British Museum celebrates over a decade of collecting Contemporary Art of the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) with new exhibition as per BWW News Desk. But why a decade of collecting contemporary art of the MENA? Let us find out.
The exhibition will debut in February 2021.
In February 2021, the British Museum will celebrate over a decade of collecting contemporary art of the Middle East and North Africa. Featuring over 100 works on paper from the collection, Reflections: contemporary art of the Middle East and North Africa weaves together a rich tapestry of artistic expression from artists born in or connected to countries from Iran to Morocco. These artists reflect on their own societies, all of which have experienced extraordinary changes in living memory. From drawings by artists trained in Paris, Rome, Beirut or Jerusalem (1) to works associated with the Syrian uprisings (2), the exhibition challenges perceptions of the contemporary art of the region, with a range of works of great complexity and beauty.
The works in this exhibition reflect the British Museum’s position as a museum of human history, past, present and future. The CaMMEA (Contemporary and Modern Middle Eastern Art) acquisition group has been central to the speed at which this collection has come together in recent years and its remarkable breadth. This collection of works on paper includes drawings, screenprints, photography and artist’s books. While works by artists of this region have been collected by the British Museum since the 1980s, CaMMEA was formed in 2009 with the guiding principle of enabling future generations to see what was being produced during a particular time as well as to record significant moments in the history of the MENA region.
Reflections highlights issues of gender, identity, faith, politics and memory. Also communicated within the exhibition are ideas about poetry, music and war. The artists whether living in the countries of their birth or in diaspora, belong within the globalised world of art, and many allude to the artistic or literary heritage with which they are associated.
At the outset of the exhibition, Nicky Nodjoumi’s The Accident (2013) (3) challenges preconceptions about Middle Eastern art and highlights the complexities of being an artist in diaspora. From there, the first room focuses on the uses of figuration and abstraction with important works including Marwan’s Gesichtslandschaft (4) (Face Landscape, 1973) in which he transforms his own likeness into a landscape reminiscent of the land of Syria, or Yehuda Bacon who evokes the memory of family members who perished in the Holocaust (5). Huda Lutfi’s Al-Sitt and her Sunglasses (2008) (6) and Hayv Kahraman’s Honor Killing (2006) (7) bring their own perspectives to the female gaze. Monir’s captivating mirror drawing is informed both by the architectural heritage of Iran, and by philosophies of minimalism and abstraction (8). For Burhan Doğançay, inspiration for his abstract paintings is found in the urban walls of New York (9).
The second room is entitled Tangled Histories and shows political struggle, revolution and war across the region through the eyes of artists. While there are works relating to a specific event, such as the burning of the National Library of Baghdad in 2003,(10) or the demonstration by women against the enforced wearing of the hijab in 1979, (11) others emerge from and address longer-running struggles, and focus on the complexities of the Israel/Palestine conflict, the Lebanese Civil War or the ongoing war in Syria. Further works highlight one of the defining issues of our time, that of exile and migration through the photographs of the late Leila Alaoui. (12)
Visitors will be encouraged to explore further by visiting the British Museum’s Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic world (Rooms 42-43) where additional works from this collection will be displayed including Taysir Batniji’s painting (13) exploring the notion of being between worlds, Khalil Joreije and Joana Hadjithomas’ photography and drawing series Faces (2009) (14), and a collection of artist books.
Venetia Porter, Curator, Islamic and contemporary Middle Eastern art, British Museum said: ‘The acquisition of many of the works in this exhibition is thanks to the tireless work of the members of the CaMMEA group. We are so grateful to them for working with the museum to acquire such interesting and important works for the collection. Through the prism of personal experience, the artists in this exhibition present us with a refracted image of a region: there is no one narrative here, but a multiplicity of stories.’
Mirna Abdulaal in Egyptian Streets suggests that only some ‘Radical’: Empowering Creative Youth and Local Designers in the Arab Region could awaken the currently dormant creation movement, particularly that in the art and design.
There’s one thing that unites generally all creative youth in the MENA region: their lack of representation and trouble in finding a platform that documents their story for others to see, hear and share.
Most media platforms and magazines in the region often fail to represent creatives, and particularly creative youth, through visual and imaginative presentations that help to truly capture their story. The concept of creative journalism and using art, aesthetics, powerful images and podcasts to brand a particular designer or artist is very much absent, with most resorting to mere commercial and celebrity-focused features rather than stories and dialogues to push the creative scene forward.
Nour Hassan, writer and founder of the platform ‘Radical Contemporary’, is the first to recognize this gap and introduce new understandings of how we can represent creatives in media and journalism. “When I started radical, I didn’t have any reference or any online magazine that gathers all creatives together, and it takes a lot of research. So I wanted to help people avoid what I faced in the beginning through this platform,” she says.
“If you want to know who is the best designer in Saudi Arabia, where would you look or who would you ask?”
Initially founded in 2017 as an online magazine that speaks about fashion, art and culture, Hassan began to branch out and do further projects, such as photoshoots, production, and podcasts. Eventually, she expanded into PR and creative consulting, growing from a magazine to a platform that also helps build and market brands.
For her, it is more than just representation, it is also creation – a ‘radical’ and creative process that aims to fundamentally change something in society or culture. In one of her projects, ‘Runaway Love’, she combines storytelling and visual journalism in an attempt to touch upon certain issues, such as the pressure of marriage for young girls. “It was shot on a Felucca boat and it talked about how young girls are pressured to get married, and how she is trying to escape that pressure by riding the Felucca. The photoshoot is a story that is also relevant to the culture,” she notes.
“I am making sure we have conversations, and this is important because there isn’t really any dialogue on creatives in the region.”
Coming from Egypt and growing up in Saudi Arabia, she noticed that there also aren’t any important dialogues and conversations being done on the work of young creatives across the region, which led her to launch ‘The Radical Contemporary Podcast’, allowing several creatives to speak about their creative process and provide a space for others to learn and grow. “I am making sure we have conversations, and this is important because there isn’t really any dialogue on creatives in the region and their work,” she tells Egyptian Streets, “If you want to know who is the best designer in Saudi Arabia, where would you look or who would you ask? And so, this is where I come in and bring them to let them talk in the podcast.”
In times of fast-paced communication and the growth of digital media, consuming content for longer periods of time has become even more difficult, which is why it has become ever more imperative for platforms to push creative journalism ahead and utilize podcasting effectively. “Podcasting is the future of content, it is the new radio,” Hassan says, “Right now, we cannot consume content for more than 15 seconds, so a podcast is like an alternative that helps you listen to the conversations even while you’re busy doing other things. It’s a different way of learning.”
“Podcasting is the future of content, it is the new radio”
It is also a way to introduce more critical conversations in the creative industry, particularly as the fashion industry continues to grow exponentially and young designers are entering the scene. “Our biggest problem is that we don’t have critics. We don’t have someone who critiques the work that is being produced, which is really important in helping young creatives grow and reach their potential. We need to work on being more critical and having critical conversations so we can develop,” she adds.
While it is easy to compare this to other magazines such as Vogue Arabia, Radical Contemporary goes even beyond that, as it is focused on building the creative soul in the region. It is expressive, visual, critical, and communicative – providing creatives an opportunity to learn and document their work. “I think we are the first generation telling our story. From the times of Umm Kalthoum up till now, there is this huge gap, and I don’t think there was a generation before us that really documented their work for others to find and look at.”
“I think we are the first generation telling our story.”
On top of that, it is also supporting local and regional brands, concerning that there is a lack of access to platforms that represent them. “At a time right now where it can be very hard for brands to survive, it is important to support our platform and in turn support these regional brands,” Hassan says.
For future writers, designers, artists, photographers and just about every creative in the region, Radical Contemporary represents the heart of their growth and expression in the rapidly changing region of the Middle East. It represents the face of a new generation, and a new region.
There is a soft smile on Hany Abdel Kader’s face as he takes out the carefully folded cotton piece, kept at the back of his small shop.
As he unfolds the fabric, a decorated front appears, with carefully stitched appliqué in bright colors – typical of Cairo’s long-established khayamiya (needlework) tradition. But this piece is unlike any other in the neighborhood’s workshops, where the art has been practiced for centuries. It has none of khayamiya’s customary patterns, based on geometry or Arabic calligraphy, but army tanks and masses of people – scenes from the 2011 Egyptian revolution.
‘That’s when I did my first piece, when we were all unsure about what would happen in the future,’ Abdel Kader, 44, told Asia Times.
He points to images stitched along the borders of the quilt, each depicting a different scene during the revolution. One shows a figure trying to climb the enormous government building, the Mogammaa; another, the infamous camels brought in to fight protesters in the street. Most of the scenes are set in Tahrir Square, the symbolic epicenter of the revolution.
Details from the quilt show state violence and wounded protesters being carried away. Photo: Claudia Willmitzer ‘I felt the need to describe what I saw. And I had the fabric at home, so I just laid out a big piece on the floor and started creating the design,’ said Abdel Kader.
As the days passed he added elements to the outer border, based on what he saw himself, heard from friends, or watched on TV. He embroidered words like ‘Peacefully’ and ‘Step down’.
He also stitched the slogan heard across the Arab world in 2011: ‘The people want the fall of the regime’.He added protesters getting hurt by bullets – and others coming to their rescue.
Eight years ago, on 25 January 2011, Egypt witnessed the start of mass protests. They came on the heels of similar demonstrations in Tunisia, which set the Arab Spring in motion. After 18 days of protests in Cairo, which spread to cities across Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak – in power since 1981 – was forced to resign.Protests continued throughout 2011 demanding the armed forces that took power after Mubarak’s resignation hand over the reigns of power to civilian rule. Elections in 2012 brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power, but the elected President Mohamed Morsi was ousted in a military coup led by current ruler Abdel Fatah El Sisi, who has since been accused of rights abuses and criticized for giving the military unchecked power.
Abdel Kader recalls the period of the revolution eight years ago as a step into the unknown.
‘It was a very strange and unknown time for us. Suddenly, there were tanks underneath our windows. We had never seen that before,’ he said.An ancient craft Khayamiya, which takes its name from the Arabic word for ‘tent’, historically involved the production of tents and panels to be used in a range of settings, from political gatherings to funerals to celebrations. Its usage dates back at least one thousand years in Egypt.
The view over Cairo’s ancient Al-Darb Al-Ahmar quarter, where many of the city’s craftspeople are located. Photo: Claudia Willmitzer Throughout the centuries, the craft has evolved. Ottoman rulers, kings Fuad and Farouk, presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat would all receive guests in rooms decorated with khayamiya.The opening (and, almost one century later, nationalization) of the Suez Canal had tents to host guests and officials.
Traditional celebratory tents are seen at a festival in the Egyptian city of Ismailia, on the west bank of the Suez Canal, for the occasion of the canal’s grand opening in 1869. Photo: Collection of Roger-Viollet Egyptian musicians, when traveling, would often bring stitched panels to put up as backdrops at their performances.The popularity of khayamiya remains until present – only now, fabrics are mostly printed by machine.
‘You find them all over Egypt, they are so common that people rarely think about them,’ said art historian Seif El Rashidi, who recently co-authored a book on the topic.The most revered work done by Cairo’s khayamiya guild was doubtless on the kiswa, the elaborate cover for the holy Kaaba, the black cube in Mecca, which was historically produced each year in Cairo’s alleys and ceremoniously brought all the way to the holiest city in Islam. Abdel Kader comes from a family of such prominent crafters: his grandfather Mahmoud earned the name Al-Mekkawi, ‘of Mecca’, from being one of the leading kiswa artisans.
Amm Hassan, the colleague of Abdel Kader, works on a piece of khayamiya. Photo: Claudia Willmitzer Seated in the inner corner of his shop, with his long-time colleague Amm (uncle) Hassan working on a cushion next to the entrance, Abdel Kader takes out images of his first two revolution pieces.Both are in museum collections now, at Durham University and Victoria and Albert Museum in London – destinations he never imagined when drawing that first design during the revolution.
It is not entirely uncommon that political art develops this way, historian Rashidi tells Asia Times: ‘It might be spontaneous at first. An artist starts working on something, and only later on it takes on a specific meaning.
Transforming folk art
Many of the most powerful artworks from 2011 were street art, such as Ammar Abo Bakr’s portraits of martyred protesters with angel-like wings, or Bahia Shehab’s stencilled blue bra for the protester who was dragged in the streets by members of the military until her clothes ripped – creations symbolizing the ongoing regime brutality. Or the dozens of artists who came daily to the sidewalks around Tahrir, to draw what was happening. Abdel Kader’s work is different, belonging as it does to the much less utilized craft tradition.
Usually, Abdel Kader’s work is not a commentary on society. Like all of Cairo’s khayamiya artists, he spends his days cutting, folding and stitching colorful pieces of cloth onto canvas to create vivid and detailed tapestries.
“Khayamiya is usually not a form of art that lends itself to this kind of work. That’s what makes Hany’s pieces so interesting,” said historian El Rashidi.
Eight years after the onset of the revolution, under another strong and repressive state apparatus, looking back at what happened is for many Egyptians associated with gloom, even a sense of despair.
But for Abdel Kader, the events that took place in Tahrir Square still form a source of inspiration.
In his home on the top floor of an apartment building in Muqattam, a dusty hill on the outskirts of Cairo, he has several sketches for new pieces.They portray the same crowds, the same skyline of Cairo and the same commemorative date, January 25th.
‘If I think about my craft there is something else that I would like to do,’ he said. That is to work on a big, traditional tent. But, he says, with the advent of machine printing, no asks for them these days. ♦
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