From Modernists to Mavericks: Your Guide to the Middle Eastern Artists Showing at FOCUS MENAM

Arsalan Mohammad
Feb 26, 2015 6:03AM

How does one get a handle on the vast, sprawling messy entity which, over the past decade or two, has come to be known as the “Middle Eastern art world”? It’s a near-impossible task from the outset, from seeking a working definition of the region (“The Islamic world”? “Arabia”? “The Maghreb and Levant”?) to assessing an ethnically-correct criteria which corrals and categorizes the renaissance in contemporary artistic production and activity since the late 1990s. What is, today, the Middle East? And how can it be adequately surveyed and charted within the confines of a commercial art fair in 2015 New York?

Charged with bringing some definition to this conundrum, in an artistic context, is The Armory Show’s 2015 special program, “FOCUS : MENAM” (Middle East, North Africa, and the Mediterranean). Commissioned by executive director Noah Horowitz late last year, the program is set to examine current cultural and artistic practice from these territories, through gallery presentations, site-specific projects, and a weekend-long symposium, with support from cultural partner Edge of Arabia and education partner Art Jameel. The fair’s commissioned artist for this edition is British-Lebanese sound artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan, and overseeing the entire project is Egyptian-British Omar Kholeif, curator at London’s Whitechapel Gallery. In assaying an overview of the region for New York audiences, Kholeif asserts a counter-position to Westernized perspectives on the Middle East, via fomenting artistic connections on a number of levels. 

At the heart of the presentation is a series of galleries bringing solo or small group presentations to Pier 94. This core presentation has managed to articulate a vast span of work, from Arab modernists of the mid-20th century to fresh young talent working in sound, installation, and performance. The combined force of the works will, one hopes, provide a fuller overview of art from this part of the world than has ever been seen in the U.S. to date. Through these artists, we can discover not only the work of those emerging at the moment and defining new cultural practices in an increasingly globalized art world, but also their forebears who, over the decades preceding them, have quietly contributed to a hidden history of treasures, ready to be discovered anew.

Mona Marzouk at Gypsum Gallery

Trayvon #5, 2014
Gypsum Gallery
Trayvon #3, 2014
Gypsum Gallery

These somber and striking works were inspired by the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012. Marzouk has focused on the contentious course of events surrounding the incident, taking specific items and features of the courtroom itself and silhouetting them against a monochromatic background, in her customary manner. A painter and sculptor based in Alexandria, Egypt, Marzouk also creates murals and large-scale installations.

Tanbak at Agial Art Gallery


Tanbak presents a rather abstracted piece, which carries shades of Islamic art forms and spiritual metaphor in its gently radiating composition but, in fact, refers directly to the refugee camps in Lebanon, a regular feature of life in the country. Tanbak is specifically referring here to the Armenian ghettos she recalls from her childhood in the 1960s, but in a wider sense, alludes also to the endless waves of Palestinian, Iraqi, and Syrian refugees arriving in Lebanon from more recent Arab wars.

Marwan at Meem Gallery

Born in Damascus in 1934, and having lived and worked in Berlin since the 1950s, Marwan Kassab Bachi (who works under his first name) has recently been feted with major solo retrospectives in Porto and Sharjah, UAE, with widespread global recognition. It’s his portraits from the 1960s and ’70s which tend to grab most recognition, and this is a perfect example of the utter strangeness and darkness at the heart of much of his work. Bachi rarely gives interviews, but he has spoken of his need to articulate the suffering and melancholy of his hard, homesick early years in Berlin and his own conflicting relationships with those around him during that time. With his distorted Bacon-esque characters, he takes an unusual approach for an artist associated with the Middle East—with Syria’s very dust and desert in his sombre palette, there is an almost tangible absence of “home” in his work.

Ahmed Mater at Athr Gallery

Cowboy Code (Hadith), 2012
Athr Gallery

The relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia is a complex and contentious one. Saudi artist Ahmed Mater has been at the forefront of the nascent Saudi art scene for a decade now, using a variety of media to discuss issues and problems in his homeland that would be virtually impossible for an outsider to articulate, especially with such wit, inventiveness, and emphasis. His Cowboy Code (Hadith) (2012) pulls no punches—the vast panel juxtaposes the “cowboy’s code of conduct” side by side with the Islamic code, the “hadith,” a series of statements or examples of behavior associated with the prophet Mohammed. Asked about the genesis of the piece, Mater will fondly recall buying toy gun caps and playing cowboys with his friends in Mecca, the global heart of Islam.

Fayçal Baghriche at Taymour Grahne

One of the first issues that tends to crop up in conversation when discussing Middle Eastern art in the West is censorship. Responses amongst artists active in the Islamic world range from amused resignation to exasperated rebuttal. One artist who positively revels in disrupting given limitations of an image is Paris-based Algerian-born artist Fayçal Baghriche, whose practice is characterized by simple gestures, creating artworks that question the cultural climates in which they’re produced and shown.

Mona Hatoum at Alexander and Bonin

Turbulence (black), 2014
Alexander and Bonin

Mona Hatoum is known for her installations dealing with notions of identity, the self, and cultural alienation. Last year, as part of a major exhibition in Doha’s Mathaf museum, she presented the vast installation piece Turbulence (2012), a four-by-four-meter square composed of thousands of glass marbles laid directly onto the floor. At The Armory Show, Hatoum’s Turbulence (black) (2014) reprises similar themes and, like most of her work, has a deceptive formal and material simplicity. The piece articulates it title perfectly in the minute movements of its components, movements generated by their proximity to each other and their environment.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan at Galeri NON

As the Armory’s commissioned artist this year, Abu Hamdan has a number of installations being presented throughout the fair, as well as an edition for sale. This work is comprised of “a new audio essay, a series of amalgamated objects, and a specifically designed series of 5,000 potato chip packets.” Abu Hamdan’s work focuses on the nature of “voice stress analysis,” surveillance, and the implications of profiling individuals based on the unique cadences and characteristics of their voice. In the context of discussing illegal migration, as well as concepts of identity and omniscient surveillance, Abu Hamdan approaches a sobering and worrying trend in a characteristically off-kilter and eccentric fashion. In addition, work by Abu Hamdan will be on view at Galeri NON.

Wafaa Bilal at Lawrie Shabibi

Canto III, 2015
Lawrie Shabibi

For this work, Iraqi-born artist Wafaa Bilal was inspired by the discovery that, shortly before the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, members of his Ba’ath Party had a bizarre plan to propel a golden statue in his likeness into space to orbit Earth for all eternity. The piece depicts Hussein wearing a helmet in the form of the holy site of the Dome of the Rock, recalling the late Iraqi dictator’s predilection for portraying himself as a modern day Saladin. However, the piece extends beyond Hussein’s megalomania and addresses the exaggerated cult of the personality embodied by so many individuals in power, from despots and dictators to democratically elected leaders. Today a professor at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Bilal is probably best known internationally for having a webcam inserted into the back of his head for 3rdi (2011), which spontaneously transmitted images to the web 24 hours a day.

Raed Yassin at Kalfayan Galleries

This piece was the result of a curatorial concept devised for “Songs of Loss and Songs Of Love,” an exhibition at Gwangju Museum of Art last year in which 18 Arab and Korean artists riffed on the idea of a fictional meeting between twin icons of song—Egyptian singer Oum Kalthoum, the Arab world’s greatest female singer and equally renowned Korean vocalist Lee Nan-Young—in a chance encounter in Paris. Artists were invited to imagine what might have transpired as the result. And for Beirut-born musician and artist Raed Yassin, the result was this: a limited edition pressing of 200 albums playing a remixed Kalthoum concert overlaid with plenty of thick static. The playfulness of the piece alludes obliquely to the power these two divas continue to exert upon their homelands and the union of joy and harmony across language and cultures.

Chafic Abboud at Claude Lemand

Born in Lebanon in 1926, Chafic Abboud made his mark in Paris, where his artistic evolution made for a profound example of an Arab artist assimilating his new environment and incorporating Western ideas and thought into his Arab sensibility. Working initially with figurative painting, Abboud—whose influences included Pierre Bonnard, Roger Bissière, and Nicolas de Staël—shifted during the course of the 1950s into a light, lyrical abstraction as he soaked up the modernist thought and expression that surrounded him. Represented at the Armory with a number of paintings charting his later years, these post-1970 works show the idiosyncratic and fluid abstract style that emerged as his primary visual identity, as is exemplified in this work from 1990.

Arsalan Mohammad