From a secret film of a man scaling the wall between Palestine and Israel to migrant workers clinging to cranes in Mecca, an exhibition of essential Middle Eastern art at New York’s New Museum evades the regionalist trap
After the Arab spring comes a fraught, broiling summer. 2014 has not been a good year for the Arab world, as the Syrian civil war has dragged into a third ruinous year, Egypt continues to lurch through political crises, and Isis have gained control of large parts of Iraq. But the horrific new ground incursion in Gaza over the last two weeks, which has left more than 400 people dead, has sunk hopes for a better Arab future to the floor.
The artist Khaled Jarrar, based in Ramallah, Palestine, knows the wages of occupation better than most. His 2012 film Infiltrators depicts young men attempting to scale the security wall that separates Israel from the occupied territories, desperate to cross the border to see doctors, attend university, or just visit their families. The film – unpolished, surreptitiously shot, and hugely disturbing – is one of the highlights of Here and Elsewhere, a major exhibition of contemporary art from the Arab world that has just opened at the New Museum in New York. Jarrar was due to speak at the museum last week but, unexpectedly, Israeli authorities detained him for 10 hours, then refused to let him cross from the West Bank into Jordan. He never made it to the United States. For him, too, the border is unbreachable.
I went with some apprehension to Here and Elsewhere, this survey of contemporary Arab art that spanned the building. For a while now, art institutions have been caught in a double bind. They insist that nations, let alone a region as broad as the Arab world, have no essential, identifiable characteristics: style is a colonial relic, we are all pluralists now. Yet donors and sponsors – not least western corporations keen on getting their tentacles into the world’s emerging markets – love these shows, and regional exhibitions are one of the few dependable ways to get western museums to exhibit art from around the globe. Western exhibitions of Arab (or African, or Latin American) art usually end up in a state of self-contradiction: curators insist that all the artists are individuals and are part of a global art world, but the show lumps them all together anyway, safely pinned down to the map.
It turns out, however, that Here and Elsewhere – the title is borrowed from Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville’s pro-Palestinian polemic of 1976 – evades the regionalist trap better than any show I’ve seen in a while. Its four curators, among them the New Museum’s newly named artistic director Massimiliano Gioni (who organised last year’s Venice Biennale), actually followed through on the no one Arab identity conceit, thanks to an open, intentionally untidy framework that lets more than 45 artists stand on their own, and a relentless focus on local politics and local history. Photographs from Syria, drawings from Egypt, room-filling installations direct from Palestine: they are their own achievements, and all that unifies them is their intense critical gaze at the sometimes unified, frequently fractured Arab world.
And as western journalism and censored Arab media both frequently fail to document Arab struggles, artists have to fill the gap. Lamia Joreige, based in Beirut, has spent 15 years interviewing individuals who lived through the Lebanese civil war, asking them to choose and describe a personal possession that reminded them of the conflict. Their testimonials are screened alongside the artefacts they selected – a teddy bear, a suitcase, a broken Sony Walkman – as evidence of the weight of history, and the impossibility of piecing a single history together.
One of Joreige’s testimonials comes from the great Etel Adnan, the 89-year-old Lebanese painter now based in Paris: her chosen object is a censored novel. Adnan, whose art was a highlight of the last Documenta and the most recent Whitney Biennial, is this show’s elder stateswoman, and three tender abstract paintings transform the Mediterranean into expanses of gold and blue. But she, too, has been caught up in the struggle. Alongside her paintings is a long typewritten poem, The Arab Apocalypse, in which restless verses of death and reclamation are studded with hand-drawn illustrations. “The Arabs, astronomers, follow the wrong stars,” one passage reads. “The Palestinians are dumped in a spacecraft headed for the moon.”
Of course, Here and Elsewhere also comes at a moment when the contemporary art world, on commercial and nonprofit sides alike, has been looking with increasing regularity – and in some cases desperation – to Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and other Gulf states able to pay prices the west can no longer afford. That hunger has resulted in some hazardous blind spots. Asthe Guardian has reported, migrant labourers constructing new Gulf outposts of the Louvre, the Guggenheim, and other cultural institutions have been subjected to conditions tantamount to slavery, and in recent months New York has seen multiple protests against worker abuses at museums.
This new show only glances at the conditions of migrant labour in the region. In a seven-video sequence by the Saudi artist Ahmed Mater, we see South Asian workers clinging to cranes as new towers rise in Mecca. But those workers are the hidden supplement to the giant murals in the New Museum’s lobby, designed by the smart and sarcastic collective GCC, that depicts a sickening multibillion-dollar hotel lobby complete with endless marble expanses and a vending machine dispensing gold bars.
Migration is not a one-way street. For her Mapping Journey project, undertaken from 2008 to 2011, the French-Moroccan video artist Bouchra Khalili travelled around the Mediterranean and asked migrants and refugees to tell her how they crossed the sea. Softly, unsentimentally, they map their perilous voyages with a black marker on store-bought maps: crossing the Sudanese desert, waiting in Benghazi or Tripoli (“the heat was terrible,” a girl remembers), and in more than one case stranded on Lampedusa, the Italian island off the coast of Tunisia that has witnessed several human rights fiascos. It could easily come off as glib, but Khalili wisely fixes her camera on the migrants’ hands as they criss-cross the map: we get a trace of their stories, but never the whole thing.
Here and Elsewhere has a strong assortment of painting, photography, and sculpture. (One strange highlight is Wafa Hourani‘s rough-hewn model of a utopian Palestinian refugee camp, the security wall covered in mirrors like a disco ball.) But the moving image, again and again, offers the best way into the complex, precarious reality of places we cannot afford to be ignorant about.
Perhaps the best work on display in this essential exhibition is a video byMarwa Arsanios, a young artist living in Lebanon. Intricate and overpowering, it depicts a Tunisian actress preparing to star in a new (fictional) movie about a legendary freedom fighter depicted in the iconic 1966 film The Battle of Algiers. In the cafes of Beirut she goes over her lines and rifles through old women’s magazines, where the cover models tote pistols. Stories of failed Arab socialist development schemes bleed into reminiscences of anti-colonial warfare. History gets bulldozed, or bombed from above and below. Only the cinema offers a way in, showing us a place just beyond our field of vision but at the centre of the world.