x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Middle East art is giving the West a taste of the region’s turmoil

There's growing western interest in art from the Islamic world, so selecting what is seen takes on increasing importance.

Illustration by Pep Montserrat for The National
Illustration by Pep Montserrat for The National

Pictures from Arab countries are on the world’s television screens day in and day out, as the news media project certain images of the turmoil unfolding in much of the region.

And more often than not, it is the perspective of the outsider that we see, rather than that of the people caught up in the troubles.

Having worked as a journalist in London, attending numerous events and exhibitions that focus on the art of the Middle East, I have become acquainted with many artists from across the Arab region, and with their stories.

Viewing this art, and discussing it with the artists, I wondered how and why particular pieces of art are chosen to represent Arab culture and the Arab people. Are particular pieces chosen for aesthetic reasons? Or because of their underlying political messages?

How, exactly, is Middle Eastern art viewed from a western perspective? As a British-Egyptian writer, I can see from both perspectives –through western eyes and from the standpoint of an Arab.

The art world is creating a bridge between the West and the Middle East, one that allows western people to make up their own minds about the Arab world as they look at original images and consider the underlying ideas about the region and its culture.

This is an alternative to taking at face value the Middle East as it is presented in western news media. The rest of the world needs a chance to see differently, to think outside the (television) box.

This platform connecting cultures is exemplified most tangibly by collaborative work between art galleries in the Middle East and the West. London galleries and institutions, for example, have many partnerships with those in Dubai, Lebanon, Palestine and Saudi Arabia.

Most notable are recent collaborative projects by The Mosaic Rooms, Crossway Foundation and Edge of Arabia. All three have gained momentum and a significant following, and are thriving as their exhibitions and collaborations reach out to wider audiences.

They are continuing to create a dialogue with the Arab world, through oil paintings, video installations, poetry and other art forms.

But who chooses the art, and for what reasons? The drumbeat of news headlines forms the background for most audiences and even for curators – even those well-versed in the Arab world cannot help but be influenced. So there is a danger that curators will select works that fit their own prejudices.

However, as more such projects start up, we can see the mixing of attitudes, motivations and tastes, both in an artistic sense and in terms of the underlying theme or mission. This alchemy of attitudes will help to dissipate, or at least to dilute, preconceived notions.

Curators have been overwhelmed by the demand from Middle Eastern artists wishing to present their work. Developments in the Arab region have created new demand for self-expression.

There will however always be some form of selection process, if only because any exhibition will have an overarching theme, and the pieces selected must fit into it.

Sometimes, in the selection, bigger names in the art world will win out over those less renowned. But more often, curators are opting to showcase pieces from “nameless” artists, because these people, with no expectations to meet, may be more free to offer an honest, direct expression of their experiences.

The goal of all such projects is to get people talking on a different level, to understand their struggles, and to reach a level of compassion that is often lost as endless gory news reports desensitise us.

Art taps into our sensory systems in a way that news bulletins cannot. It gives us the sensibility to see things differently.

So even though we are all influenced by the news to some degree, artistic interpretation brings people out of their comfort zones, helping viewers to see things with fresh insight.

The showcasing of this material is undoubtedly positive. But who in fact curates this work? Who decides which pieces of art are featured? What is the motivation for these decisions?

It appears to me that the Middle Eastern artists are running the show. A good example is the Reel Festivals’ Reel Words poetry-in-translation event, in London last March, marking the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq.

The evening, well attended by people from diverse backgrounds and various social strata, had clearly been designed to let them hear the stories of people who had been caught up in the turmoil.

One reason the event was so effective was that each Arabic poet had an anglophone counterpart –they had worked together not only to translate the poems but also to share the experiences that went into writing them.

This familiarity and understanding of the artists’ culture and personal struggles made the selection process a natural one, resulting in a depiction of Iraq and its people through creative interpretation, rather than literal translation. We have Google Translate for word-for-word conversion of texts. This was about interpreting and translating a culture, an experience.

The curator’s task is to show how artists are channelling their feelings about life in the Arab world today – about what is happening around them – into something creative. This may be a beautiful piece or art, or a disturbing recreation of a war-torn country.

This is about different viewpoints, and seeing things from another angle, from the perspective of the people caught up in the troubles, and not simply from the detached journalistic standpoint.

It is about seeing how audiences outside the Middle East view art from the region, as compared to how they react to what they see on mainstream news channels that filter these images. Art presents each viewer with the freedom to decode what he or she sees, and how it is interpreted.

The outcome of these initiatives is proving that out of something as dark and destructive as the troubles in some Arab lands can come something both enlightened and beautiful.

Images in the news media can, to be sure, reflect the ruinous aspects of conflict and other woes. Those images are indeed edited to show that, specifically and explicitly.

Art however, lends itself to the imagination, it is subjective and interpretive, it is emotive and personal.

The more expressive the art, the more freedom there is for interpretation, and the less likely it is that a piece will be viewed as propaganda. It may be unclear what the definitive message is, and when that happens it is the viewer who has the opportunity to decide. So the audience is not swayed in any particular direction.

This whole process, don’t forget, is not about reflecting the priorities of the West, but rather about bringing the stories of the Middle East to the West, enabling people there to gain a little understanding, at the least, of what is happening in the Arab world.

Although things can often get lost in translation in a literal sense, the idea of artistic interpretation is that it is not a bad thing to get lost in art – the idea is to lose your way in order to make your mind up about how to get out, how to interpret the message and take from it what you will. In this process you are on the same wavelength as the artist in his or her mission to enunciate a message.

This creativity brings a culture to life, it brings a story to life and it fosters a culture of understanding during this time of confusion and chaos. Enabling this message to be accessed and interpreted by a broad public is essential for the development of a true cross-cultural dialogue between the West and the Middle East.

In this way art can help people to see the light, at least the potential for hope, at a time when destruction and disillusionment are the norm for so many people in the Arab world, in its current state of conflict and confusion.

Sarah Zakzouk writes, from Dubai, London and Saudi Arabia, about the arts, culture and gender politics of the Middle East

On Twitter: @sarahzakzouk