“Phantom Punch” presents contemporary art from Saudi Arabia as part of a a larger ongoing project of four coordinated group exhibitions of Saudi art in the United States.
Running from 28 October 2016 to 18 March 2017 at Bates College Museum of Art in Lewiston, Maine, the exhibition engages the community in critical dialogue around Saudi-US relations.
In May 1965, Neil Leifer captured what would be the most iconic photo of his career: Muhammad Ali, face contorted, standing above a supine Sonny Liston whom he had just knocked out in the first round with a resounding ‘phantom’ punch. The decisive blow, named for its unforeseen and swift impact, took place in St. Dominic’s Arena in the sleepy town of Lewiston, Maine, mostly known for its mills and as the home of Bates College. Just over half a decade later, Bates College hangs onto this historical moment, which is relevant not only as a rhetorical analogy but also due to the significance of Ali’s relationship to Islam, to present an exhibition of contemporary Saudi art at the Bates College Museum: a “cultural phantom punch” that resounds loudly in a contemporary political climate that is colored largely by the same issues, accompanied by new complexities, of race, religion, and cultural exchange.
The exhibition “Phantom Punch: Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia in Lewiston” at Bates College Museum of Art is part of a larger ongoing project of four coordinated group exhibitions of Saudi art in the United States, which includes the exhibitions “Parallel Kingdoms” in Houston, “Gonzo Arabia” in Aspen, and “Genera#ion” in San Francisco.
However, “Phantom Punch” is the first ever exhibition of Saudi artists in New England and in an effort to commemorate this historic moment, and to engage the community in critical dialogue around Saudi-US relations, a series of ongoing community programming events, produced by CULTURUNNERS, was initiated for the week following the show’s opening as well as for early February 2017. Dan Mills, the curator of the exhibition along with Loring Danforth, speaks of the origins of the exhibition and its initial planning and partnership stages:
We began discussion about curating an exhibition focusing on Saudi art in mid-2013, and began researching individually then meeting periodically to compare what we had learned. Many of the most compelling artists seemed to be connected in some way to Edge of Arabia, a London-based organization. We thought it would be worth approaching them and seeing if we might collaborate somehow. By mid-2014 we had written and Skyped with one of the principles, Stephen Stapleton, and met him and other staff at MIT fall 2014.
Eventually, we partnered with CULTURUNNERS, an associated organization headed up by Stapleton but one that focus on the programmatic and performance, story-telling, visiting artists and other creative platforms that connect artists with audiences and other audiences, who produced the exhibition. Stapleton and team had known many of the artists for years, has an amazing track record for producing adventuresome and prescient creative projects abroad and more recently in the US. They have been terrific to work with and have been a vital part of the project.
Though the exhibition has gained much traction for its historical significance as the first exhibition of Saudi art in New England, it must also be commended for its breadth, both in terms of thematic material and medium. Artists in the show explore and shed light on the economic impacts of the oil industry on Saudi Arabia, freedoms and restrictions on artistic expression, urbanisation and land usage, and terrorism and conflict across various media including but not limited to sculpture, photography, calligraphy, performance and video.
The expansive nature of the works allows for a nuanced and faceted approach to an exhibition that would otherwise run the risk of essentialism. Any exhibition premised on geopolitical identity must contend with the potential for national, or even cultural, essentialism, no matter how well-intentioned its aims. Positing Saudi Arabia as a site of difference between that of the United States would play into the divisive rhetoric that has thus largely defined electoral politics this year; however, the exhibition provides a platform for a multitude of voices, particularly young Saudi voices, to generate discourse centred on similarities.
The expansive nature of the works allows for a nuanced and faceted approach to an exhibition that would otherwise run the risk of essentialism; any exhibition premised on geopolitical identity must contend with the potential for national, or even cultural, essentialism, no matter how well-intentioned its aims. Positing Saudi Arabia as a site of difference between that of the United States would play into the divisive rhetoric that has thus largely defined electoral politics this year; however, the exhibition provides a platform for a multitude of voices, particularly young Saudi voices, to generate discourse centred on similarities.
Throughout the exhibition, contemporary sociopolitical issues in Saudi Arabia are explored critically through satire and parody. Hisham Fageeh’s 2014 video No Woman, No Drive tackles the ban on female driving in Saudi Arabia as a parody of the 1979 Bob Marley classic. The availability of the full video on YouTube positions it within the wider genre of musical parody that has become a hallmark of amateur videography, yet the political commentary – and its inclusion in an exhibition – complicates its reception as ‘art’.
Similarly, Sarah Abdullah, an artist who also works with film and has exhibited at the 55th Venice Biennale and Copenhagen’s Louisiana Museum of Art, reconfigures the ban on female driving as a performative project in her 2012 video Saudi Automobile. Abdallah treats a wrecked vehicle meant for transport and utility as a decorative object, painting it in a shade of pale pink throughout the duration of her ten-minute performance. In doing so, she transmits to the viewer a sense of impotence, both of the vehicle’s non-utility,and the impossibility of her own desire for agency and mobility.
Similar thematic issues of gender equality within Saudi society are addressed in Ahaad Almoudi‘s My Saudi Couple, a pair of his and her detergent bottles printed with male (white) and female (black) stickers. Here, as in other elements of the exhibition, the commentary is tongue-in-cheek rather than explosive; it is less of an attempt to make the Saudi world more digestible to a Western audience than it is a subtle reminder of how experiences of inequity are bounded to experiences of global commercialism and thus shared rather than idiosyncratically tied to cultural norms.
Such a lesson is particularly resonant in a university setting, where students are presented with opportunities to challenge their perceptions of difference. Says Loring Danforth:
As a professor of anthropology, I feel that one of the most important functions of a college or university art museum in the United States is to provide a place where students can experience art from different cultures around the world […]. Many American students have never met someone from Saudi Arabia, and they almost certainly have never met a Saudi artist. The artists we brought to the opening included a 21-year-old woman who was fully involved in the on-line world as well as older more conservative male artists. The fact that these artists expressed a range of perspectives on Saudi culture and on Islam will make it impossible for students to speak in sweeping generalizations about Saudis. Students will also realize that Saudi artists are critical of many of the same aspects of their society that Americans are critical of and that there are many other aspects of Saudi society that Americans are completely ignorant of.
Providing space for contemporary critical perspectives on Saudi culture is at the heart of the exhibition, and it is where these perspectives expand to critiques of global phenomena that the exhibition’s significance expands its bounds.
Ahmed Mater’s 2013 film Leaves Fall in All Seasons is a prime example of how the local and the global intersect. Composed of various shots filmed on mobile phones from anonymous contributors, the film shows immigrant workers during the construction of the Royal Hotel Clock Tower in Mecca. The split screen video offers two frames of viewing: that of the collective mass of workers, and that of an individual labourer in a precarious position on the crescent sculpture that adorns the tower.
Mater’s video combines a perspective into the reality of economic growth within the Arab region by showing the impact of globalisation on the lives of the many migrant labourers who must bear the costs of globalisation.
Huda Beydoun’s Tagged and Documented, from the series “Documenting the Documented”, attempts to bring such people to life through digitally manipulated photography. Silhouettes of Mickey and Minnie Mouse obscure the faces of undocumented immigrants, juxtaposing the whimsical with the harsh reality of her subjects’ struggle.
Mater and Beydoun’s work, like the larger body of work exhibited in the show, speak to a conscious effort to neither sanitise the Saudi world nor paint an exclusively bleak portrait of how its inhabitants live. What’s more, the aim of the exhibition is not to presume that contemporary Saudi art takes on a particular tendency toward something like “Westernisation” nor does it appear to tokenise its artists. For instance, Abdulnasser Gharem’s Ricochet, composed of rubber stamps and lacquer paint, offers a kaleidoscopic, panoramic perspective of traditional Islamic architecture against figures of industrial weapons – commentary that is topical without being trite.
Between the breadth of the exhibition and its adjacent programming, “Phantom Punch” establishes a model for presenting the work of Middle Eastern artists in the West in a way that is both comprehensive and replicable. Following the exhibition’s closing will be the publication of a catalogue that includes the exhibited work, documentation of the adjacent programming, as well as a catalogue essay by Danforth. Says Dan Mills:
Exhibitions are by nature ephemeral. So much work is put into an large and ambitious exhibition. That is the nature of the beast. But they are so worth it; one learns so much from a well-conceived and implemented exhibition–including the curators. There are some ideas, associations, and dialogues that only occur between works when they share a space. But alas then they’re over. But that’s when a fine catalogue, in some way, helps extend the life of the exhibition and expand upon it in its form.
Contentious political climates that favour broad generalisation give rise to punditry and essentialism; establishing platforms for multiple subjectivities and voices, and emphasising nuance and critical perspective allows us to combat such forces of generalisation.
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- 9 Women photographers from Asia, the Middle East and North Africa at Objectifs, Singapore – November 2016 – Art Radar profiles 9 artists from Asia, the Middle East and North Africa featured in the photography exhibition co-presented with Magnum Foundation
- Modern women: 13 Lebanese female artists in “LEBANON MODERN!” at the Beirut Art Fair 2016 – September 2016 – Beirut Art Fair 2016 honours influential Lebanese female artists from the country’s modernist art scene of the 20th century
- Saudi art from the 1970s to the present at Ayyam Gallery Jeddah – in pictures – July 2014 – Ayyam Gallery in Jeddah is holding a group exhibition of first generation artists from post-1970 Saudi Arabia who contributed to the shaping of a national identity through art
- Middle Eastern artists begin road trip across America – Edge of Arabia interview – April 2014 – Edge of Arabia launches a two-year programme promoting encounters of the artistic kind
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