London gallery showcases modern Arab art

Sunday 25/09/2016
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 4th, 2017.