Acts of Transformation
Finding historical perspectives on current upheavals in the Arab world
For six months this year, two very different and unrelated exhibitions reflected some of the strongest curatorial thinking about modern and contemporary art in and around the Middle East. In February, Warsaw’s Museum of Modern Art opened ‘Lest the Two Seas Meet’, a show of 32 artworks by 28 artists that was essentially a post-mortem of the lost promise of the Arab Spring. A month later, the American University of Beirut (AUB) marked the start of ‘Al-Musawwirun: Artists Before Art’, an open-ended exhibition that looks, quite subtly, to the sudden rush of image-making at the turn of the last century to consider where we are now in terms of appreciating (and critiquing) art in proximity to violent conflict.
The past five years have piled up evidence of a lot of political wreckage in the region for curators to sort through and assess. From the initial euphoria of the protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and Istanbul’s Gezi Park to the return of a military dictatorship in Egypt and the current state of total chaos in Libya, Syria and Iraq, artists and artworks, so often marginal to such major upheavals, have found themselves time and again in the middle of the action; for small institutions and curatorial initiatives, it is arguably harder to work now than it has ever been. Access to funding is tighter, more complicated, and a magnet for suspicion and scrutiny. Local audiences are atomized and apathetic. From Alexandria to Istanbul, the space to manoeuvre is shrinking, to say nothing of dreaming big or having the room for bold, daring or audacious ideas.
The genius of ‘Lest the Two Seas Meet’ was to address none of this directly, or even obliquely. Instead, the show, which was organized by Tarek Abou El Fetouh, took inspiration from a 13th-century Sufi mystic (Ibn Arabi), the memoirs of an Egyptian feminist (Latifa al-Zayyat) and the banned works of a Syrian playwright (Saadallah Wannous). Rather than respond to the actualities of the Arab Spring, Abou El Fetouh distilled the entire period into a single act of transformation – from individual to collective, private to public, revolution to regime, life to death, lone body to the body politic – and assembled a collection of works that illustrate, imagine, enact or embody that movement between states.
‘Al-Musawwirun’, meanwhile, featured no established artists at all, except for a handful of 19th-century Lebanese painters who remain virtually unknown outside of the Levant. Octavian Esanu, curator of the AUB Art Galleries, instead privileged artisans, folk artists, anonymous photographers and forgotten filmmakers. Besides a few portraits and landscapes, he gathered together material that was unlikely to have been considered art at the time of its making. The point, Esanu stressed, was to consider a world before the Western notion of autonomous art took hold in Beirut, a world ‘inhabited by odd, marginal and often extinct forms of art-making’, a world wracked by wars and revolutions, which ‘desperately wanted to be modern’. In other words, this was a world not unlike our own, where arguments about the purpose of art remain deeply unsettled and inextricably linked to the politics of the day.
Such approaches to exhibition-making, so well-versed in the history and literature of a place, are disturbingly rare, whether in the region or beyond it. Of course, the concept of the curatorial may very well be different in Beirut, Cairo or Istanbul, and several young organizations find good-looking shows uninteresting. For example, more important for the project 98Weeks, which is based in Beirut, is research. For others, keeping an organization going matters most – and yet, knowing when to stop is key. For the recently closed art space in Cairo known as Beirut, institution-building itself was a curatorial act. That said, during a recent forum on feminism hosted by 98Weeks, the curator Övül Durmusoglu pieced together a breathless history of feminist art practice in Turkey. At the end, an anthropologist pointedly asked a simple question: ‘Why has no one ever made a show of this work, this lineage?’ Indeed, why not? Then again, Antonia Alampi made a great, if also mystifying, point about what she had learned from her work at Beirut: ‘Institutions have more avid readers than physical visitors.’ When the time comes to return to, and revive, the lost promise of the Arab Spring, that may be the most interesting riddle in the region to solve.
First published in Issue 174