East London gallery offers glimpse into Arab art
London - Four major exhibitions of Arab art have been organised by east London’s Whitechapel Gallery as part of its programme of opening rarely seen art collections to the public.
The artworks come from the UAE-based Barjeel Art Foundation, which was set up by Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi in 2010 and holds one of the most extensive collections of art from the Arab world and its diaspora.
The first exhibition, Imperfect Chronology: Debating Modernism I, presents a variety of serious, colourful works that provide a penetrating insight into Arab history and culture between 1900 and 1968.
During that period, the Arab world was going through major changes as it emerged from an era of colonialism and saw the establishment of independent states.
The works, originating from a dozen countries from the Middle East and North Africa region, reflect both the Pan-Arab cultural renaissance or Nahda, which began in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Egypt and spread to Ottoman-ruled areas, and the , when Arabs lost territory to Israel during the 1967 war. They include landscape paintings as well as social and figurative art tackling themes of social and political unrest across the Arab world.
“It is an attempt to outline a possible trajectory of recent Arab art at a time of hyperactivity across the Arab art world,” curator Omar Kholeif said.
“The aim of the Imperfect Chronology series 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,” he said. “The chronology is the overarching theme and it really 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, selected one of the 50 most powerful people in the Middle Eastern art world by Dubai-based Canvas magazine, explained how the exhibition is presented: “We start with an entire wall devoted entirely to landscape paintings. We then move towards an entire wall that looks at figuration, particularly focusing on the idea of Arab self-representation. We also have spiritual and surrealist works.”
Speaking to The Arab Weekly, Qassemi said he hopes the exhibition will encourage others to open their collections to the public.
Commenting on a work called the High Dam by Egyptian artist Effat Nagi, which dates to 1966, he said: “It has a huge political, social and economic significance in the sense that it was a project championed by Egypt’s [late] president Gamal Abdel Nasser and it was exhibited to show the scientific and industrial progress of Egypt.”
Qassemi also drew attention to one of the largest works in the exhibition by Kadhim Hayder from Iraq. The painting of white horses titled Fatigued Ten Horses Converse with Nothing symbolises the martyrdom and mourning of Husayn Ibn Ali at the Battle of Karbala in Iraq. The grandson of Prophet Mohammad, one of the most revered figures in Islamic history, was killed at the battle, leading to the schism between Shia and Sunni Muslims. The themes of renaissance and loss are combined in the massive work.
Kholeif pointed at the works depicting the Nahda. “The cultural renaissance that occurred at the turn of the last century is seen in terms of literature but we rarely speak about it in terms of the visual arts. This exhibition is looking very particularly on this historic period and argues that there was a cultural renaissance in the visual arts as well,” he said.
The renaissance and innovation are evident in the portraits of Syrian artist Marwan Kassab-Bachi from the early 1960s. He painted the figures on his arrival in Germany where he became part of the New Figuration Movement, a spontaneous style characterised by bright colours that draws its inspiration from popular culture.
There are also landscape paintings by artists from Egypt’s modernist movement: Yousef Kamel, dubbed the father of Egyptian impressionism, and Mahmoud Said, who developed a unique approach to painting that emphasised a three-dimensional style of expression along with a contrast of light and shadow.
While many Arab artists were influenced by European counterparts, the exhibition also features works developed independent of foreign traditions. Shakir Hassan al-Said, co-founder of the Baghdad Modern Art Group in the 1950s, produced abstract artwork inspired by the principles of Islamic Sufism.
The exhibition’s website states: “The display ends with Hamed Ewais’s Le Gardien de la vie (1967- 68), a large-scale oil painting that depicts a fighter, weapon in hand, while underneath him everyday events such as a wedding and a child riding a bike are shown, suggesting the possibility of social renewal following the collapse of the Pan-Arab ideal after the six-day war in 1967.”
The themes of renaissance and loss are once again combined in a single work.