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December 07, 2012

MoMA Director Lowry Explores Middle East Art

by David Byrd

How are artists in the Middle East using their craft to reflect on their societies? And how does art affect the way that history is transmitted in the Middle East? Are there traumatic events that make it difficult – or impossible – for artists to consider their own history? And how does that hurt the rest of us?

These are just some of the questions that Museum of Modern Art director Glenn Lowry  explored recently at Washington’s Sackler Gallery of Art
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Lowry is the former curator of Islamic Art at the Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington, DC. His talk was part of the Galleries’ 25th anniversary celebration. He focused on how artists in the Middle East are using their works to explore history using fact and fiction, reality and virtual creations to deal with sometimes highly charged political and religious issues.

Walid Raad: Curating a Fractured History

Lowry told the crowd that Lebanese artist Walid Raad, an Associate Professor of Art at the Cooper Union in New York, heavily influenced his thinking. Raad’s work Scratching on Things I Could Disavow: A History of Modern Art in the Arab World, is his attempt to write a comprehensive history of modern art in the Middle East. He wrestles with how history and art are shaped and constructed in the Middle East
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​​​​“No one has thought more about this problem than Walid Raad,” Lowry said. “The construction of history – how it is made, received, visualized and understood – had to be a central theme for any understanding of what’s taking place today throughout the​ Middle East,” Lowry added.

​​He then cited several instances in which Raad uses different media to push the boundaries of visual art. One is Appendix 18, a series of miniscule plates describing works of art but they are so small they cannot be seen even with a magnifying glass.  Raad uses the work to explore the effects of the Lebanese civil wars.

“These wars affected colors, lines, shapes and forms,” Lowry quoted Raad as saying.  “Some [are affected] in a material way and are physically destroyed and lost forever.  Others remain physically intact but are removed from public view.  Still others hide and remove themselves from public view,” Lowry said.

Raad’s The Atlas Group, is a fictional work that purports to chronicle life in Lebanon during its civil wars and features multi-media works from videos and photographs to newspaper accounts of horse races and other archival material.  Raad uses the fictional archive to illustrate a philosophical point – that sometimes events are so terrible that works of art – and the colors, lines, and shapes of which they are made – are withdrawn from use until a later generation can resurrect them and consider them in light of history.

“And that’s what Raad is exploring,” Lowry said. “He wants to understand how the traumas that have wracked the Middle East – not just Lebanon but elsewhere – have affected artists’ access to their cultural heritage, to the works of art that you and I take for granted,” Lowry said.

Oraib Toukan: Outrage leads to Insight

Another example of the artistic and intellectual dichotomy many artists are exploring is Oraib Toukan’s video Remind Me to Remember to Forget, a video in which features a split screen image. On one side the title is being written in Arabic in gold glitter and on the other side we see a woman’s throat as she breathes.

Toukan was obsessed with the US media coverage of the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. In her video, a red, white and blue straw sucks up the glitter as the woman concurrently inhales. The purpose is to show a Middle East that has been made to forget its own history, even to the point of sucking up the message to forget that history.

“She is addressing a Middle East that has been cut up, chopped up, pillaged, and raped not only by colonial powers, but also by various feuding dynasties over centuries,” Lowry said. “[She] is trying to deal with the fact that memory for her as an artist cannot exist and she has to remind herself to remember to forget,” he added.

Michael Blum: Mixing Reality and Fiction

Israeli-American artist Michael Blum’s work A Tribute to Safiye Behar, is a mixing of reality and fiction to explore highly charged subjects. The exhibit is a mixed media presentation that purports to chronicle the life of a Jewish woman who had an affair with Kamel Ataturk. 6

The work included a reconstruction of Safiye's original apartment in Istanbul, located Hamalbasi Caddesi No. 18, Beyoglu, Istanbul, and was “a comprehensive display of documents: photographs, letters, books and other archival materials.”

But the woman never existed.

“She is an absolute fiction,” Lowry said. “And it took three or four days before people figured out that on one level this was a complete hoax,” he added.  However Lowry pointed out that the piece also forced people to rethink ideas and assumptions about Turkish history – how the founder of the nation could have had an affair with a Jewish woman and what that said about the assumptions of Turkish society – and the role of women in that society.
 
Orhan Pamuk: Museum of Innocence

Turkish Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence also blurs the lines between reality and fiction. The piece centers on a love story of a man who has an affair with a woman he meets while on his way to buy his fiancée a handbag. When the woman is killed the protagonist gathers every piece of memory he can for his archive. 

But the woman is only a character in a book. However Pamuk actually did create the archive; The Museum of Innocence actually exists in Istanbul and gives the perception that what the viewer is seeing – from cigarette butts to photographs – are from a real person. 

Emily Jacir: A New Palestinian Community

Lowry also cited Palestinian American artist Emily Jacir’s work Where We Come From as an attempt to create a community history, even when reality has been quite different.

Jacir asked displaced Palestinians who could not travel to Israel “If you could go to Palestine and do one thing, what would it be?” She assembled their answers – which included "Go to my mother's grave in Jerusalem on her birthday and place flowers and pray," and "Go to Haifa and play soccer with the first Palestinian boy you see on the street." She then took photographs of her completing the wishes and displayed them with related texts and a DVD projection.6

Lowry said that through the work, Jacir had managed to create a new community for the 30 people who participated in her work.

“Linking them in a new community; creating for them a new history – a history that is currently impossible for them to live – but a history nonetheless that gives them their dignity and ties them back to the everyday elements of their life,” Lowry said.

Conclusion: An ongoing dialogue

Lowry said that current visual artists are using these myriad methods to explore their own history – and to explore the ways that history has been recorded through art, even when cataclysmic events have caused artists to withdraw from their own society or lose their connection with their own culture.

 “I think works of art that ultimately are significant are always part of a continuous dialogue,” he said. “They acquire different meanings at different times, but what makes them powerful, what makes them central to our existence is their ability to continue to speak to us in new and different ways over long periods of time,” Lowry emphasized.

Lowry said that he is fascinated with the way the Middle East is still a place that is unfolding. He said contemporary artists have a way of investigating the way the region’s history is constructed, consumed and received, especially in times of turmoil, such as the current upheavals in Syria and Egypt.
 
“That allows them (the artists) to provide all sorts of insights in how the current situation relates both to the past but perhaps might open opportunities for the future,” Lowry said.