New Book Showcases Contemporary Arab Artists as Survivors

“When twenty-two polymorphous countries share the same language, geographical and historical sphere, and most share the same religion, is there a common cultural link?” asks the curator Rose Issa in the introduction to the book Arabicity: Contemporary Arab Art, a new anthology of some of the most exciting and influential work produced in the Arab region in the last four decades.

“ ‘Arabicity’ (my translation of the word ‘Ourouba’) is a response to this question,” Issa goes on. “It explores Arab concerns artistically and socio-politically. Whether from within or outside the Arab world, it shows how Arab artists resist stereotyping, challenge the confines of their identity, reshape the parameters of their traditions and bring visual poetry to life.”

Issa started using the term “Arabicity” about ten years ago.

“It [‘Arabicity’] shows how Arab artists resist stereotyping, challenge the confines of their identity, reshape the parameters of their traditions and bring visual poetry to life.”

-Rose Issa  
A co-author of the book Arabicity: Contemporary Arab Art

“It’s a new word,” she told me in phone call from London. “People have to think about it. The whole purpose is we have to think about, What are the concerns of Arab artists today?”

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Over the past decades, Issa has curated several exhibitions that have focused on the question. They include:  Re-Orientations: Contemporary Arab Representations (European Parliament, Brussels, 2008), Arabicity (Bluecoat Arts Centre, Liverpool, and Beirut Exhibition Center, 2010), Re-Orientations II (London, 2012), and Ourouba: The Eye of Lebanon (Beirut Art Fair, 2017).

The catalogs for these shows went out of print quickly—hence the need for a book to record the exhibitions, as well as feature the work of additional artists whom Issa was unable to include. The volume, published by Saqi books and edited by Issa and Juliet Cestar, is set to accompany the exhibition Arabicity/Ourouba that opens September 14 at the Middle East Institute Art Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Regarding the question, What are the concerns of Arab artists today? Issa’s own answer includes “resilience, creativity, beauty, war, memory, loss, survival.”

Issa has championed visual art and film from the Arab world and Iran for nearly 30 years. She lived in Iran, Lebanon and France before settling in London, where she showcases work in her Rose Issa Projects space. She has curated numerous exhibitions; in 1982 she launched the first-ever Arab Film Festival in Paris.

Themes of War and Displacement

Despite the great diversity of the 35 artists featured in the book Arabicity, some themes emerge. The violence of occupation, war and displacement is one of them. The book is organized around a rough geographical-historical line, moving along turning points in the region’s modern history, which most often, unfortunately ,are conflicts: the establishment of the state of Israel, with the wars, occupation and Palestinian intifadas that followed; the Lebanese civil war; the invasion of Iraq; the Syrian civil war.

Arabicity begins with Palestinian art, featuring the work of artists such as Mona Hatoum, Emily Jacir and Abdul-Rahman Katanani, who lives in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camp near Beirut and makes his art from found objects like barbed wire and corrugated steel. (See related articles, “The Palestinian Museum Hosts Its First Exhibit” and “An Artist Shapes Sculpture From Refugee-Camp Cast-Offs.”)

The collection then moves through Egyptian, Lebanese, Iraqi and Syrian art, and finally features art from the Gulf and North Africa.

Abdul-Rahman Katanani’s Beach House, corrugated steel, variable dimensions, 2012. Private collection (Photo: Saqi Books).
Abdul-Rahman Katanani’s Beach House, corrugated steel, variable dimensions, 2012. Private collection (Photo: Saqi Books).

Given the region’s history of being shaped and reshaped by colonialism and war, some works play on the fragility and arbitrariness of the nation state. These include works such as Khalil Rabah’s hypothetical offices of the United States of Palestine Airlines or Bady Dalloul’s Scenario for an Independence, which breaks down the creation of a nation into a set of easy-to-follow steps.

A number of artists also engage with gender. Nabil Boutros photographs attractive young men wearing headscarves and staring dreamily into the distance. Jowhara AlSaud takes photographs of Saudi women in everyday, intimate moments as her starting point; then in drawings she eliminates all details (including faces) that censors or subjects might object to.

And unsurprisingly, conflict features prominently in the work of many artists. Examples are Operation Freedom Iraqi Family by Mahmoud Obaid, a moving and scathing tableau of sculptures; Saad Balbaki’s melancholy paintings of piles of suitcases; or Katya Traboulsi’s playful sculptures using empty mortar shells. The Syrian artist Khaled Barakeh’s series The Untitled Images features the kind of photos we have all seen circulate online, of Syrian civilians carrying dead or wounded children, but with the victims turned into whited-out silhouettes. Somehow the erasure of the victims makes the photos just bearable to look out, while still testifying to terrible grief.

Works such as this seem to bear out the artist Etel Adnan’s rather grim proclamation, at the book’s outset: “There is an Arab Imaginary, a mix of reality and dreams, of future desires; it links peoples, both similar and different, creating a dynamic that characterizes the Arab World, making it explosive and tragic. In the end it may be this sense of belonging to a tragic destiny, painful and yet essential, that links us one and all—us, the Arabs.”

Artworks That Speak ‘Immediately’

Yet this is a more pessimistic vision than Issa’s own. She sees artists as survivors who create work of enduring grace, wit and humanity even amidst devastation. “We don’t give enough a platform or a microphone to our artists,” she says. “We give it to leaders who haven’t been elected.”

As the Tunisian curator Michket Krifa notes in a short essay, many contemporary Arab artists document a prevailing sense of loss but also fight to reinterpret and reconnect to the past. “They draw from the past to see whether this makes it possible to handle the present. Hence literature, archaeology, cultural studies, anthropology, history and geography have become the essential elements of artistic development.”

Krifa’s essay is one of several in the book. But mostly, the works speak for themselves, framed by brief descriptions or artists’ statements. This approach encourages readers to go in search of more information on their own. (As Issa points out, it is easy to look up artists online today.)

The choice also speaks to Issa’s personal taste for art that is both powerful and intelligible, “artworks that speak visually immediately” and that reflect the concerns of the general public. She has no time, she says ruefully, for artworks that require reading three books to be appreciated. “The situation is too urgent” for that, she says. 

Over the past 30 years, Issa has seen contemporary Arab art emerge on the international market, through international auctions and fairs such as Art Dubai. A number of new art foundations, museums and programs have emerged, providing greater opportunities to train or develop one’s talents as an artist, curator or critic.

But Issa says a lot of work remains to be done to document artistic production in the region and to encourage it among all segments of society.

Asked what her advice to young artists and curators from Arab countries would be, she says: “Start with yourself. Exhibit in your own village, city, country. Know your own history, country, family. Be original, don’t repeat what others have done—say something that adds to the culture.”

What she has always most admired in artists, Issa says, is “the uniqueness of their thought, of their love, sympathy, disgust, rebellion. Uniqueness touches me. It’s not about execution, it’s about whether it moves you.”


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