Appraisal — August 26, 2014, 4:00 pm

Art Beyond Politics

At the New Museum’s latest show, Arab artists take up — and look past — regional politics to question their own modes of expression

So many of today’s iconic images are made in the Middle East. Gaza’s scenes of wreckage and dead children fill our screens this month; a little while ago it was news clips of masked men marching through Mosul, who soon tweeted pictures of their beheaded or crucified enemies. The pornographers of jihad have an eye for memorable obscenities. Who can forget, once seen, the snuff videos of Muammar Qaddafi or Saddam Hussein?

The region doesn’t only produce images of awfulness, of course. In the springtime of the Arab Spring, the festival of Tahrir was inspiring to behold. So were videos of unarmed crowds surging through clouds of tear gas to defend their public squares. Less inspiring, though just as riveting, are the real-estate spectacles of the Gulf — Babelian skyscrapers and filigreed soccer stadiums that seem to have arrived from the future as imagined by Zaha Hadid.

For visual artists working from the region, this surfeit of spectacles poses a challenge. When everyday life — at least as it is experienced via a computer screen — regularly throws up these images of terror and drama and the technological sublime, how can a photographer compete?

The exhibits at the New Museum’s current show, Here and Elsewhere, put forth a fascinating range of answers to this question. The show, which occupies all five floors of the museum in Lower Manhattan, gathers the work of forty-five artists from the Middle East. There are too many sensibilities on display to take in during one visit, but the show isn’t at all a hodgepodge. Each exhibit is more or less explicitly concerned with the nature of images: who makes them, who looks at them, and how their meanings change with time. In contrast with the immediacy of news reports and made-for-consumption spectacles, the best pieces at the New Museum show offer their own images with skepticism, and even, at times, with distaste. This is art that doubles as art criticism.

Such thoughtfulness — call it conceptualism — is remarkable, given that many of the exhibits deal with events still dripping blood. This isn’t a show of protest art, though it sometimes takes protests as its material. Fictionville, a series by the Iranian artist Rokni Haerizadeh, uses stills from YouTube videos of political demonstrations — in this case, bare-breasted women protesting Islamism — in which protesters and police are painted over roughly, becoming half-human, half-animal hybrids (one inspiration for the series, we learn from the excellent catalog, is a book of Persian folktales). Haerizadeh’s painting makes clear which side he isn’t on — the forces of order have pigs’ heads or devilish horns — but by turning news footage into something stylized and mythical, he takes our attention away from the political subject and draws it toward the artist’s techniques.

Subversive Salami in a Ragged Briefcase (2014), by Rokni Haerizadeh. Courtesy the artist and Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, Dubai

Subversive Salami in a Ragged Briefcase (2014), by Rokni Haerizadeh. Courtesy the artist and Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, Dubai

The show takes its title from Jean-Luc Godard’s Here and Elsewhere, one of the great essay films of the nouvelle vague. In 1970, Godard was commissioned by Fatah to make an epic of the Palestinian struggle — every national liberation movement wanted its own Battle of Algiers — but he ended up making a movie about the circulation of images instead. The Palestinians Godard filmed in the camps of Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria were in some sense always posing for the camera. Sheer visibility was a victory for them, and the fedayeen loomed larger in the world of images than they ever did on the battlefield. Jean Genet, who stayed in the camps at the same time Godard did, once quoted Arafat as saying, “[Foreigners] take photographs of us, they film us, they write about us, and thanks to them we exist. And then suddenly they may stop, and for the West and all the rest of the world the Palestinian problem will be solved simply because no one sees its picture any more.”

Heroism is the first casualty of Godard’s film, and the artists at the New Museum take a similarly suspicious view. The exhibits I spent the most time with find politics in unlikely places — not in the public posturing of leaders, nor even in movements of popular resistance, but in the unrehearsed moments of everyday life.

Lamia Joreige’s ongoing series, Objects of War, is an ideal entry point to the show. Her exhibit features six old-fashioned televisions showing interviews of men and women who lived through the Lebanese Civil War. Each subject talks about a personal memento of the conflict. Their stories are thus fixed around concrete particulars — a flashlight, a pack of playing cars, a jerrican — that are shown in display cases around the room. (Several of the subjects are also artists in the show, which is weighted in favor of Lebanese work.)

It takes time to listen to the interviews, and that is the point: these are stories that don’t make the news and don’t come in sound bites, yet they give a vivid sense of daily life in the midst of deadly abstractions. Listening to the tales, one is also reminded how much the current wave of conflicts, increasingly brutal and sectarian, resembles a large-scale version of the long Lebanese war — a battleground that also drew in its neighbors and made a mockery of settled alliances and ideologies.

To find politics in the midst of the everyday is something documentaries do at their best, and Here and Elsewhere features some extraordinary examples of the form. Abounaddara, a collective of anonymous video artists, has been shooting and posting films of day-to-day life in Syria since the beginning of the uprising in 2011. One of the videos shown here is an interview with an Alawite woman talking about how she became aware, as a schoolgirl, of the fact of sectarianism. I was immediately reminded of how Americans tell stories about becoming conscious of race. In both cases, you are listening to stories of political baptism — of being born into a history one has no control over, and which therefore seems slightly artificial, but whose consequences are real and pervasive.

Another documentary, Khaled Jarrar’s Infiltrators, follows Palestinians seeking entry to Israel through checkpoints and over walls. There are moments of confrontation, but most of the footage shows the subjects walking through fields, talking on cellphones, trying to start the car, etc. The film shows what politics with no heroes looks like — or else it shows a heroism of small gestures, performed to preserve one’s dignity rather than to vanquish the enemy.

For me, the revelation of the show was the studio portraits of Hashem al Madani. Madani ran a small commercial shop, called Studio Scheherazade, in Saida, in southern Lebanon, for more than fifty years beginning in 1953. He sometimes took a hundred portraits of ordinary people in a day — for IDs, weddings, graduations, and everything else. Madani made no attempt to unmask his sitters or to subject them to ironic scrutiny. They were allowed to pose just as they wanted, which gives his work a compelling mixture of earnestness and make-believe.

“Hashem El Madani. Palestinian resistant, Studio Shehrazade, Saida, Lebanon, 1970– 72,” by Akram Zaatari. From “Objects of study / The archive of Shehrazade / Hashem el Madani / Studio practices,” 2006. Courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut/Hamburg

“Hashem El Madani. Palestinian resistant, Studio Shehrazade, Saida, Lebanon, 1970– 72,” by Akram Zaatari. From “Objects of study/The archive of Shehrazade / Hashem el Madani / Studio practices,” 2006. Courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut/Hamburg

His work at the show includes a series from the seventies, when young men in bell bottoms posed for him with rifles à la Palestinien, as well as portraits of parochial schoolgirls and serious-faced Syrians (the Ba’ath Party occupied the floor above the photo studio). There are also several images of two people mimicking Hollywood kissing scenes. This would have been unseemly for boy-girl couples, and so all the shots are of men kissing men or women kissing women, in various states of awkwardness and repressed hilarity. In Madani’s portraits, we get a glimpse of private fantasies, political or otherwise, made public.

Madani closed shop in Saida about ten years ago, but his archive of photos — there are more than a million — is now part of the Arab Image Foundation, a Beirut nonprofit established in 1997 with the goal of preserving photography from the Arab world. One of the founders, Akram Zaatari, curated the New Museum’s Madani series; Zaatari also has an exhibit at the show, which includes a contemporary video of him and Madani, as well as a triptych of large interiors of Studio Scherazade in its heyday. In these shots, portraits hang from the walls like icons in an Eastern church, while fluorescent lights fill the workspace with an antiquated sci-fi glow. A desk squats in the foreground, cluttered with the tools of the trade circa 1970, which have the mysterious significance of objects in an etching by Dürer. It is typical of the show that we should be confronted not only with the art, but the conditions of its making. This doesn’t dispel the magic of the images, but it does ground them in a particular time and place.

Here and Elsewhere. Photograph by Benoit Pailley, courtesy New Museum, New York.

Here and Elsewhere. Photograph by Benoit Pailley, courtesy New Museum, New York.

The eeriest exhibit, which has stayed with me in the days following my visit, is Wafa Hourani’s Qalandia 2087. The installation is a diorama built of simple materials, imagining what the Qalandia refugee camp, situated just west of Jerusalem, will look like one hundred years after the first Intifada. The camp is an orderly sort of ghetto: one of its taller buildings is conspicuously aslant, but the roads are straight and lined with prim little streetlamps. The security wall that cuts through the real Qalandia has become a wall of mirrors; on the other side of it — the Israeli side — are a nightclub with a goldfish tank and an airport with toy jetliners.

“Qalandia 2087, 2009,” a mixed-media installation in six parts by Wafa Hourani, photographed by Wilfried Petzi.

“Qalandia 2087, 2009,” a mixed-media installation in six parts by Wafa Hourani, photographed by Wilfried Petzi.

Walking through the space of the mock-up, which is about half the size of a handball court, you are made to think what it would be like to live in or visit such a place. And as you approach the mirror-clad separation barrier, you’re confronted with the image of yourself in two very different landscapes — as though asked to choose which side you’re on, or to think about the restrictions such a choice might entail. Like several other exhibits in the show, Qalandia 2087 suggests the power of images to limit the imagination, by reflecting back at us the picture of ourselves we would like to see, or might prefer to see in place of another, perhaps truer one.

Share
Single Page
teaches comparative literature at Yale University. He is poetry editor of The Paris Review.

More from Robyn Creswell:

From the November 2013 issue

Winds of Revolt

The poetry of Middle Eastern uprising

From the February 2011 issue

Undelivered

Egyptian novelists at home and abroad

From the July 2009 issue

Eloquent phantom

Tayeb Salih’s search for an elusive present

Get access to 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

November 2017

Preaching to The Choir

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Monumental Error

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Star Search

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Pushing the Limit

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Bumpy Ride

Bad Dog

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Pushing the Limit·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the early Eighties, Andy King, the coach of the Seawolves, a swim club in Danville, California, instructed Debra Denithorne, aged twelve, to do doubles — to practice in the morning and the afternoon. King told Denithorne’s parents that he saw in her the potential to receive a college scholarship, and even to compete in the Olympics. Tall swimmers have an advantage in the water, and by the time Denithorne turned thirteen, she was five foot eight. She dropped soccer and a religious group to spend more time at the pool.

Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
Star Search·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On December 3, 2016, less than a month after Donald Trump was elected president, Amanda Litman sat alone on the porch of a bungalow in Costa Rica, thinking about the future of the Democratic Party. As Hillary Clinton’s director of email marketing, Litman raised $180 million and recruited 500,000 volunteers over the course of the campaign. She had arrived at the Javits Center on Election Night, arms full of cheap beer for the campaign staff, minutes before the pundits on TV announced that Clinton had lost Wisconsin. Later that night, on her cab ride home to Brooklyn, Litman asked the driver to pull over so she could throw up.

Illustration by Taylor Callery
Article
Monumental Error·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In 1899, the art critic Layton Crippen complained in the New York Times that private donors and committees had been permitted to run amok, erecting all across the city a large number of “painfully ugly monuments.” The very worst statues had been dumped in Central Park. “The sculptures go as far toward spoiling the Park as it is possible to spoil it,” he wrote. Even worse, he lamented, no organization had “power of removal” to correct the damage that was being done.

Illustration by Steve Brodner
Article
Bumpy Ride·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

One sunny winter afternoon in western Michigan, I took a ride with Leon Slater, a slight sixty-four-year-old man with a neatly trimmed white beard and intense eyes behind his spectacles. He wore a faded blue baseball cap, so formed to his head that it seemed he slept with it on. Brickyard Road, the street in front of Slater’s home, was a mess of soupy dirt and water-filled craters. The muffler of his mud-splattered maroon pickup was loose, and exhaust fumes choked the cab. He gripped the wheel with hands leathery not from age but from decades moving earth with big machines for a living. What followed was a tooth-jarring tour of Muskegon County’s rural roads, which looked as though they’d been carpet-bombed.

Photograph by David Emitt Adams
Article
Bad Dog·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Abby was a breech birth but in the thirty-one years since then most everything has been pretty smooth. Sweet kid, not a lot of trouble. None of them were. Jack and Stevie set a good example, and she followed. Top grades, all the way through. Got on well with others but took her share of meanness here and there, so she stayed thoughtful and kind. There were a few curfew or partying things and some boys before she was ready, and there was one time on a school trip to Chicago that she and some other kids got caught smoking crack cocaine, but that was so weird it almost proved the rule. No big hiccups, master’s in ecology, good state job that lets her do half time but keep benefits while Rose is little.

Illustration by Katherine Streeter

Number of cast members of the movie Predator who have run for governor:

3

A Georgia Tech engineer created software that endows unmanned aerial drones with a sense of guilt.

Roy Moore, a 70-year-old lawyer and Republican candidate for the US Senate who once accidentally stabbed himself with a murder weapon while prosecuting a case in an Alabama courtroom, was accused of having sexually assaulted two women, Leigh Corfman and Beverly Young Nelson, while he was an assistant district attorney in his thirties and they were 14 and 16 years old, respectively.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Report — From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

Subscribe Today