Karen Dabrowska

Arab Weekly Article

Originally published: 25th September 2016

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London gallery showcases modern Arab art

Featuring diverse works, exhibition offers unprecedented insight into contemporary art from Middle East.


Iman Issa's proposal for a crystal building.

Iman Issa’s proposal for a crystal building.

London - The harsh realities of life in the Arab world are highlighted in the final exhibition based on works from the collection of the Barjeel Art Foundation displayed in South London’s Whitechapel Gallery during the past year. Imperfect Chronology: Mapping the Contemporary II, the fourth installation in the series, focuses on the contradictions in Arab societies and presents works that provide a visual commentary of the changes evident in Arab world cities.

Featuring diverse and poignant works from artists from Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the exhibition offers an unprecedented insight into contemporary art from the Middle East.

One of the most striking pieces is by Saudi artist Manal al-Dowayan. At first glance, her two delicate porcelain doves appear to be decorative ornaments but closer inspection reveals a more fascinating story. The doves – traditional symbols of freedom – are inscribed with the words of permission documents, signed by an appointed male guardian, that Saudi women must have to travel. Porcelain is used to comment beautifully on the role of women in contemporary Saudi society.

Curator Omar Kholeif said the exhibition is meant to outline a possible trajectory of recent Arab art at a time of hyperactivity across the Arab world.

“Our aim is to educate audiences about the genealogy of Arab art and to relate key moments that heralded the region’s contemporary art. It is important not to measure the Middle East according to a European yardstick. The chronology seeks to speak about what it means to tell the history of Arab art through the lens of one specific collection. We tried not to go for a purely chronological presentation but evoke different kinds of senses,” Kholeif said last January.

As visitors enter the gallery they are immersed in the sounds of an Arab city: the sermon of an imam, the music blaring out of loud speakers, the buzz of street life.

In his video, Egyptian artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan explores the cultural fabric of Cairo through its history of noise pollution. The focus is on two Muslim clerics who urge the listeners not to pollute others’ hearing with shameful sounds. They criticise those who have weddings in the street and emphasise that freedom means not violating the freedom of others through unwanted noise. Ironically, the imams are filling the very sonic landscape they are trying to clear with their own noise pollution.

Sadik al-Fraji produced animation about the house of his father built and lost in the ruins of Iraq. Cartoon silhouettes pass through a sketch of a beautiful building alternatively lit by the sun and moon that disintegrates and explodes.

Qatari-American artist Sophia al-Maria devotes her 1.51-minute video to a comment on the theme of the evil eye: A curse believed to be cast by a malevolent glare, usually given to persons when they are unaware. A large round multicoloured eye surveys the ritual slaughter of a lamb for the Eid feast, exposing the barbarity of the religiously sanctioned killing.

The exhibition is lit up by Egyptian sculptor Iman Issa’s glittering column of crystal lights, which the artist proposes as a utopian monument of Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Behind the lights is a photograph of the bleak, desolate square devoid of the revolutionary fervour of 2011 – the city’s inhabitants need to be reminded of its former glory.

The GCC Collective, made up of eight artists based in the Gulf, produced a highly detailed miniature model of wood, brass, acrylic, glass and fabric of a hexagonal conference table used at two recent summits of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Shrinking the massive original down to a less intimidating size this fascinating artefact is a comment on power and politics. The model is too perfect, suggesting that all that glitters is not gold. The idea of a GCC is fine in theory but how does it work in practice?

A mixed-media installation by Marwa Arsanios – All About Acapulco – explores the changing fortunes of Beirut’s answer to Acapulco Beach. Suspended from the ceiling is a model of one of the most famous buildings of Ferdinand Dasher known as the spaceship – a symbol of the area in its heyday. Its decline from a hip beach resort to a haven for refugees is registered by a collection of photographs.

Known for her subtle subversion of familiar objects, Jumana Manna removed a limestone bench from East Jerusalem into a gallery environment and called it The Unlicensed Porch of Jabal Mukhbar. The sculpture reveals the complexities of life in Jerusalem where the divisions of east and west and who is allowed to roam and own land are dictated by an individual’s religious and ethnic origins.

“It captured a century of aesthetic reflection by artists whose work is not necessarily about but undisputedly from the context of the Arab world,” Whitechapel Gallery director Iwona Blazwick said about the year-long Barjeel Art Foundation project. “They present a cultural history with complexity, irony, beauty and dissent.”

Imperfect Chronology: Mapping the Contemporary II runs through January 8th, 2017.