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Contemporary Arab Art at NYC’s New Museum

  • Carolyn Weaver

The first museum-wide show of Arab art in New York City, spread out over five floors at the New Museum, exhibits works by more than 45 artists from 12 countries. Many are animated by a documentary impulse, seeking out new ways to represent realities, but with a “critical approach to image-making,” said associate curator Natalie Bell, who helped organize the show with New Museum artistic director Massimiliano Gioni.

“We found that a lot of artists were thinking critically about whether images are capable of conveying a truth, whether images are transparent, and trying to create works that could convey these ideas," Bell said.

"Here and Elsewhere," as the show is called, opens in the museum's lobby with a photographic mural satirically portraying an ultraluxe, virtually gold-plated hotel in the Arab world. It's by the GCC, a group of artists who take their name from the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Many of the works on display point only indirectly at social and political realities, however. Photographs by Hrair Sarkissian of bland, empty city streets and squares in his native Syria, spaces where public executions were held, seem to ask the question: How did what happened here leave no trace?

Questions of war, immigration and displacement appear throughout the show, as in Moroccan-born artist Bouchra Khalili’s huge videos of maps traced by immigrants and refugees. A film, Infiltrators, by Ramallah-based Khaled Jarrar, documents furtive attempts by Palestinians to bypass the wall that barricades Israel. Jarrar was scheduled to visit New York in July to take part in a panel discussion at the New Museum, but was denied permission by Israeli authorities to travel from the West Bank.

In a video by Lebanese artist Mounira Al Solh, the camera pans over parts of a lamb, slaughtered for a feast, as the narrator considers whether trauma can ever be truly "registered" in the moment, or filmed without exploitation. The film is in part about the trauma of being a refugee, inspired by the million or more Syrian refugees now living in Beirut.

“She’s speaking more poetically about the experience, both linking it to her experience fleeing Beirut for Damascus, during the Lebanese civil war, when she was younger, and also reflecting on her family at that very moment, and these get-togethers they’re having," Bell said.

The videos of Iranian-born artist Rokni Haerizadeh, in contrast, are fable-like, with animal figures painted over the human protestors in news footage of political demonstrations.

A sculpture like a tree made of confetti, by Dubai-based artist Hassan Sharif, is constructed of surplus manufactured goods: everything from copper wires to string to cut-up plastic shoes. Qalandia 2087, a tabletop city model by Hebron-born Wafa Hourani, is a utopian vision of a Palestinian refugee village.

“While it looks very realistic, as a kind of architectural model, it’s also very simple. And that’s something that interested us also, because it’s a way of reminding us that art can be made with very simple materials," Bell said.

The work of Moroccan artist Mohamed Larbi Rahali is another example. Since 1984, he has drawn, painted and created tiny collages on the insides of matchboxes, a project he calls Omri (My Life).

Most of the artists in the show have not previously exhibited in New York. Bell said many are indifferent to commercial art markets, or of no marketable interest to them. Many also reject the notion of themselves as “Arab” artists.

The huge size of the New Museum show underlines another point, she added: art from the Arab world today is so diverse that it resists all attempts to categorize it.