Above Image: Ali Jabri, Collage
Is it possible to unify the myriad of disparate styles and thousands of artists by simply labeling them regionally or ethnically? Unusually for an exhibit that takes an ethnic group as it's focus, the thesis of Here and Elsewhere is 'no'. In fact the exhibition begins with a the bold statement: ”Is there such a thing as Arabian Art?” and closes with the equally bold, no, not really.
There is a feeling, one that I'm assured has a specific name in Italian, that is the feeling one gets when confronted with a large amount of knowledge and art spanning back centuries, and you realize you know nothing about it, and you immediately realize that you should. Here and Elsewhere will evoke this in each visitor. Why don't I know more about contemporary Arabian art?
Fouad Elkoury, Snapshot
While the argument can and has been clearly made that there is no easy category to put these artists in, there are, however, uniting themes that have permeated the Arab world for the last century. It has been a century of conflict, wars have ravaged the region, and the Palestinian struggle has been both a uniting and dividing issue. The exhibition is not cheerful, it's not happy, but these are not happy times.
The exhibition is organized into five floors, and no one is more important that the other, but there are highlights that cannot be missed. The first floor is home to Ahmed Mater's fantastic video instillation showing the creation and destruction that goes on as the cities in this region grow and accept ever more growing numbers of refugees and migrant workers. The workers laugh, mock one another, basically act like construction workers; while a gilded half moon is placed on a towering building and another is demolished.
Progressing through the exhibition we see video diaries from the Lebanese conflict, “No one was innocent, we were all involved, I would have carried arms but I didn't know how to use them.” In Diary of an Armed Gang by Hrair Sarkissian a group of men involved in the Syrian civil war sit and discuss frankly their goals. “We are not here to argue or to create a state, our concern is to get rid of the army. We are here to attack army checkpoints and maybe take a tank, then we will get back to work.”
Ahmed Mater, Leaves Fall In All Seasons
From a photography standpoint the exhibition is rich in unknown, or at least uncommonly known, gems. The highlight is Van Leo; an Armenian-Egyptian photographer working in the 1940's who created Cindy Shermanesque portraits of himself as various characters: pilot, concubine, rebel. Leo produced some nudes that are unfortunately lost due to the risk involved in simply owning naked pictures. Taken from a purely American standpoint these are the most relevant images to what is happening in our country today, but as they are surrounded by images of survival, struggle, death and revolution; they quietly take their place on the side of the room, waiting to be discovered by a curious visitor.
More pictures adorn the wall, Palestinian fighters in flairs from the early 70s. Fighting, not against Israel this time, but Jordan.
The fourth floor is hung with screens upon which maps are projected, maps that show the journey of immigrants as they make their way from Africa to the Middle East and beyond. The narration and stories behind these, examples of millions of such immigrants are all unique, and there is never someone with the same story. It's in ways like this that Here and Elsewhere constantly reminds us that we are dealing with a collection of individuals with individual reasons, motivations, and lives; always cautioning us never to look with too broad a vision.
Bouchra Khalili, Mapping Journey, Detail
There are endless highlights of photography, Jabri's collages were among the finest. The exhibition is the largest of it's kind and as we are seeing more Arabian artists pop up at Biennials, the timing is perfect. Easily the best exhibition of the year, and the best at the New Museum.
Text by John Hutt
Photographs by Chad Smith
Second Floor of New Museum - Pictured are works by Fouad Elkoury & Marwan Rechmaoul
Third Floor of New Museum - Pictured are works by Marwan & Fifth Floor of New Museum - Pictured are works by Muhamad Arabi & Poster Designs by Berta Abelenda