented as depicting some reality of the Arab world—often in contrast to the portrayals the region receives in mainstream media.
The exhibition brought together a number of exceptional works in one place. One room on the third floor was a particular standout—pulling together works by Wafa Hourani, Khaled Jarrar, and Marwan, among others. Hourani’s Qalandia 2087 (2009) is a five-part diorama-like construction (roughly thirteen by twenty-two feet) of a futuristic Qalandia, a West Bank city known for its refugee camp and volatile checkpoint connecting Jerusalem to Ramallah. The structures sit on pedestals so that viewers can wander between the buildings, observing what goes on in this futuristic imagining. In this iteration, the separation wall, while still standing, has been covered in a mirror, commanding viewers to see themselves in the divisionary structure. The airport, for which Qalandia was originally known, thrives again in Hourani’s construction, while live goldfish swim at a café projecting music. In Hourani’s work, the figures in the gardens, the cars on the streets (including one painted like the wall-scaling superhero Spiderman), the resurrected airport, and the jubilant café music all attest to and assert the perseverance of the Palestinian people. Likewise, Jarrar’s feature-length film Infiltrators (2012) depicts another instance of Palestinian determination—documenting individuals who make the risky trip over or under the separation wall from the Palestinian Territories into Israel for reasons such as work, medical needs, or family visits. Jarrar captures the utterly heartbreaking reality created by this barrier in a scene where two relatives pass photographs and touch hands briefly through a small gap under the wall. The film reveals not only the chances these individuals take, but why they are taking them, and how the restrictions of the Israeli state affect their quotidian experiences. This reality was underscored when the Israeli government prevented Jarrar from leaving the West Bank this summer to travel to New York for a panel related to the show. Marwan’s haunting paintings, overlooking Hourani and Jarrar’s works, express similar feelings of isolation, fear, and distress. The paintings’ figures, often alone, sometimes with distorted and contorted limbs, embody other sensations evoked by works throughout the exhibition—exile, longing, and uncertainty.
Jamal Penjweny’s Saddam Is Here (2010) and Hrair Sarkissian’s Execution Squares (2008), though referring to historical events, resonate with the contemporary climate in Iraq and Syria. Penjweny’s images of Iraqis holding up a photograph of Saddam Hussein in front of their faces reflect the persistence of the former dictator’s presence long after his death, both in those who had supported him, as well as those who still carry the trauma of his rule. Sarkissian’s photographs depict sites throughout Syria where public executions have taken place. The squares, which appear empty in the photographs, are occupied by the ghosts of those who have been killed, made present by their absence. Both these works take on additional meaning, however, in the current context—the role of the United States in the invasion and subsequent withdrawal from Iraq, the continued civil war in Syria, and the rise of ISIS in both countries. In New York, it is difficult not to view these works through the lens of recent events in Iraq and Syria and the role of the United States in a post-9/11 world. This is one of the challenges of exhibitions such as Here and Elsewhere. While trying to complicate the hegemonic images of the region, the work exhibited is sometimes most easily read through those dominant images and events known by the audience. This problem of audience expectation was addressed by the curators and by Basim Magdy, one of the artists who declined to be included in the exhibition (as discussed in the catalogue). As Sarkissian notes in the catalogue, for him Execution Squares does not have the same meaning in a contemporary context—the squares that served as sites of execution for hundreds of years have lost their historical resonance in the current climate, where death and destruction are pervasive throughout the country.
On the fourth floor Bouchra Khalili’s The Mapping Journey Project (2008–11) dominated the space with a compelling installation of her videos. Projecting on either side of hanging screens and including headphones descending from the ceiling, the eight videos tell the stories of individuals who left their homes to seek something else—work, a loved one, or freedom from persecution. The speakers are never shown, other than their hands, which delicately draw on wall maps the often-circuitous paths they took to reach their destinations, describing their experiences along the way. Also on the fourth floor, contained in a vitrine along the wall was Mohamed Larbi Rahali’s Omri [My Life] (1984–ongoing), a series of intricate works depicted on the inside of matchboxes, which serve as intimate moments and are in striking contrast to the screens of Khalili’s Mapping Journey and Yto Barrada’s richly colored, large-scale photographs of quotidian scenes from Morocco (also on the fourth floor).
Despite the large number of artists exhibited in Here and Elsewhere and the awkward spaces of the New Museum—it is impossible to create enough distance around the works placed in the stairwell to fully engage with them regardless of their quality—the show did not feel overcrowded. It was efficiently organized and installed, with the works largely having the necessary room to be viewed, even on a crowded day in the museum. The one exception was on the second floor, where Akram Zaatari’s Twenty Eight Nights: ENDNOTE (2014) was included. The work features the artist with photographer Hashem El Madani (also in the exhibition) stoically viewing images on a computer while ebullient music and flashing colored lights seep in from the hallway into the otherwise darkened gallery. This entrancing video overpowered the audio of Mekhitar Garabedian’s videos playing in the next room—an unfortunate occurrence as Garabedian’s works deal with the nuances of language, the effect of which was lost when the voices in the video cannot be heard and one was reduced to reading the subtitles.
The curators clearly had a desire to avoid and challenge stereotypes. As Gioni stated in an interview with the online magazine Guernica, “I hope that the show goes against the idea of the traditional in terms of Arab culture . . . that it provides a less simple view of the countries and cultures experienced. Similarly, I’m happy that we stayed away from images of women in a hijab, and we are proud that we have no veiled women. We didn’t want any of those stereotypes confirmed” (Haniya Rae, “Scenes From a Contemporary Art World: Haniya Rae interviews Massimiliano Gioni,” Guernica [August 1, 2014]). While the aim of avoiding exoticized portrayals of veiled women (and Arab women more generally) seems worthy, the pride at avoiding any images of veiled women at all seems misjudged. Veiled women themselves are not a stereotype, though there are stereotypical perceptions of them in the West, and arguably a neo-Orientalist fascination with the images of them in contemporary art, to which Gioni may be referring. The opportunity would seem to have been available to present other portrayals of veiled women—allowing them to express their own voices—rather than to erase them from the equation altogether. Interestingly, one of the artists included in Here and Elsewhere, Tanya Habjouqa, has also produced images not included in the exhibition depicting veiled (and non-veiled) women in their daily lives—doing yoga, getting ready for parties, and visiting the zoo. Habjouqa’s included series, Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots (2013), depicts images of martyred men on TVs and cell phones—arguably “the martyr” is another figure of Arab/Islamic culture stereotyped and misunderstood in the West. In other images from the series, again not included in the exhibition, many of the women holding these images are in fact veiled. Perhaps this is one of the challenges of curating an exhibition of regional art from a place so narrowly defined in the West—how to avoid reinforcing stereotypes without eliding the voices of individuals who do indeed exist beyond the stereotypes they appear to embody in Western media.
Many of the challenges, risks, and potential problems of curating an art exhibition from a part of the world frequently cast in a negative light are confronted by the curators and the staff of Bidoun, a cultural magazine and curatorial and educational initiative focused on the Middle East, the latter of whom coedited and organized a supplemental folio for the catalogue. The text brings together original essays alongside previously published works discussing problems and successes with earlier exhibitions of contemporary Arab art. It also includes a refreshing transparency, incorporating correspondence from artists who refused to exhibit in the show indicating their reasons why. This is not to say that all the questions and problems that the exhibition and catalogue bring up are in any way solved in the text. But there is value in the fact that these issues are at least being discussed. The catalogue acknowledges and opens up these conversations, some of which were continued in the symposium held at the close of the exhibition, which brought together scholars, curators, and other arts professionals in the field of contemporary Arab art. The catalogue commits a small (in size), but regrettable mistake: Arabic is only used once in the text (in Habjouqa’s title, which appears three times), unfortunate in and of itself; and when it does appear, it is printed with the letters disconnected and printed from left to right, a common error that has plagued exhibition publications of work from the Arab world on more than one occasion.
In spite of the critiques, or rather because of them, Here and Elsewhere is a significant effort. The exhibition, catalogue, and symposium acknowledged and addressed questions that are ongoing in the field. It is my hope that the successes and failures of this exhibition, much like the smaller exhibitions that have preceded it, will help to acknowledge the need for more research, publications, and exhibitions on artists from the region.
Lecturer, Islamic Arts and Culture, Arts and Ideas in the Humanities Program, University of Michigan