Exploring the impact of the coronavirus crisis, the Middle East Institute’s arts and culture center has brought together works by 39 artists from the Middle East and North Africa for an exhibition titled Art in Isolation: Creativity in the Time of Covid-19.
Laila Abdul-Hadi Jadallah, the show’s curator, says the exhibition highlights and humanizes universal experiences through an artist’s lens. During the coronavirus lockdowns, she said, “the entire world was experiencing what some artists experience daily in places like Gaza or Yemen such as confinement, loss, lack of access to supplies.”
The show has both physical and virtual components, with 38 of the 54 pieces hanging in the MEI Art Gallery in Washington, D.C., and the full exhibition on display online. It stems from an open call that invited artists from across the MENA region to submit works created during the pandemic.
The artists’ overwhelming message is one of unity and similarity, through investigating the emotional and physical impact of confinement within artistic practice.
The Silencing Effect of Masks
Helen Zughaib, a painter and multimedia artist who was born in Lebanon and is now based in Washington, has two pieces on display.
One of them, titled Muffled, shows a series of female faces wearing hijabs and masks. One figure’s mask has the words “I can’t breathe,” touching on the impact of what Zughaib calls “the second pandemic,” the racial injustice highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement.
“In Muffled, I have used the mandatory masks during this pandemic as a unifying factor,” she explained. “The mask also serves to point up injustice globally, people’s voices not being heard, muffled, drowned and snuffed out—the difficulty we have all faced during this time of Covid in trying to hear what people are saying behind their masks, as well trying to make ourselves understood behind our own.”
Her second piece, Oh Tarek, also alludes to the role of facial coverings in silencing those whose voices are rarely heard. It shows a cartoon-style image of woman’s face behind a decorative screen adjacent to a thought bubble with the words, “Oh Tarek! You’re not wearing your mask!”
The work is from Zughaib’s “mashrabiya” series, in which she uses humor to deal with her own anxiety and sense of confinement during the coronavirus lockdowns. The piece also brings up the controversy surrounding wearing masks, the ability to hide behind one’s mask, and what the mashrabiya, an intricately carved wooden window screen, represents, “shielding the woman from being seen from the street below and creating a physical barrier from one another.”
Art as a Therapeutic Outlet
Another artist in the show, Sina Ata, is an Iraqi who was born in the United States but now lives in in Amman. Trained as a civil engineer, he was drafted as a soldier in the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s and served for almost five years. A self-taught artist, he found in art a therapeutic outlet to help deal with the atrocities of war. “Immersing myself in art helped me process the horrors we were all experiencing,” Ata said.