Arab contemporary

Last week Detroit’s Tangent Gallery launched an exhibit of four edgy, contemporary Arabic artists in a show that explores issues of exile and identity, language and communication. With the exhibit, New York/Palestinian artist and curator Aissa Deebi seeks to bridge the conceptual gap between the Middle East and the West by probing the relationship between opposing forces and perceived differences and contradictions between the two cultures.

Thanks to ACCESS, an Arab-American cultural, economic and social organization based in Dearborn, the exhibit, titled Near: Four Multinational Artists from the Middle East, was brought to Detroit before heading off to New York and other locations in an effort to educate and bring together our multicultural community. The show has grand intentions and is worth taking a close look at, with works that demand more than the standard five seconds per piece for the viewer to really absorb the layered meanings.

There is great need for such shows, cultural bridges between the West and East. The art world, according to Deebi, is virtually ignorant of new art from the Middle East.

“In terms of contemporary art, the Middle East is off the map,” Deebi comments. “It may even come as a surprise … that contemporary art is being produced there.”

Language plays an important role in the concept of the show. A thin cultural barrier is left by the artists in many of their pieces, reminding each viewer of their own identity in relation to the artist and of the degree to which they understand or don’t understand the artist’s message.

Artist Bashir Makhoul, a Palestinian living in the U.K., uses language quite literally as a code you simply understand or do not in his video piece, “The Darkened Room.” Tangent’s small installation room works well for this piece, which contains a monitor with a black-and-white close-up of the artist’s eye. The viewer can hear a woman talking in an intimate volume in Arabic as the pupil of the eye shifts and grows larger and smaller. Finally a tear begins and the video stops and begins again. The impact of this piece is significantly different when knowing that this is the voice the artist’s dead grandmother, whom he never met. It addresses the effects that exile brings to a family and a people. And it underlines the concepts of alienation and “otherness,” in that non-Arabic speaking viewers must guess at what is being said and what is causing the tear, for not being able to understand the spoken words.

This is a theme in Makhoul’s static work as well, in which he uses the language of cultural and archetypal symbols to discuss displacement and hereditary lineage. Both he and Deebi are artists aware that “matter matters.” Not unlike his predecessor, photographer Andres Serrano, Makhoul breaks his subjects down to basic elements: blood, water, sand and tree. Place and subject are inside and outside his body in a land that he may no longer physically possess. A drop of blood under a microscope becomes symbolic for individuality and group. He executes a strong balance between depth of meaning and simplicity, breaking down the subject and using it as material to build from and turn into a repeating motif, as in “One Leaf of My Olive Branch.”

At first glance the flash of the large patterned photos appears flat in meaning, but with a little time they are just as rich in associations as they are in color.

Deebi’s work is the most successful in the exhibition at communicating in a language Westerners will find visually familiar. His work shows an awareness of Western pop culture and the use of tongue-in-cheek double-entendre in modern and contemporary conceptual art. In Near, he is showing work that is made specifically in reaction to the culture and politics of Switzerland, where he spent time as a guest artist, and the United States, where he lives now.

If his work is any reflection of it, Deebi appears to be having a bit of sardonic fun. He exhibits photographs of naked toy soldiers wearing only their gas masks, boots and guns, provocatively piled onto each other and posed in the fore-, middle- and background. The artist is cognizant of what he is doing and potentially saying, playing with messages and images of homosexuality, military roles of power/protection/abuse, the role of toys as military products that function as propaganda, and race/nationality issues, in that the toys are all white males. He allows for a slightly open-ended statement, just enough to permit multiple interpretations — basically, on many levels Deebi questions the role of the military and of the toy soldier, and begs the audience to question those roles as well. He has a confident grasp of the language of symbols and employs them well, turning propaganda and symbols of security or sweetness against themselves.

In Deebi’s video “Dead Sweet,” there is no ambiguity about what roles are being taken and represented. In the vein of Janine Antoni, a dark Swiss chocolate toy soldier is gripped and voraciously devoured by a giant Irish-American-looking girl. I was given the advice, “If you aren’t feeling too well you may not want to watch that. …” (It’s a fair warning.)

Meanwhile, Susan Hefuna’s softly lit, organic black-and-white photos are feminine and nostalgic, a sense augmented through her process and tools. With a pinhole camera she photographs herself within the traditional architecture of Cairo. She weathers the negative to give the illusion of time but the result is not intended to fully convince, and it doesn’t. As a person of Egyptian-German bicultural heritage, her work reveals an awkward nature of not quite belonging to any one group fully (nearly Egyptian and nearly German). Because Hefuna, a German citizen, is dressed in contemporary Western clothing — though modest and plain — in the photos, the works read as of a certain time and place that the artist cannot belong to, a setting (Egypt) she can visit and value but not be entirely a part of. Her stance is stiff and posed and almost cryptic in its gesture or lack thereof. These works find strength in their subtlety.

The duality of living within two worlds can be seen plainly in Mitra Memarzia’s colorful horizontal photographs. The linear format of these works speaks of time, but, as you reach the center, the image mirrors itself on the opposite half, creating a time warp and an invisible border where the two worlds meet. Memarzia, born in Iran but living in Britain, explores concerns of self as a displaced Iranian female. Her work provokes perspective on the female roles within the setting of Iran. Her video, AlterNations, is a pulsing, ritualistic, cyclic metaphor for transformation. It becomes meditative as it loops on itself always returning to the original need to transform, again and again.

By using just a handful of works, Near enables close examination. All of the artists involved in the show have faced displacement and identity crisis of some sort. This yields rich results for the viewer, as the works illustrate a transformation, a search and exploration for understanding the duality of being between two worlds.

The photography and video pieces are created from the worldview of the “other” in the context of the contemporary art world. This macrocosmic view, looking at the big picture, can be expected of globally conscious contemporary photographers, and it is comforting to see that these artists are speaking about universal concerns through their personal voyages. This balance and acknowledgment of the marriage of opposites, looking outside and looking in, informs the work and gives it depth of meaning.

The curator, Deebi, born in Israel and based in the United States and Britain for the past eight years, stresses that defining what makes up identity is “very problematic.” Yet he says that language is a major component, a “key to culture” due to the inherent human need to communicate.

Alienation can result when language (visual or otherwise) is foreign or offensive. In this show, any virtual wall left between the viewer and the message is indeed intended. It acts as form in function, placing the viewer in the shoes of the exile or the stranger.

Language also forms and reflects our way of thinking and our conceptual limits, as illustrated in George Orwell’s classic novel 1984 — reduce the language and thereby reduce the freedom and range of thought.

It is efforts such as Near that will help to eradicate stereotypes and fear by placing Middle Eastern identity in the Western mind by context of contemporary roles and structures. When it leaves Detroit Near will travel to New York, where the new nonprofit arts organization responsible for conceiving this show, ArteEast, was formed. Through the collaborative efforts of Arts International and the University of Luton this exhibit will then travel to either Germany or Liverpool.

The title of this exhibition, Near, suggests a relationship between contemporary Middle Eastern art and the Western viewer. It attempts to humanize a people who have been de-humanized in popular political and media rhetoric, and through centuries of Western propaganda. The title sums up the exhibit’s agenda with hopes of dispelling preconceived notions of distance between East and West. The suggestion of closeness tests our own perceptions of identity — globally, nationalistically and personally. It asks the question, “Near what?” and answers, “Near you.”


Near runs at Tangent Gallery until June 27. Tangent is located at 715 E. Milwaukee in Detroit. Call 313-873-2955.

Phaedra Robinson is an artist and curator in Detroit. Send comments to [email protected].
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