In New York City this year, art made by Arab artists or focusing on themes about the Arab world will be a firm part of the art season’s roster of gallery shows and museum exhibitions.
The number of shows, spanning both commercial and institutional spaces, points to a shift toward increased curiosity about Arab art—a field of modern and contemporary visual arts that has been largely unexplored and somewhat misunderstood by both galleries and collectors, and by academics who recognize art criticism’s oversight of the field.
The art calendar starts in September with the opening of commercial gallery shows after the summer hiatus. Whereas in Europe almost all galleries close during August, galleries in New York usually have a show that opens in June and is on display through the end of summer. From September through the following June, gallery shows and museum exhibitions are supplemented by varying art fairs and global art biennials where engagement and discussion by the global art community at large helps to not only create awareness about artists, art trends and other artistic developments, but also to help situate art in the global canon.
The inclusion of an artist’s work in a museum exhibition is regarded as the best seal of critical approval, often marking an artist as someone who can be regarded as serious and worthy not only of being collected, but also of being integrated into the canon. This makes some of the current and forthcoming museum exhibitions exciting news not only for the artists selected to show, but for the field at large.
Following is a selection of highlights of the year that exemplify the quality of the shows:
Jack Shainman Gallery, September 5 to October 26
The Kurdish-Iraqi artist Hayv Kahraman is one of the few artists originally from the Middle East to be shown frequently in New York. Born in Baghdad, she grew up as a refugee in Sweden and now is based in Los Angeles. Her paintings embody an assertive refutation of the mistaken ideas imposed on her and others like her. (For a full review of her show, see our earlier article, “An Iraqi-Born Artist Rejects Identities Imposed on Women.”)
Lisson Gallery, September 13 to October 16, 2019
Egyptian artist Wael Shawky is known for challenging and subverting the standard questions of national, religious and artistic identity in historical storytelling. His work instead reassesses these concepts as it imagines alternative narratives that refuse to indulge in the nostalgic clichés often seen in depictions of Arab political and social history.
For a project exhibited four years ago at MoMA PS1, the Museum of Modern Art’s satellite space in Queens, New York, Shawky created glass marionettes in Murano, the famed glass-making district near Venice. These marionettes were used in the third installment of Shawky’s film trilogy The Cabaret Crusades, based on Lebanese historian Amin Maalouf’s work The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, putting a playful and alternative spin on the history-telling of the Arabs during the time of the Crusades.
[Enjoying this article? Subscribe to our free newsletter.]
For the Gulf Project Camp exhibition at Lisson Gallery, Shawky focused on the theme of the history of the Arabian Peninsula from the 17th century to the present. Again, he concentrated on false depictions of the region historically, but he also gave attention to the transformation of the urban landscape and the role of the region’s ruling families.
Shawky transformed the gallery with an immersive large-scale installation of something akin to a rocky mountain in the center of the space. On it are displayed new glass and bronze sculptures of mythical creatures and cities, repeated throughout the exhibition in charming ink drawings, intricate wooden carvings and large Murano glass tableaus. History appears to have been turned into child-like storytelling.
His creatures—part friendly dinosaur, part omniscient observer—serve as a recurring motif in the adapted narratives of the historical events and themes that he focuses on with each series. The inclusion of the fanciful characters, looming large in both the sculptures and in the other works, perhaps softens what might be inferred as acerbic criticism of some of the dramatic changes of landscape and geopolitics in the region.
Shawky tried to make use of the scant available source material about the history of the region, including ancient poems and maps rendered by foreigners in the 18th century–some of whom never even visited the region but drew it according to their imagination. By considering the transformation of sites like Mecca through the lens of regional and global trade, migration, and the tribal relations and alliances between the ruling families today, he again offers an alternative narrative by which to consider history and contemporary politics. These panoramic depictions of cities present a semi-historical “corrected” rendering of the false maps and ideas that Shawky critiques.