Select pieces from Barjeel Art Foundation land in Toronto for first exhibition in North America.

Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum showcases a lush storehouse of art from Spain to Southeast Asia, with treasures dating from the 8th century through the 19th century. “Home Ground: Contemporary Art from the Barjeel Foundation” represents work from some of the best and brightest artists in the Middle East in an honest, historically relevant collection.

Larissa Sansour, 'Nation Estate – Olive Tree', 2012, C-print, 60 x 120 cm. Photo by the Artist © Larissa Sansour. Image courtesy the Barjeel Art Foundation.

Larissa Sansour, ‘Nation Estate – Olive Tree’, 2012, C-print, 60 x 120 cm. Photo: the Artist © Larissa Sansour. Image courtesy the Barjeel Art Foundation.

“Home Ground: Contemporary Art from the Barjeel Art Foundation” highlights 12 artists from Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Palestine and Saudi Arabia and features 24 pieces from the Barjeel Art Foundation, headquartered in Sharjah, the United Arab Emirates. The collection exhibition opened on 25 July 2015 at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, Canada and concludes on 3 January 2016.

The Aga Khan Museum, one of Toronto’s newest art venues, opened on 12 September 2014. With an emphasis on the “arts of Muslim civilizations,” its collection includes over 1,000 objects spanning across these categories: Architectural Decoration, Calligraphy and Illumination, Ceramics, Luxury Objects, Metalwork, Painted Manuscripts, Qur’ans, and Science and Learning.

The Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, at dusk. Photo: Janet Kimber. Image courtesy the Aga Khan Museum.

The Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, at dusk. Photo: Janet Kimber. Image courtesy the Aga Khan Museum.

The venue was established by His Highness the Aga Khan, the founder and chairman of the Aga Khan Development Network, an organisation that works with developing nations to “address complex development issues”. The museum is a manifestation of His Highness’ long lineage of service and, according to the venue’s website, seeks to “act as a catalyst” to bring people together:

Its mission is to foster a greater understanding and appreciation of the contribution that Muslim civilizations have made to world heritage. Through education, research, and collaboration, the Museum will foster dialogue and promote tolerance and mutual understanding among people.

Interior view of the Aga Khan Museum, Toronto. Photo: Janet Kimber. Image courtesy Aga Khan Museum.

Interior view of the Aga Khan Museum, Toronto. Photo: Janet Kimber. Image courtesy Aga Khan Museum.

The Barjeel Art Foundation was founded by Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi in 2010. Mr. Al Qassemi is a descendant of one of the ruling families in the United Arab Emirates and counts curatorial powerhouse and Sharjah Art Foundation founder Sheikha Sultan Hoor bint al-Qasimi as his cousin. In addition to being an advocate for contemporary Arab art, Mr. Al Qassemi became an “international celebrity” in 2011 due to his real-time translation and commentary via Twitter during the Arab Spring. It was thanks to this role of bringing together potentially disparate countries and peoples, during particularly turbulent times, that Mr. Al Qassemi founded the Barjeel Art Foundation. As Mr. Al Qassemi told The National on the eve of the exhibition’s opening, art has the potential to offer a fresh perspective of the Middle East in the West:

Collaborating with international museums is one of the best ways to open up the collection to international audiences,” says Mr. Al Qassemi. “I believe that art can counter some of the negative stereotypes that have sadly been associated with the region. We must continue to build cultural bridges with the rest of the world, and the Aga Khan Museum and the city of Toronto itself are ideal platforms to do this.

Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi with Raafat Ishak's installation "One Hundred and Ninety Four Governments". Image courtesy the Aga Khan Museum.

Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi with Raafat Ishak’s installation ‘One Hundred and Ninety Four Governments’. Image courtesy the Aga Khan Museum.

Barjeel’s Curator and Exhibitions Manager Suheyla Takesh is no stranger to the aspects of migration and fluid identities. She was born in Crimea and moved with her Palestinian father and Russian mother to Sharjah at the age of ten. Takesh told Toronto’s The Star that she specifically chose the two dozen pieces in the exhibition to explore a very 21st century concept of what and where is “home”:

This could relate to struggles associated with moving from one place to another, crossing geopolitical borders and, you know, gaining the sense of inclusion where you are.This process is very challenging, but is full of hope at the same time. […] The artists — some of whom grew up in refugee camps — might work from a different contextual framework, she said, but in a cosmopolitan city such as Toronto, with its large immigrant population, “anybody who has experienced movement between geographies or has questioned their experience of home and sense of belonging can relate to it.

 Suheyla Takesh, Curator of "Home Ground", in front of Jawad al-Malhi’s 'Measures of Uncertainty VI' (2013). Photo: Janet Kimber © The Aga Khan Museum, 2015.

Suheyla Takesh, Curator of “Home Ground”, in front of Jawad al-Malhi’s ‘Measures of Uncertainty VI’ (2013). Photo: Janet Kimber © The Aga Khan Museum, 2015.

Themes weaving the artworks together include migration, displacement, upheavals, new beginnings and the very real possibility that an individual’s private life can be turned upside down by political events. Representing the work of 9 male and 3 female artists hailing from 6 different countries, “Home Ground” seeks to present a balanced investigation of the region that many in the West view as an exotic, explosive and confusing combination of cultures and ethnicities. According to a review in The Globe and Mail, the show provides a well-rounded view of the complexities found in the Middle East today:

[“Home Ground”] answers these binaries not by excluding one option at the expense of the other but by embracing the validity of each apparent antinomy. The result, blessedly, isn’t some shallow mishmash but a smartly assembled survey whose mix of video, sculpture, installation, photography and other practices pleases both retina and cerebral cortex.

Interior shot, Aga Khan Museum, Toronto. Photo: Janet Kimber. Image courtesy Aga Khan Museum.

Interior shot, Aga Khan Museum, Toronto. Photo: Janet Kimber. Image courtesy Aga Khan Museum.

Significant struggle

Beyond the show’s themes, lie a single narrative seen with alarming frequency in contemporary society – struggle. The exhibition’s press release reads:

These works are united by an awareness of struggle – the struggle crossing geopolitical borders; the struggle forging an identity in an ever-shifting world; and the inherent struggle of being an artist.

According to the same missive, exhibition highlights include work by:

With powerhouse artists rounding out the show:

Khaled Jarrar, 'Volleyball', 2013, reconstituted concrete from separation wall, 20cm. Photo: Photo by the Artist © Khaled Jarrar; Gallerie Polaris, Paris; and Gallery One, Ramallah. Image courtesy Barjeel Art Foundation.

Khaled Jarrar, ‘Volleyball’, 2013, reconstituted concrete from separation wall, 20cm. Photo: the Artist © Khaled Jarrar; Gallerie Polaris, Paris; and Gallery One, Ramallah. Image courtesy Barjeel Art Foundation.

Lost ground

Palestinian multi-media artist Khaled Jarrar’s work often “explores the effects of conflict on humanity”. His work Volleyball (2013) is no exception. Made of material secretly chiseled out of a wall separating Israelis and Palestinians, the piece speaks to the loss of play fields available to children under Israeli occupation.

In another piece addressing Palestinian nationhood and its fragmentation, Larissa Sansour’s video / photography piece Nation Estate (2012) explores a “physical solution”, where a country exists inside a skyscraper and individual cities can be visited through the use of the building’s elevator.

A character created by Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali becomes a three-dimensional figure in the hands of Iraqi artist Dia al-Azzawi (2011). According to a summary by Takesh on the Museum’s Facebook page, the figure was modelled on a portrait of al-Ali as a child and remains a poignant reminder of how far the peace process has to go:

In 1973, Naji al-Ali drew the boy facing away from viewers to say that Handala was turning his back to all the violence then occurring between Palestine and Israel, and to all the temporary solutions that were not really helpful. The 10-year-old Handala was to keep his back turned until the conflict was fully resolved — and when he finally turned around, he would still be 10 years old, so he could have a chance to enjoy his childhood in peace and wouldn’t have to witness any more violence.

Dia al-Azzawi, 'Handala', 2011, bronze, 29 x 17 x 10 cm. Photo: Niccolò Corradini, Capital D Studio © Barjeel Art Foundation. Image courtesy Barjeel Art Foundation.

Dia al-Azzawi, ‘Handala’, 2011, bronze, 29 x 17 x 10 cm. Photo: Niccolò Corradini, Capital D Studio © Barjeel Art Foundation. Image courtesy Barjeel Art Foundation.

On the road and into the skies

Migration, displacement and travelling short distances or across continents to begin anew are discussed in some of the more memorable pieces on display. In Heap (1) (2014), Lebanese artist Mohamad-Said Baalbaki’s bold and beautiful brush strokes display indistinct heaps of clothing, luggage and books, with the notable absence of people.

Mohamad-Said Baalbaki, 'Heap (1)', 2014, oil on board, 40 x 50 cm. Photo: Siegfried Bücker © Mohamad-Said Baalbaki; Siegfried Bücker. Image courtesy Barjeel Art Foundation.

Mohamad-Said Baalbaki, ‘Heap (1)’, 2014, oil on board, 40 x 50 cm. Photo: Siegfried Bücker © Mohamad-Said Baalbaki; Siegfried Bücker. Image courtesy Barjeel Art Foundation.

Saudi Arabian artist Manal al-Dowayan is one of the three female artists participating in the exhibition. Her work Suspended Together – (Standing Dove, Eating Dove) (2012) delicately illustrates the politics behind Saudi women being forbidden to travel without a male’s (father, husband or male guardian) permission. In this work, travel permits are seen on the dove’s wings.

Manal al-Dowayan, 'Suspended Together – (Standing Dove, Eating Dove)', 2012, porcelain, 20 x 10 x 23 cm each. Photo: Miguel Veterano, Capital D Studio © Barjeel Art Foundation.

Manal al-Dowayan, ‘Suspended Together – (Standing Dove, Eating Dove)’, 2012, porcelain, 20 x 10 x 23 cm each. Photo: Miguel Veterano, Capital D Studio © Barjeel Art Foundation.

Coming home

Egyptian artist Youssef Nabil examines the fluidity of identity, life and death in his film You Never Left (2010). As Nabil told Art Radar in a recent interview, he considers the film to be a self-portrait of his life:

The idea of the film came about during all of those years outside of my country. About the idea that leaving is dying. When I left, some part of me died. I was hoping to be born again, somewhere else and find life again in a place that I didn’t know – which was Paris at that time. I discovered as well that my country never really left me. I always had Egypt within me. I wanted to make a video about it.

Click here to view You Never Left, Extract III from Youssef Nabil on Vimeo

As a diaspora artist living in Australia, Raafat Ishak’s work Responses to an Immigration Request from One Hundred and Ninety-Four Governments (2006-2009) represents one of the initial hurdles many immigrants must successfully clear before being welcomed in a country outside of their homeland. For this installation, Raafat sent correspondence and credentials to 194 countries, seeking to become a citizen. After waiting two years, half of those contacted returned his queries. The responses for each returned request is written in Arabic upon an egg-shaped representation of each country’s flag.

Raafat Ishak, 'Responses to an Immigration Request from One Hundred and Ninety-Four Governments', 2006-2009, oil and gesso on MDF, 30 x 21 x 2cm each. Photo: Andrew Curtis ©Raafat Ishak. Courtesy of Sutton Gallery, Australia

Raafat Ishak, ‘Responses to an Immigration Request from One Hundred and Ninety-Four Governments’, 2006-2009, oil and gesso on MDF, 30 x 21 x 2cm each. Photo: Andrew Curtis © Raafat Ishak. Courtesy of Sutton Gallery, Australia.

Regardless of what the current response to the Middle East is today in the West, art can both invoke and inspire. As Mr. Al Qassemi told CBC News, he wouldn’t have it any other way:

Artists try to propose solutions to events that are plaguing the Middle East that journalists really can’t even delve into,” he tells CBC News, adding that he doesn’t mind any controversy that the art may inspire.

Lisa Pollman

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Related Topics: art and the community, identity, Islamic art, museums, nationalism, political art, museum shows, events in Canada

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Brittney

By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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