For what might be the most relevant exhibition of the summer—months during which our eyes have been transfixed on the Middle East—Here and Elsewhere at New York’s New Museum does not focus on ancient artifacts or political propaganda. Instead, it displays videos, paintings, photographs, and installations—personal reportage and lyrical documentaries from 45 emerging or midcareer Arab artists from 15 countries. “We are very proud that we did not call this Behind the Veil,” says Massimiliano Gioni, associate director and director of exhibitions at the museum. “It’s not a happy show—but these are not very happy times.”
Photo © Benoit Pailley
Spread out on multiple floors of the Museum’s Lower Manhattan building (designed by SANAA), this is the first museum-wide exhibition in New York City dedicated exclusively to Arab art, and the largest-ever exhibition at the New Museum. The show’s title is borrowed from the French film essay “Ici et ailleurs (Here and Elsewhere),” a documentary released in 1976 after filming for six years, and "a reflection on the role of images in inspiring political consciousness," according to the Museum. During that time, Palestine and Israel changed dramatically, as did the people living there. The exhibition aims to avoid generalizing or analyzing broad historical events, offering the audience a glimpse into the artists’ worlds by saying, “I’ve seen this, you should see this, too.”
While most of the artists were born in the 1970s, there are about a dozen who are a decade or two older, and a few who are a couple decades younger. Each identifies as an Arab and either resides in the Arab World, North Africa, the United States, Europe, or a combination of these continents. There is also about equal representation from female and male artists.
Inside the museum lobby, GCC, a group of eight artists who borrow their name from the abbreviation for the Gulf Cooperation Council, an alliance of six oil exporting Arab nations, installed wallpaper depicting a luxury Abu Dhabi hotel, with vast marble spaces and locals wearing traditional dress (The One and Only Madinat New Museum Royal Mirage, 2014). Most hotels in the Gulf have painted, framed portraits of sheikhs or members of the royal family above the reception desk; here, the images are self-portraits of the GCC artists.
Curatorial associate Natalie Bell traveled through Amman and Jerusalem, across Algeria and Morocco, and to various Middle Eastern cities to solicit and collect art. The outreach process took 18 months. “We have our eyes open to the whole world. Such a huge range of work is displayed here. We had a strong focus on how artists were using images in the first person and singular voice,” Bell says. (The show’s accompanying catalogue was co-edited by the New York City-based Bidoun magazine, which specializes in art and culture from the Middle East.)
Some of the artists are well established and others are showing for the first time. Acclaimed artist Mona Hatoum’s Witness (2009) is a miniaturized rendition of the monument of the Place des Martyres in Beirut—complete with bullet holes over the white porcelain biscuit sculpture. Shuruq Harb’s The Keeper (2011-13), a video installation, depicts a collage of more than 2,000 photographs that she retrieved from Mustafa, a young street vender in Ramallah, who sold images he found from the Internet. Artist Wafa Hourani's Qalandia 2087 (2009), is a large, six-part mixed media architectural installation built from cardboard boxes and archival photographs, reimagines a future Ramallah refugee camp, in Palestine.
Egyptian artist Wael Shawky’s video The Cave (Amsterdam) (2005) shows him walking between the aisles of an ordinary grocery store in Amsterdam, while reciting Surat al Kahf from the Quran (the Cave, in Arabic): The tale of youngsters who hid in a cave and fell asleep for 300 years, and woke up—confused and bewildered—in an entirely different world. In 151 watercolor paintings, Abdullah Al Saadi from the United Arab Emirates catalogues the mountainous areas of his childhood home and demonstrates how his illiterate mother often left twigs as visual messages for him. Iranian-born, Dubai-based artist Rokni Haerizadeh isolates moving image stills from news media clips on YouTube, prints them on paper, and paints grotesque creatures on them in his ongoing Fictionville series.
Gioni summed up the theme of the exhibit and its mission: “By looking ‘elsewhere,’ we will understand our ‘here.’”
Jasmine Bager is a Saudi-American multimedia journalist who writes about art and maintaining an identity across both the Western and Eastern worlds. She was previously an intern at SNAP and Architectural Record.