Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 9, 2019
Kristine Khouri and Rasha Salti, eds. Past Disquiet: Artists, International Solidarity and Museums in Exile Exh. cat. Warsaw: Muzeum Sztuki Nowoczesnej, 2018. 330 pp.; 16 color ills.; 52 b/w ills. Paper $29.00 (9788364177446)
Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, February 20–June 1, 2015; Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, March 18–May 9, 2016; Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende, Santiago, Chile, April 7–August 12, 2018; Sursock Museum, Beirut, July 27–October 1, 2018
Past Disquiet: Artists, International Solidarity and Museums in Exile, installation view, Sursock Museum, Beirut, 2018 (photograph by Matthew Bent)

Kristine Khouri and Rasha Salti’s exhibition Past Disquiet and its accompanying catalog of essays and documents is the result of ten years of research into neglected histories of international solidarity. Their research brings to light a dynamic, sprawling network of Cold War “grassroots cultural diplomacy” projects (57) that often developed independently or at arm’s length from the state. During the 1960s–90s, cultural workers found common cause in anti-imperialist struggles and campaigns for national liberation, justice, and equality. Solidarity was expressed by artists and intellectuals through the organization of exhibitions, the donation of works, and the development of institutions explicitly committed to political action. The network that Khouri and Salti map visually deconstructs simplistic narratives that describe a world carved neatly into spheres of either Soviet or US influence. They also vividly demonstrate the historiographical issues researchers face when trying to uncover and describe counterhegemonic, transnational narratives. The curators’ archival sources, like those of the catalog’s contributors, are often drawn from disparate personal collections and oral histories, as well as little-explored public archives.

The exhibition’s historical narrative centered on the International Art Exhibition for Palestine, organized by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Plastic Arts Section and held at Beirut Arab University in the spring of 1978. As visitors entered the large exhibition hall in the Sursock Museum, this was the first narrative they encountered, with the show’s various other sites spread out across a single space like nodes in a network. Khouri and Salti traced their key emergent topics—museums in exile and solidarity museums—in relation to three other significant collections: the Museo Internacional de la Resistencia Salvador Allende, the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano Contemporáneo de Managua/en Solidaridad con Nicaragua, and Art Contre/Against Apartheid. The Museo Internacional de la Resistencia Salvador Allende is seen as the inciting incident for these linked histories. After Chile’s 1973 coup, which removed the elected socialist government, a number of international artists donated works as a gesture of solidarity to the group of Chilean artists and intellectuals who sought to create the collection. This collection would become an itinerant “museum in exile,” raising awareness about the Chilean situation. Following from that example, the two other exhibitions in the show also offered statements of solidarity or raised awareness about a national liberation effort or struggle for justice. Together the cluster provided an alternate history of twentieth-century museums and exhibitions. These exhibitions, the curators explained in the introductory wall text, “are not embedded in the systems of power and patronage to which museums are traditionally beholden . . . neither are they legacies of colonialism.” Rather, these collections and the narratives of their circulation offer models of politically committed, nonaligned internationalist museums unbeholden to a single state.

The art objects from these collections were notably absent from Past Disquiet for several reasons. While the exhibition itself continued to develop from ongoing archival research, the fates of so many of the works in question—particularly those from the Exhibition for Palestineremain uncertain. Palestinian artist Sliman Mansour articulates the extent of this uncertainty in his catalog interview. Many of the works were assumed to have been destroyed during the Israeli shelling of Beirut in 1982; others were stolen or moved, leaving their whereabouts unknown. As Mansour makes clear in the interview, the question of the current locations of many of the artworks is still a source of contention. The question of who acted as the exhibition’s creative force and who should bear responsibility for the disappearances of artworks lingers. Khouri and Salti chose not to speculate on the veracity of any particular claim, but presented the views of their subjects, including other prominent figures such as Mona Saudi and Samir Salameh, without judgment. What becomes clear is that if the works from the Exhibition for Palestine could have “returned” to Beirut for this show, their material presence and the conflicting narratives of their circulation would have turned Past Disquiet into a very different exhibition.

The show’s focus on prints, exhibition photographs, and other documentary materials was also an aesthetico-political choice. The exhibition hall at the Sursock was bordered above eye level by reproductions of political posters from the many sites covered in the research, referencing the leftist-modernist concern with print reproduction for mass dissemination and political education. This ethos was reflected throughout the exhibition. Rather than focusing on original paintings, Khouri and Salti presented photographs of those works circulated in the name of international solidarity in their original exhibition context. As a result, visitors only encountered these works in the context of their intended social conditions. For example, photographs of Ezzedine Kalak, a key figure in the history of the Exhibition for Palestine and the chief of the PLO’s Paris bureau, show Brazilian artist Gontran Guanaes Netto’s painting Neo-Colonialism. The focus was both on the social relations facilitated by the exhibition of these works and on evidencing these historical connections for a contemporary audience. Khouri and Salti also placed narrated film shorts and oral histories throughout the hall, giving space to the voices of multiple narrators. Both the exhibition and the catalog recirculated a vast amount of visual and archival material, and in so doing reflected a culture of mass image production and a democratization of the historical record. As the curators wrote in a descriptive text inside the exhibition, “While we claim authorship of the narrative threads that weave through this exhibition, in many ways it was also written by the artists, writers, experts, filmmakers, and militants with whom we collaborated.” Khouri and Salti do not assume a mastery of history, and this stance was reflected in the exhibition’s open, free-flowing layout, which allowed the viewer to walk among the accumulated mass of data and images, following the paths of particular figures or making chance connections.

The genealogical history of the “museum in exile” that the curators presented was framed as an intervention into the history of canon formation. In their wall text introducing this section of the exhibition, Khouri and Salti defined a museum in exile as “a collection of artworks, donated by artists, their gift being a political gesture intended to demonstrate support for a movement of national liberation, or a struggle for justice and equality.” As Caroll Yasky and Claudia Zaldívar write in their catalog essay on the Museo Internacional, a small group of Chilean artists and intellectuals in exile after the 1973 coup set up committees in twelve countries to solicit donations for an itinerant museum in exile. This solicitation of artworks based upon a commitment to political solidarity with the people of Chile “calls into question the hegemonic artistic system” (315). The criterion for the creation of a museum collection was not a judgment of taste or the narration of a singular national history but a commitment to present political action in which the individual work of art became less significant than the struggle in which it participated.

The exhibition of Past Disquiet in Beirut inevitably gave the “return” of the Exhibition for Palestine a particular pertinence. Yet the immense scope for further transnational research and historiographical reformulation that the exhibition’s full range of sites presented is striking. In the catalog, Nakajima Izumi, Jelena Vesić, and Sara Catenacci contribute essays on solidarity projects in Japan, Yugoslavia, and Italy, respectively. Dominika Blachnicka-Ciacek reconstructs the history of collaborations between the PLO and artists in Communist-era Poland in negotiation with the apparatus of the Polish state. Khouri and Salti’s project is intensely social in that it invites such transnational contributions to expand their reach. Across the sprawl of documents and images in the Sursock there were many threads that could acquire greater significance in this expanding project: for example, the Artists Against Racism exhibition in Baghdad in 1976, French students in solidarity with the people of Vietnam, or Art Contre/Against Apartheid in Haiti, Tunisia, or the United Kingdom. What was in the Sursock gave us but a glimpse of the vast counterhistory of “anti-museums” and the artistic exchanges happening in an often agonistic relationship to that which is deemed “official” or standard.

From Khouri and Salti’s research, one gets a sense of the immense possibilities that these moments past hold for the contemporary moment. The “past disquiet” in the title is both a historical one, in which international social actors were prepared to boldly express disquiet at the conditions endured by comrades overseas, and a contemporary disquiet about a past that is not past. In the catalog, Vesić reflects on the politicized struggle over the past in the present, calling it “solidarity in time” (238). The past is not merely to be commemorated, consumed, or fetishized. It should be borne as part of the political present, for the future. The examples of these solidarity collections and museums in exile reflect the heterogeneous intersections of our pasts, and the politics of historicizing a present in the face of dispossession, state violence, and fascism.

Matthew Bent
Northwestern University