A still from Lamia Joreige's video installation "Objects of War"
ASK most American museum-goers, even avid ones, to name a prominent artist from the Arab world, and they will probably draw a blank. Now an ambitious show at the New Museum in the Bowery district of Manhattan aims to put that right. “Here and Elsewhere”, which opened on July 16th, does not propose to define Arabic art as a unified whole or even try to pin down a regional aesthetic. Instead, it presents more than 45 artists working in a wide range of media, who chronicle or bear witness to political and social change in the Middle East in all its heated confusion and messiness.
The exhibit borrows its title from a French film of the same name, “Ici et Ailleurs”, made by Jean-Luc Godard and his partner, Anne-Marie Miéville, with Jean-Pierre Gorin, about the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. The project ran into trouble during filming in 1970, when King Hussein ordered the raiding of PLO camps in Jordan. Many of those who had been filmed were killed. Uncertain at first about how to proceed, Mr Godard and Ms Miéville decided to recast the unfinished work, mixing what they had shot with file footage, voice-over narration and written commentary. The New Museum takes that multi-pronged approach as its cue.
Creating a show covering such a vast region is hard. In 2006 the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) across town was criticised for the limited scope of an exhibition on the Middle East, “Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking”. Shirin Neshat, an Iranian artist living in exile whose work was exhibited in the show, was vocal about the curators’ failure to show how religion and politics inform an artist’s viewpoint.
Massimiliano Gioni, the New Museum’s director of exhibitions (and curator of the 2013 Venice Biennale) has focused on reportage. His curators cast a wide net and contacted more than 800 artists as possible candidates. Many had never had their work shown in America.
The result is a sweeping exhibition, filling every room in the museum. It explores the bold and unique ways these artists document contemporary history through video, painting and drawing, photography, mixed media and found objects. Conscious of how distorted Western reporting on their countries can be, they see art as a form of journalism that is free of editors or stylebooks. With camera or paintbrush or in an installation, they editorialise, tell stories and set the historical record straight, often in new and unforeseen ways. They are not unlike America’s Founding Fathers in their wish to expunge boundaries and censorship from forms of expression. And they affirm the view of the late Palestinian-American scholar, Edward Said, that one has to look “elsewhere” to understand the “here”.
One of the first pieces the visitor sees is a large, mural-like photograph of the lobby of an ornate, hugely expensive hotel in Abu Dhabi. It is adorned with marble, crystal chandeliers and gold-leaf ceilings. The work, created by GCC, a group of nine artists that borrows the initials of the Gulf Co-operation Council, points a finger at ostentatious displays of wealth.
Like Fouad Elkoury and his images of Beirut (pictured) Lamia Joreige’s “Objects of War” encapsulates the theme of the artist as a witness to history. Since 1999 she has been interviewing people in her native Lebanon who have been affected by the country’s wars. As the interviews play on a monitor, visitors can look at several of the objects mentioned in the stories, such as a pair of loafers or a Sony Walkman. Ms Joreige’s archaeological approach to creating a narrative underscores how personal possessions, such as a teddy bear, a curtain or a radio, can become a symbol or a trigger for recollections of war.
Clever approaches to capturing life on camera abound, whether the subject is family history or the aftermath of a dictator’s turbulent reign. Fakhri El Ghezal, a Tunisian photographer, shows empty walls and naked picture frames that once displayed the portrait of the dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who was removed from power by a bloodless coup. An Iraqi photographer, Jamal Penjweny, took the opposite approach in his “Saddam is Here” photo series. Over two years he asked people, such as a doctor or a butcher, to pose with a picture of Saddam Hussein over their faces—at home, on the street or in an office. Mr Penjweny’s premise is that the memory of a dictator, whether good or bad, persists after his death. The exhibition, too, leaves a lasting impression and confirms how art can create a historical record.