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Imagining the Arab World the Fashioning of the War on Terror Through Art

Imagining the Arab World the Fashioning of the War on Terror Through Art

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Published by Kawthar

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categoriesTopics, Art & Design
Published by: Kawthar on Oct 21, 2012
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1223
Callaloo
32.4 (2009) 1223–1231
IMAGINING THE ARAB WORLDThe Fashioning of the “War on Terror” through Art
by Maymanah Farhat
Not since the popularity of European Orientalist paintings in the nineteenth centuryhas there been such vast interest in the Arab world in Western art scenes. In the UnitedStates this is evident in the increased number of exhibitions held in museums, commercial
galleries, and nonprot art spaces over the last decade. A noticeable trend in the organiza
-tion of these events is the representation of the region via themes that can be likened toethnographic studies or political debates rather than serious examinations of formalisticor conceptual elements in art. More often than not, the exhibition format is used as a plat-form for exploring topics that have become synonymous
 
with the Arab world and Islamthrough a Western political lens. This of course points to the late Edward Said’s seminalwork 
Orientalism
(1978), which outlined the formation of a multidisciplinary discourse thatwas shaped by European Imperialism and subsequently informed Western perceptions.And while the effects of these exploits have remained in academia, as well as the arts andpopular culture, it is virtually impossible for contemporary curators and cultural workers
to shake off the paranoia and xenophobia of twenty-rst century America.
This sharpening focus on the arts has emerged alongside a shift in global affairs,namely the events of September 11, 2001, and the United States-led “War on Terror” andits campaign for a “New Middle East.” Extending further into Asia with the invasion of Afghanistan and the recent military operations executed in Pakistan, American foreignpolicy is thoroughly entrenched in the so-called Islamic world. That is not to say that whatwe are witnessing is a new-found phenomenon in American political affairs, but that it
has been greatly intensied and is all the more audacious. And while the United States
has been involved in such operations in the region for decades, its cultural sector has onlyrecently begun to take notice.
To understand these changes, one must rst examine the history of Arab art within
the context of the American art world. This narrative can be divided into two distinctperiods, before and after 2001. A look at the American cultural atmosphere prior to theUnited States’ recent launch of military strikes in the Middle East and Central and SouthAsia reveals a different, albeit equally discriminatory, experience for artists.Although active in the United States for decades, Arab artists have been consistentlyshut out from the mainstream. Attempting to work within a notoriously exclusionary artscene, many have sought to carve out their own paths, often through independent initiatives
and nonprot cultural organizations. An example of this is prominent Palestinian painter
Samia Halaby, who has been based in the United States since the 1950s and is known inartistic and academic circles alike. Although Halaby’s abstract canvases are housed in the
 
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C A L L A L O O
collections of some of the country’s leading institutions, such as the Guggenheim Musuemof Art and the Chicago Institute of Art, she has frequently turned to alternative spaces toexhibit her work exploring the Palestinian situation.In the rare instances that museum shows focusing on Arab art were held prior to 2001,censorship and politics inevitably factored in. In 1994, Halaby was part of a volunteercommittee that assembled a stellar lineup of Arab female artists living in the United Statesand abroad. The show, titled
Forces of Change: Artists of the Arab World
 , included estab-lished artists such as Palestinian conceptualist Mona Hatoum, Palestinian painter Lailaal Shawa, and Bahraini painter Balqees Fakhro, and was held at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington DC. According to one of the women that served on the
organizing committee, the idea of presenting an all-Arab show to an American audience
was initially deemed too controversial. Efforts were made to subdue the overall imageof the exhibition by the museum, and a struggle to keep the word “Arab” out of the titleensued. Eventually the committee held its ground and the title remained.
Other instances demonstrated that even when a museum and organization seemed to be working on an afrmative plan, the practical outcome reected the intrinsic prejudices
of the American art world. In 1994, the Detroit Institute of Arts exhibition
Fann Wa Tarab:Five Contemporary Arab American Artists
 , highlighted the work of several local Arab artists,including that of the late Palestinian painter Sari Khoury and Iraqi painter Athir Shayota.Initiated by the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS), a
Michigan-based nonprot, the exhibition was accompanied by a rst-rate cultural pro
-
gram that drew an impressive number of viewers. Reecting a common attitude of the
mainstream art scene, however, one that deems modern and contemporary Arab art assecondary, the museum mounted
Fann Wa Tarab
in a hallway connecting galleries andhosted the exhibition for only two weeks.The interplay between art and politics was again evident in 1999, when the MetropolitanMuseum of Art held the exhibition
Farouk Hosni and Adam Henein: Contemporary EgyptianArtists and Heirs to an Ancient Tradition
. Hosni, an abstract painter, is also Egypt’s longtimeMinister of Culture. His two-person exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum came as asurprise to many, and it was rumored in the Arab art scene that the event was part of theinstitution’s negotiations for a loan of Pharaonic art from the Arab republic. This was the
rst and last time an exhibition of modern Arab art was held at the museum.
If Arab artists have experienced a state of exclusion or less than optimal considerationin the past, today they are working in a cultural atmosphere that, although perhaps more
inclusive, is far more hostile. This paradox has come to characterize the very nature of the
American art milieu as it is nursed by politics. While contemporary artists such as GhadaAmer, Emily Jacir, and Walid Raad are highly sought after and represented by prominentNew York galleries, their work is often received with glaring stereotypes by critics andhistorians and in some cases attacked for its bold political content. Yet Amer, Jacir, andRaad are among several Arab artists who have recently received widespread acclaim andare actively contributing to international trends. In the end their cutting-edge art cannot be ignored.
Amer’s sexually provocative paintings are frequently evaluated as an implicit rejec
-tion of her “strict” Muslim upbringing in Egypt. Employing images of women from
pornographic magazines, the artist embroiders her subjects on canvases, juxtaposing an
 
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C A L L A L O O
overt sexuality with a medium that is associated with the docile, subservient woman. Yetfor the artist, this rebellion is more akin to a larger feminist dismissal of prescribed rolesthat extends to women worldwide. As she has been working in Europe and the UnitedStates for the entire span of her career, which extends over two decades, Amer’s work isthe result of her experiences both in the West and in the Arab world. Once more, the artistis also committed to exploring topics outside of her feminist work, namely issues of warand violence. Since much of this work is directed at America’s “War on Terror” and itssociopolitical implications, it is rarely included in exhibitions and hardly considered inscholarly or critical readings. Jacir’s art manifests a different type of threat, as her photographs, installations, andvideos stress the reality of Palestinians living under the Israeli occupation or in subsequent
exile. Since she rst began to exhibit her work in the late 1990s, Jacir has been unceasingly
inundated with censorship and has acquired a long list of detractors. Arguably one of 
the most taboo subjects in the American political realm, the subject of Palestine’s modern
history—namely the creation of the Israeli state, its destructive policies, and the continuedmass expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland since 1948—is kept far from publicdiscourse. Jacir not only thrusts the Palestinian experience into the international arena, shedoes so through persistent creative reiteration that, according to
New York Times
art criticRoberta Smith, renews and extends classic Conceptual art. As a result she has receivedsome of the biggest accolades in contemporary art, most recently the Golden Lion Awardfor an artist under forty at the 52
nd
Venice Biennale in 2007, and the Hugo Boss Prize, given
 by the Solomon Guggenheim Foundation in 2008.
One of her latest projects,
 Material for a Film
(2005-present), which was exhibited at the
Guggenheim Museum in New York as part of the Hugo Boss Prize, drew some of its most
malicious reviews for its forthright documentation of the 1972 assassination of Palestin-ian intellectual Wael Zuaiter by Israeli Mossad agents in Rome. The exhibition consistedof two works,
 Material for a Film
(2004-present) and
 Material for a Film
(performance). In
the rst portion, the artist retraced Zuaiter’s life and death in Rome through research
she conducted and archival material gathered from his friends, family, and colleagues,installing the documents, photographs, and sound bites as an intimate and haunting
portrait of one of several Palestinian cultural gures assassinated by the state of Israel.
 Jacir then built an imposing memorial to Zuaiter consisting of 1000 blank white books
into which she had previously red a single shot—a powerful metaphor for his literary
life and sudden death.Confronted with this nuanced and moving account of a Palestinian’s life,
Time OutNew York
’s Howard Halle charges that Jacir “pursues revenge over intellectual honesty.”
Considerably more of a political tirade than an objective art review, his critique focuses
entirely on the artist’s pro-Palestinian leanings. Other critics, such as Ken Johnson of the
New York Times
 , attempt to evaluate the formalistic aspects of her work while undercutting
its political content and masking an obvious contention with the artist’s subject matter.Although desperately trying to leave out his political objections, Johnson is unable to
control himself, and in the end his review stands as a belligerent condemnation of Jacir.A more shocking attack, however, appeared in
ArtAsiaPacic
magazine, a New York-
 based publication that includes coverage of fourteen national art scenes in West Asia. In
its annual Almanac edition, the magazine praised Jacir as one of the top Asian artists of 

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