Sharjah exhibition tells stories of the 20th century
Dubai - Looking at key social, cultural and intellectual developments of the 20th century through art can reveal the human truths that go beyond culture and geography.
The Short Century, an exhibition of modern Arab art from the last century organised by Barjeel Art Foundation at the Sharjah Art Museum, is just such a tour de force in curatorial presentation.
Because of the diversity and styles of more than 100 works on display from artists across the Arab world, the exhibition offers an account of the sweep of history that the show seeks to uncover.
The artists include Egyptian painters Mahmoud Said and Seif Wanly, Egyptian modernists Abdel Hadi el-Gazzar and Inji Efflatoun, Iraqi modernists Dia Azzawi and Shakir Hassan al-Said and Lebanese abstractionists Saliba Douaihy and Saloua Raouda Choucair.
“One of the main objectives of the Barjeel Art Foundation is to raise awareness of the rich history of Arab art internationally and at home, so we are delighted that an exhibition of this scope is taking place at the Sharjah Art Museum,” said Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi, founder of the Barjeel Art Foundation.
“The show presents a major statement on the history of modern Arab art. The curators have been able to draw out a set of themes that tell the stories of the 20th century.”
Curators Suheyla Takesh and Karim Sultan underline the challenges they faced in presenting a comprehensive survey in a non-chronological manner.
“We wanted to avoid an exhibition that simply showed a survey of works by Arab artists and went decade by decade, say from the 1910s, the 1920s and so on,” Takesh said. “Instead, this was intended as a way of looking into important social, cultural and intellectual developments in the 20th century through art, primarily painting.”
The curators said they were inspired by the work of historian Eric Hobsbawm, who wrote Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, in which he saw the century enclosed between the first world war and the fall of the Soviet Union.
“In our region there were parallel events after which things were irreparably different: the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1920 (and perhaps the parallel phenomenon of the Sykes-Picot agreement, which led to the development of modern borders) and the first Gulf War of 1990-91,” Sultan said.
This framework gave the curators the opportunity to present a history of Arab art on a backdrop of rapidly and radically changing societies in which a diverse set of artists worked to develop their own voices and styles.
The works were classified into various sections and under different themes from the larger historical framework of The Short Century and the massive upheavals it entailed, including urbanisation and technological development, the village and the city, nationalism and its effects, language and identity.
As counterpoint alongside these themes are works of tajreed, the abstract art trends in the Arab world during the modern period, and hurufiyya, a style that emerged in the late 1940s in which single Arabic letters, or harf, are transformed into pictures. It became widely used in the Middle East, leading to the popularity of modern calligraphy in Arab art.
“Artists throughout the 20th century were well connected with developments in Europe or the Americas but also delved deep into the constructed histories of then-new nation states to create voices that sought to be authentic, both to themselves as well as to their places of origin,” Sultan said.
“The subject matter they represented — whether highly political works reflecting social reality or introspective, experimental abstraction — determined the themes and sections of the show. We began with the works and with a historical sensibility as a backdrop.”
Takesh said: “Many works stand out highlighting different eras, regions and styles.”
“As far as the political and social peak, the work by Hamed Ewais, The Protector of Life (1967-68), painted after Egypt’s defeat in the 1967 war, is a complex work that shows both a sense of injured pride but an underlying deep sense of anxiety around the collapse of the Arab nationalist project at the time,” she said.
“An interesting contrast to such an overtly political work emerges in the section that shows works by both forward-thinking Lebanese artist Saloua Raouda Choucair and experimental Iraqi artist Shakir Hassan al-Said — both pioneers with their respective styles,” Sultan said.
“The works, presented in opposition to one another, show how uniquely expressive abstract works can allow for deep and meaningful introspection for both the artist and the viewer and engagement with diverse sets of influences including architecture, spirituality and the city.”
The exhibition is scheduled to remain on display until December 24th.