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Current issue | Issue 1124, 29 November - 5 December 2012
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1124, 29 November - 5 December 2012

Ahram Weekly

25 years of Arab creativity

To celebrate 25 years since it opened to the public in 1987, the Institut du monde arabe is putting on a landmark show of contemporary Arab art, writes David Tresilian in Paris

Al-Ahram Weekly

Founded at the beginning of the 1980s by France and a group of 18 Arab states wanting to foster better relations between Europe and the Arab world and promote Arab culture and civilisation in Europe, the Institut du monde arabe, or Arab World Institute, moved into its present building next to the Seine in central Paris in 1987. Since then, this landmark building, designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, has become a familiar part of the cityscape, and the Institut itself has become widely known as a result of its exhibitions, cultural events, publications and other activities.
This year marks 25 years since the Institut moved into its premises in the city’s fifth arrondissement next to the sprawling university campus of the Université de Paris VI and VII-Jussieu. To celebrate this event, it has organised a series of anniversary events, among them musical performances and film screenings, many of them eagerly attended by appreciative Paris audiences. However, the most important of the events organised to mark the Institut’s 25th birthday is undoubtedly the major exhibition of contemporary Arab art, entitled “25 years of Arab creativity,” that has taken over both the main building’s temporary exhibition spaces and the temporary “Mobile Art” structure, designed by the Iraqi-born UK architect Zaha Hadid, that rests in the square in front of the Institut.
The exhibition, overseen by guest curator Ehab Ellabban, also curator of the 2008 and 2010 Cairo Biennales, includes the work of several dozen artists from across the Arab world, all of whom were asked to submit recent work to the Institut’s 25th anniversary show. The aim is to provide a kind of synoptic overview of contemporary artistic creation from the Arab world, introducing French and European audiences to the work of major figures from recent years and allowing them to pick out leading trends. The exhibition also underlines the Institut’s role as a major international venue not only for the promotion and display of contemporary Arab art, but also as a place where Arab artists keen to work internationally can exhibit their work, helping them up the ladder to European and wider recognition and their work into international collections and museums.
Interviewed by the French magazine artabsolument, Ellabban explained that in taking on the curatorial work behind the show, he had had in mind four main themes, the work submitted relating to one or more of these. The political changes underway across the Arab world had been one of these themes, he said, but so had the wider socio-economic circumstances of the contemporary Arab world and work exhibiting more formalist, and less sociological, research into artistic methods and materials. Finally, there were works that were marked by processes of globalisation, moving away from local Arab culture and Arab national concerns and onto the international stage.

A DIALOGUE WITH PRESENT AND PAST: According to Ellaban, one of the developments seen in the work of Arab artists over the past quarter century or so has been a new willingness to question the role and physical location of the Arab artist.
Thanks to the emergence of a new generation of collectors in the Arab Gulf countries, as well as to the establishment of a thriving network of private galleries and public institutions interesting themselves in contemporary Arab art, Arab artists typically now have access to larger markets for their work, and these markets, thanks to improved communications stretching across the Arab world, are less reliant on public commissions or on a restricted national network of private collectors in the artists’ individual countries of origin. Such developments have had a predictable effect on prices, with many contemporary Arab artists being able to command prices unheard of among Arab artists from previous generations.
Added to the emergence of this wealthy pan-Arab contemporary art market, there has also been greater international interest in contemporary Arab art, notably in western art centres. International galleries and auction houses, until a few years ago perhaps unlikely to represent contemporary Arab artists or to sell their work, have now taken on stables of Arab artists. When this growing international interest has extended only to western collectors or institutions, there has been a suspicion that at least some of it may have had more to do with the search for the next art fashion rather than with a more genuine interest in Arab art. UK collector Charles Saatchi, for example, staged an exhibition of contemporary Arab art at his Saatchi Collection galleries in London in 2009, but only after he had already looked into the commercial possibilities of contemporary British, Chinese and Asian art.
While the transformation of art markets has in turn transformed the prospects for many contemporary Arab artists, it has also complicated their relationship to the past and to the tradition of modern Arab art. As Ellaban notes in passing in his interview with artabsolument, the work of modern and contemporary Arab artists has been preoccupied by aesthetic research since at least the development of modern art in the Arab countries at the beginning of the 20th century. However, there the similarities between modern and contemporary Arab artists tend to end.
Earlier generations of Arab artists, trained in European art schools or in one of the art schools set up on the European model in Arab capitals from the early decades of the 20th century onwards, typically wanted to modernise Arab art by introducing European techniques and practices into it, while at the same time deepening its connection to Arab culture by using Arab subject matter, in this way producing work that was both modern and national in character.
Contemporary Arab artists, at least as likely to have been trained internationally as in national art schools, and benefiting from the explosion of materials and practices international contemporary art has to offer, from conceptual art, to happenings, to installations, to video art, may have broken off their relationship with their forebears, most of whom worked in the traditional media of painting or sculpture and who were in many cases given to pursuing a programme of artistic nationalism, sometimes even artistic socialism, that went hand-in-hand with the ideological imperatives of the time.
Contemporary Arab artists, perhaps more distant from the political regimes than their forebears, and at least as likely to work in Europe, Canada or the United States as in the Middle East, North Africa or the Gulf, have been affected by the eclecticism of a globalising world in a way that would have been inconceivable to their forebears.
While it would clearly be untrue to say that previous generations of Arab artists were not involved in politics, given the powerful nationalist appeals of many of their works, perhaps it would be true to say, as Ellaban does, that the ideological or political commitments of contemporary Arab artists are more various, less single-mindedly held and perhaps more documentary in character than those of their modern forebears, possibly as befits artists observing events in the Arab world from afar from residencies in Europe or the United States.
Not everyone will be able to make sense of Ellaban’s comment that the contemporary Arab artist “has a greater interest in political questions than his or her 20th-century predecessors could have done.” But if by this he means a different interest, rather than a greater one, it might be harder to disagree. “If one talks more precisely of the effects produced in the artistic sphere by the recent [revolutionary] events, one notices the involvement of many artists, either in work that tries to analyse the events that have taken place, or in work that tries to document them” in artistic form, he says.

A TOUR OF THE INSTITUT: As for the works themselves, these have been distributed throughout the Institut’s main temporary exhibition spaces, as well as in the circulation areas and entrance spaces, the idea being to turn the Institut, at least temporarily, into a kind of open centre for the arts.
Writing in the informative catalogue accompanying the exhibition, produced in French and Arabic, Véronique Rieffel, director of the Institut des cultures de l’Islam in Paris, a public-sector Islamic cultural centre, comments on the place of the Institut du monde arabe in the French and European cultural landscape and the aims of the present exhibition. Since the Institut opened to the public in 1987, she says, there has been a “révolution du regard” among French and European audiences, a completely changed way of looking at non-western art, including Arab art.
In the 1980s, the cultural productions of non-western societies were more likely to be seen anthropologically than artistically, Rieffel says, with the Centre Pompidou, probably the most important modern art museum in Europe, only staging a major show of non-western materials in 1989 with its Magiciens de la terre exhibition that presented the works of non-western and western artists together in the same spaces. Since then, however, things have changed, with the work of non-western artists now seen by European audiences as art in its own right and not simply as a form of sociological documentation or as anthropological raw material. The market developments noted above have been part of this. Another part has been the pioneering role played by institutions such as the Institut du monde arabe.
While European audiences still sometimes display a taste for orientalist clichés when it comes to contemporary Arab art, Rieffel writes – “the veil, calligraphy, the hammam, the odalisque, a certain portrayal of violence – all ingredients for a so-called Arab work of art, the criteria of Arabness having being frozen in advance” – such attitudes are disappearing, to be replaced by a pluralist conception of what might constitute Arab art and in what its Arabness might consist.
According to Rieffel, this more sophisticated awareness on the part of European audiences has worked in parallel with a new investigation of Arab identity by contemporary Arab artists themselves, such that “the final exit from a colonialist understanding of Arab art [among non-Arab western audiences] seems to be conditional on the appropriation of a definition of the self by the self. This is a matter of transforming the self from a passive object and the object of representation to a more active self involved in its own self-representation.”
Looking at the work on show, one thing that leaps to the eye is the range of media employed by contemporary Arab artists and how few of them employ traditional artistic media, such as painting. Photography, installations, video art, and works in mixed media fill the galleries. Another outstanding feature, gleaned from the biographies included in the exhibition catalogue, is how few of these contemporary Arab artists live or work in the Arab world and how few of them completed all or most of their training in Arab schools or institutions. It might almost be said that the typical contemporary Arab artist, like the typical European or American one, completes residencies and periods of training or study on almost every continent and participates in international exhibitions and biennales throughout the world. Many contemporary Arab artists settle permanently in Europe or the United States, producing what may be a form of Arab-inflected global art.
Another feature of the work on show, commented on by the authors of the catalogue essays, including in a rambling piece by Farouk Youssef, is how much of it is by women. Echoing Ellaban, contemporary Arab art is marked as much by the hypothetical as by the ideological or other forms of certitude, Youssef writes, “and I would go so far as to say that women have played a major role in this revolutionary transformation.” Women artists may have been in large part responsible for the newly pluralist or “decentred” ways of seeing that have characterised recent Arab art.
Contemporary Arab artists have adopted a new form of modesty, Youssef says, having failed in previous decades to “take art down off its pedestal.” The political experience of the last 30 years or so in the Arab world – “political decadence, accompanied, in a way, by imaginative works” – has meant that Arab artists have now abandoned any “misplaced sense of pride” and adopted an altogether more modest conception of their work and function.

WOMEN ARTISTS AND EGYPTIAN ART: The growing numbers of women artists working professionally in the Arab world has had something to do with this ideological transformation, Youssef implies, and it is certainly striking how many women artists are included in the exhibition, notably from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. Women artists such as Nadia Kaabi-Linke, born in Tunis and working in Berlin, Maha Malluh, working in Riyadh, Meriem Bouderbala, born in Tunis and working in Paris, and Doris Bittar, born in Baghdad and working in the United States, have all contributed striking works to the show.
Most of the work on show has been lent from the collections of the artists themselves or from private collections. Most is too recent to have made it into public museums of modern or contemporary art, and while the show features work by many younger artists there is also work by older figures having established careers.
Among the Egyptian artists with work on show is Adel al-Siwi, one of the few artists to have contributed paintings to the exhibition, who is showing a series of works entitled “The Water Guards”. Essam Marouf is also showing paintings, this time a series entitled “Same People, Same Story,” while Armen Agop, born in Cairo in 1969 and from a younger generation, is displaying black granite sculptures made in severe geometric forms. Another younger Egyptian artist is photographer Youssef Nabil, who is exhibiting a series of atmospheric self-portraits entitled “I will go to Paradise”.
Carefully put together and with a wealth of documentary material to go with it, not least in the informative exhibition catalogue, the Institut du monde arabe’s anniversary exhibition should provide any visitor with much food for thought.

25 ans de créativité arabe, Institut du monde arabe, Paris, until 3 February 2013.

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