Uncovering the Arab body
This year's summer art show at the Institut du monde arabe sets out to discover the Arab body, writes David Tresilian in Paris
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Jeunes femmes vistant une exposition (1945) by Lebanese artist Omar Onsi (Samir J. Abillama Collection)
This year's early summer art exhibition at the Institut du monde arabe in Paris showcases work relating to the representation of the human body in modern and contemporary Arab art, drawing on the Institut's own holdings and on loans from institutions in Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere in order to do so. In line with the Institut's public mandate, the show has a broadly educational aim, gently correcting some of the misconceptions that can still surround modern Arab art outside the Arab world and revealing something of its historical range and depth. It also provides some fascinating food for thought for visitors coming from a variety of different backgrounds.
The first floor of the exhibition usefully restates and illustrates the standard storyline of the development of modern Arab art, showing how late 19th-century Arab artists learned from and then tried to emulate the techniques and subject-matter of modern European art, using these as the foundations for the development of modern art in the Arab world. The second floor, organised more thematically, explores the use that contemporary Arab artists have made of different media from photography to video and the ways in which they have addressed themes such as portraiture, the body in public and private space and the representation of the male and female body.
The exhibition's focus on the representation of the human body in Arab art has naturally led to a number of exclusions, perhaps most keenly felt in the absence of abstract work, of most conceptual art and of the kind of installations produced by many contemporary Arab artists. Some of this was showcased in the Institut du monde arabe's last major art exhibition, Palestine, la création dans tous ses états, reviewed in the Weekly in November 2009, which stood out particularly for its display of video and installation work expressing ideas of the past, displacement and memory. In its presentation of the historical development of modern Arab art, the present show's focus on portraiture excludes other significant genres also imported into modern Arab art at the beginning of the last century, perhaps most importantly landscapes or scenes of urban life.
However, few visitors to this exhibition will fail to learn something from this show, entitled Le Corps découvert, or the body uncovered or discovered, and the Institut is to be congratulated both for putting on the show and for commissioning the often thought-provoking catalogue essays. At a time when many exhibitions of contemporary Arab art have been put on with a transparently commercial aim, hoping to attract the kind of money that has been flowing in the direction of contemporary Chinese art, it is refreshing to visit a show that has an almost ascetically intellectual and historical appeal and content.
THE EXHIBITION OPENS with work by late 19th-century Arab artists, mostly Lebanese or Egyptian, who, having studied European art, most often in Paris, returned to their countries of origin and set about applying what they had learned in a very different Arab context. This meant both the introduction of new art practices and techniques, among them the use of oil paint and the spread of easel painting, and the introduction of a new conception of art that took it away from traditional art practices emphasising its function as decoration and investing it with a new emphasis on creativity and imagination instead.
These things were the tell-tale legacies of European-style romanticism, and with them came a new understanding of the status and function of the artist. Previously thought of as an artisan or craftsman whose worth was measured in terms of the skillful employment of a range of traditional art practices, among them wood- and metal-working, manuscript illumination and architectural decoration, the discourse on modern Arab art, and on the modern Arab artist, now began to shift towards an emphasis on the artist as an individual having special talents or imaginative insights that set him apart from the rest of the population.
Among the works displayed in the first room of the exhibition, for example, are pieces by Gibran Khalil Gibran, who, having left his native Lebanon for the United States in 1895, joining in the large-scale Lebanese emigration, made a name for himself particularly among English-speaking audiences for his literary work. The latter famously included The Prophet, a strange mélange of late 19th-century mysticism and "oriental" wisdom that gave Gibran an almost seer-like status and set out a subsequent literary programme. In his work in the visual arts, Gibran adopted parallel attitudes, with the works on show in the present exhibition, lent by the Gibran Museum in Lebanon, bearing titles such as "Cosmic Spirit comforting Distressed Man" and seeking to personify both.
With this new emphasis on the special status of the artist and on the products of his imagination came the development of new forms of artistic training, new audiences and new markets for art. There was also a new focus on the artist as perhaps necessarily in conflict with the society in which he found himself, either trying to shift it forwards, something in the manner of the 19th or early 20th-century European avant-gardes, or washed up on a tide of bleakly bourgeois materialism, offering fresh and original ways of seeing to a society too blinded by commercial interests or indifference to appreciate them.
The catalogue notes to the present exhibition remind visitors that the first modern art schools in the Arab world, set up and staffed by members of the "pioneering" generation of modern Arab artists on their return from Europe, were intended to dispense a European-style training in modern art to Arab artists unable to make the trip to Paris or London but wanting to differentiate their work from that of the region's traditional artists, which was now relegated to arts and crafts or folklore. Modern art schools were set up in Cairo (1908), Beirut (1937) and Baghdad (1939) in the early decades of the last century, and these dispensed the kind of academic training that the first generation of modern Arab artists would have received in Europe.
However, looking at the work on show in the exhibition's early rooms by pioneering modern Lebanese artists such as HowCesar GemnaCésar Gemayel, Khalil Saleeby and Omar Onsi, while it is easy to see the ways in which they have incorporated European forms, such as easel-painting, materials, such as oil paint, and genres and subject-matter, such as the male or female nude, it is less easy to imagine how this new form of art was circulated or received. Presumably a gallery system intended to promote the careers of such modern artists developed in the Arab art capitals at the time, also fostering a network of private patrons or clients willing to buy such work.
Saleeby's nudes, painted in oil on canvas at the beginning of the last century and now owned by the American University in Beirut, the latter presumably standing in, in the conditions of today's Lebanon, for missing public-sector institutions, seem to have remained in the family, not finding buyers. One wonders about the conditions under which such works could have been exhibited and bought and sold. The same thing could be true of works by Georges D. Corm from the 1920s, now in the collection of Georges G. Corm and on loan to the present show.
Some other works, perhaps including the Egyptian artist Georges Hanna Sabbagh's Nu devant la ville, a very competent piece in the manner of much early 20th-century French painting ê" he is described in the catalogue as being "close to the painters of the Ecole de Paris" among them Modigliani and Soutine ê" seem to have been aimed at French or European buyers, at least judging from the roofline in the background. Pieces such as the intriguing Jeunes femmes vistant une exposition (1945) by the Lebanese artist Omar Onsi make explicit the conditions under which the new art might have been viewed, the painting positioning a modern easel painting in what seems to be a fashionable gallery space, with a group of girls ê" perhaps on a school trip ê" all traditionally dressed in black gathering round.
ACCORDING TO THE ARGUMENT presented in the exhibition, nuanced in the catalogue, the pioneering Arab artists, particularly those representing the Arab body, were often reacting against 19th-century European orientalist painting, which had also staged Arab human figures, this time for European eyes. Few of the pioneering artists could have been unaware of the fact that the modern form of art that they were then seeking to introduce into the Arab world had been used, at least in its orientalist variant, to stereotype and subjugate Arab subject matter, making it the object of the masculine gaze.
Given the weight of this tradition in European painting, it would be surprising if the pioneering Arab artists had not sought either to present their human subject matter in other ways from those employed by European artists, correcting some of the deficiencies of content or viewpoint to be found in the works that the later had produced, or at least to comment on the positioning of the artist as the subject of the gaze. Sometimes the European artist was positioned as a frank voyeur, for example, with the Arab body, notably the female Arab body, becoming the passive object of the gaze in a tradition going back at least as far as the French artist Eugène Delacroix. The latter had introduced himself into forbidden female domestic space in order to complete his most famous orientalist painting, Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement.
Wall texts in the exhibition say that the first generations of modern Arab artists appropriated orientalist subject matter for their own purposes, producing their own native versions of orientalist harems, odalisques and immobile female bodies. However, it turns out that for at least some of the time what they really appropriated was technique, since the works on show that seem most explicitly to draw on European art history, César Gemayel's Les Baigneuses de Darat Jouljoul, Omar Onsi's Darat Jouljoul, and Mustafa Farroukh's Baigneuses de Darat Jouljoul, Lebanese versions of bathing female nudes explicitly thematising male voyeurism and the masculine scopic drive, in fact refer to subject matter drawn from the first of the mu'allaqa, or "hanging odes," written by the poet-prince Imru' al-Qays at the dawn of the Islamic era. The exhibition also includes nudes by the Egyptian artists Mahmoud Said (L'Endormie, 1933) and Salah Taher (Femme assise, 1939).
A dense catalogue essay by Christine Buci-Glucksmann, entitled "Anti-esthetique et post-esthetique dans l'art arabe," gives biographical details of many such artists, pointing out that "Onsi's Les Baigneuses de Darat Jouljoul" (she seems to mean Gemayel's) appears to "relate more to the work of Cézanne than it does to any real scene" and is therefore best understood as part of "a system of influence and exchange" that led such artists to "discover western modernity and to act as pioneers in their own countries." However, the intentions that lay behind such imitation are made less clear in the exhibition, as least as far as the pioneering generations are concerned, though perhaps overturning the pre-existing art system in the Arab countries and remodeling it along western lines was quite enough to be going on with.
Some of the artists may have wanted only to demonstrate competence or even virtuosity in the new forms of art, though it may be that the works now most likely to attract the viewer's interest are those that either reflect upon their own positioning within art as an institution (Onsi's Jeunes femmes vistant une exposition), or that seem to be commenting on western art genres for possibly comic effect (Said's L'Endormie), or that have their own strangely delightful contribution to make, rather than those that simply demonstrate the benefits of professional training and talent. Among the strangest would have to be the works of the Algerian artist Mohamed Racim, notably Femmes la cascade, done in the 1920s and lent by Musée national des Beaux-Arts in Algiers.
Racim did not receive an academic training, instead training in the traditional arts of bookbinding and manuscript illumination. He later apparently managed to reposition himself as a fine artist, rather than as an artisan or craftsman, producing works that introduced the rules of perspective into flat, traditional forms and that relate "as much to traditional manuscript illuminationê as to odalisques by Ingres." The overall effect is one of extreme attention to detail, rather like in the work of the mad Victorian painter Richard Dadd, with Racim's work providing a fascinating insight into how the new art practices were received and recycled by those outside the nascent modern art schools and institutions.
THE EXHIBITION CONTINUES on a second level by presenting works by contemporary Arab artists, and here the show's narrative and chronological line gives way to loose thematic groupings. There are clusters of video pieces, notably Adel Abidi's Ping-Pong, which appears to show a game of table-tennis being played across a naked young woman's body, and there is an area dedicated to sculpture. The work is various and eclectic, and if it is sometimes difficult to identify some of it as "Arab" art, this is presumably because of the ongoing globalisation of the art market, formatting contemporary art to the demands of international buyers.
While the "pioneers" of modern Arab art moved in a generally restricted geographical orbit, generally training in Paris and working in Cairo or Beirut, where they attempted to remodel local art practices, today's Arab artists move easily between studios and residencies in North America, Europe, the Arab world and Asia, operating on the biennale circuit and producing work for international markets. The effect of this may have been to reduce the national content of their work, while also shaping it by the preoccupations of international art buyers and institutions, among them representations of the gendered body.
Gender, in fact, is a main theme of the work presented in the second half of the show, though much of this has as much to do with representations of the male body as it does with the female. According to Buci-Glucksmann, once again writing in her catalogue essay, contemporary Arab art has in this respect been characterised by the "appropriation-quotation-reuse" of western orientalism, certain taboos regarding particularly the naked human body having been deliberately broken in order to "affirm the individual in his or her singularity or proper multiplicity" and to question conventional versions of masculinity or femininity.
As far as the male body is concerned, this has meant an investigation of socialisation patterns and group bonding, with a video piece by Egyptian artist Mahmoud Khaled on adolescent body-building being included in the present exhibition that thematises the acculturation and display of the masculine body. Similarly, photographs by the Lebanese artist Georges Awde, entitled Quiet Crossing, present a group of mostly young men alone and pensive-looking, as if affirmed in their singularity against their will and eager to return to the security of their peers. Their vulnerability is accentuated and reinforced by their nakedness before the viewer's eyes. There is also a series of photographs taken by Nabil Boutros in Turkish baths, or hammam, in Sanaa in Yemen, these being, in Buci-Glucksmann's words, "scenes not lacking in social or psychological ambiguity" owing to the temporary lifting of social codes.
There is much else in the exhibition of interest, often usefully illuminated by commentary in the catalogue. Some of the latter is scrupulously scholarly in manner, such as Silvia Naef's article on "representing the female body," which takes an historical approach and discusses the effects that the growing numbers of contemporary Arab woman artists have had on representations of the female body. Some is more impressionistic, almost approaching "art-writing," including the pieces by poet and critic Salah Stétié ("Le Corps en supplement") and Syrian artist Asaad Arabi ("La Lumière et la couleur, masques du corps").
Some of the contemporary work in the exhibition may not necessarily speak clearly for itself, and it may need the more or less sociological explanation the catalogue authors give it before it can communicate with at least first-time visitors, raising the question of how far such work is simply illustrative of pre-existing themes better discussed elsewhere. However, whether taken as a retelling of the story of modern Arab art from the perspective of representations of the human body, as the exhibition does on its lower level, or as suggesting the contemporary state of play as far as gender issues in Arab art are concerned, as it does on the upper floor, the exhibition is sure to provide visitors with much to intrigue or admire.
Le Corps découvert, Institut du monde arabe, Paris, until 15 July.