Contemporary Art from the Barjeel Art Foundation
Aga Khan Museum
On view until January 3, 2016
Previously almost unheard of in the West, a number of institutional group exhibitions of living Arab artists have cropped up in North America within the course of a few post-Arab Spring years. These group shows have cohered around various selective criteria: some by collection (Islamic Art Now at LACMA, 2015) or by medium (Films from Here at MoMA, 2015), and others by the ideal of diversity (Here and Elsewhere at the New Museum, 2014). Home Ground is the first significant show of this kind in Canada, currently taking up residence at the year-old Aga Khan Museum. It highlights 14 works drawn from the vast trove of the UAE-based Barjeel Art Foundation, one of the most significant private collections of modern and contemporary Arab art. Among its 12 artists, the show covers Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq, inclusive of both residents and expats. It’s an exercise in selectivity, a task that is rather precarious—lacking in care, unity can easily slip into generalization, diversity into disjunction.
Under the curatorial direction of Barjeel’s Suheyla Takesh, the works in Home Ground are stitched together by the thematic threads of geographical place, movement, belonging, and identity. These watchwords, inherently political, lend themselves well to sundry topical works on the area’s newsy issues. Mana Al-Dowayan’s sculpture Suspended Together—Standing Dove, Eating Dove (2012) hones in on women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, where by law women must obtain written permission from a male guardian in order to travel alone. Al-Dowayan’s two doves bear the imprint of these travel documents on their fragile porcelain, a reminder of the always-contingent nature of freedoms. The Israeli West Bank separation wall, an obvious touchpoint, reliably gets coverage in the show in the form of a volleyball sculpture by Palestinian artist Khaled Jarrar. Made of concrete scraped from the separation wall, Volleyball (2013) is reticent in form but remains suggestive, figuring the way geopolitical structures affect mundane life —and perhaps a shot of leaping over these barriers.
Other parts of the show are less topical. Two works by Turner nominee Mona Hatoum, perhaps the most familiar name in the bunch, are both slight in scale and initially unassuming. Characteristic of the artist, they use everyday objects to unsettling effect: Infinity (2009) presents a brigade of tiny, bronze armed soldiers marching in a lemniscate curve on a small coffee table; the #artselfie-friendly You Are Still Here (2013) inscribes the work’s title on a vanity-sized mirror, setting up a confrontation between the viewer and their reflection. The domestic intimacy of these works are inflected by violence and struggle, polluting the very homeliness of home. Another expat, Egyptian artist Youssaf Nabil, offers a kind of allegorical self-portrait of relocation in his film work You Never Left (2010). Envisioning emigration as death and rebirth, the film’s ten-minute, dream-like journey traverses desert and sea, all in a punchy Technicolour aesthetic informed by the golden age of Egyptian cinema.
With plenty of variety in subject matter, the show also commingles so many divergent practices—Sol LeWitt-esque instruction-based art, narrative cinematic film, gestural abstraction, figurative painting, conceptualist sculpture, staged photography—that at times if feels addled with desultory kinks. Adjacent works lack chemistry; the whole merely equals the sum of its parts. It’s a show in which individual sensibility triumphs at the cost of incisive focus. To be fair, though, the “Arab world” is an unwieldy category to work with, far-reaching geographically and culturally. Reviewing last year’s exhibition of contemporary Arab art at the New Museum, Holland Cotter of the New York Times asked, “Where, within an all-purpose ‘Arab’ theme, should emphasis fall?” His own response was that in facing the dilemmas of representing a panethnic group to a Western audience, “there’s no right way to go.” Cotter’s ultimate stance was to be content to settle, believing that imperfect inclusion is better than absence.
This thought, if not joltingly inspiring, is perhaps a soberly realistic starting point. Western discourses have long envisioned the Near East as timeless—a monolithic culture in arrested development, irrevocably trapped in tradition. The neglect by North American museums of any post-twentieth century Arab art until recent years only confirms such an attitude. Even when the Other finds inclusion, it is too frequently of the superficial mode proffered by Western liberal cosmopolitanism: a kind of anodyne, self-congratulatory white noise. As a corrective mission, then, Home Ground is very welcome and largely successful. It eludes the infantilizing stereotypes and exoticism of Orientalist narratives, as well as the lazy liberal form of inclusion by numbers. The selection felt thoughtful, not merely arbitrated by identity or the familiarity of token big names. Given a single collection to work with and a particular audience to address, Takesh has curated a well-rounded aperitif of contemporary Arab art that, for better or worse, left me wanting something more.
Amy Luo is a Canadian art writer and professional. She is the 2014 winner of the Canadian Art Foundation Writing Prize, and her writing has appeared in Canadian Art and Hart House Review, among other publications. She is currently a MA candidate in History of Art at University College London.