Omar Kholeif Says We’ve Got the Middle East All Wrong
A surfeit of snow is not a common occurrence in the Middle East. But Thursday’s heavy snowfalls in New York meant (slushy) footfall during the first public day at The Armory Show was somewhat lighter than anticipated—something that vexed more than a few of the galleries that had flown into town from the decidedly warmer climes of Dubai, Beirut, Jeddah, Istanbul, Athens, and Cairo.
Sparse attendance aside, what those who braved the whiteout witnessed was an uncommonly well-knit and punchy effort by the galleries participating in the Focus: MENAM section. On Thursday afternoon, the program’s curator, Omar Kholeif, nosed, puppy-like, about the Focus: MENAM corner of Pier 94, around Istanbul’s Galerie NON. He was in search of a remaining sample of the 5,000 bags of potato chips distributed the previous day by his friend and the Armory’s commissioned artist, Jordan-born, British-Lebanese Lawrence Abu Hamdan. Meanwhile, Hamdan’s project The Freedom Of Speech Itself (2012) was terrifying visitors to the gallery’s booth with its somber message of imminent, totalitarian mass surveillance and tracking by speech patterns and voices.
“I’m starving,” Kholeif repeats, alighting upon finding the gallery’s sole-remaining, shiny packet of Abu Hamdan chips. The packaging warns that any utterances made within its vicinity may be recorded for training or monitoring purposes. It’s this sinister capability and the very real prospect of mass, covert surveillance via such undercover strategies that informs much of Hamdan’s work, which articulates this horrible reality as being just on the horizon.
Abu Hamdan’s presence at the Armory demonstrates how the fair’s Focus: MENAM program has succeeded in transcending the usual parameters of special focus platforms at art fairs—where a lump of disparate artistry is usually corralled into a draughty corner of the pier, roped in by ethnicity and geography. Here, whilst the zone is admittedly on the chilly end of the hall, artists from the “region” have become part of the fabric of the entire art fair, with special projects in locations across Piers 92 and 94 by Abu Hamdan, Abbas Akhavan (whose “fence” of cedar trees rather sternly ropes off the VIP lounge), Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Socratis Socratous, Oraib Toukan, Carlo Massoud, and Iranian master sculptor Parviz Tanavoli.
And the diversity of the art on view indicates how seriously participating galleries are taking this chance to show in New York. Here we have a clutch of pioneering modernists—Marwan Kassab Bachi, Dia Al Azzawi, Saloua Raouda Choucair and Tanavoli—alongside the young upstarts of today, such as Abu Hamdan, Wafaa Bilal, Jumana Manna, and Fayçal Baghriche.
The prominence of female Arab artists, young and old—ranging from the 99-year-old Lebanese artist Choucair’s sturdy metal sculptures at Beirut’s Agial Art Gallery to the young Alexandrian artist Mona Marzouk, whose crisp monochromatic abstractions actually turn out to reference the Trayvon Martin court case—hints at the profound impact women have had in shaping the course of Middle Eastern art over the decades, often underexposed or unrecognized at home, let alone abroad. Today with artists such as Monir Farmanfarmaian or the nonagenarian Choucair finally enjoying museum retrospectives in London and New York, Focus: MENAM, either by accident or design, highlights the pioneering work of these individuals.
The notion of the individual’s place in society—a central question in Middle Eastern territories—is articulated rather neatly in Lebanese artist Tanbak’s In Transit (2015), representing Armenian refugees coming into Lebanon during the 1960s and 1970s, with detritus and garbage sourced from the refugee camps themselves, here shaped into individual cubes and painted over. This notion of the individual as a discrete yet essential component of society is visible in Tanbak’s radiating studded markers as well as in the rather slicker Mona Hatoum across the hall, Turbulence (black) (2014). This latter piece is comprised of neatly arranged black marbles, its title a reference to the domino effect that would result from disturbing even a few of the balls.
Bilal, the Iraqi-born, New York-based artist who famously implanted a camera into the back of his head a few years ago has brought new pieces—a bronze bust and a series of smaller Bookend sculptures—based on Saddam Hussein, in his mid-career pomp. The smaller busts, with a bitter irony, were especially built for Bilal by veteran U.S. army personnel, for minimum-wage pay, making for a sour commentary on the employment difficulties that veterans face upon returning to civilian life.”
Hadjithomas and Joreige’s Circle of Confusion (1997) is another piece that subtly refers to the endless shifting and destroying of Middle Eastern territories by foreign agents over the decades. As viewers are invited to randomly shift and remove any of the 3,000 tiles that make up an aerial photograph of Beirut on mirrored glass panels, until only the mirror remains.
Kholeif has sought to avoid merely fetishing the Middle East and, instead, looked for ways in which the works on show could escape the shackles of their geographical connotations and work within the broader context of the fair. As he points out, the very concept of a territorially defined presentation is already almost redundant—artists from across the Middle East are present in booths throughout the Armory and have no need for a dedicated platform. However, for us, viewers discovering these artists afresh, the Focus: MENAM program serves as an excellent one-stop overview of some of the best artists to have come out of the Middle East over the past 50 years. The globalized art industry which is behind the growth in the region’s art—events such as the UAE’s Art Dubai, for instance, having been founded and run by British directors to this day—is an accurate representation of a world still dealing with the after-effects of colonial histories. In this age of wildly unequal wealth and resources, migration and assimilation, and religious and cultural hegemonies, artistic expression from specific locales and heritages is manifest in forms evolved from the Western tradition and language of art.