From The Editors
Spring 2010 (Vol. XVIII No. 1)
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The last decade has comprised tremendous transformations for the artscapes of the Middle East, transformations simultaneously occurring on a number of levels. Regionally, there has been a mushrooming of “independent” art spaces, artist-run projects, and large-scale bi/annual events and festivals. Conveniently neat portrayals of bifurcated art scene(s)—pitting more recent initiatives against the historic prominence of the state as the primary patron of the arts—quickly gained currency and framed the majority of discussions of artistic production. The post-9/11 addition of the Middle East as a crucial stopover on curatorial itineraries has meant that artists from the region have been steadily gaining access to Western art capitals (albeit under the guise of large, all-encompassing regional platforms) and are making regular appearances on the biennale circuit, and to a lesser degree, in museum collections. Most recently, the region has witnessed the burgeoning of a Gulf-based art market, supported by an impressive infrastructure of commercial galleries, individual and institutional collectors, and world-class museums. The existent Sharjah Biennial and Art Dubai (an annual art fair accompanied by an extensive program of events), as well as the forthcoming Museum of Modern Arab Art in Doha and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, are all critical nodes in the articulation of a different set of conditions and possibilities for the production, consumption and understanding of art.
Such transformations have of course been the subject of numerous publications; a proliferation of regionally focused art magazines and books has begun to consolidate a growing audience base and is generating a critical discourse surrounding art practices in the region. Much of this writing has, however, focused almost exclusively on the contemporary moment as something of an anomaly, one that is removed from any history of the visual arts in the region. Moreover, identity politics have stubbornly persisted as the dominant paradigm though which artistic production is approached.
Nevertheless, within academe, scholarship on the Middle East has largely neglected artistic practices and aesthetic considerations as socially, politically, and culturally formative sites worthy of examination, despite their consistent and continued overlap with historic and contemporary concerns of the field. Similarly, the discipline of art history continues to restrict scholarship on artistic production from the region to the pre-modern era under the rubric of Islamic art.
This special issue of the Arab Studies Journal features scholarship that illustrates the complexity and diversity of this incipient but fast-growing field. Ranging from early portraiture in late Ottoman Beirut, to the struggles of Egyptian surrealism in the late 1930s, to the relationship between art and aid in contemporary Lebanon, the articles address issues that are pertinent to scholars from a range of disciplinary backgrounds as well as practitioners within the field.
In her article, “Authenticity and Its Modernist Discontents,” Prita Meier establishes some of the central theoretical concerns that frame this issue, particularly noting the overlaps and divergences that have shaped “African” and “Middle Eastern” modernisms within the discipline of art history. She rereads the multiple ways in which, curators, critics, and scholars have contended with questions surrounding the “modern” over the last two decades. Meier highlights the “multiple modernities” model as a strategic position for both “excising the continued anxiety about “authenticity” and moving beyond the “particularism and universalism” to which art historical inquiry is all too closely wedded to.
Sarah Rogers, in her article “Daoud Corm, Cosmopolitan Nationalism, and the Origins of Lebanese Modern Art,” addresses a more specific case of the “paradigm of authenticity as an analytical category for art,” questioning the role of art history in narratives of national identity. Her focus on Corm’s prominent role in the creation of a private market for easel painting complicates the dominant narrative that treats this artist primarily as “a representative of a cosmopolitan nationalism that locates in roots in Christian Europe.” Rogers argues that Corm’s success lies in his innovation and his ability to adapt a pictorial language by then outdated in Europe to fit the needs of a newly emerging Beiruti bourgeoisie.
While Rogers discusses the celebration of an individual artist as the symbol of a specific national identity and art form, Don LaCoss addresses the discrediting of Egyptian surrealist movement as “degenerate” in the late 1930s. While situating the Art and Liberty Group within its transnational context, he focuses on the debates and accusations that surrounded its formation, demonstrating the ways in which artistic production was taken as reflective of larger political, social and often times ethical positions. Once again authenticity is at the crux of the debate; critics of the group see “the development of a national culture grounded in purely Egyptian, Arab, and Muslim elements” as threatened by a “European decadent cosmopolitanism.”
In a move to the contemporary context, Hanan Toukan explores the ways in which Beirut’s post-war art scene has been produced as political/subversive “otherness” in relationship to “perceived outmoded thought and praxis related to local ideologies and hegemonies.” An examination of the complex relationship between neo-liberalism, funding sources and the politics of cultural production is central to Toukan’s argument and the frustrations her subjects voice.
A number of the issues Toukan raises are addressed in a series of conversations between artists, art critics, curators, and academics in which they contend with some of the most pertinent questions- the practice, production, exhibition, reception, circulation and sustainability of contemporary art- that concern cultural practitioners in such a rapidly changing context. Artist Hassan Khan and curator Edit Molnár explore the state of urgency produced through three of the artists’ works; artists Naeem Mohaiemen and Haig Aivazian question the potentialities and limitations of activism within various cultural practices; Nida Ghouse and CAMP discuss the slippery space that is Edgware Road, the site of a recent project; art historian Pamela Karimi and artist/curator Amirali Ghasemi map out a route for a roaming biennale and curator November Paynter reflects with three Istanbul-based artists—Can Altay, Cevdet Erek and Leyla Gediz—on recent developments in their city’s art scene.
In addition, we feature an exclusive interview with Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal. His recent exhibition saw the body as canvas, tattooing the names of Iraqi cities then one hundred thousand dots in invisible ink to represent the official Iraqi death toll from the war. Bilal’s work is “an attempt to reverse [the] process of disengagement” that he finds with the war on Iraq and its human cost.
Further to the art-related articles and conversations, we feature two pieces of scholarship that address differing roles of authority within two historical moments: contemporary Jordan and nineteenth century Palestine. Stephanie Nanes intimately analyzes the case of ‘Adnan Abu Odeh, whose 1999 book advanced the case for a more inclusive Jordanian identity. In arguing against Transjordanian nationalists who asserted a national identity that excluded Jordanians of Palestinian origin, Abu Odeh became both a participant in and an object of a contentious debate over Jordanian national identity, revealing nuances and fissures inherent in its complexity.
Meanwhile, Erik Freas argues that the tanzimat and European economic penetration in Ottoman Palestine effected a change in the relationship between elites and the peasantry. He argues that these changes effected a gradual formalization of Islamic practice, such that what had been a relatively fluid religious identity rooted in local traditional practice and cultural norms was transformed into a more formalized religious identity, one more directly tied to the Islamic institutions of the urban milieu and rooted in a formalized theological interpretation of what constituted orthodox Islamic practice.
This issue presents an extended review section that also centers around recent art exhibitions and scholarly publications in the field of visual arts. Reviews of two of the global art world’s most widely hailed biennials draw out the deeply intertwined matrix of arts and politics. Reflecting on selections from the 11th Istanbul Biennial, Nermin Saybasili draws out the curators’ explicit Brechtian framework and the transformative power of politically instructive art. Whereas the Istanbul Biennial is organized along thematic lines, the Venice Biennale organizes artworks i national pavilions, and in her review of the 53rd Venice Biennale, Nada Shabout discusses the politics of Arab national representation at the world’s oldest and arguably most prestigious visual arts event. The politics of representation is also a concern in reviews of two ambitious group exhibitions, Tarjama/Translation at the Queens Museum of Art and Iran Inside Out at the Chelsea Art Museum. With a critical eye on how the regional survey show frames artworks, Clare Davies questions whether Tarjama/Translation managed to successfully avoid the many problems that plague this genre of exhibition. Kamran Rastegar similarly addresses tensions within the broadly conceived Iran Inside Out exhibit and highlights some of the strongest pieces within its disparate collection of Iranian contemporary art.
The visual arts books under review in this issue represent some of the most significant contributions to their fields. Rhonda A. Saad outlines how Palestinian artist and writer Kamal Boullata’s Palestinian Art: From 1850 to the Present offers a uniquely valuable combination of a comprehensive survey of modern Palestinian art, abundant reference materials, and anecdotal accounts of the art scene such as only a participant could provide. Similarly, Zeina Maasri’s Off the Wall: Political Posters of the Lebanese Civil War is the first book-length academic study of this genre of political visual culture, and Sune Haugbolle’s review underscores the rich potential of studies that link social history and visual media.
While architecture is often counted among the arts, Eyal Weizman lays bare its use as a weapon in Israel’s occupation of Palestine, as On Barak shows in his review of the Israeli architect’s latest study, entitled Hollow Land. Former water engineer Mark Zeitoun similarly exposes the political use of civil engineering projects in his study of water policy in Israel and Palestine, Power and Water in the Middle East. We include reviews of three additional books that address the oft-overlooked politics behind widely discussed contemporary issues: Christopher M. Davidson’s Dubai: The Vulnerability of Success; Mahmood Mamdani’s Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror; and Olivier Roy’s The Politics of Chaos in the Middle East.
Adina Hoffman’s biography of Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad ‘Ali, My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness, stands as another groundbreaking study—the first biography of a Palestinian writer in any language—and in her review, Hala Khamis Nassar captures the book’s rare combination of oral history and archival research. Also on Palestinian literary arts in this issue is a review of Remi Kanazi’s edited collection Poets for Palestine, a survey of the collection’s wide range of voices and showcases a new generation of politically nuanced poets.
Finally, the review section includes considerations of four important new historiographical works: Cenk Palaz reviews M. Sükrü Hanioglu’s A Brief History of the Late Ottoman Empire; Yasmine Ramadan reviews Elliot Colla’s Conflicted Antiquities: Egyptology, Egyptomania, Egyptian Modernity; Aaron Jakes reviews Michael Gasper’s The Power of Representation: Publics, Peasants, and Islam in Egypt; and Haytham Bahoora reviews Orit Bashkin’s The Other Iraq: Pluralism and Culture in Hashemite Iraq.