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
, 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.