Toward the end of last year, I took a walk with a writer I greatly admire. As we picked our way through pedestrian traffic, both of us out of place on a nondescript block in Lower Manhattan, he smirked at my then-very pregnant belly and said: ‘You’ve planned that well.’ (I hadn’t planned anything, of course.) ‘It looks like 2016 will be a quiet year.’ In the highly skewed (if also marvellous) way of looking at the world through art, he meant that my travels would be thin. In 2017, we have documenta 14, the Venice Biennale, Sculpture Projects in Münster, the Sharjah Biennial, the Istanbul Biennial, and the Home Works Forum in Beirut. But over the last 12 months, we’ve had surprisingly little – only, really, the Marrakesh Biennale, which I regret not seeing.
My second daughter was born six days into 2016, and so nothing that followed could have possibly compared to her smile, her laugh, or her ever more apparent mischief. That said, in many ways it was a quiet year, it’s just that it wasn’t a calm, magical, or tranquil kind of quiet. It was more a stunned and baffled kind – a year of being repeatedly shocked into silence. This was not only because the UK voted itself out of Europe, nor that the US elected Trump, nor that the part of the world where I live – call it the Middle East, the Arab world, or the wrong side of the Mediterranean – turned into a total basket case, with an emotional range increasingly limited to delusional (the rich), desperate (the poor), and thoroughly depressed (everyone in between). No, it was also the result of the feisty independent art scenes that I’ve been following for close to 15 years beginning to show signs of strain and, more importantly, coming under actual attack.
First, the Townhouse Gallery in Cairo, one of the most influential arts initiatives in the region, was shut down in a government raid. Then its building started to collapse. Then the authorities announced it would be demolished, then restored. For days, its founder, William Wells, was literally besieged. (The gallery moved and reopened last month with ‘The Past Is Always an Invented Land,’ an exhibition devoted to the wondrous stuff of Amjad Naguib, beloved junk collector and denizen of a rapidly vanishing downtown milieu.) Meanwhile, in Istanbul, SALT Beyoğlu was shuttered by the municipality on a permitting technicality. It hasn’t re-opened, forcing Vasif Kortun, director of research and programs, to slot everything into SALT’s other, grander space in the old Ottoman Bank building down the hill in Galata. In the midst of all this, the Beirut-based curator Christine Tohme, founder and director of the pioneering arts organization Ashkal Alwan, had her passport seized by the Lebanese general security services (she made a ruckus and got it back).
Collectively, Wells, Kortun and Tohme have given new life to notions of curatorship and community engagement. They have redefined what nimble institutions are and can do. They have opened up our understanding of contemporary art and its relationship to the politics of the wider world. There’s an on-going debate, largely academic, about art’s ability to affect real change in the region. This year, the authorities seemed to err on the side of caution, proving how easily they can squash a project and squeeze the life from a city.
And so the highlights of my year were those things that didn’t fit, artists who were out of place in their time or location or style, exhibitions that challenged the usual canons, and books that countered the standard narratives while giving us new tools to question how we learn, what we teach and why we transmit knowledge the way we do.
In March, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York took over the brutalist uptown building that had previously housed the Whitney Museum of American Art. The newly minted Met Breuer opened with a big, flashy exhibition of unfinished artworks, from the renaissance until the present day. As sensational as it was to see a booming Titian there, the slow crackle and hum of the Met’s new venture was actually one floor down, in a gorgeous and ruminative retrospective of the late Indian modernist Nasreen Mohamedi. Three decades worth of Mohamedi’s minimalist, abstract drawings and paintings laid out a vocabulary of lines, curves, and angles that, over the artist’s lifetime, developed into a remarkably consistent, deeply layered language of inquiry and reflection. Her photographs extended that vocabulary into the world. Her diaries – tiny, obsessive and tough (she was hard on herself) – astonished.
An American in Paris, the muse of Man Ray in Cairo, the wife of an Egyptian businessman romping around the English countryside with her lover Roland Penrose – Lee Miller was always out of place. She sat for no less than six portraits by Picasso. She posed for those awful, hysterical pictures of Hitler’s bathtub and Eva Braun’s bed. Her war photography clearly destroyed her (after photographing a children’s hospital in Vienna in 1945, she mostly stopped and retired to a life of cooking and gardening). The Lee Miller retrospective, held in the spring at Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau, moved through her life in relentlessly chronological fashion, but in this case, it worked. Miller’s photography is particularly well suited to the timeline style, which gave equal weight to her many phases and shed crucial light on her little known time in the Middle East, where she galvanized the Egyptian surrealists, behaved badly, and travelled extensively, photographing (and writing from) Baalbek, Beirut, and Palmyra, among other places, many of which are now destroyed.
In a much changed Beirut, Octavian Esanu and Kirsten Scheid curated a brave, spirited show called ‘The Arab Nude,’ featuring paintings, drawings, sculptures, and photographs from the first half of the 20th century from Algeria to Iraq. It mixed the canonical with the unknown and brought together a rowdy crowd of nymphs, bathers, odalisques, goddesses, nudists, contortionists, models, and putative prostitutes. The exhibition ran for six months and, while it barely made a dent in terms of attention, it was one of the most historically important shows of modern art I have ever seen in the Middle East. It was at times blissfully irreverent, too.
In New York, at the new Whitney, Danny Lyon’s ‘Message to the Future’ offered a subtle and sustained engagement with a photographer who followed in the footsteps of Walker Evans and Robert Frank, but refused to play by the rules. In Baalbek, the curator Karina Helou brought ‘The Silent Echo’, featuring nine contemporary artworks, to the humble archaeological site museum that sits inside the city’s vast Roman ruins, and to the 2000-year-old Temple of Bacchus, where Cynthia Zaven’s sound installation Perpetuum Mobile (2014) made time palpable, beautiful, and harrowing. In Beirut, solo shows for Saba Innab, at Marfa, and Haig Aivazian, at the Sfeir-Semler Gallery, found both artists at the beginning of promising new phases in their work. Innab, a painter, is making sculptures; Aivazian is telling a complex story about the changing modal structures of music. Meanwhile, in October, Lebanon’s National Museum, which hardly ever does anything at all, quietly reopened its lower floor galleries, which have been closed since the end of the civil war, a quarter of a century ago. The new display of some two-dozen anthropoid sarcophagi is breath-taking.
In Istanbul, a show that featured no art whatsoever, titled ‘Empty Fields’ and curated by Marianna Hovhannisyan, told the story of a modest Anatolian college that was run by Protestant missionaries in the late 19th, early 20th centuries. A teacher there named Johannes Manissadjian, a botanist as well as a tulip trader, was tasked with creating a new library and museum, for which he gathered some 7,000 plant specimens. In 1915, the school lost all of its students, staff, and faculty, all of them Armenian, all of them deported or killed in the genocide. Manissadjian, who had a German mother, was sheltered in another village. Two years later, he returned and made an exquisitely detailed, hand-drawn catalogue of every single item and display case in his museum. Then he disappeared. The starting point of ‘Empty Fields’ was the discovery of that catalogue in an archive that has been packed up and parcelled off, many times over, for decades, and is now housed for digitization and study at SALT. The twists, tunnels, and turns of this story, the incredible details and unexpected tangents, have been working away in my mind since April. I won’t forget them anytime soon.
The writer who walked with me last year? Jason Farago, who, at the time, had just started a new magazine called , Even, after Duchamp. Its continued existence is reason to believe in print, the essay form, and the stories that institutions tell, in their making as well as their unravelling. Add to the pile of Farago’s first five issues, with important pieces on both the Abu Dhabi Louvre and the Palestinian Museum, two books on Egyptian surrealism by Sam Bardaouil, which present themselves as narratives to debate while filling a gaping hole in existing scholarship; two English-language translations of the reclusive Lebanese-Brazilian novelist Raduan Nassar (Ancient Tillage and A Cup of Rage); Javier Marias’s Thus Bad Begins for understanding the terrible persistence of fascism; and an 800-page, bilingual edition of Abdellatif Laâbi’s collected poems, In Praise of Defeat, which features a familiar but no less powerful command: ‘Poet / delight in the questions / that wake you up / in the middle of the night / and do not fade away at dawn / like the stars.’
Lead image: Professors of the Anatolia College dressed in various disciplines, 1912 United Church of Christ (UCC), American Research Institute in Turkey (ARIT), SALT Research