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Berin Golonu on "Foto Galatasaray: Studio Practice by Maryam Şahinyan," by Tayfun Serttaş (Istanbul: Aras Yayıncılık, 2011), 374 pages, softcover, in Turkish and English.
Photo by Maryam Şahinyan
Foto Galatasaray / İstanbul – Beyoğlu, 1940
Glass plate negative, 9x14 cm
Many Ottoman photographers of Armenian heritage who operated studios in the Pera neighborhood of Istanbul, such as Abdullah Frères and Pascal Sebah, are well recognized in the history of Orientalist photography. But less is known about Armenian-Turkish portrait photographers who endured political hardship during the early Turkish Republic to continue operating their studios. Contemporary artist Tayfun Serttaş, who has training as a social anthropologist, has taken on the role of a social historian to call attention to some of these practitioners. Stüdyo Osep, his first large-scale archival project, grew out of his family’s ties to Osep Minasoğlu, a Turkish-Armenian photographer who operated studios in Istanbul from the 1950s through the 1980s. Serttaş worked with Osep to compile a book of images with the same title, published by Aras in 2009. This collaboration led to Foto Galatasaray: Studio Practice by Maryam Şahinyan, a publication chroniclingthe life work of portrait photographer Maryam Şahinyan. Şahinyan opened Foto Galatasaray in 1935 and operated it until the 1980s. After her death in 1996, Serttaş was given care of more than 200,000 of Şahinyan’s images salvaged by Aras. The artist continues to spearhead this mammoth conservation project with the support of the art institution SALT Galata, which hosted an exhibition of these photographs from November 2011 to January 2012, many images showcased in digital form. Because the delicate condition of the existing negatives prevents them from continual public access and display, the book Foto Galatasaray provides the only access to a significant selection of this archive that is presently available.
With the exception of two short introductory texts by SALT director Vasıf Kortun and fiction writer Karin Karakaşlı, the book’s other texts are all written by Serttaş. What results is a highly personal dialogue between the absent Şahinyan, speaking through the images she produced, and the photographer-archivist Serttaş who injects a broader contextual meaning into these images through his methods of organization and display. Serttaş refers to the discoveries he makes in Şahinyan’s archive as anti-memory. He writes, “it reminds us that what we can remember is not limited to what our memory conditioned us to remember, it becomes anti-memory. It becomes the form of the past and making peace ‘despite the past.’ It convinces us that there is another ‘we’”.
The first chapter recounts Şahinyan’s family history and the historical conditions and political realities that led her to become a portrait photographer, including the ethnic cleansing of Armenians before and during the First World War, which uprooted her family from their home town of Sivas and stripped her father of his government post. Şahinyan’s Armenian background and the fact that she was an observant member of a religious minority helped her attract members of Istanbul’s Armenian population, as well as making her studio popular with members of the city’s other minority communities. As a result, Şahinyan’s life work also serves to document the diversity of Istanbul’s social fabric over the course of these years, and offers a testament to the Turkish-Armenian community’s endurance, rootedness, and survival. It also leads the viewer to consider the factors that altered this social fabric. Some of the related incidents mentioned in the book include the passing of a tax law in 1942 meant to penalize non-ethnic Turks and the anti-minority pogroms that swept Istanbul in September 1955.
Photo by Maryam Şahinyan
Foto Galatasaray / İstanbul – Beyoğlu, 1944
Glass plate negative, 10x15 cm
Şahinyan’s more visible identity marker, that of being the only woman commercial photographer in Istanbul, had perhaps the most significant effect on the clientele she attracted. There are more pictures of women and children than men in Şahinyan’s archive. The female subjects appear to metaphorically let down their guard (sometimes stripping down to their undergarments) and literally let down their hair. In a particularly iconic image which graces the book’s cover, a beautiful young woman with the slight glimmer of a smile entwines her hands under her lace collar while leaning on a platform covered with a piece of canvas. Her plentiful, wavy hair has been parted down the middle to extend in two segments down over her shoulders and spill onto the platform so as to resemble the outline of angels’ wings. In another portrait, a woman is seen from the back, her face in profile, her rich brown mane looking as though it has just been unleashed from a braid and is slowly expanding to take over the entire composition. The archive documents the important changes undergoing the representation of women in modernizing Turkey. It also offers a significant break with the uneven power dynamic between the male voyeur and the female subject that was all-too-often prevalent in the Orientalist photography coming out of this region.
The second chapter, titled “Open Readings,” outlines Serttaş’s practice of grouping images in the archive according to his chosen themes. This chapter is organized into subsections that illustrate such themes, including “Reflections of Fashion,” “Gender” and “Migration and Transformation.” Serttaş’s educational background in social anthropology is reflected in the way he uses these images to narrate a social history of Istanbul that reflects changes in Turkey’s political history. In “Reflections of Fashion,” we see Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s sartorial reforms, intended to modernize and Westernize the new Turkish Republic, reflected in the fashionable hair styles, hats, dresses and mink stoles worn by Şahinyan’s clientele in the 1930s and 1940s. Some of the women aspire to the likenesses of fashion icons such as Ava Gardner or Katherine Hepburn, indicating the global reach of Hollywood’s ideals of beauty.
The section titled “Migration and Transformation” focuses on the influx of rural populations into Istanbul in the 1980s. Processes of industrialization, globalization and neo-liberal economic practices continue to trigger this city’s growth today, so that its population now numbers close to 15 million people. Şahinyan was witness to this demographic shift in the 1980s. The new urban transplants she photographed during these years were rural Armenians who had recently migrated to Istanbul. In these photographs we see that women are clothed in more traditional and modest fashions exemplary of village life. Cotton print dresses, the şalvar (baggy trousers) and the tülbent (a head scarf made of printed fine muslin, decorated with embroidery) have replaced the snappy mink stoles and the jaunty hats of earlier, more cosmopolitan Istanbulites. The extended families of these new urban residents are also larger, sometimes including three different generations in one photograph. These subjects illustrate how Istanbul grew to become a microcosm of Anatolia itself, thereby also lending visual expression to a greater diversity of region, income and class.
In the section titled “Gender,” Serttaş’s methodology starts to resemble the practice of Lebanese artist Akram Zaatari who has mined the historical archive of Lebanese commercial photographer Hashem el Madani to produce narratives of difference that make an appeal for greater social tolerance in the Middle East. In photographs by Şahinyan that appear to date from the 1940s and 1950s, we see transvestites posing for her camera, and men in makeup, their long nails manicured by her rudimentary photo retouching techniques. One image shows two men in suits with their arms around each other, leaning in for a kiss. Another shows two women gazing longingly into one another’s eyes. Are these playful charades enacted in front of the camera, or are they meant to serve as extremely personal expressions of sexual preference and queer identity? This is where is archive serves as a particularly fertile space for drawing out open-ended meanings and thereby helping produce a greater variety of subject positions that Istanbulites can identity with, even from a historical remove.
Photo by Maryam Şahinyan
Foto Galatasaray / İstanbul – Beyoğlu, 1953
Glass plate negative, 10x15 cm
The last portion of the book places Şahinyan’s images into two “albums,” titled “Identicals” and “Those Who Stare Through the Mirror.” These headings are informed by Şahinyan’s praxis, the ways she would pose her clientele and the structural patterns that regularly reappeared in her photographs. In “Identicals” we see children, as well as adults, dressed as doubles, wearing either identical or extremely similar outfits. In the other album, the gazes of the models posing in front of the mirror are reflected back at the camera, so that both a profile view and a full facial view of the same person coexist in one image. These albums explore important themes such as the tension between individual subjectivity and social belonging. The richness of the level of meaning embedded in this material also holds the potential of offering the greatest number of psychoanalytic reads. For example, Freud’s concept of the “uncanny,” or Judith Butler’s notions of performed identity and gender could be examined further here. As such, these two albums would have posed a good opportunity for Serttaş to further expose the depth of meaning embedded in an archive by inviting a greater number of artists or writers to lend their personal interpretations to these images.
As a sizeable volume that samples an extensive archive, Foto Galatasaray uses portraits to illustrate the social impact of historical developments in the life of a young republic. Şahinyan’s portraits reveal how individual subjects may have subsumed state ideology and cultural norms to integrate them into their individualized identities, as well as showing us that the act of actively performing identities for the camera sometimes produced variants on these norms to enable a greater possibility of subject positions. It also shows how the shifting demographics of Istanbul in the 1980s played a significant role in the emergence of identity politics in Turkey in the 1990s, charting how the more homogenous Kemalist ideal of Westernized modernity in the earlier 20th century transitioned into one that had the potential to account for ethnic, religious and class differences in later decades. Where the book may fall short is in fully exploring the depth of meaning embedded in such an abundant archive. Opening the archive up to different readers, even those who may not have had cultural ties to Istanbul, may have produced a greater diversity of interpretations, perhaps maybe enabling it to exist beyond its national framework to enter into more transnational dialogs about migration and belonging. Perhaps that is the task of a second volume on Foto Galatasaray, one that can be published once this archive is able to find a permanent home.
Timur Hammond on Remembering Istanbul [İstanbul’u Hatırlamak]edited by Jens Hoffman and Adriano Pedrosa (Istanbul: Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts and Yapı Kredi Publications, 2011), 276 pages, paperback 18 €
Now entering its third decade of existence, the Istanbul Biennial has been transformed from a small-scale operation run on a shoestring budget to a sprawling event with a wealth of resources at its disposal. Remembering Istanbul provides an important source not only to understand the changes in the Biennial itself, but also to begin to consider how this local event has been situated within multiple cultural, economic, political, and social contexts. Examining, as Bige Örer points out in her opening essay, the relationship between the city and the biennial, Remembering Istanbul, “presents the turning points and debates that arose during the historical progression of the Istanbul Biennial… [and] invites readers to join us in contemplating the contemporary art scenes developing at both the local and the international levels” (17).
The essays collected in Remembering Istanbul emerge out of a conference of the same name that preceded the opening of the 12th Istanbul Biennial in November 2010. The conference’s goal, curators Jens Hoffman and Adriano Pedrosa explain, was to review both the biennial’s history and the various approaches adopted by previous curators. They frame the volume as a contribution to the field of exhibition history in general and that of the biennial exhibition in particular. In those terms, the book is a success. However, Remembering Istanbul is both more and less than a simple history of the Biennial. The book’s 16 essays afford an opportunity to think about the constitution of a ‘local’ event in a globalized world, the relationship between art works and their contexts, and the challenges inherent in any project of remembrance.
The book’s regrettably brief opening essays by Örer and Hoffman and Pedrosa are followed by contributions from the 10 previous curators of the Biennial and a further 4 from participating artists. While the chronological arrangement of the curatorial essays encourages a certain historical narrative, Remembering Istanbul is better read as a series of perspectives on the past. Each contributor pulls on different sources to tell their story; read together, the essays are almost like a network of roots, reaching both back into the past and spreading out around the world. Despite the many differences between the essays, three themes run throughout the book: the constitution of a local event in a globalized world; the relationship between art and its contexts; and the challenges involved in ‘remembering Istanbul’.
If it has become something of a commonplace to talk of Istanbul as a city poised between the global and the local, this book nevertheless provides a helpful set of commentaries on how the Istanbul Biennial has been positioned within a global art world. For some, Istanbul’s place on the global stage is self-evident. For example, Hou Hanru’s characterization of the biennial’s real function as one of “[stimulating] the dynamic process of the evolution of the locality as a part of the changing global world” (197) depends upon a local determined by the global. While localities evolve, they do so primarily in terms of the global.
In contrast, René Block’s describes the role of a biennial and the work of the curator as “[developing] an international context for the local art scene, to create real working and meeting places for artists” (77). The shift is telling; rather than seeing the biennial that aligns the local art scene with a pre-existing global, Block prompts us to consider the process through which the international and the global are generated as contexts for specific local events. Indeed, he reminds us that those contexts require work and maintenance. In short, the two essays mark different approaches to framing the relationship of the local biennial to a global and/or international art network.
Yet rather than speak of a ‘local’ biennial, it might be better to talk of the event as one situated in place. Such an approach foregrounds how ‘Istanbul’ comes to be conceptualized in the first place. As Beral Madra points out, while many artists did produce commentaries on Istanbul, “we also witnessed superficial references, readings reduced to a single sentence, and clichéd interpretations of this complex city” (39). What is at stake, she reminds us, is not simply how Istanbul is positioned within the global, but how “Istanbul” comes to be articulated in the first place. In that vein, Vasıf Kortun’s essay provides a particularly interesting account of the ways in which his curatorial experience was bound up in the political, economic, cultural, and architectural transformation of the city during the 1980s and 90s. He describes how Feshane, a former textile factory and the venue for the 3rd Biennial in 1992, had collapsed following the liberalization of the economy in the 1980s; the ongoing deindustrialization of the Golden Horn had left the building as an empty monument without any urban context but also made it possible to site the Biennial there. Economics, politics, and architectural transformations came together to generate a momentary context for the event.
Indeed, what is the relationship between an art event like the Istanbul Biennial and its contexts? Madra’s critique of the use of historical sites as “basic exhibition spaces” suggests that exhibition sites can have their own histories independent of their artworks; moreover – and perhaps more controversially – artworks staged in those locations ought to respond to and dialogue with those site-specific histories. Describing the 1992 Biennial, Kortun takes a similar approach: “Art [in the 1990s] was shifting from spatial practices to relational practices, from reacting to spaces to reacting to contexts” (59). While Kortun shares Madra’s commitment to developing site-specific exhibitions, Kortun’s decision in 1992 to not follow Madra’s example is an important difference and reminds us that the context – the place – of the Istanbul Biennial is never simply ‘Istanbul’. Rather, those contexts are dynamic, unstable, and themselves indelibly tied to a host of other conditions.
The third thread running through the volume concerns the project of remembrance itself: Not only why we remember, but how we remember. Madra provides an interesting entrance to the issue. Referring to her previous critiques of the Istanbul Biennials and implicitly highlighting her ‘insider’ status, she asks “which material constitutes a written source of information for the curator who comes to Istanbul with the purpose of working on a biennial” (29). In other words, she is asking about how an archive comes to be constituted. An archive published only in Turkish would have far less circulation outside of Turkey than one published in English; likewise, it seems far more likely to imagine a Biennial curator who reads no Turkish than a curator who reads no English. That imbalance – one by no means unique to the Istanbul Biennial – ought to remind us of the two different ways of conceptualizing the relationship between Istanbul and the global. Published in both Turkish and English, this volume manages to speak both to a “national” and an “international” audience. Yet as the curatorial collective What, How & For Whom reminds us, both curatorial projects and projects of remembrance are bound up not only in questions of why and how we work, but for whom we are working. Language is a central part of that.
The artist Ali Kazma makes a powerful case for memorial projects like this book. “It is very easy to conform to the status quo,” he writes, “in a place where there is no memory” (269). Further, however, this book helps to position the Istanbul Biennial on a global stage; to borrrow René Block’s phrase, Remembering Istanbul helps to begin marking out the multiple contexts of the biennial. As with all edited volumes, the essays sometimes vary in quality; in the same vein, a closing reflection by the curators Jens Hoffman and Adriano Pedrosa would have helped tie the book together into a more coherent whole. That said, there is something suggestive and exciting about the unfinished and ongoing project of Remembering Istanbul. The soon-to-be-opened online archive will provide even more opportunities to think about memory, place, and the role of art in a globalized world.
Timur Hammond is a doctoral candidate in Geography at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is currently researching urban transformation in the Istanbul neighborhood of Eyüp.
Emily Neumeier on Ottoman Painting: Reflections of Western Art from the Ottoman Empire to the Turkish Republic by Wendy M. K. Shaw (London: I.B. Tauris, 2011)
Ottoman Painting: Reflections of Western Art from the Ottoman Empire to the Turkish Republic is a thorough survey of Ottoman art and culture from the end of the eighteenth century to the first decade of the Turkish Republic, a period when local painters began to adopt European artistic practices. Previous art historical scholarship has certainly noted the phenomenon of “Westernization” in nineteenth-century Ottoman painting; in fact, this development is the underlying premise for almost any discussion of art from this period.1 What Wendy Shaw, Professor of Art History at the University of Bern, Switzerland, offers is not a first look at this cross-cultural interaction, but rather a corrective to the “assumption that modernization is purely mimetic,” wherein Ottoman artists replicated wholesale the forms and paradigms of modernity from the monolithic West with no “adaption to local circumstances” (1). Building on the critique of postcolonial studies, Ottoman Painting sets out to chart an alternate or “differential” modernity as it unfolded in Istanbul, the imperial and cultural capital. Expanding upon a similar proposition found in her first book on the emergence of the Ottoman museum, Shaw maintains that these Ottoman artists, who promoted styles and techniques that were by European standards tired and outdated, can be re-interpreted as agents of a cultural revolution whose “new art had to forge new meanings in its new home, an old world awash with change” (2).2
After laying out her thesis in the introduction, Shaw chronologically traces, over the course of six chapters, the appearance and later institutionalization of the European mode of painting (namely, oil on canvas) within the Ottoman Empire. Chapter 1 identifies Ottoman architectural interiors as a key location for transition, from the Islamic girih (abstract, potentially infinite surface patterning) to eighteenth-century landscape paintings displayed in continuous bands edging the walls of reception rooms and mosques, to movable works on canvas at the turn of the century (11-40). Chapter 2 moves briskly ahead to the 1860s when the first Ottoman artists, such as Ahmet Ali and Osman Hamdi Bey, trained in Paris (41-78), while Chapter 3 follows the next generation of artists who produced landscapes and art that engaged with problems of the figural (especially female) form in order to communicate with local audiences. Shaw could spend more time here postulating who these audiences were and where they encountered this art (79-106). In chapters 4 and 5 art becomes more accessible to the pubic after the Second Constitutional Revolution in 1908 and during the Turkish War of Independence, when organizations such as the Society of Ottoman Artists flourished and artists harnessed the possibilities of art as an expression of “an emerging national identity” (107-122, 123-156, 123). Chapter 6, concluding with art in the first decade of the Republic, is a postscript on how painting became a propaganda tool for “reconfiguring communal cultural identity for a new political reality” (157-178, 5).
Each chapter begins with a brief historical orientation and is divided loosely into thematic sections, whose topics range from particular individuals like Osman Hamdi Bey to wider trends such as the appearance of woman painters or the popularity of landscape painting. Along the way Shaw submits dozens of paintings to an in-depth formal and contextual analysis that they have not properly received in the past. Her socio-political approach also lends some new interpretations to these works. For example, she resists the standard claim that the introduction of oil on canvas to Istanbul was a seismic shift from miniature illustration, but rather argues for historical continuity by demonstrating the reliance of painters on more traditional modes of looking. The assertion that these Ottoman artists were not simply naïve copiers of European styles is well taken; thus it is curious when the book at times suggests that these artists sought to appropriate the politics behind the French art for an Ottoman context. For example, Shaw suggests that the still-lifes of Ahmet Ali, whom she characterizes as having a close relationship with the palace as opposed to the more radical Süleyman Seyyid, possibly shares an “esoteric affinity with Courbet’s ongoing critique of state corruption” (62). Shaw is at her best when she elucidates the details and context of specific institutions, publications or individuals. Her discussions of the collector Halil Şerif Pasha or the government-sponsored Şişli Studio during the first World War could easily be expanded and stand as independent chapters.
For a slim volume, Ottoman Painting is impressive in its breadth. Shaw pieces history together from both primary and secondary sources, introducing writers and critics such as Mehmed Ruhi or Nurullah Berk who might not otherwise be accessible to a non-Turkish-speaking audience. The author is well-versed in the latest offerings from Turkish art historians and cites them heavily. The bibliography and the main text also reveal Shaw’s interest in literary and art theory, with concepts drawn from Barthes and Hegel to more contemporary intellectuals like Homi K. Bhabha. The application of more mainstream theory to selected paintings by Ottoman artists is refreshing and unprecedented.
Despite the author’s own assertion that her main objective is not to create a totalizing study of the art from this period, Shaw has achieved what hardly anyone else has yet managed to do: writing a narrative of the main players and events of Ottoman art within the last seventy years of the empire.3 With the field in such a nascent state, feats of data collection and intensive research are vital. Before this book, those who wanted to gain a thorough knowledge of this topic had to sift through countless monographs and exhibition catalogues, piecing together the story for themselves. The extensive use of theory perhaps restricts this book from a general audience, but it would certainly serve students and specialists alike who seek a thoughtful look into key questions and moments in the last decades of Ottoman painting. In addition to reframing the Euro-Ottoman cultural exchange, Shaw’s latest contribution will hopefully point her readers to new projects that will further the discourse of a budding field in art history.
1For this theme of “Westernization” in late Ottoman painting, consider Mustafa Cezar’s two-volume work Sanatta Batıya Açılış ve Osman Hamdi [The Opening to the West in Art and Osman Hamdi] (Istanbul: Erol Kerim Aksoy Kültür, Eğitim, Spor ve Sağlık Vakfı, 1995), as well as the recent exhibition Batı’ya Yolculuk—Türk Resminin 70 Yıllık Serüveni, 1860-1930 [Travel to the West—70 years of Turkish Painting, 1860-1930]at the Sakıp Sabanci Museum, Istanbul (16 April-2 August 2009).
2See Wendy M. K. Shaw, Possessors and Possessed: Museums, Archaeology, and the Visualization of History in the Late Ottoman Empire (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).
3 A History of Turkish Painting, edited by Günsel Renda, Turan Erol, Adnan Turani, Kaya Özsezgin, and Mustafa Aslıer, stands as a great survey and reference as well, but its scope is broader (Seattle, London: Palasar SA in association with University of Washington Press, 1988).
Clare Davies on the three opening exhibition catalogs for Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha: Sajjil: A Century of Modern Art by Nada Shabout, Deena Chalabi and Wassan al-Khudhairi; Interventions: A Dialogue Between the Modern and the Contemporary by Nada Shabout; Told/Untold/Retold: 23 Stories of Journeys Through Time and Space by Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath (All three published by Skira, 2010).
While Abu Dhabi’s Louvre and Guggenheim museums continue to loom, immaterial, on the horizon, the opening of Doha’s Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art last May represented something of a coup. Facing down these more costly, widely publicized and, at times, controversial projects, Mathaf seemed possessed of a certain nimbleness. Mathaf’s versatility in this respect was signaled by the choice, for example, to house the museum’s three inaugural exhibitions in two temporary structures (a former school in Education City and a new, hastily built space on the grounds of Doha’s landmark Museum of Islamic Art, respectively), rather than commission architectural monuments of the type designed by Frank Gehry and Jean Nouvel, respectively, for its Emirati neighbor. Opening ahead of the curve and without the negative press garnered by accusations of unjust labor practices (currently besetting the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi1), the debates spurred by the fear of watching Europe’s artistic patrimony leach into the desert sands (as is the case with the Louvre Abu Dhabi2) or protests against museum-franchising, Mathaf chose to acknowledge the contingencies and conflicting interests that threaten to disrupt the putative coherency underlying any major art institution, but especially one occupying the role of an “Arab museum of modern art”.
Mathaf’s ability to speak to audiences with differing, sometimes opposing perspectives regarding which political, ideological and cultural affiliations such a museum should embody, and what statements it should make concerning the nature of modern Arab art represents the true test of its willingness to engage rather than avoid the challenges faced by any new regional arts institution. If nothing else, Mathaf’s tour of Middle Eastern cities a few months ahead of the museum’s opening helped highlight the diversity of the publics that the museum hoped to court and confirmed the often fractious nature of their relationships to one another.
In a scene ripe for satire, the simmering antagonisms and conflicted alliances of various art world factions surfaced at a discussion between artist Hassan Khan and curator Sarah Rifky hosted by Mathaf at Cairo’s upscale Four Seasons Hotel. An old guard with a chokehold on official cultural institutions and policies felt that their traditional authority had been slighted by the choice of younger speakers not beholden to their networks of influence. Ambitious, up-and-coming, state-employed arts professionals kept one eye on these potentially dangerous players and the other on the corridor chatter of an emerging collectors’ circle of wealthy local elites. Egypt’s leading business magnate Naguib Sawiris was in attendance, perhaps the most influential of this new class of collectors and gallerists interested in hewing a path between the rhetoric and power base of long-standing local arts institutions and professional circles, and those audiences outside of Egypt capable of bestowing a different kind of prestige and greater financial reward. The so-called independent contingent, associated with the event by dint of the speakers enjoyed a familiarity with others in attendance while observing a certain animosity towards their presence at the event.
The gathering of a fragmented and often physically dispersed art scene, and the forced interaction of various groups were, at times, tense. The evening demonstrated how deeply the issue of audience must inform some of the most fundamental choices made by any emerging arts institution in the region. In seeking not to alienate any one group, Mathaf’s knowing inclusion of these many voices was perhaps inevitable. However, the museum’s decision to face the issue head on, if not entirely successful, suggested an unorthodox approach. Rather than striking deals behind closed doors, Mathaf brought potential audiences together on a public stage.
Likewise the publications accompanying Mathaf’s inaugural exhibitions emphasize the institution’s proclaimed interest in soliciting the perspectives of others, rather than in pushing its own agenda or even taking sides—a commitment to contingency, which hovers like those invisible quotation marks inflecting the beleaguered terms comprising the museum’s very name: “arab + museum + modern + art.”3 This self-reflexive stance is indicated in the publications’ hyperbolic use of the lowercase in titles and headings. Likewise, the museum’s loose, looping calligraphic-style logo puns on cultural and linguistic duality. A stand-in for the second “a” in the English transliteration of the Arabic word for museum, mathaf resembles the soft “h”, turned on its side, which appears in the original Arabic script.
Yet the catalogues’ down-style impulse remains constrained to the textual design, and lush, high-quality reproductions of art works fill the greater part of the pages in all three publications, echoing the museum’s commitment to the art object as manifested in the white-cube style hangings on display at the opening. The simple gesture of offering a discrete space (whether in the gallery or in the one-dimensional framework of a book) within which to view works should not be underestimated. A significant segment of the region’s modern artistic heritage remains inaccessible, secluded in private collections or left to languish in public storehouses. When displayed, the same works have suffered regularly from distracting exhibition conditions, and illustrated publications generally offer only low-resolution reproductions.4
Mathaf clearly positions itself against these bêtes-noires of the art historian, offering a rare accessibility to works of art from the region and a standard gallery context for presentation. This stance represents one of the few unifying elements among the three publications whose differences in tone reflect the irregularities in vision produced by a largely interim staff, hired to kick-start institutional programming and develop an identity standard for what had originally been a private pursuit of H.E. Sheikh Hassan bin Mohammed bin Ali Al Thani. A self-identified artist, Sheikh Hassan began acquiring works of art in the mid-1980s. However it was not until 1994 that he moved to cultivate his personal collection with the aim of creating a museum capable of representing some two hundred years of art from the Middle East, Persian Gulf, North African and the Arab diaspora.5
The Qatar Foundation (established in 1995) and the Qatar Museums Authority (established in 2005, and for which Sheikh Hassan serves as Vice Chairman of the Board) facilitated the institutionalization of the collection. In one sense, Mathaf’s opening represents an important collaborative effort amongst emerging Qatari institutions of approximately the same generation as Sheikh Hassan’s original collection. However, Mathaf stands apart in its apparent willingness to encourage a conception of itself as an institution-in-process, embracing this moment in the history of the country’s institution-building. The museum’s staff was brought in at a relatively late date to realize the final, if crucial stages of this project. Perhaps as a result of the curatorial freedom they seem to have enjoyed, their late entrance into the process of transforming the collection into an institution, and this attitude of open-endedness towards the project of institution-building, multiple visions of Mathaf compete across the texts. There is some irony in achieving a slick design concept for an institution that, at least at this stage, admits to a productive state of transition and irresolution. The texts reflect a truer image of the latter: the quality of writing is uneven, and lacking a thorough copyediting, it appears slightly raw on the page.
In offering Arabic and English renditions of each text, these catalogues also raise familiar issues around the slippages and gaps that occur in the process of translation. For example, while some of the texts excerpted from existing sources and republished in the Interventions catalogue sound somewhat stilted in English, their discursive references are clearer in Arabic. In other instances, the acknowledged translation of a term such as “modernity” (or hadatha in Arabic) may in fact obscure the way in which each functions differently, and according to different histories of usage, in their respective language of origin.
Seen together, the texts offer a take on the field of contemporary critical and art historical writing on art in the Middle East. An array of energetic if unsynchronized voices speaking in different languages and idioms struggle to contend with unwieldy, sometimes already exhausted questions; they are most compelling when focused on the specificities of art practice and patronage. In reading through the catalogues, one senses that a working consensus regarding the place of language in relation to art criticism or art history doesn’t seem to exist. And this is perhaps as it should be, especially in relation to a “field” whose most basic contours remain contested. At the same time, many of the texts are connected by a will to unpack and explain meta-narratives regarding art practices in the Middle East, which seem to lurch at us from every corner. Readers may find themselves entangled in a web of broad-strokes argumentation that, at times, lacks specificity and loses track of the works of art at hand. And while the catalogues explain concerns that are clearly central to the curators’ engagement with the works of art, it is not always clear how the exhibitions ultimately manifest or intersect with these more abstract concerns. Ultimately, many of the texts reflect a broader tendency in arts writing to either enforce or contest the positioning of art from the Middle East as a cipher for “identity”, whether religious, ethic, national or gendered. Mathaf’s exhibition catalogues clearly seek to challenge this legacy of simplistic mappings, yet in doing so, remain tied to a series of already familiar and circumscribed questions and propositions that can no longer move us beyond the existing debate and often return us, despite ourselves, to a reliance on “identity” as the basis for a critical or art historical discourse.
The primary catalogue texts largely exclude topics related to the original conditions of artistic production such as political context, intended audience, related practices in other media, issues of technique and material, and the intricacies of those conversations tying together individual works and artists across time and space. At the same time, the high-quality reproduction of works within the catalogues draws these areas of inquiry into relief. In a sense, Mathaf represents a renewed call for a shift in focus towards such concerns. Perhaps due to the scarcity of available resources and time, this approach must rely on the fruits of future and ongoing research, demanding a quantity of time and funds perhaps currently outside the scope of the museum’s own catalogues. Thus while the texts reflect a desire to surpass established narratives, they are constrained by familiar blind spots.
Nada Shabout, guest curator and professor of art history at the University of North Texas, contributes two essays in her capacities as curator of Interventions: A Dialogue Between the Modern and the Contemporary and co-curator of Sajjil: A Century of Modern Art. Her involvement reserves, both metaphorically and in practical terms, a space for the art historian in Mathaf’s collection. She contributes two essays in her capacities as curator of Interventions: A Dialogue Between the Modern and the Contemporary and co-curator of Sajjil: A Century of Modern Art. Both grapple with the specter of identity politics necessarily raised by a museum devoted to modern art from the Arab world; both are careful to include multiple voices reflecting a range of perspectives.
Shabout’s essay in the Sajjil catalogue acknowledges the role of “Arab” identity politics (summoning here a Nasserist concept of pan-Arabism) in informing regional art practices, while discussing the term’s more recent, ghettoizing potential within a “globalized” art world. Ultimately, Shabout argues, the term “Arab” cannot simply be discarded but rather should be rethought: “it is time to re-evaluate the role of identity in the arts from a global perspective.”6 The subsequent account references Nicolas Bourriaud’s concept of the “altermodern”, as well a Foucauldian understanding of history in order to make a case for re-imagining the global art world from the perspective of a “polyglot” and “hybrid” modernity capable of challenging a culturally hegemonic model that has insisted on banishing all non-Western cultural forms to a position of marginality.
Shabout’s definition allows her to extend the Middle East’s “modern” era foreward so as to have it conclude towards the end of the 1990s “when the dynamics of creativity, the market, and social concerns shifted dramatically.”7 She pegs the beginning of modernity in the Middle East to the early 20th century when, “individual modernism manifests itself in technique and production in diverse points within the region.”8 The issue of periodization is a critical one for art historical inquiry addressing practices located outside the established canon of a Western modernity. However, Shabout sketches the lifespan of Arab modernity in vague terms and without supporting arguments. As a result, the reader might be encouraged to return to her earlier invocation of hybridity as a more concretely defensible point of reference for the establishment of a new logic of periodization. Drawing on the text’s broader argument one might hypothesize, for instance, a relationship between the development of modernity in the Arab world and a specific paradigm of hybridity, whose relevance can subsequently be seen to recede in the 1990s. The exhibition’s division of works according to promiscuously open-ended themes of nature, city, individualism, society, family, and history and myth allows a highly diverse range of works to occupy the same gallery space and conceptual field. Might this strategy be interpreted as being in dialogue with the curator’s discussion of a hybrid and polyglot modernity? Without disclosing the specific conditions or historical contexts informing this choice of themes or an in-depth perspective on the inclusion of works within them, this relationship between exhibition and text remains tenuous.
Shabout’s model of a hybrid modernity is of course explored through the lens of an Arab experience, which, the author reminds us, is itself a relatively recent construct papering over the historically cosmopolitan nature of life in the Middle East and, which has ultimately constrained the space of art-making9. In delineating an Arab identity so as to move beyond it, the author is forced to navigate a tricky conceptual terrain that inevitably includes contradictions and gaps in argumentation. Within the framework of this discussion, Shabout presents a series of provocative claims, which invite serious reflection but also suggest as many questions as they do answers. Towards the end of the essay, for example, the reader encounters a passage that begins with the claim that “Arab artists soon realized that this lack of an art historical tradition in the Middle East was rooted in the historical conditions of the region, which did not necessitate categorization and genres, and they grasped that the so-called Western canon, itself a historical product, cannot be Arabized.”10 The same paragraph ends with the contention that Arab artists understood modernity as “a moment of renewed energy and creativity,” rather than a moment in the teleological progression of history.11
Shabout’s phrasing may be understood to align modernity in the arts with the concept of nahda (literally “renaissance” or “renewal”) tied to a rhetoric of national and cultural uplift that consciously drew on the activation of tradition in manifesting change. Still, many questions linger in the spaces between: When and in what terms was an art historical “lack” identified in the Middle East? What are the historical conditions that established the grounds for an art practice rejecting the work of art historical classification as Other? Where can traces of this rejection be located? Finally, the reader is asked to think about how modernity might exist as a recurrent phenomenon possessed of a cyclical rather than a singular existence in relation to this rejection of categories by artists. What are the points of fixity, for instance, that allow for such an eternal recurrence? And how might the works displayed in the catalogue or on display in the exhibition support or refute such an argument?
Shabout’s “New Spaces for Intervention” is an introductory text that frames the five participating artists of Interventions as transitional figures capable of negotiating and, indeed, producing the modern and its contemporary. Texts taken in large part from past exhibition catalogues and monographs and dating from between 1998 to 2010 accompany the entries on each of these five artists, offering a window onto the field of art history implicitly addressed in Shabout’s reflections on the historiography of the concepts of “modern Arab” art. These texts tend to celebrate the artist as a heroic figure rendered in nationalist terms: an approach positioned squarely in the camp of identity politics. The artist’s status as hero derives from their pioneering efforts in producing the terms of a viable language of artistic modernity through their practices while claiming solid roots in the pre-modern and even prehistoric art of their homelands. While the exhibition Interventions provides a rare opportunity to glimpse the weight of this intellectual history on art practice and the critical literature that responds to and shapes it, the catalogue itself offers limited guidance in suggesting alternative readings to the “pioneer” or “hero” paradigm. As the author of “New Spaces”, Shabout’s commitment to offering a space for reflection rather than presenting “answers” seems, on this occasion, to restrain rather than facilitate an expanded debate around the significance of these artists.
Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath articulate a rather more opaque vision of their roles as curators of contemporary art from the Middle East. Curators of Mathaf’s Told/Untold/Retold, a contemporary art exhibition comprised of new commissions by twenty-three artists, Bardaouil and Fellrath are partners in Art Reoriented, a design-savvy, internationally-based curatorial and arts consulting practice. Bardaouil’s meandering thirty-six page essay unfolds under the sign of the “transmodern artist”—a term not fully defined until the concluding paragraphs in terms that serve to bewilder as much as clarify:
From the pit of an existential fissure, the [TRANSMODERN] artists featured here have wrought themselves a malleable identity based on a modus operandi of liquidity instead of rigidity, multiple incarnations instead of one Immaculate Conception, and the distant ability to negotiate and inhabit forms. 12
Loosely worked accounts of local art histories, idiosyncratic readings of the participating artists’ work, and a comparison of the renaming of Paris’s Place de la Revolution to Place de la Concorde with the opening of Mathaf in Doha some two-hundred years later may raise some eyebrows. At the same time, Fellrath’s essay entitled “Contemporary Arab Art: A Case of Identity Theft?” takes on the unenviable task of mapping in fourteen pages how the “global political climate, the influence of the mass media, the commoditization of contemporary art, and the dominance of Western curatorial practice”13 have distorted the reception and perception of Arab art. Ultimately, the patient reader can distill a series of important points concerning the positioning of so-called Arab art and artists in the art world. However, the arc of an argument and the consistency of Bardaouil and Fellrath’s own curatorial vision for Told/Untold/Retold remain illegible.
In contrast, contributions that delve into processes of art-making are more immediately accessible and offer tangible insights into the commissioned works. The intention informing the Told/Untold/Retold catalogue, although unevenly realized, was to capture a snapshot of the artists’ commissioned works in progress. Too often artists have ceded this opportunity, providing instead images of fully executed works and a blurb–like meditation on the piece or their general interests. Yet the conceit, when followed, offers a rare glimpse of the ephemera and logic of contemporary artists’ working methods and suggests that the curators are more successful in facilitating the creation of a space for artists’ voices and their projects than in parsing the discursive context.
Likewise, in Sajjil, Sophia al-Maria’s brief first-person account of her forays into Mathaf’s archive offers the reader a rather poetically rendered perspective on the museum’s pre-history under the patronage of Sheikh Hassan, and provides some tantalizing insights into the life of a collection built on personal relationships, individual drive and a now old-fashioned seeming style of patronage that remains a blind spot in the record of contemporary art from the region. In a more conventionally celebratory register, Chief Curator and Acting Director Wassan al-Khudhairi’s account of Sheikh Hassan’s role in the realization of Mathaf and his vision of “building support in his society for living artists”14 sheds light on a history of collecting in the region with special relevance today.
Al-Maria claims that if the archetypal Gulfi museum “has grown conceptually from the rudimentary and problematic museum-as-ethnographic-curiosity-cabinet…to something more in line with the global movement of the twenty-first century ‘post-museum’…a fledgling term for transparent, interaction-oriented museum models”, then Mathaf is an “accidental post-museum.”15 If Mathaf is a post-museum in the sense al-Maria describes, it doesn’t seem to be accidentally so. Those accidents that do exist are a by-product of the disjointedness that the museum seems willing to accept in order to remain inclusive while transforming itself into an internationally recognized institution. As shaky as it may seem now, I see this as a productive basis for cultivating experiments in listening and speaking in new ways, an ambition which should be central to any project that seeks to fill the role of “an Arab museum of modern art” and engage a field that is equally in flux.
The museum’s three inaugural publications do not set new standards but succeed in offering points of departure from which to consider the state of arts writing in the context of a fast-changing and highly charged field. It is perhaps only in situating these texts in relation to the contemporary fields of arts writing and institution-building that we are best able to appreciate Mathaf’s inaugural publications. We might take heed of the ways in which they offer up an open invitation to write.
Clare Davies is a doctoral candidate at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University.
1 For an account in context of a recently aired petition by artists on this issue see Nicolai Ouroussoff, “Abu Dhabi Guggenheim Faces Protest,” The New York Times (Mar. 17, 2011). http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/17/arts/design/guggenheim-threatened-with-boycott-over-abu-dhabi-project.html. Last accessed April 9, 2011.
2 For a brief overview of initial responses to the Louvre’s announcement of its Abu Dhabi project see Associated Press, “Louvre to Build Branch in Abu Dhabi,” msnbc.com (Mar. 6, 2007) http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/17482641/ns/travel-destination_travel/from/toolbar. Last accessed April 9, 2011
3 The subtitle of Deena Chalabi’s essay “Articulating Mathaf: Arab + Museum + Modern + Art” (Milan: Skira, 2010): 25-29.
4 Ibid., p. 27. Mathaf Head of Strategy Deena Chalabi elaborates the point persuasively in the context of an essay that seeks to contextualize the museum and its mission: “With a few exceptions, museums in the Arab world often house and promote a specific sense of national identity: a single coherent narrative told through the display of their objects, about each country and its history. Public museums of modern art in the region are few, but also tend towards collective expressions of national pride, rather than emphasizing individual creations within wider artistic and social frameworks. The buildings and their physical contents often function as containers of memory, with limited opportunities for creating new intellectual assets, or for looking critically at the work and presenting a variety of perspectives.
5 Sheikh Hassan bin Mohammed bin Ali Al Thani, “Shining a Light: Sheikh Hassan Al-Thani on Qatar's First Museum of Modern Arab Art”. Interview with Renaud Siegmann. Diptyk 8 (December 2010). http://www.artinfo.com/news/story/36609/shining-a-light-sheikh-hassan-al-thani-on-qatars-first-museum-of-modern-arab-art/
6 Nada Shabout, “Record, Or Arab Art Again,” Sajjil: A Century of Modern Art (Milan: Skira, 2010): 33.
7 Ibid., 37.
9 Ibid., 40.
10 Ibid., 39.
12 Sam Bardaouil, “The Transmodern Artist,” Told/Untold/Retold (Milan: Skira, 2010): 51.
13 Till Fellrath, “Contemporary Arab Art: A Case of Identity Theft?” Told/Untold/Retold (Milan: Skira, 2010): 55.
14 Wassan al-Khudhairi, “From Intuition to Institution: Sheikh Hassan and the Development of Mathaf, Sajjil: A Century of Modern Art (Milan: Skira, 2010): 21.
15 Sophia al-Maria, “A History of Mathaf,” Sajjil: A Century of Modern Art (Milan: Skira, 2010): 43; 49.
Patrick Kane on Susan Noyes Platt, Art and Politics Now: Cultural Activism in a Time of Crisis (New York: Midmarch Arts Press, 2010).
The Arab Spring of 2011 confirmed the commitment of artists throughout the Arab countries to democratic and social reform. The specific condition of artistic agency and socially committed political activism has varied according to the space of agency accorded and created by artists against authoritarian regimes and structures. The form of art in such an engagement had to be carefully coordinated with other groups, including human rights activists and lawyers.
For example, the response of Kefaya, (Enough) the reformist Egyptian art group in rallying attention over the past decade to expose authoritarianism’s flaws and weakness, must be seen in the growing coordination and conscious organization of widespread mass resistance to the Mubarak regime that preceded the Arab Spring. It was Kefaya that helped draw attention to the textile workers’ protests in September of 2007 at the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company complex at Mahalla al-Kubra in the Nile Delta. Long before the Arab Spring of 2011, the integration of social media with art and labor allowed workers to post blogs that cross-referenced the more better known 3Arabawy blog by Hossam el-Hamalawy. 1
Susan Platt’s Art and Politics Now presents a survey of contemporary social activism in the arts by cataloguing the range of opposition movements around the globe, beginning in the 1970s, but with emphasis on the past decade. Platt has been a professor of art history at various colleges and is a self-described activist based in Seattle. Organized into ten chapters, the book represents a range of artistic responses to authoritarian and institutionalized racism in the era of late globalism and neo-liberalism. Selected chapters on “Women, War and Imperialism,” and “Exposing Racism,” offer critiques of the intersecting conflict between feminism and an expansive state led militarism. Lila Abdul’s performance White House (2006), for the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition “Global Feminism,” is denoted as an attempt to subvert the representation of American power with a portrayal by the artist of scenes of destruction in Kabul. In the interest of space, I shall confine my review to a discussion of those chapters that analyze contemporary art of the Middle East, although there are brief but useful treatments in Chapter One of American grassroots opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and in Chapter Two of photographic exhibits protesting the abuses by American forces at Abu Ghraib. Chapter Three, “Resisting Police States” compares the individual resistance of Antoni Tàpies in post-Francoist Spain to Latin American artists’ responses to a reordering of society in the wake of post-regime politics in the 1970s in Spain, Argentina, and Chile. A discussion of the works by Turkish artists Erdağ Aksel and Hale Tenger offers a further comparison with the position of intellectuals active in Chile or Argentina at around the same time. The sculptural projects of Aksel in the 1980s were directly aimed at mimicking the instrumentality of state torture. Tenger’s multimedia installations made in the 1990s allowed a feminist critique of the patriarchal relations of state and gendered repression. This chapter concludes with a reflection on Fernando Botero’s series of paintings on Abu Ghraib that offered a retrospective on the painter's own experience and artistic commentary on repression and conditions in his native Columbia. Further, Platt shows how the Philadelphia-based artist, Daniel Heyman, and the photographer Trevor Paglen, critically reevaluated the use of Abu Ghraib or Black Sites for detention, torture and interrogation by US security forces. In Heyman’s choice to humanize the victims of torture, and in Paglen’s project of revealing the space of detention, each unveils deep contradictions within state sanctioned operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. In contrast to the critical theorization of the use of torture by democratic states that others have begun to postulate, Platt’s discussion is too brief. 2
Chapter Six, “Political Interventions at the International Exhibitions,” discusses the politics of the Istanbul Biennials from the 1990s to 2007. Platt suggests a critical series of reflections and participatory engagement allowed the participants in the Istanbul Biennial to reframe a curatorial approach. A discourse through contemporary art emerged in the recent evolution of the Istanbul Biennial that overturned the Orientalist assumptions about the West and East, modern and traditional forms or exclusion of Turkish and other regional artists. However, the actual role of the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and the Arts (IKSV) in the planning of these curatorial decisions is not mentioned or developed. Platt discusses how the Istanbul Biennial had formerly been dominated by a nationalist paradigm through the mid-1990s, but increasingly sought a more international and presumably cosmopolitan direction by offering the curatorship to non-Turks. The results were to promote a series of Istanbul Biennials at a crossroads for the arts that bore parallels with Turkey’s rising secular middle class and its own campaign for EU recognition. For the 10th Istanbul Biennial of 2007, Chinese curator, Hou Hanru, selected a wide array of artistic contributions that reflected upon globalization, urban migration, and the contrasts and potential of modern Turkish experience.
Chapter Seven, titled “The Middle East: Art Exhibitions and Cultural Activism 2002-2009,” reviews art exhibitions from what Platt labels as the so-called “Axis of Evil.” These exhibitions were organized in large part as a conscious effort to counter the prevailing ideology of American empire . Several dozen works by artists from Iraq and Palestine were included in the exhibition Art Across the Borders (2002-2004), organized at the Babylon Cultural Center in Minneapolis, and produced by peace activists opposed to the US invasion of Iraq. What is instructive about the discussion of this exhibition is the difficulty of locating space and support for such an exhibition in the years immediately following 9/11. Given the intransigence of the large cultural institutions and venues, it forced a reliance on a small number of individually committed citizens with limited resources. A survey of related and successive art exhibitions is presented, including a discussion of the Made in Palestine exhibition that showed in Houston, Texas from 2003-2006; Three Cities against the Wall: Ramallah / Tel Aviv / New York, on display in New York in 2005; Secrets, a collaborative exhibition of video installations from Palestine that appeared at venues in Boulder, Chicago, and in partial form at six other U.S. venues from 2006-2008. 3 Several exhibitions by Lebanese artists are discussed including, Contemporary Art from Lebanon, an exhibition in Istanbul and Laughter: London Theatre Enquiry, an experimental theatre group that debuted in 2004. A short discussion of the Dafatir exhibition curated in 2005 by Professor Nada Shabout is to be noted. But the full range and importance of Nada Shabout’s project of exposing the resulting destruction and disappearance of thousands of modern Iraqi art works in the wake of the US invasion is left under-explored in the brevity of Platt’s account. Here, one will benefit more from consultation with the original catalogue. 4 There are slight editorial and Arabic issues that a more established publisher may have corrected. These are minor and the reader’s patience will be rewarded by this comparative survey’s breadth. As such Platt concentrates on individual exhibitions and their relations in a world simultaneously confronted by the positive potential of multicultural cosmopolitanism, as well as the dislocations and crises of neo-liberalism.
While Platt’s book is of value in that it allows a collective comparison of artistic and activist agency, curatorship and the organization of exhibitions over the past decade, this book may be of greater benefit in directing the reader to catalogues and critical reviews of the exhibitions as they were presented. A great deal of work has yet to be done. The US or European emphasis evident in the selection of exhibitions discussed by Platt tends to divert the gaze of the reader to a Western-centric world of art. In the complexity of the post-modern world, must we really be reliant upon the fickle taste of the Western metropole to uncover and share in the fluid and changing dynamics of post-modern arts? The Arab Spring and the proliferation of art exhibitions, spaces and curatorship in the contemporary Arab and broader Middle East are proof of a widened horizon of the arts to which Platt’s book provides a valuable introduction.
Patrick Kane is a professor in History and Political Science at Clatstop Community College. His book, The Politics of Art in Modern Egypt: Aesthetics, Ideology, and National-Building is forthcoming (July 2011) by I.B. Taurius.
1 See Joel Beinin, “The Militancy of Mahalla al-Kubra,” Middle East Research and Information Project, September 29, 2007. Web. May 8, 2011.
2 For a critical appraisal of the choice of states to use torture, see Darius M. Rejali, Torture and Democracy. (Princeton University Press, 2009).
3 A more thorough treatment of Palestinian art and recent exhibitions is however to be found in the seminal work by Kamal Boullata, Palestinian Art: 1850-2005. (London: Saqi Books, 2009)
4 Nada Shabout, Dafatir: Contemporary Iraqi Book Art. (University of North Texas School of Visual Art, 2007)
Berin Golonu on Mike Mandel and Chantal Zakari, The State of Ata: The Contested Imagery of Power in Turkey, (Boston: Eighteen Publications, 2009), 272 pages, hardbound in English, with Turkish translation.
Over twelve years, photographers Mike Mandel and Chantal Zakari made repeated visits to Turkey to photograph images and sculptures of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish republic. Their documents of Atatürk’s ubiquitous image are combined with their own writings and public interventions, interviews with Turkish citizens, and clips and stills from Turkish print and television media in The State of Ata: The Contested Imagery of Power in Turkey. The book’s varied content reads as an ethnographic study of the Turkish state and its people, exploring how state ideology has been internalized into the private lives of citizens. As an art project, it also engages in a self-reflexive critique of such ethnographic studies and the possibilities for social change that their definitive accounts may foreclose.
Mandel and Zakari bring “insider” and “outsider” perspectives together in a productive tension. Mandel, who is American, lends an outsider’s point of view to the book, a reminder that the cult of Ata appears odd—even quaintly absurd—to someone not raised on Turkish state propaganda. Zakari assumes the position of the insider photographer who grew up in Turkey, acculturated in still-prevalent daily rituals intended to nurture a love for Ata and the Turkish state. The process of conditioning the subject of the state through photographic print media starts at a very young age, and the same twenty or so photographs that narrate the life and story of Ata form the visual guideposts through which to construct notions of the Turkish republic, as well as fostering the Turkish citizen’s sense of belonging within this republic. Zakari’s words are accompanied by several page spreads including scans from her own history books: “Our classroom had an ‘Atatürk’ corner where our teacher pinned up photographs from his life. These were also the same photographs in our schoolbooks and the same photographs that I would later see in my history books throughout middle and high school. [...] This became part of our shared Turkish identity” (57).
Anthropologist Esra Özyürekhas noted that in the wake of 1990s identity politics, as expressions of Islamic religious belief became more public in Turkey, the secular segment of Turkey’s population clung increasingly and fervently to Atatürk’s image. A renewed, nostalgic love of Atatürk resulted in a proliferation of his already ubiquitous presence in both public and private spheres. The State of Ata examines how these newly internalized secular ideologies are put on public display today, often in response to Islamist ideologies. There are those individuals, such as Turkish historian and columnist Sevan Nisanyan, interviewed in the book, who blame the Kemalist regime for hijacking Atatürk’s image as symbol, putting it in the service of a totalitarian, statist ideology that in fact inhibits freedom rather than ensuring it (86-87).
Yet The State of Ata is also a self-reflexive examination of Zakari’s own fondness for Atatürk. Zakari begins the project as an “Atatürkcü” or supporter of Atatürk, a term meant to connote secularist affiliation. Over the course of the book’s loosely structured narrative, the authors become embroiled in an ideological warfare between secularism and Islamism that makes Zakari question her own affiliations. The couple’s travels take them to Ankara, where they encounter an Islamist protest march demanding educational rights. Zakari grabs a framed photograph of Atatürk and holds it up as the crowd marches by—a defiant gesture recorded by a group of reporters on the scene. Overnight, she is turned into a “symbol of secularism and modernism,” the “daughter of the republic.” Having become a pawn in a polarizing ideological warfare that leaves little room for more moderate views—whether religious or secular—is incentive enough for Zakari to dispense with the Atatürk mythology that she was raised on, and re-evaluate her own political stance.
Mandel and Zakari use their book as a platform to both reveal and poke fun at the misunderstandings that can accompany consecrated images. The State of Ata examines Law 5816, which threatens to imprison anyone who publicly insults or curses the memory of Atatürk, and profiles a few particularly absurd censorship cases in which Atatürk’s image was deemed to be misused. In one, a silhouette of Atatürk’s portrait stitched onto a tie made for a national holiday is likened to resemble an image of Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the Kurdish terrorist organization, the PKK (219). The maker of the tie, as well as the principal of the school in which the tie was sold, are imprisoned and made to face trial. Which state official has undertaken this visual interpretation and which criteria does he use to analyze this visual symbology? How can the state claim that certain images of Atatürk are appropriate, and others not? As the case of the Atatürk/Öcalan tie illustrates, the process of controlling and manipulating Ata’s image often proves to be an absurdly impossible task. If, as a maker of images, Zakari herself cannot play with the image of her beloved Ata in her work, of what use is he to her? This leads her to further question her own stance as an “Atatürkcü,” realizing that this word has also accrued multiple meanings in Turkey’s current struggle for political power. Taking a cue from Roland Barthes, The State of Ata questions the use of photography as a clear document of communication and treats photographic representation in a “poetic” manner.  As such, the publication reveals the photograph’s role as a mythical signifier and attempts to dismantle myth in order to expunge the voice of oppressive political authority in Turkey.
The State of Ata concludes by asking if the iconic image of Ata, put at the service of totalitarian agendas, needs to be replaced by newer, more inclusive symbols expressing statehood and identity. Mandel and Zakari visit a portrait studio that specializes in portraits of young Turkish men in uniform made during their required military service. Using slick digital enhancement and collaging techniques, the portraits of the men in uniform combine the colors and symbols of the Turkish flag, family photographs showing many female relatives wearing headscarves, stock images of tropical paradise scenes, perfect beach sunsets, military fighter jets, rose petals, eagles in flight, and views of Islamic architecture in chaotic, kitschy, candy-colored mash-ups. By collaging together symbols of religious affiliation with symbols of allegiance to secular statehood, these portraits dismantle divisive binaries and embrace newly emergent ideas of nationhood that promise to meet the task and challenge of holding the secular and the religious in a delicate equilibrium.
Mandel and Zakari interrogate the conventional book format as a selection of images assembled to result in a composed whole and imparting a cohesive argument. The fragmented nature of The State of Ata, similar to the fragmented nature of the soldiers’ studio portraits described above, weaves together contrasting opinions, sources and interpretations of imagery in order to jeopardize the possibility of arriving at a totalizing ethnographic study of the contemporary Turkish population. Placing the photographic spread of Zakari holding her childhood history book within the format of her photography book, a product of her collaboration with her life partner, reveals the self-reflexive nature of a project that at once presents a large selection of photographs of an “educational” nature, while simultaneously questioning both the content and form of the documentary value of such photographs. Ultimately, The State of Ata poses the narratives of the Kemalist propaganda machine in contrast to those of the Islamist propaganda machine, and sets up a dialectic between the two in an attempt to dismantle the totalizing claims made by any state ideology.
 Esra Özyürek, Nostalgia for the Modern: State Secularism and Everyday Politics in Turkey (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006).
 Roland Barthes, “Myth Today,” Mythologies (New York: Noon Day Press, 1957), 109-159.
Elizabeth Harrington on Laura U. Marks’s Enfoldment and Infinity: An Islamic Genealogy of New Media Art (Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press, 2010)
In Enfoldment and Infinity: An Islamic Genealogy of New Media Art, Laura U. Marks is concerned with images as they enfold and contain information. Drawing on the scholarship of Gilles Deleuze and Charles Sanders Peirce, she argues that Islamic art and philosophy contain the deep sources of contemporary information culture and art. She defines new media art as works with a common “basis in code, an algorithmic process, and a database-interface relationship” (32). As she frames it, the work is, “mainly intended to introduce Islamic art to readers more familiar with contemporary art,” but is also directed at scholars of Islamic art, in the hopes that the comparative approach she offers will be a generative one for new curatorial and scholarly insights (29).
Marks begins by locating the theoretical underpinnings of her research in Deleuze (What Is Philosophy, 1994; The Fold: Leibnitz and the Baroque, 1993; Cinema 2: The Time-Image, 1989) and Sanders Peirce (Philosophical Writings of Peirce, 1955). Deleuze predicted a shift from visual to information culture, which Marks believes has arrived with the advent of computer and digital art, and she borrows Deleuze’s diagram of unfolding/enfolding from his theory of signs. At the meeting of the “virtual, infinitely enfolded” and the “actual, the unfolded,” Deleuze describes two planes - the image and the infinite - that constantly unfold and enfold and form the boundary between the virtual and the actual (6). Marks’ critical intervention is to insert a plane of information between the planes of images and the infinite. In Marks’ diagram, these three planes (image, information, and the infinite) are continually unfolding and enfolding. The addition of the information plane enables Marks to bring in Sanders Peirce's concept of triadic relationships between world/God (the infinite), the code/word (information), and perceptibles (image) that correlate to the expanded Deleuzian theory of signs. This tripartite system correlates to new media art, with the material world (the computer interface) serving as a bridge between the immaterial world of the infinite and the computer code. The critical intervention of the book is to argue this phenomenon appears in Islamic art, wherein imagery and artifacts correspond to the code of the Qur’an, that in turn relates to a deeper, infinite truth.
To support such a sweeping correlation takes a great deal of careful work. Marks does note that the categorization of "Islamic art" is problematic, and defines Islamic art for her purposes as "art made for Islamic religious and ritual purposes; motifs and themes developed in that art that spread to courtly, state, and popular art; and art that, while its purpose was not strictly religious, was produced in accordance with the Muslim religious mores of its particular culture" (31-32). This categorization allows her to incorporate many works and philosophies from a wide swath of the Islamic world (from Morocco to Iran), and to examine the works without becoming entangled in discussions of the religious and the secular. Later, she uses examples of lines derived from decorative Arabic script, illuminated manuscripts, and prayer carpets. The reader might wonder about the motivations behind linking Islamic art to information-based art and vice versa. Marks does make a compelling assessment of the stakes involved in uncovering the Islamic roots of new media art, suggesting that this heritage can render information culture more “meaningful” and “responsive." It is not always made clear, however, in what ways this could occur beyond simply the act of recognizing the poetic symmetry of parallel and consonant structures (32).
After introducing her central argument in the opening two chapters of the book, Marks elaborates seven main lineages of Islamic thought and art in new media art. These include unity, or the concept of tawhid. Her second lineage is the concept of unity generating infinity, drawn from debates in Islamic thought about the unity of God and transcendentalism or emanationism. Marks also includes the ideas that unfolding is directional and performative, aligned with the Islamic belief that all unfolding is oriented toward God and that Islamic art is often the trace of a performative, religious act. Aniconism, her fifth parallel, comes from Islam’s avoidance of figurative representation, and is the first parallel that can be argued is uniquely Islamic, as the first parallels can also be linked to Judeo-Christian thought. From aniconism comes an additional precept that both Islamic and new media art are characterized by abstract lines and haptic spaces. Marks’ final parallel is that both involve embodied perceptions (meaning that the work plays out in time, animating viewers as it enacts its algorithmic code), which Marks believes mirrors Islam’s focus on embodied behavior by which Muslims demonstrate adherence to Islamic principles.
As an example of new media art’s inclusion of these lineages, Marks discusses the work of artist-programmer Mauro Annunziato. Annunziato’s work, Migration (2000), is a computer-animated algorithm based on natural, organic patterns that produces many intersecting vectors and curling, abstract lines. For Marks, works like these unfold in time and space and are thus performative. They are fundamentally based on abstract lines, algorithms, and underlying concepts of unfolding in a directional fashion. Additionally, the image seen by the viewer contains a complex underlying code – in this case, a computer code. Annunziato’s work also demonstrates the concept of unity generating infinity (i.e., when the algorithm is applied, one line generates many). This work is aniconic and nonrepresentational, its lines drawing the eyes of the viewer along and into the work to create a haptic, continually unfolding space. Marks’ continued analysis elaborates the seven common features of Islamic and new media art, applying them to calligraphy, abstraction, atomism, pixels, text-based art, contemporary films that focus on fragmentary, nonlinear stories, and art based on data (such as GPS or mathematic patterns). Thus Marks tracks Islamic art and philosophy and correlates them to new media art, attempting to show that “the Islamic quality of modern and new media art is also a latent, or deeply enfolded, historical inheritance from Islamic art and thought” (5).
Perhaps the least satisfying and most troublesome aspect of the line of analysis pursued in Enfoldment and Infinity is the continued recourse to the medieval period as the location for a robust framework of Islamic art and thought. While Marks' thorough and detailed analysis includes brief mentions of contemporary artists from the Islamic world, each chapter nonetheless anchors its analysis in historic Islamic art and philosophy, comparing it in depth to new media art from the contemporary West. This approach confines Islamic art (and philosophy) to the past, rendering it timeless and falling prey to Orientalist notions of a romanticized golden age of Islam and a static world that is no longer generative. Incorporating more recent accomplishments and contributions of Islamic scholars, artists and architects as they continue to interpret Islamic law and philosophy, and explore new media art, would easily remedy this oversight. Furthermore, she herself admits that her approach could be faulted as universalist, and thus she takes special care to identify the multiple strains of Islamic thought or style, be they Isma’ili, Mu’tazila or Kufic, throughout the book. These influences come from distinct and different geographic and temporal backgrounds, and naming them in this specificity contributes to the reader’s understanding of the immense range under the umbrella of “Islamic.” Yet to draw commonalities across such a diverse range inevitably remains a homogenizing, reductive endeavor. In spite of these infelicities, the volume is an intriguing look at the intercultural crossings that Marks herself finds interesting, a sincere endeavor to realize the notion that “intercultural traffic is a force of transformation.” Because it is a serious if not always successful attempt to bridge two seemingly disparate but linked philosophies and styles of art, and to transform the way new media art is understood and contribute to a more nuanced understanding of the long, complex relationship between the Islamic world and Western cultures, it makes for fascinating and surprising reading.
Elizabeth Harrington is a MA Candidate in the Near Eastern Studies and Museum Studies at New York University.
Pamela Karimi on Art of the Middle East: Modern and Contemporary Art of the Arab World and Iran, edited by Saeb Eigner with a forward by Zaha Hadid (London: Merrell Publishers Ltd, 2010)
Art of the Middle East: Modern and Contemporary Art of the Arab World and Iran is a beautifully illustrated 384-page art book by the London-based author, entrepreneur, cultural advocate, and art expert Saeb Eigner. The volume is divided into eight chapters, an afterword, artists’ biographies, a list of suggested additional readings and notes, and an index. It begins with a brief foreword by the Iraqi-born British architect Zaha Hadid, who sets an optimistic tone for the book. Eigner’s emotional and familial bonds with Iran and the Arab Middle East could be a major drive behind the book’s exclusion of works from Turkey and Israel. But a more amusing account by the author reveals that Iranians and Arabs equally cherish the legendary diva Umm-Kulthum (p. 14). This explanation alone justifies choosing Umm-Kulthum’s Greatest Hits—a 1997 piece by the Egyptian artist Chant Avedissian—for Art of the Middle East’s front cover.
Featuring a broad range of artworks from the 1950s to the present, the book is organized around seven themes: scripture, literature, music and performance, politics, conflict and war, history and identity, portraiture and the body, nature and the land. The introductory chapter provides a concise overview of the modern period, describing how, since the late-nineteenth century, a number of conventional categories (calligraphy, the art of the illuminated book, and ancient or pre-Islamic modes of representation) and political events (decolonization, revolutions, civil wars, and nationalistic ambitions) have stimulated the work of most Iranian and Arab artists. The introduction also highlights the role of outside influences, including the spread of Western avant-garde views and the introduction of European-style art institutions. The remaining seven chapters each include a preface to one thematic topic, consisting of a brief look at the significance and historical influences of the topic, as well as discussion of the ways contemporary Middle Eastern artists have reacted to that thematic topic in their works. The preface is followed by a series of images with inclusive captions.
The author does not offer sufficient analytical descriptions of the featured works, and the introduction and prologues to each chapter often do not go beyond supplying primary information and reiterating data from secondary sources. At times, the choice of artists for each category seems arbitrary. These artists are not listed chronologically or based on the specific media they employ; it is not fully clear why certain works are displayed side by side. The book as a whole suffers from some unevenness: It includes so many diverse artists, ranging from well-established professionals to up-and-coming ones. While some emerging artists have managed to create captivating images, they have yet to define a solid framework for their approaches. It is also worth mentioning that contemporary Middle Eastern art could be framed according to deeper psychological sentiments and philosophical concepts. Seen in this light, the chapters of the current book could be developed around theoretical themes.
For instance, the work of studio photographers who depict local and contemporary women as “other” (e.g., Shadi Ghadirian’s Qajar-looking women, Shirin Aliabadi’s forged chic blondes of her “Miss Hybrid” series, and Yussef Nabil’s Egyptian Frida in “My Frida”) could all be grouped in one chapter focusing on issues of femininity as masquerade. The book could also benefit from more profound deliberations on the qualitative aspects of the works. Farhad Moshiri’s diptych of ceramic bowls (“Silver Bowl on Gold and Gold Bowl on Silver”) may be regarded as more than just “a rigorous celebration of the formal beauty and intense colors of the pottery of Iran” (p. 207). The cracked surface of Moshiri’s painting allows for a rather different interpretation. It is one thing to portray traditional pottery as a means to celebrate the past, quite another to represent pottery as an object in decay. It is thus not clear whether the work was meant to celebrate the past or to eradicate it altogether. This ambivalent characteristic is indeed the strength of Moshiri’s diptych of ceramic bowls.
Disappointingly, Art of the Middle East’s appended bibliography consists of a random selection of books. The absence of more critical texts on contemporary Middle Eastern art (such as Jessica Winegar’s Creative Reckonings: The Politics of Art and Culture in Contemporary Egypt) confirms that the volume belongs to the category of books with lighter textual content. Such is Paul Sloman’s Contemporary Art in the Middle East (2009), which nonetheless provides more in-depth analyses and goes beyond Iran and the Arab Middle East to assimilate contemporary art of Israel, Turkey, North Africa, and Afghanistan. Such coffee-table books, no doubt, have put the art of the Middle East on the map. What remains open to discussion, however, is the extent to which the featured artworks can detach themselves from this system of cultural commodification in order to maintain their real values. Most emerging artists from Iran (including those presented in the current book) offer “models of resistance” against insidious forms of socio-political domination. By doing so, they help expand the field of “cultural production” (in Pierre Bourdieu’s sense of the term). But this important endeavor may be sustained only if the artistic manifestations of the so-called models of resistance do not appear over and over again on the glossy pages of expensive coffee-table books.
The aforementioned shortcomings, however, should not detract from the book’s value. Eigner must be credited, first and foremost, for the vital task of bringing together the work of more than two hundred artists from both within and beyond the region. No other such existing compendium (including Unveiled: New Art from the Middle East; Word into Art: Artists of the Modern Middle East; Modern Islamic Art: Development and Continuity; Forces of Change: Artists of the Arab World) covers the extent of the works presented in Art of the Middle East. The book ends with a provocative piece by José Parlá, a prominent Cuban-American artist whose lyrical brush strokes are inspired by the repetitive style of Umm-Kulthum’s singing (p. 360). Parlá’s work can be perceived as a new beginning; perhaps it was meant to encourage the less informed reader to re-evaluate the book’s featured artworks in a slightly different way—one that entails a special “rhythm” of thought.
Due to the wealth of its imagery and the clarity of its text, the volume would appeal to general audiences who are curious about contemporary Middle Eastern art and culture. Students in introductory-level courses focusing on contemporary Middle Eastern art and visual culture will find Eigner’s book very useful. Consequently, Art of the Middle East will be a fine addition to libraries’ reference collections worldwide.
Pamela Karimi is Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
Haig Aivazian on Cultural Cleansing in Iraq: Why Museums Were Looted, Libraries Burned and Academics Murdered. Edited by Raymond W. Baker, Shereen T. Ismael and Tareq Y. Ismael (Pluto Press, 2010)
Media coverage of the looting of the National Museum of Iraq, in the early days of the U.S.-led invasion in April 2003, exposed the shortsightedness of the Bush administration’s war plan. From the perspective of television-era attention spans, footage of mass lawlessness in Baghdad read much like the following coverage of the Hurricane Katrina lootings in New Orleans two years later; that is to say, highly racialized and in Iraq’s case, painted in a sectarian light. In both of these instances, the Bush administration, cushioned by an increasingly embedded media, represented a situation, arguably caused by its own neglect, as inextricably and naturally linked to the character of the particular “indigenous” populations in question. The images seemed to speak for themselves. The American public, and indeed much of the world, was being briefed about this war from a distance and in the language of video editing. In fact, Donald Rumsfeld himself had made such tele-visual parallels in a press briefing in the White House on April 11th 2003, addressing the widespread unrest as experienced through these mediated images: “Think what‘s happened in our cities, when we’ve had riots and problems and looting,” he said, “Stuff happens!” Another memorable moment in the conference included Rumsfeld dismissing the images broadcast on television not as evidential proof of the chaos occurring in Baghdad, but rather as one looped image of “some person walking out of some building with a vase.” In other words, according to Rumsfeld, there was essentially no war beyond these looped images.
In Cultural Cleansing in Iraq, Raymond W. Baker, Shereen T. Ismael and Tareq Y. Ismael address the sheer breadth of the devastation caused by the invasion, which far surpasses what has been encapsulated in evening news reports and “the[ir] mainstream failure to acknowledge that the violence of state destruction in Iraq was deliberate,”(12). Through a collection of ten essays, contributors thoroughly survey the extent of the annihilation of Iraq’s museums, as well as that of its libraries, universities and academic demographic – including professors, students, lecturers, artists, archeologists, doctors, sociologists, journalists, activists, and a wide range of other professionals. The book essentially argues that if state building – a salient key term used by strategists as an umbrella policy for the war—was indeed the goal of the United States’ mission in Iraq, then that goal required the destruction of an existing state. This destruction is documented from distinct, but seamlessly complimentary angles, structured into three parts: the first details the conception and implementation of the policy of cultural cleansing; the second describes “The Assault on Iraq’s Incomparable History”; and finally, the third part examines the present and future of Iraq’s cultural and academic landscapes.
The book overviews in some detail what we all already know in gist: Iraq was divided along sectarian lines; its national industries were auctioned off to private entities; and its oil wells opened up to foreign control. In the introductory essay, the editors address the history of U.S. administrations’ funding of paramilitary groups, pointing out that high profile policy makers involved in funding the Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980s , were now working closely on the reformation of the Interior Ministry in Iraq, which is widely known to have ties to so-called death squads.
In each of the essays, contributors make clear that the quagmire that is Iraq is not a result of poor planning by the invading forces but rather, it is a policy of deliberate and willful negligence at best; or, at worst, an organized onslaught on Iraqi culture. According to the editors, this onslaught took place, “because a strong Iraq was an impediment to American imperial designs and Israeli insistence on unimpeded regional hegemony” (22). Such statements are not foreign to individuals critical of American foreign policies, some of whom go so far as to accuse the U.S. of deliberately aggravating sectarian sentiments in Iraq for self-serving purposes. Here again, the book provides evidence supporting such theories, including how the so-called surge’s success was built on the extinction of Baghdad’s mixed neighborhoods, as well as the United States’ internal turncoatism in terms of funding one militia and then countering its influence by arming another.
More facts: The US army had a list of twenty physical sites recommended for urgent protection and at the very top of that list was the National Museum. Yet, the only site that benefited from American protection during the looting was –not surprisingly—the Ministry of Oil. Along with the vast collections of manuscripts and artifacts that were stolen, flooded and burned, as discussed in Nabil al-Tikriti’s essay “Negligent Mnemocide and the Shattering of Iraqi Collective Memory,” Abbas al-Hussainy documents the innumerable archeological sites that were used by the U.S. military as bases in his survey of “The Current Status of The Archeological Heritage of Iraq.” Many of those sites have consequently suffered irreparable damage.
Beyond the material destruction, the cultural artifacts and manuscripts of the past and the intellectual production of the present become among the most hotly contested fronts where nations are built and destroyed. The so-called de-Ba’athification of the Iraqi State played more like an aggressive mnemocide and quasi-total brain drain. Indeed, the repercussions of destroying a people’s history are, as it turns out, far reaching. Coupled with the fanning of sectarian flames, the ravaging of artifacts from an era that all Iraqis identify with and express pride in, places the unity of the Iraqi state and its people on even shakier grounds, as Iraqi national identity rapidly becomes substituted with sectarian allegiances. In other words, the Mesopotamian history of Iraq has been so heavily effaced that violence between communities, which no longer identify with a common history, has spiraled out of control. Mokhtar Lamani, for instance, discusses the mass exodus of Iraq’s minorities fleeing persecution in his essay, “Minorities in Iraq: The Other Victims.” In this contribution, Lamani argues that minorities are usually unlikely to return to a site of persecution, even if that site is their own country and even if they had previously been a part of a complex and varied social fabric that had remained intact for centuries.
Another onslaught on the Iraqi state took place on the front of social services, mainly health and education reform. Iraq had been known for its high literacy rates and for providing one of the most advanced healthcare coverage to its citizens. Iraqis had always been among the most educated in the region, boasting some of the highest numbers of universities. After the invasion, however, literacy rates dropped dramatically. Mass exodus of various Iraqi populations contributed to this : In 2007 alone, the number of refugees surpassed a million, a large number of which were highly educated members of the middle class. There is currently no state sponsored healthcare to speak of in Iraq, and 80% of professors have vacated the country. This last statistic alone is enough to prove that there truly is a purging of Iraqi academics and intellectuals in Iraq.
Cultural Cleansing covers quite specifically the continued mass intimidation and mass murder of university professors, and the absolute lack of action by the Iraqi government, its security forces, and the occupation forces in responding to these offenses, identifying the perpetrators or providing protection to potential victims. In the words of one academic: “One US soldier was kidnapped and Baghdad is on full alert, but the killing of an Iraqi professor? Nothing happens,”(136).
In his essay “Killing the Intellectual Class: Academics as Targets,” Dirk Adriansens documents the solidarity campaigns by Iraqi intellectuals even in the face of imminent danger. For example, Adriansens discusses the efforts of the Brussels Tribunal, which has published and constantly updates a list of murdered academics, with the goal of facilitating the launch of an investigation. No such investigation has taken place for even one of the nearly 500 professors murdered, close to 80 kidnapped, and more than 100 students killed. This purging also bears psychological repercussions. Faris K.O. Nadhmi for instance, outlines the anxieties plaguing Iraqis, and Iraqi academics in particular, among whom the paranoia and fear of death constitutes a constant and widespread neurosis.
The attack on Iraq’s cultural identity could be said to be a clearly bi-directional cleansing: whereas the quasi effacement of academics is clearly damaging to the future of Iraq’s intellectual production, the retroactive quality of the annihilation of Iraq’s patrimony makes this attack particularly and profoundly damaging. The extent of this violence has not been conveyed and represented adequately to publics at large. In her essay “Archeology and the Strategies of War,” Zainab Bahrani poses the following question:
At Samarra, the top of the ninth century minaret was blown off by a rocket-propelled grenade while it was in use as a US sniper post. When such acts occur in other wars (…) we have no qualms about speaking of them in terms of historical erasure and calling them crimes of war. Why do we not do the same now? (79)
Indeed, it is worth wondering about the mechanisms at play in how acts of war get classified, and circulated into language as either crimes of war or collateral damage. For example, whereas the 2001 destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha sculptures by the Taliban was rightly viewed and portrayed as a symbol of that regime’s intolerance, the same is seldom said about the United States’ annihilation of Iraq’s cultural patrimony.
In his now infamous 2003 press conference, Donald Rumsfeld remarked on the frequency of the looped video of artifacts being stolen: “My Goodness,” he exclaimed, “were there that many vases? Is it possible that there were that many vases in the whole country?” There were, as it turns out, many vases in Iraq, each more priceless than the other, and questions remain as to how some of these artifacts made it out of restricted areas, which had been put under U.S. Military supervision.
There was an overt and distinct air of celebration among many American statesmen who described the looting of the Baghdad Museum as a creative act by Iraqis who wanted to assert a kind of cultural renewal. This event was mediated as an organic, post-traumatic rebirth of a nation wherein some of its own cultural memory was vacated in order to make room for a new iconography divorced from previous associations with Saddam. The vacuum created by the widespread annihilation and pillaging of the so-called Cradle of Civilization therefore becomes doubly charged: not only does it leave critical room for how the story of this evacuation will be represented in the future, but also foregrounded is the manner in which this patrimonial void will be filled. Contemporary Iraqi artists, writers, film-makers, and other cultural practitioners must therefore engage these two gargantuan tasks, which will undoubtedly be hugely significant for the future shaping of Iraqi identities.
In addition to offering an infuriating and alarming volley of information, Cultural Cleansing clearly outlines the extremely high stakes at play in such a cleansing. Completely dismissing the myth that post-occupation Iraq was an endless stream of disasters outside of American control, the book raises the de facto issues of accountability and consequences for the United States government.
Whereas it is highly improbable that any American administration will be tried, let alone held accountable for any of the crimes committed in Iraq or anywhere else for that matter, papers such as the ones collected here are, if nothing else, a small thorn of memory and clarity in the United States’ dis-informing and forgetful media apparatus. In a war that revolutionized embedded reporting, this book is an independent and thoroughly documented investigation into what is undoubtedly one of the most destructive crimes against a people’s cultural patrimony in our century.
Haig Aivazian is an artist, curator and writer currently based in Chicago. his work investigates the intersections between the migration of bodies, the circulation of consumer goods and the propagation of ideologies
Anneka Lenssen on Tarjama/Translation: Contemporary Art from the Middle East, Central Asia, and their Diasporas. Edited by (New York: ArteEast, 2009)
In one provincial town in Kazakhstan, bas-reliefs decorate the administrative building. This in itself is unremarkable. But, as Kazakh artists Yelena Yorobyeva and Victor Yorobyev attest in their photographic series, “Kazakhstan. Blue Period (2002-05),” the banners within those bas-reliefs underwent a significant change after the fall of the Soviet Union. Once painted red, they are now painted a precise shade of blue-green: kok. Indeed, as the artists document, not only is kok the color of the new national flag, but it also proliferates in the village landscape to appear in kiosks, on walls, painted onto crosses on new graves, or dyed into new cloth. One beguiling photograph in the series shows two girls standing proudly in a kok-colored doorframe. They face outward, toward the camera and into the future, while the several pairs of adult shoes on the stoop point backward and into the house interior. With utter clarity, the piece proposes that ordinary interventions have made rural Kazakhstan into a vast expositional field for asserting a post-Soviet condition. It is also the only piece in the recent exhibition Tarjama/Translation: Contemporary Art from the Middle East, Central Asia, and their diasporas that exhibits a direct and legible re-coding process from one state into another.
Curated by Leeza Ahmady, Iftikhar Dadi, and assistant Reem Fadda under the auspices of ArteEast (a New York-based arts non-profit), Tarjama/Translation brought together new work from a loosely defined region following an even more loosely defined critical interest. The use of the word ‘translation’ here is perhaps best understood not as a process, but rather as a claim to the freedom to reject the pedagogical burdens placed upon the native informant, the cultural worker, and the minority citizen in the art industries of the contemporary United States. Tarjama/Translation was conceived in direct response to frustration with the critical reception of modern and contemporary art from the Middle East, a reception that has become ever more confined to object lessons in tolerance, i.e. appreciating the existence of art in enemy lands. Jessica Winegar - one of the guiding voices behind the exhibition - has given a thorough critique of this “‘art as evidence of advancement and humanity’ discourse.” She argues that most Middle East-related arts events in the U.S. are shaped by that discourse’s corollary investments in a celebratory multiculturalism that privileges art carrying recognizable signs of its difference from the Western norm while de-privileging art that meets the tastes of the global contemporary art market. As Omnia El-Shakry succinctly puts it, all art carries some marks of its location, but “only non-Western art is expected to have questions of identity function as a touchstone.” The initiatives devoted to showcasing Middle Eastern art in the United States have only grown after 9/11, which brought in its wake a renewed sense that such anodyne cultural understanding will ultimately prevent terrorism. These discourses easily recognize and support the kind of translational process documented in “Kazakhstan. Blue Period (2002-05),” i.e. movement from grim Socialist control to idiosyncratic expressions of personal freedom. They are less sanguine, however, about artworks that pursue conceptual interests other than the exploration of cultural transformations. As a result, the work from the Middle East on display in the U.S. is hardly representative of contemporary work valued in the Middle East (much of which tends to be right in step with tastes for big showy paintings or biennial-ready HD video).
To its credit, Tarjama/Translation refused to be guided by these simple identity and civilization categories; it also resisted the perceived obligation to present the consonance of supposed Middle Eastern and American values. The curators instead assembled a trans-regional sampling of artwork that span any number of unstable ethnic categories without claiming to fix them into cultural pieties. More than half the artists on the exhibition checklist hail from the contemporary nation-states of Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan, or Kazakhstan. Beside work from artists supported by secular nation-states, visitors thus saw work from artists living in Islamic republics that are not Arabic-speaking (Iran), work from nations that have been dissolved (Afghanistan, Iraq), from unrecognized states (Palestine/Israel), from regions that are not “post-colonial” (Turkey, Iran), and myriad permutations of geopolitical sensibilities therein.
If Vorobyeva and Yorobyev asserted the post-socialist sensibility of people in the ex-Soviet Bloc, then the work of Egyptian artist Khaled Hafez offered a different testimony about the condition of being “post.” His video installation Revolution is a kind of vampy enactment of lingering Socialist and Muslim dreams in Egypt and their continued predication on drama and violence. Meanwhile, British-Iranian artist Mitra Tabrizian’s 2004 film Predator works outside the timeliness of cause and effect altogether. It plays with the now well-worn journalistic tropes that ‘explain’ terrorism, following an alienated and impoverished Muslim teenager whose neediness, we understand, makes him an easy pawn for fundamentalist warlords who arrange for him to kill a writer. Where Tabrizian departs from the standard tale of motives is in her staging of the story line. She shoots her scenes in sumptuous and impeccably lit detail and scripts the sparse dialogue in English so as to further prevent the projection of alterity or authenticity onto the characters. After twenty-six minutes of beautiful suspense, the film’s rapid, bloody resolution offers a sense of relief without emotional affect.
Other pieces in the exhibition could be experienced simply as art qua art. Pouran Jinchi, an Iranian born artist based in New York, arranges calligraphed fragments of the Qur’an into beautiful compositions in his small canvases varnished in a smooth layer of Elmer’s glue. John Jurayj, an American-Lebanese painter, translates photographic images of war-torn Lebanon into a pastiche of abstract expressionist marks and 1980s neon sensibilities. If any particular work of translation can be supposed for these pieces, it would have to center on notions of the artist's privileged individuality in which he or she translates the immaterial contents of mind and experience into materialization as art.
But why give these works the imprimatur “translation?” Tarjama/Translation’s curatorial apparatus did not really step up to the challenge of articulating a specific value or function for “translation” within the evaluative discourses of the contemporary art world. Many texts accompanying the exhibition itself were excerpts from previous essays and contexts whereas the curatorial statements in the catalog are a cacophony of different authoritative discourses. Ahmady’s essay treats the figure of the artist as a great humanist interpreter, rendering the world's surface appearances into deep meaning. Dadi’s essay highlights the act of translation as a means to map the dislocations and antinomies of an incompletely realized region he describes as “characterized by nationalist ideological fantasies and widespread political repression that persist despite their increasingly hollow status.” He proposes that if modernism may be understood by its confidence in the possibility of a completely smooth translation of material (built form, visual language, planning rubrics, etc.) from one setting to another, then the contemporary acts of translation on view should be seen in the absence of pretense to perfectability, i.e. as processes that assume failure within structures for communication. Fadda for her part, however, sees the verb ‘translate’ as a responsibility to non-didactic action and an endeavor that can bridge breaks in social systems and correct misinterpretations.
The incoherence of “translation” as a framework for an exhibition ultimately meant that visitors to the exhibition looked elsewhere for coherence. Notably, quality – that old standard of aesthetic judgment – reemerged as a contender. As New York Times critic Holland Cotter described in his August 13 review, the merely basic and broad connections between artists left the visitor “still pretty much on your own in finding a focus.” For Cotter, that meant directing attention to individual artists in search of the good ones. Evincing a similar outlook, Ahmady wrote that the exhibition was, at root, a showpiece for “internationally recognized artists, each practicing an exceptional command of aesthetics and genres specific to themselves.” In other words, responses to the Tarjama/Translation project – both before and after its conception – ultimately privileged a form of art that claimed to require no translation. It may seem an uninspiring outcome that genre- and quality-centered systems of evaluation might be deployed to cope with heterogeneity. Yet such responses should also be seen as a symptom of exhaustion with a second trend in exhibitions of non-Western art, particularly those with ambitions to communicate internationally rather than domestically: for artists from regions that do not completely share political or economic interests with the United States, overt criticality has been de rigueur. In fact, Egyptian artist and critic Hassan Khan’s recent curatorial project “A New Formalism,” a collaboration with Bidoun Projects for the March 2010 Art Dubai, also demonstrated a desire for formally rigorous artistic constructions rather than one-note social statements. There, Khan showcased only art that made arguments about art, one that built itself through sustained engagement with itself. Certainly, to allot oneself a space to show art that speaks the language of art is to forestall the problematic desire to extract from contemporary art from the Middle East, Central Asia, and its diasporas a kind of ethnographic testimony that offers ‘cultural understanding’ or ‘cultural criticality’ for liberal consumption. What remains to be seen, however, are whether, and how, these curatorial strategies (or lack thereof) might rearrange normative cultural experiences into new topographies of global talent.
Anneka Lenssen is a PhD candidate in the history, theory, and criticism of art and architecture at M.I.T. She researches the production of modern painting in Damascus in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s with a particular interest in the new patterns of investment in contemporary art, culture, and state building that followed WWII.
Ranya Husami on Fayeq Q. Oweis’ Encyclopedia of Arab American Artists (Greenwood Press/Arts of the American Mosaic Series, 2008)
The difficulty of making national or ethnic origin a defining factor for the consideration of art while dodging the notoriously reductive lens of the East/West binary is one all too familiar to any curator, artist, critic, or scholar dealing with art from the Arab world and its diasporas. Of course, this dilemma is one whose reach extends far beyond that region; every exhibition, catalogue essay, dissertation, or in this case—the ever-ambitious project of an encyclopedia—¬ whose organizing principle is art produced by any group perceived as either marginalized, displaced, and/or outside the mainstream cannons of Western art, inevitably faces the same unrelenting problem: that is, how to present their work under the umbrella of a shared cultural experience without subscribing to the rather stale discourse of “the Other” and its inevitably grim aesthetic in which diverse artistic practices are consistently contextualized within a struggle for inclusiveness, or worse, a fetishized narrative of victimhood.
In other words—and more specifically—when it comes to Arab American art (a term, in its own right, glaringly problematic in its infinite ambiguity), how do we describe an art as located between home and another country without inadvertently reinforcing dangerously paradigmatic dichotomies based on issues of national identity (East/West), authority (center/periphery), temporality (tradition/modernity), gender (male/female), subjectivity (oppressor/oppressed), and space (local/global)? How do we speak of difference without naming it? And conversely, how do we account for cultural unity without succumbing to totalizing systems of thought associated with the practice of identifying, classifying, and essentializing—processes integral to the formation of a survey such as that of an encyclopedia?
While such questions related to the notion of hybrid identity may feel like desperately exhausted and ubiquitous anxieties firmly instilled into us by the lessons of post-colonialism, Fayeq Q. Oweis appears to remain blind to such concerns in his Encyclopedia of Arab American Artists¬¬—a blindness that while paradoxically empowering to some degree, proves itself to be immensely problematic throughout the book’s entries; indeed, there is no doubt that Oweis’ endeavor is admirably bold in light of the aforementioned theoretical stalemates, however, his decision to organize the text with an encyclopedic paradigm of analysis gravely undermines both his accomplishments and those of the artists he discusses.
The latest installment of Greenwood Press’ “Artists of the American Mosaic” series (other encyclopedias in the series are of Jewish American, Asian American, Native American, and African American artists), the Encyclopedia immediately smacks of the classically 1990s exercise of “flavor of the month,” inclusionism—a strategy that reverts to the false assumption that to simply attempt to account for, represent, and describe will alleviate repression, misinterpretation, and homogenization. Oweis even goes so far as to state that in his effort to provide “a cross-section” of Arab American artists from varying backgrounds, he has made a concerted attempt to include artists who are openly homosexual in order to “add diversity” to his selection of artists; here, Oweis seems to do more to legitimize sexual difference (albeit, inadvertently) than to call it into question all together. A more effective tactic, as some of the artists profiled in the encyclopedia itself demonstrate, is to seek not so much this kind of cosmetic inclusiveness, but rather, elicit a discussion that calls for a dislocation of center and shift in discourse.
Each of the 85 entries in Oweis’ encyclopedia roughly follows the same basic organizational scheme: an identification of that artist’s preferred medium/media; a brief biography; an identification of his or her key thematic content; a description of one or two specific examples from his or her body of work; a list of exhibitions in which he or she has been included; a bibliography of the sources used to write the profile; and the websites and spaces where one can view that artist’s works. While the structural redundancy of the encyclopedia is excusable given its conventional association with that format, more troubling is Oweis’ repeated deployment of a laundry list of formal, political, and theoretical concerns. Among these, and by far the most recurrent refrain, is that the artist “explores issues related to “identity,” “ethnicity,” “displacement” and/or “exile,”— broad generalizations that, rarely fully unpacked, very quickly become tiresome. By insufficiently explaining how such heavily loaded issues arise from the works themselves, nuanced explorations of complex socio-political questions are watered down into what reads as a ready-made list of formulaic, symptomatic grievances.
Oweis states his intentions in the introduction as seeking to “provide a window into the lives of Arab Americans in general and the lives and contributions of Arab American visual artists in particular, with an aim of educating the readers about issues and challenges facing people of Arab heritage,” (xiii). However, the format and function of the encyclopedia, with its traditional role to summarize, survey, and fix threatens to undermine the boundary-obscuring, anti-narrative strategies adopted by many of the artists discussed in its pages; from the open book structure of Dalia Elsayed’s evocative “emotional maps” of her daily routines, to Walid Raad’s stealth critique of our impulse to gravitate towards the tangible, linear, and authoritative, to Yasser Aggour’s bold interrogation of social taboos, to Amina Mansour’s dual-pronged critique of social constructions (wealth, gender) and fantasies (identity and nostalgia) alive in both Egypt and the American South, to the revolutionary spirit of Samia Halaby’s abstractions, many of the artists included in the volume brilliantly transgress the most repressive ideological demarcation lines. Perhaps just as many of the artists overviewed, however, adopt artistic strategies that often manage to reinforce the very same stereotypes they seek to disrupt. Take for example, Andrea Ali’s work created following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, in which the artist sculpted ten veiled women fashioned as bowling pins. As they wait to be run over by a bowling ball covered with stars and stripes, Ali’s sculptures deliver not a poignant examination of violence and oppression, but a contrived perpetuation of the “us verses them” narrative. Indeed, throughout the encyclopedia, Oweis identifies reactionary works like these as a “turning point” in an artist’s oeuvre (see Sumayyah Samaha’s entry)—a pattern that when so frequently applied, does little to dismantle the myth of conflict and strife as a generator of artistic activity when in comes to Arab artists and/or artists of Arab descent. Thus, it is not just a given work on its own that is the sole contributor to these kinds of clichés, but rather how Oweis contextualizes it in terms of its importance within that artist’s greater oeuvre, and where he locates its meaning. For instance, instead of exploring the ways in which Hala Faisal’s depiction of the female nude in various positions of repose, erotic pleasure, and vulnerability functions to subvert the traditional notion of the power relationship prescribed by the male gaze, the use of nudity in Faisal’s work is identified as a means to expose the sadness and suffering of her subjects, particularly the women of Iraq, thereby reinforcing stereotypes surrounding the oppressed Arab woman. Often equally misleading are Oweis’ formal analyses; abstract and calligraphic works in particular, are paradigmatically explained as a fusion between Arab artistic traditions and a Western modernist vocabulary—a recurring claim that again, when redundantly deployed, risks insulating that the multidimensional nature of Arab American abstract art can be attributed to the mere fact that Arab American artists have been exposed to a visual culture outside of that belonging to their native country.
While the use of plain, straightforward, and easily digestible language, as opposed to lofty art historical jargon, is more than acceptable for the purposes of a preliminary source such as an encyclopedia, describing paintings as “full of excitement and happiness,” or “colorful with vivid tones and shades” or simply “expressionistic”—full stop¬¬—fails to do justice to the finely-tuned inventiveness of these artists formal contributions— a problem exacerbated by the dearth of images provided by the book. In place of the black and white photographs of the artists that accompany the majority of the profiles, certainly the reader would be far better served by an additional image of the artists’ work (many profiles have none), if not more in-depth written content.
That said, gathering together artists of such disparate artistic practices, mediums, generations, political attitudes, religious backgrounds, relationships to their country of origin, institutional and commercial success and I would argue, quality, does provide a realistic cross-section of and practical introduction to the broad range of contributions Arab Americans bring to the visual arts. Even more importantly, it does successfully help dispel assumptions about what Arab or Arab American art should look like—a task whose continued importance should not be underestimated. Essentially, Oweis’ most unfortunate downfall then seems to be that he appears to have confused breath with depth, inclusion with redemption, and diversity with multidimensionality. As such, The Encyclopedia of Arab American Artists demonstrates the need to come up with far fresher, more rigorously critical, theoretically engaged, tightly-curated, and yet loosely-structured modes of analysis in order to better accommodate the many overlapping and intersecting strata that comprise such exceedingly complex artistic practices and their related discourses.
Ranya Husami recently obtained an M.A. in Modern Art and Curating at Columbia University. Her Master's thesis, "The Dog Ate My Framework"; The Origin-ality of the Post-War Lebanese Avant-Garde and Other Post-Modernist Myths," examines the formation of narratives and origin stories that have crystallized around conceptual art practices in Post-War Lebanon.
Walid Sadek on Hassan Khan’s Nine Lessons Learned from Sherif El-Azma (Cairo: the Contemporary Image Collective, 2009)
|Languages: English and Arabic|
No. of Pages: 80 pages
Publishing House: Contemporary Image Collective, Cairo
ISBN No.: 977-17-6873-5
|Cover of Hassan Khan's Nine Lessons Learned from Sherif El-Azma|
Walid Sadek is an artist and writer living in Beirut. He is currently associate professor at the Department of Architecture and Design at the American University of Beirut.
Irmgard Emmelhainz on Ariella Azoulay’s The Civic Contract of Photography (New York: Zone books, 2009)
In an evocative passage in Memory for Forgetfulness (August, Beirut, 1982), Mahmoud Darwish writes that the image which Palestinians have created for themselves is a problematic foothold of vision. Setting the political reality against its own materiality, such image invokes, in his view, a specific kind of representation that becomes reality itself by way of its becoming image –what Jean Baudrillard termed the Hyperreal. Since the 1980s, Elias Sanbar has posed the problem of imaging Palestine and Palestinians as predicated upon an absence: expelled and obliterated from their land and without a state, Palestinians are absent from their own image. More recently, within a global politics of visibility, Palestinians represent themselves as demanding recognition and restitution, at times underscoring the universality of their struggle and suffering. Moreover, within the context of the humanitarization of the conflict, Palestinians are represented as victims bearing witness to their own catastrophe, denouncing the violation of their rights. Through this lens, “traumatic realist” images are always falling short of accounting for catastrophe: at best, they may arouse empathy, pity or compassion, and at worst, they become illustrations of a situation towards which spectators have become manifestly tired or apathetic. Is it possible to think of these various ways of imaging Palestine, Palestinians and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict differently, or should we consider them as specific to historical and discursive junctures?
In a major contribution both to the field of political theory and the theory of photography, Ariella Azoulay proposes radically new and vital arguments that help us rethink the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the imaging of Palestine. By summoning us as spectators of “The Citizenry of Photography,” she urges us to take responsibility for what is visible. Stressing a shift away from ethics in discourses about war and conflict, and in an effort to bring back politics as a space of speech and action, Azoulay’s placing of photography as potentially such a space is radical and necessary. When the idea that we are all jaded viewers of disaster pornography and catastrophe predominates, The Civil Contract of Photography’s essential contribution is precisely the stress it places on the visual praxis of watching images that bear traces of the administered perpetuation of disaster in occupied and besieged Palestine. In her book, Azoulay focuses on images that were taken by Israeli photographers (artists and journalists) of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and Gaza since the beginning of the Second Intifada in order to examine what kind of encounters take place in such photographic acts. Without dismissing the possibility of the act of photography as an appropriation of another’s image—and thus an act of violence—her case studies feature photographs in which the subject stakes a claim by addressing the camera lens directly. She then explores how these conditions of visibility open up possibilities of political action.
In her first chapter, Azoulay sets out to establish her own working definitions of citizenship and non-citizenship by examining different formulations: From the French Revolution to the 1948 Declaration of the Rights of Man and from Hannah Arendt and François Lyotard to Giorgio Agamben’s recent articulation of the figure of the refugee. The second chapter is devoted to a study of the practices of photography since the medium’s inception in 1839. Encompassing more than a technical skill, photography in Azoulay’s argument serves as a form a civil knowledge, and thus a potential space for political relations. The chapter that follows posits the act of photography as an agreement between the viewer, photographer, and photographed. The fourth chapter addresses the problem that even if we consider the act of photography as an agreement between those involved, the current field of vision of catastrophe (as “images of horror”) hinders photographs from making direct “emergency claims” to the viewer. Chapter five is devoted to injury perpetrated to women vis-à-vis the visualization of rape, concluding that subjects vulnerable to rape bear the status of “impaired citizens.” This is a status shared by Palestinians as they are always placed on the verge of catastrophe by the actual state that governs them and this is the argument put forth in chapter six. Chapters seven and eight are devoted to the viewership of catastrophe and to a description of Palestine as a Penal Colony respectively. The last chapter addresses the figure of the woman collaborator and the sanitation of sexual violence inherent to Israeli torture of Palestinians.
Shifting the current paradigm of analysis of the occupation from the violation of Palestinians’ rights, Azoulay demonstrates how Israel governs all Palestinians through a set of mechanisms that deny them citizenship by treating them as exceptions to the rule, maintaining them on the verge of catastrophe. Azoulay also highlights the discrepancy between considering Palestinians as citizens of a hypothetical Palestinian state and as citizens of the actual state of Israel that governs them. She then argues that to consider Palestinians as refugees is to deny their existence as political agents – unless they have a state of their own. Azoulay thus asks: how can citizenship be rehabilitated to a collective of non-citizens who are governed as exception to the rule, in other words, as “impaired citizens”? The notion of citizenship in the Declaration of the 1948 Rights of Man considers citizenship as an inalienable, universal right bestowed by the nation-state. Azoulay insists that such a universal notion of citizenship renders the citizen the only figure capable of struggling against the abuses of power. By establishing the categories of citizenship and non-citizenship, she suggests doing away with the ghost of nationalism and instead, substituting it with a non-universalizing and territorializing notion of citizenship, thereby awarding political status to non-citizens. Her politization of non-citizenship is thus necessarily based on a radical separation between state and nation and on the principle that everyone everywhere is entitled to citizenship in the territory in which he or she lives. Azoulay’s categorization of Palestinians as bearers of impaired citizenship, therefore, diverges from a conception of the conflict based on the violation of rights and ethnic cleansing, which poses dispossession and obliteration as moral and ethical problems and Palestinians as dispossessed refugees demanding restitution and recognition. In her account, both the humanitarization of the conflict and the terms that are currently used to describe the practices of sovereignty over Palestine and Palestinians restrict and circumscribe the field of vision of the conflict.
In her study, Azoulay describes the way in which power is programmatically deployed in the territory in which Palestinians live by creating a state of suspension premised on violence and the threat of violence. Through preventive and punitive aggressions like targeted assassinations, destruction of infrastructure and homes, violent arrests, restrictions on travel, bombings from the air, raids, expropriations and the prohibitions of demonstrations, the existence of Palestinians remains at the threshold of catastrophe, a chronic and prolonged situation known to the locals in the West Bank and in Gaza as “the tyranny of incertitude.” This kind of violence, as Azoulay puts it, “prevents, delays, complicates, disrupts priorities, upsets plans, hurts the sick, harpers students, destroys livelihoods, intensifies hunger, creates malnutrition harms family relations, inhibits growth, fosters diseases and drives people out of their minds.” Azoulay further argues that the practices of detainment, imprisonment, torture, and the restriction of movement maintain the Occupied Territories and Gaza as a Kafkaesque Penal Colony, characterized by the haphazardous inscription of an infringement into the colonized bodies and psyches.
Azoulay also explores how beyond the territory in which they live, the social tissue and the psyche of Palestinians are imprinted with the Israeli ruling apparatus, rendering Palestinians vulnerable through an incriminating machine that produces collaborators by way of coercion and torture. Reading testimonies gathered by B’Tselem, alongside examining their use of photographs (that exist or not) of Palestinian men and women naked or having extra-marital sex, Azoulay describes how the Shabak instrumentalize photography in order to extort Palestinians into collaboration. Using these photographs as a means of torture, Israeli Authorities, according to Azoulay, reduce images to their denotative existence. The implication is a form of concentrated violence to which women are the most vulnerable.
For Azoulay, the kind of violence and aggression exerted on Palestinians produces non-events whose visibility depends on the viewer’s capacity for drawing énoncés from them by establishing a referent that exceeds the images’ status as documentation. Positing photographs as an exchange of gazes, Azoulay, claims that the act of photography, photographer and photographed assume a hypothetical spectator who can potentially interact with them in the space of photography. Proposing an ethical viewership that transcends the passive and desensitized spectator, Azoulay politicizes photography not by considering it as documentation of an event, but as a politicized space that can actualize speech and action. In her formulation, spectatorship is a civil duty and the subjects of the photographs that she examines are non-citizens presenting their injuries. Therefore, those involved in the photographic act are enabled to address the terms by which they are being governed. Moreover, considering photography as a testimony of the photograph’s eventuation—by the encounter between photographer, photographed and camera—she posits photography as a mutual obligation, as a means to organize political relations extrinsic to the sovereign power. In this way, citizenship is both a tool for struggle and as a duty – not to the nation, but between individuals. To participate in the act of photography, especially to produce photographs on the verge of catastrophe, is to refuse to accept the status of Palestinians as non-citizens and instead, to demand their participation and recognition. As opposed to bearing witness, being photographed on the verge of catastrophe is to make a civil address, insofar as it is the presentation of a grievance claiming the spectator’s civil gaze. To practice citizenship as a duty means to speak on behalf of the photograph by watching it, re-opening it to negotiate what it shows, and reconstructing the event by introducing the dimensions of space and time. Watching, for Azoulay, is not recognizing: also different than visualizing or looking, watching demands reconstructing and examining the circumstances of the photograph’s dissemination.
Azoulay’s approach to photography highlights what the invention of photography offers to the gaze as an encounter and thus potentially a political space, as opposed to a “has been.” In this way, her argument brings to mind those of photo historians and theorists John Tagg and Allan Sekula who suggest returning photography to its public social and political concerns. Azoulay thereby challenges the kinds of (private) reception-centered, aesthetic and semiotic approaches to photography that have predominated since Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida (1980). A central shift in how photography has been understood as a political tool that Azoulay makes, is to consider the photograph itself (as opposed to the photographer or the viewer) as the mediator for political relations. In this way, she both furthers Walter Benjamin’s politization of photography as “a crime scene,” and problematizes Susan Sontag’s notion of ethical responsibility regarding the pain of others. In The Social Contract of Photography, Azoulay understands photographs of Palestinians on the verge of catastrophe as énoncés of horror, as textual and visual expressions describing catastrophe as it occurs. However, the current conditions of visibility of catastrophic events impend catastrophe to be witnessed, addressing a blinded spectator. Thus, civic spectatorship has the duty to actualize the passage of the photograph from énoncé of horror to an emergency claim. Insofar as the traces of the injury are imprinted on the surface of the photographic image, they are “awaiting the spectator to assist them.” But because photographs are not pure objects of vision and cannot speak for themselves, they are handicapped and thus require additional verbal and textual support. In other words, the visibility of horror remains unseen unless the spectator actively assumes the role of reconstruction of the photographs, understood as moving images that elude a stable gaze. Azoulay’s focus on the viewing conditions that are specific to Israelis over Palestinians highlights the problem that further harm occurs when the conditions of discourse distort the meanings that are contained in the photograph. Even though a referent can be established, Israeli-Jews look at Palestinians as the enemy, thus they may miss the position of being addressed and simply regard the statement of horror as a confirmation of what they already know. For Azoulay, everything can be seen, but what horror shows can neither be seen in the current tribunals nor translated into emergency claims, thereby evading the real dimension of the emergency. The pressing task she urges the spectator to undertake is not to render horror visible, but to mind the gap between the two. To do this implies to actualize the demands addressed to the spectator-citizen, whose protection and well-being are legitimating the perpetuation of injury of the non-citizens.
Recently obtained a Ph.D. from the Department of Art History at the University of Toronto and joined the ranks of international precarious intellectual labor. She is currently rewriting her dissertation into a monograph on Jean-Luc Godard and the Palestine Question.
Sarah Rogers on Palestine c/o Venice: Collatoral Event of the 53rd international Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia. Edited by Salwa Mikdadi (Beirut: mind the gap, 2009)
Over the past ten years we have witnessed a number of publications, predominantly out of Europe and the U.S., dedicated to the subject of contemporary art from the Arab world and its diasporas. What remains lacking, however, is a substantial body of scholarship dedicated to the history of modern art of the region. In other words, the roots of the contemporary have yet to be examined. The consequence is the assumption that contemporary art in the region is a novelty. Unfortunately this holds true for those working abroad and, at times, even among those living in the Arab world. Dispelling this myth is the most significant contribution of the essays published in the exhibition catalogue for Palestine c/o Venice.
The foreword by Salwa Mikdadi, one of the first curators of modern and contemporary Arab art in U.S., sets the tone for the catalogue. Outlining her agenda and goals for Palestine c/o Venice, Mikdadi stresses the historical and contemporary significance of Palestinian participation at the Biennale. Not only is it a first, but also (and perhaps more importantly) the chosen framework for the exhibition aims to challenge the assumption that Palestinian art derives its strength from a position of victimization. Certainly an exhibition platform premised on the paradigm of the nation state is a structure that automatically excludes Palestinians in their current state of occupation. And whereas exhibitions of contemporary non-western art, particularly in the context of biennales, often are accused of being didactic political lessons, artists Taysir Batniji, Shadi HabibAllah, partners Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti, Emily Jacir, Jawad al Malhi, and Khalil Rabah instead choose to broadly explore the intersection of art, audience, and geography without relinquishing attention to the complexity of the current socio-political Palestinian context. Moreover, the essays by Mikdadi, commissioner Vittorio Urbani, curator Jack Persekian, curator and critic Adila Laidi-Hanieh, and art historian Tina Sherwell unearth a longer history of art in Palestine and its overlaps and divergences with global contemporary production.
Urbani’s What If? is a personal reflection on the contingencies of dislocation and the role of art within this nexus of possibility. For Urbani, exhibitions and the curatorial choices they require are far from neutral. Rather than an “act of protest,” however, Palestine c/o Venice represents “an act of optimistic reconstruction,” one that must insist on an awareness of reality and one that in the Palestinian case has been “disrupted and almost frozen by delayed justice,” (7). This leads Urbani to question the “heavy, postcolonial heritage” of the Venice Biennale that is national representation. Yet in an unresolved paradox—one that deserves more attention—Urbani notes both the history of cross-cultural interactions informing a city like Venice and the contemporary opportunities for such meetings that develop out of the Venice Biennale (his collaboration with Salwa Mikdadi, for instance).
Perkesian also critiques the structure of the Biennale, arguing that it serves to comfort those involved by the mere fact that they are ‘doing something.’ He begins by ruminating on the gap between the subject and viewer, a distance that prompts the simultaneous and apparently paradoxical responses of empathy and inactivity. This launches Perkesian into a discussion of his experience and accompanying disappointment setting up the Palestinian Department of Visual Arts in the Ministry of Culture during the nineties. Despite Perkesian’s acknowledgement that he risks “the pitfall,” of “confessional mode,” his text unfortunately reads as a justification on why he no longer works in Palestine.
The remaining essays by Mikdadi, Laidi-Hanieh, and Sherwell take a more historical approach and are therefore the more substantial contributions to a scholarly discourse. Mikdadi’s essay opens with an explanation of the title, “Palestine c/o Venice,” a reference to the postal system that she aptly considers a metaphor for Palestine’s colonial history: the seemingly perpetual inability for one to mail a letter to and from Palestine proper with a Palestinian stamp due to a series of foreign occupiers, dating from the Ottoman Empire to contemporary Israel. In other words, Palestine is accessible only via a mediator. She then discusses post-Oslo changes in art (a media shift from painting to installation; the presence of international curators in the region; the growth in the number of NGOs institutions and art academies; the move from the isolation of the artist’s studio to the community’s engagement in the public sphere) before situating the Biennale projects within a local and global context.
Laidi-Hanieh also presents a historical outline of Palestinian art in different media (painting, film, literature). Moving from the 1960s through the 1987 Intifada to the post-Oslo period, she charts the influence of these radical socio-political shifts on artistic production and reception. She concludes by characterizing the case of Palestinian art with a paradox: “an anachronistic, unique, post-colonial colony that despite its small size, obliteration from the map, and relentless destruction and isolation, still manages to inspire its artists to create a diverse and vibrant cultural expression, which has shaped modern Arab culture and is now celebrated internationally,” (22). With this observation, Laidi-Hanieh distinguishes Palestinian cultural production from Franz Fanon’s paradigmatic analyses of a post-colonial revolutionary art due to its continuing occupation. At the same time, she refuses to consider this socio-political context as one that stifles art.
Sherwell’s “Intimate Landscapes/Dissected Terrains,” is of the most interest to art historians as its focus on one genre allows the author to theorize art’s role in shaping a community through a shared perception of the land. Moreover, she employs careful formal analysis of particular works to trace the changes in how the nation is produced via art (from the female figure as representation of homeland in paintings from the 1980s to an empty suitcase, void of identity markers, in Khalil Rabah’s work from 2002). Her essay concludes with an equally intriguing discussion of how the Palestinian works included in Biennale participate in this longer history.
The catalogue’s minor disappointments (from grammatical typos to content repetition) do not detract from its overall contributions. Together, the essays offer a timely commentary on state of contemporary Palestinian art and its scholarly discourse, one that has the potential to both provoke unproductive empathy and make substantial contributions to critical discussion on art and politics.
Sarah Rogers is currently a Post-doctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art where is she researching American artists in Lebanon during the cold war.
Mitra Abbaspour on Making Interstices: Central Asia Pavillon: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, 53rd international Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia. Edited by Beral Madra (2009)
Echoing the grandiose optimism of Making Worlds, the designated theme of the 53rd International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia, the Central Asia Pavilion has responded with Making Interstices, a title as self-aware as the art it represents. In her lead essay, Beral Madra, pavilion curator and editor of the accompanying catalog, reminds readers that an interstice is a small space in body tissue, an “empty cell compartment.” Interstices, she suggests, are where the potential for real creativity and social responsiveness exist. At its strongest, the catalog’s scholarly essays and featured art