Posted by on September 24, 2014 in Blog

By Kristyn Acho
Fall Intern, 2014

Courtesy New Museum, New York. Photo: Benoit Pailley

For decades, the international art world largely overlooked contemporary Arab art. However, prominent figures in the art world, including the editor-in-chief of Artspace, have asserted that a newfound interest and curiosity in art from the Middle East has emerged in recent years. The Gulf states have undertaken vast cultural projects, and museums and art fairs are quickly becoming a central part of the region’s culture. The Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, which opened its doors in 2008, features an extensive collection of ceramics, carpets, and coins. Art Dubai is known as one of the most stylish art fairs in the world.

The region’s commitment to expansive cultural/artistic projects, in conjunction with the pervasiveness of tumultuous images of the Middle East in Western media, has ultimately created an environment conducive to the reception of this art by an intrigued Western audience.

New York City’s first museum-wide show of contemporary Arab art premiered on July 16 at the New Museum. The exhibition, titled “Here and Elsewhere,” features more than forty-five artists from over fifteen Arab countries.

New Museum Associate Curator Natalie Bell spoke to AAI about this groundbreaking exhibit, which is on display until Sunday, September 28.

How would you describe the public’s response to the exhibit?

We’ve been happy to have a very positive response both from the public and from critics. I think one of the driving motivations for the New York audience generally is an excitement about seeing new work – much of which is being shown in New York or in the US for the first time.

“Here and Elsewhere” is the largest show in the New Museum’s history. Where did the idea for this project stem from?

The exhibition is indeed one of the largest in the New Museum’s history, both in the number of objects or works included, and in the number of video works included. The idea was one that the New Museum’s artistic director, Massimiliano Gioni, had been thinking about for several years, having noticed in the course of his research for other exhibitions that while contemporary art from different Arab countries was being exhibited more and more in major international exhibitions and throughout Europe, it still was not being shown much in the US, or in New York. Also at the New Museum, we have for a number of years been doing museum-wide group shows that look in depth [at] a particular historical moment or part of the world with a common history, so this exhibition is also very much in line with these large-scale, thematic group shows.

The title, “Here and Elsewhere,” is derived from a film-essay by the same name that delves into complicated issues of representation. For those unfamiliar with the film, the exhibition’s title still brings to mind notions of positionality, identity, and exile. In what ways does the show explore these topics?

For us, the reference to the film Ici et ailleurs was a way of reflecting on the role of images both as useful instruments of political consciousness, and as dangerous tools of ideology.  These were the concerns of its filmmakers Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Gorin, and Anne-Marie Miéville in the 1970s, and I think continue to be major issues that artists are addressing all over the world. For those who don’t know the film, the title “Here and Elsewhere” does suggest a multiplicity of contexts and perspectives and we also felt this was important, since it was important for us not to depict the Arab world as an [sic] singular or homogenous unit. One way the exhibition acknowledges this multiplicity of perspectives – beyond being a show of over 45 artists – is in the different documentary modes that artists are using. For example, the Syrian filmmaking collective Abounaddara works anonymously to produce one short video each week that tells the stories of everyday Syrians throughout the ongoing conflict in their country. For Abounaddara, it’s essential to document a range of voices, opinions, and experiences that might otherwise not be acknowledged or widely known. Another artist in the exhibition, Ahmed Mater, produced a video that used cell-phone footage he gathered from construction workers in Mecca, which the workers had originally shot for themselves, and essentially composes a documentary portrait of the city in transformation through the perspectives of those most intimately involved in its physical change.

How did you decide which artists to include in the exhibit? Did all artists chosen have to be based in the Middle East?

Our curatorial team was primarily interested in works that related to a number of themes we identified in relation to image-making, alternative documentary practices, and the role of the artist in the face of historical events. Many artists in “Here and Elsewhere” work and live internationally for a range of reasons, so while most artists in the show were born and raised in some part of the Arab world, many of them reside internationally.

You researched this exhibition, which involved working closely with the artists to create the audio guide. Could you describe this process?

I made three 10-day trips to different parts of the Arab world – the Maghreb, Levant, and Gulf – visiting with artists and seeing different art spaces, and the museum’s artistic director Massimiliano Gioni made several trips of his own. In addition, we conducted a significant amount of research through outreach, writing to over 800 artists and asking if they would share their work with us.

What pedagogical function do you think the “Here and Elsewhere” exhibition provides to Americans?

If by “pedagogical function” you mean what visitors can come away with after seeing the show, this could be any range of things depending on each visitor’s past experience or prior knowledge. And naturally, this varies enormously. In the most basic sense, the exhibition is of course an opportunity for New York audiences to see works of contemporary art that they may not have encountered before.  However, because a lot of the artists in the show are engaged with aspects of documenting their individual experiences of different parts of the Arab world – as witnesses to a range of historical and recent events – many visitors might come away with a richer understanding of diverse personal narratives as well as broader geopolitical histories throughout the Arab world.

In what ways does the exhibit address issues of gender and sexuality in the Arab world?

Issues around gender and sexuality are addressed in some works in the show insofar as a number of artists are thinking of them in relation to historical shifts or current events. One example could be Marwa Arsanios’s video, Have You Ever Killed a Bear? Or Becoming Jamila, which was in part inspired by the artist’s research into Al-Hilal, a Cairo cultural magazine that was something of an ideological mouthpiece for [socialist and secular] Arab nationalism in the 1950s and ‘60s. In this scope of this project, Arsanios’s interest in the figure of Jamila Bouhired extends from how the Algerian freedom fighter had been celebrated in Al-Hilal – and made an icon via popular cinema – to further reflections on how socialist projects or anti-colonial wars supported or marginalized contemporaneous feminist movements.

Many of the pieces in the exhibit are based in photography or video. Why do you think these mediums are so popular with these artists in particular?

I think we need to be careful in deducing from this show the popularity of photo-based mediums more broadly: our focus was specific in that we were looking at how artists are critically engaging images by questioning the politics or ethics of representation, or by questioning the conventions of documentary practices that presuppose the truthfulness or infallibility of photography. I think it would be more accurate to say that photo-based mediums are especially relevant to “Here and Elsewhere” because the doubts around their conventions have motivated the works of many artists in the show. 

For museum hours and admission details, visit the New Museum website

All photos courtesy of New Museum, New York. Photo: Benoit Pailley