Two Arab Art Shows Explore Conflict, Identity, And Community

Published in DCist on Sept. 1, 2017
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Ali Cherri, Trembling Landscapes (Algiers), 2014 (American University)

Maps. They represent both natural land and human development, community, boundaries. The act of making a map, of carving up land into demarcations aligned to coordinates, is an ancient art form. In some ways, too, maps serve as records of violence.

In his work, Trembling Landscapes (Algiers), Lebanese artist Ali Cherri maps conflict. The cityscape of Algiers is neatly ordered; the land arcs gracefully towards the sea, but trouble hides beneath the image’s surface.

“He is depicting cities that are on geological fault lines, but they are also sites of political fault lines as well,” says Karim Sultan, director of the Barjeel Art Foundation. The artist’s series traces the lines of Algiers, Beirut, and Damascus.

Cherri’s work is part of the group show, Between Two Rounds of Fire, The Exile of The Sea: Arab Modern and Contemporary Works from the Barjeel Art Foundation, which opens September 5th at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center.

“The exhibition deals loosely with the ideas of conflict and violence, and perhaps not in a way that you would associate with art from the Arab world,” says Sultan, the show’s curator.

The artists’ explorations feel personal. Their examinations extend to the body, language, memory, and identity. For example, Hayv Kahraman complicates the aesthetics of the Renaissance female form in an attempt to illuminate the violence of the contemporary female experience.

“When you first look at her work, the most distinctive things are these very aesthetically and sort of art historically perfect female forms that adorn the canvas,” says Sultan. “Several of her works deal with the body being punctured as a way of symbolizing social pressures on the female body, and the micro-violence against the female form on a daily basis—especially in art history,” Sultan says.

In a 2016 interview with Glass Magazine, Kahraman describes her process of empowering the colonized female form (who Kahraman refers to as “Her” and “She”).

“‘Her’ emergence, her white diaphanous flesh, her contrapposto, was an embodiment of someone who was colonized; someone who was taught to believe that European art history was the ultimate ideal. She became an expression of whom I had become as an assimilated woman,” says Kahraman. “I’m now working to give her agency and a voice, and as I obsessively repaint her again and again, she becomes part of a collective.”

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Zena Assi, Al Kouwa Fi Yad El Mara (The Force is in the Hands of the Woman), 2016 (American University)

Thirty-one artists were invited to create an original still art work for I AM: An East-West Arts Initiative Organized by CARAVAN. Also opening on September 5th at the American University Museum, the exhibition will explore the experiences of women in the Middle East.

In Lebanese artist Zena Assi’s colorful portrait Al Kouwa Fi Yad El Mar2a (The Force is in the Hands of the Woman), the subject stares directly into the viewer’s eyes. Her garment is collaged with images, political symbols, and symbols of commerce. The collage is peppered with words and labels that can be read as inspirations or even threats, depending on interpretation.

Assi, who frequently takes photos of graffiti, explains, “The tags keep changing so rapidly … Some old ones survive somehow, but with graffiti, beauty resides in the fact that they are fragile, completely public and unprotected … like the saying, ‘If only walls could talk,’” She took the title of the piece and its inspiration from a slogan spray painted on a wall.

Like Assi’s work, compelling viewers’ gaze is part of the point of I AM. “The exhibition is designed to challenge misconceptions of the ‘other.’ Hopefully, visitors will gain insight into the lives of contemporary Middle Eastern women and will experience the diverse voices, aspects, and opinions of these strong, experienced, and accomplished artists,” says Rev. Canon Paul-Gordon Chandler, Founding President of CARAVAN, an international peace building arts non-profit organization.

Art has power. “The artworks promote and celebrate the many accomplishments of Middle Eastern women while also challenging existing stereotypes,” says Chandler. “Ultimately, we want the exhibit to enhance understanding and encourage friendship between the peoples of the Middle East and West.”

Between Two Rounds of Fire will be on view from September 5—December 17I AM will be on view from September 5—October 22. American University Museum, 4400 Massachusetts Ave, NW, Washington, DC 20016.

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