There’s no calligraphy, geometric tiles or oil paintings of dhows.
Instead, visitors descending the stairs to see the work of young Arab artists at a new exhibition in New York are confronted by a glass cubicle. Its base is filled with the rubble of war. Perched at an awkward angle is a video screen playing footage of a faceless woman, her status as an “immigrant” spelt out in Arabic.
The story becomes clear at the back, where viewers are encouraged to step through the walls of Samer Fouad’s exhibit, through an invisible boundary and inside the box, amid the debris of Aleppo. Only then does the word “refugee” emerge.
“It is about that changing identity, the way someone who is displaced is seen differently” says Razan Al Sarraf, the 22-year-old Kuwaiti curator of the Young Arab Artists exhibition.
It opened last week as part of the New York Arab Art and Education Initiative – a year of cultural talks, workshops and showcases.
The exhibition takes up a basement space at ArtX, a gallery on the West 14th Street border between Greenwich Village and Chelsea, two neighbourhoods with strong places in New York’s art scene. Questions about and explorations of Arab identity and Middle Eastern politics make up the bulk of the work on display in the unusual space, where one mirrored wall is a reminder that the dark basement most recently served as a nightclub.
Sarraf’s work The 100 Portrait Series hangs here, depicting the faces of dead ISIS terrorists, based on images taken from propaganda video screenshots, recruitment websites and selfies. The rows of oil on canvas pictures are designed to riff on different concepts of portraiture – from the East, where such work risks accusations of tampering with the hand of God, to the West, where it was traditionally used as one of the highest forms of praise.
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It also touches on questions about how the media should cover terrorist atrocities with the ever-present danger in offering publicity to perpetrators. Some of the faces have been gently obscured, their lines not quite filled in, their colours faded. The effect of the deathly mugshots is heightened by occasional glimpses of viewer’s faces between them on the mirrored wall.
“We saw the mirrors,” said Sarraf, “and I thought it would have been very sad if nothing happened in that space. It would have been dead.”
Sarraf said her aim in creating the exhibition was to capture some of the excitement in the Arab art world which has rapidly growing scenes in Kuwait and around Art Dubai and Louvre Abu Dubai. “I’m sick of 40-year-old, 50-year-old artists that are doing the same work over and over again, representing very old concepts that haven’t evolved,” she said. “I wanted to show what is really going behind the scenes.”
Getting a foothold has not always been easy at home. Sarraf said she had spoken to gallery managers about exhibiting her ISIS portraits. “And they just wanted to avoid it completely and said: ‘Do you have any calligraphic art?’”
Instead there is Ahaad Alamoudi’s colourful video of Tini Warwar, a song that took over the Gulf’s air waves in 2013 with its traditional Saudi drumming mixed with Western flourishes. And there are prints by Tareq Sultan (AKA Kuki Jijo), whose reimagined magazine front pages cheekily explore the fluidity of identity beneath a censor’s pen.
The Dove by Farah Salem is a series of photographs showing a figure wearing a striking white abaya among the backstreets of Kuwait City.
“It was kind of like this idea of visibility and becoming comfortable with taking up space as women, spaces where we are often told: ‘No, you don’t belong’ or ‘the streets belong to men’,” she said by phone from Chicago where she is studying for an MA in art therapy and counselling.
“I was interested in starting up that conversation and seeing what happens when I position this delicate being, this white, clean dove in these spaces where she is not supposed to be.”
Salem said she was excited it was on show in New York at a time when many in the United States could see only two polarised ideas of the Arab woman – either super-empowered or super-oppressed. “I think it is very timely to bring awareness and unveil this taboo of Arab identity both politically and in the contemporary art world,” she said.
If bringing such ideas to the US and tackling misconceptions is the first stage for Sarraf (who said she had already met people who admitted to not being able to find Kuwait on the map) then next stage is to take on similar questions of identity at home.
“I want them to see that if this works all the way over here hopefully it should work within our community.”