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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 16 July 2018

Barjeel Art Foundation curators reflect on the West's reactions to Arab art

Western and Arab artists were judged differently on their travels, say curators Mandy Merzaban and Karim Sultan

Kadhim Hayder's 'He Told Us How It Happened' (1957) shows an Iraqi labourer boxed in and suppressed by the Hashemite monarchy. Courtesy Barjeel Art Foundation
Kadhim Hayder's 'He Told Us How It Happened' (1957) shows an Iraqi labourer boxed in and suppressed by the Hashemite monarchy. Courtesy Barjeel Art Foundation

Since it was created in 2010, the Barjeel Art Foundation has staged a third of its shows internationally, touring its important collection of Arab Modernism to institutions such as Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Connecticut, the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, and the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London.

Through this process, Barjeel curators Mandy Merzaban and Karim Sultan say they have had some revealing interactions about what happens when Arab art enters the western art world.

“It is very difficult to unsettle an existing history,” says Sultan, the foundation’s director.

“If you do something that disturbs a preconceived notion of how things were, you’re going to meet a lot of resistance. We’re at this phase now where we’re getting this friction.”

The history of Modernism has centred in the West, understood as an avant-garde movement that first took root in Europe, particularly in Paris, and later moved to the United States. The exposure of European artists to non-western forms, in Africa and the Middle East, is crucial to the narrative, where they play the role of dislodging western naturalism and enabling artists to access more folkloric, abstract or symbolic means of representation.

But, Sultan asks, what happens when “you put the centre in a different place?”

One thing the curators say they have frequently encountered is the way that western artists travelling to the Middle East are judged differently from Arab artists travelling to the West.

As Merzaban puts it, “There is a tendency to give certain privileges to western artists who travel and draw on the aesthetic histories of the places that host them.” They are seen, for example, as “explorers seeking out new ways to innovate their practice.”

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The painter Paul Klee, says Sultan, by way of example, was inspired by the time he spent in Tunisia. “The light, the topography, people, architecture, and more, all played an important part in the development of his approach. This trip is now considered a pivotal point in the course of European art history, but what does it mean when an artist from Iraq or Egypt travels elsewhere to study or produce work?”

“As soon as we start to discuss Modernism elsewhere, the language we use changes,” says Merzaban. “Where one encounter is ‘inspiration’. Another is ‘derivation’.”

“That’s perhaps why it’s interesting to have Mandy and I working on the material,” says Sultan. Sultan is part-Indian and part-Syrian, and Merzaban is Egyptian, but both were raised in Canada.

“We can hear both conversations. It’s like you have parents who are divorced and you have to go between them. We can hear both conversations."