The Guggenheim gives a kaleidoscopic of contemporary arts in the Middle East and North Africa.
Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative opens its third phase with its extensive exhibition “But a Storm Is Blowing from Paradise”, presenting artists from the Middle East and North Africa.
“But a Storm Is Blowing from Paradise:Contemporary Art of the Middle East and North Africa” is an exploration of the issues of migration and movement with an intensive focus on the rapidly evolving Middle East and North Africa. Curated by Sara Raza, the exhibition is on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum from 29 April to 5 October 2016, and later in 2017, it will travel to the Pera Museum, Istanbul.
The Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative, a multiyear collaboration which has previously mapped and explored the contemporary art of the South and South East Asian and the American regions, has launched its third phase with the exhibition of 17 Middle Eastern and North African artists. As the title makes amply clear, “But a Storm Is Blowing from Paradise” focuses on the practices of contemporary artists from the region, including artists originating from Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Turkey and the UAE.
Incorporating installation, video, painting, drawing and sculpture, the exhibition is a creative, philosophical and historical inquiry into a plethora of issues relating to a region in flux: that of the lingering historical experience of colonialism, of migration and movement and of liminal spaces.
Geometry is the prism that the curator Sara Raza adopts as much to serve as a unifying theme to the exhibition as to question the standard narratives of history. She says:
Central to the exhibition is the theme of geometries, as the mathematical branch of the “thinking sciences,” and for its conceptual quality and how it relates to ideas around logic. I looked at the idea of logic as truth—pure logic is truth—and I wanted to almost manipulate that a little bit, and dissect it within this show, and see how artists are playing with it from a curatorial angle, but also in terms of their own individual practices.
Raza hints at the perilous misdirection of the standard historical narratives and stresses on the importance of excavating history as we are told:
Some of the important ideas that we are using in our everyday practices actually originated from the mentioned region of this MAP project, the MENA region. Navigation, astrology, and astronomy are all valid examples, not to mention many philosophical ideas that have actually emerged. Scientific thought was very much initiated in this region, and how we understand mathematics. A simple example is geometry. And I’m very much interested in those ideas— ideas that somehow lost their way in contemporary thinking, in contemporary culture—to kind of revert back to that, to show that this is the origin of meaning, in particular, which is very fascinating.
Also an art critic, Raza took up this project as a part of her two-year residency at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
Exploring contemporary politics
The eponymous But a Storm is Blowing from Paradise (2014-15) is a series of paintings by the Iranian artist Rokni Haerizadeh. Often deploying wit, irony and humour, and liberally drawing from contemporary politics of Iran and beyond, in But a Storm is Blowing from Paradise Haerizadeh paints surreal images over printed stills from Youtube and television news broadcasts of events in the Middle East and North Africa. Borrowing the title from the German Philosopher Walter Benjamin’s description of Paul Klee’s 1920 print Angelus Novus – which meditates on the nature of history and progress – Haerizadeh transforms stills of contemporary life in the region into comical surreal images, raising questions about the authenticity of the very image that lies underneath his imagic interpolations.
Contemporary politics also forms a basis for the works of Abbas Akhavan and Ori Gersht. Akhavan’s Study for a Monument (2013-16) is a collection of bronze casts of plants native to the Tigris and Euphrates river systems of Mesopotamia – a region roughly coincident with contemporary Iraq. The casts are carefully laid out on a white sheet on the floor as though one were viewing an aerial map or a make-shift market of smuggled artefacts. The casts are fragmented and out of proportion, some are charred and oxidised from exposure to air and light – things a war does to the environment.
Ori Gersht’s video Evaders (2009) is about evaders, or people who undertook the journey through the borderline mountain range in France that offered an escape route for Nazi occupied Europe and a way for communists to flee General Franco’s fascist regime in Spain. It refers to the final journey of Walter Benjamin, who travelled from France to Spain with the intention of entering Portugal before heading to the United States, but was unfortunately denied entry and subsequently committed suicide.
A look into history and colonialism
Enquiry into history and experiences of colonialism is a dominant theme in many of the works in the exhibition. Mariam Ghani’s video A Brief History of Collapses traces the parallel histories of two distinguished buildings in two very different locations and socio-political contexts, namely the Museum Fridericianum built by Simon Louis du Ry in Kassel, Germany in 1779, and the Darul Aman Palace built by Walter Harten in Kabul in 1929.
What comes to the fore are the ideological associations and architectural similarities between the two buildings, despite which the two meet very different fates: the former renovated and in use currently, the latter in ruins, a reminder of the trajectories that modernity took in the region.
A further exploration into the exploitative nature of colonialism in the realm of ideas is made by Kader Attia’s Untitled (Ghardaia). Made entirely from couscous, a regional culinary staple, Untitled (Ghardaia) is a scale model of the Algerian city of Ghardaia. It is juxtaposed against the prints of Western modernist pioneer architects Le Corbusier and Fernand Pouillon, and a copy of a UNESCO certificate that designates Ghardaia as a World Heritage Site.
The work draws attention to the fact that both the architects borrowed and reworked the Mozabite architecture, which is native to the city of Ghardaia and to the ancient Mzab region, but none credited their sources. It also draws attention to France’s 19th century colonisation of Algeria and the relationship of exploitation that it was sustained on.
The migratory movements
An underlying theme that runs through the exhibition is migration and movement. Most artists in the exhibition have either mixed heritages or have lived and practiced in between places and cultures, bringing a peculiar depth to their artistic meditations.
Gülsün Karamustafa, one of Turkey’s most outspoken and celebrated artists, is a veteran in examining issues of gender, globalisation and migration. Her Create Your Own Story with the Given Material (1997), as addressed in the explanatory title, is a statement on creating new lives and meanings with whatever is thrown one’s way at the advent of a life in new, often alien places. It features child-sized white cotton shirts that have been sewn shut with black cord – a reference to the plight of immigrant children in Turkey for whom safe passage into the country does not guarantee subsequent freedom of movement, nor a better life.
One of the most exciting works on display is Nadia Kaabi-Linke’s Flying Carpets (2011). Born in Tunisia but currently based in Berlin via Kiev and Dubai, Kaabi-Linke, like many of her counterparts in the exhibition, has a personal history of migration across cultures and political borders. Flying Carpet is created in steel, aluminium and thread, and hovers suspended over the viewer.
It tells in complex geometric forms the story of the immigrant merchants and street vendors of Venice, who are primarily of African, Arab and South Asian origin, and their illegal business of selling counterfeit goods to tourists. They display their wares in rugs since they are easy to sweep up fast and run to safe locations in case of encounter with authorities. Their rugs become the flying carpets that transport them to temporary safety.
- Turkish artist Gülsün Karamustafa’s “Chrographia” in Berlin – in pictures – June 2016 – “Chronographia” includes 110 works ranging from the 1970s to the present day and exploring themes such as migration, modernity, feminism and gender
- French-Algerian artist Kader Attia’s “Sacrifice and Harmony” at the Museum for Moderne Kunst Frankfurt – May 2016 – Franco-Algerian artist Kader Attia investigates the long lasting effects colonialism has had on non-Western culture in tandem with historical and political notions of identity on the continuum
- Tunisian art comes to India: Solo exhibition for Berlin-based Tunisian artist Nadia Kaabi-Linke – picture feast – April 2013 – “No one harms me” is a solo exhibition of work by Tunisian-born, Berlin-based artist Nadia Kaabi-Linke
- Island of happiness? Artist Mariam Ghani on art and exploitation in Abu Dhabi – December 2013 – The Gulf Labor coalition member and artist Mariam Ghani explains why artists should take a stand against injustice
- Abbas Akhavan wins Sobey Art Ward 2015 – November 2015 – The 14th edition of Sobey Art Award awards Iranian artist Abbas Akhavan, whose work explores the domestic and domesticated space
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