East-west hybrid art creates a new world
Does the Arab Spring have an artistic legacy? To find out, there are few better places to start than this fascinating exhibition that is currently touring the Arab world. Traits d'Union: Paris et l'art contemporain Arabe showcases the work of 13 Arab artists who have either lived in or maintain close links with the city of Paris. Once the capital of culture where artists as diverse as Ingres, Delacroix, Manet and Matisse looked towards the East and "orientalism" as an inspiration for their own western work, these artists now take from Paris's legacy and outmoded notions of the Orient to create new, hybrid work.
Far from being a comprehensive overview of contemporary Arabic art - and what exhibition could shoulder that ambitious task? - this show focuses on work by 13 artists of six different nationalities, all. All of them have links to France: Ayman Baalbaki, Elie Bourgély, Ninar Esber from Lebanon; Taysir Batniji from Palestine; Najia Mahadji, Abderrahim Yamou, Hicham Benohoud, Mahi Binebine from Morroco; Zoulikha Bouabdellah and Yazid Oulab from Algeria; Nermine Hammam from Egypt; and Laila Muraywid and Khaled Takreti from Syria.
The work, selected by the curator Pascal Amel, the editor-in-chief of the French Art Absolument magazine, was chosen principally for its visibility on both sides of the Mediterranean: the "hyphen" or "trait d'union" of the exhibition's title. Emphasising the association between the different cultures the artists cohabit, the show is rich in painting, photography and two-dimensional multimedia work.
For Amel, the interest of the art world and the art market in work from the Arab world began a long time before the events of the Arab Spring. For him, this new dynamic is linked to the tragedy of September 11, 2001. "September 11 was a shock that was both a catastrophe for the West but also for the East and the Arab world, which was suddenly reduced to an image of Bin Laden or the burqa," he says.
Rather than seeking to confront this negativity, these artists have sought new means of expression to develop an international contemporary art language and put an end to the cliché of orientalism. "Rather than western artists pillaging images from the East, these 'eastern' artists are looking at the west as a source of inspiration and using it to create new art."
The work on show not only references recent history through the energy of young emerging artists reflecting on a changing world but it also demonstrates the extent to which these artists have moved beyond the progress made by such pioneering Arab artists as Fakr El Nissa, Adam Henein, Chafik Abboud and Ahmed Cherkaoui in the 1960s and 1970s.
Much of the work on show uses the human body (once a taboo subject for many Muslim artists who considered its representation to be a form of idolatry) as a point of origin. Ayman Baalbaki's massive acrylic paintings include portraits of fedayeen: men wrapped in red and white kaffiyeh, emblematic of the Palestinian freedom fighter.
Laila Muraywid's photographs focus instead on the semi-nude female form. Flesh opens and blood flows is a polyptych of eight photographs of two young women in bed, partially shrouded in translucent fabric. On what looks like a painted canvas but turns out to be a two- metre-high digital photo, Nermine Hammam depicts Warrier Women, which includes references to her own Egyptian background and to images from Christianity, Greek mythology and Islam.
Najia Mehadji, with her painted images that suggest both organic shapes and the outlines of a whirling dervish, trained with Bob Wilson's Living Theatre and cites both Rothko and Giotto as inspiration.
Yazid Oulab points out that while "my soul is oriental because of my origins, my mind is western because of my education".
The most important message we can take away from this exhibition is that if these "Arab" artists have Arabic culture as their anchor and reference, while their homes may be in the West, the work that emerges from this hybrid is truly international. Unconfined by geography or nationality, these young people are first and foremost artists.
On show at the Yemen National Museum until Monday, the exhibition will travel to Abu Dhabi in November. For more information, visit www.traitsdunion.artabsolument.com