On exhibition as part of the 25th anniversary of L’Institut du Mond Arabe, Nadim Karam’s trio of elephants.

PARIS - Two days before the Paris FIAC opening, the Arab world celebrated a grand opening of its own. L’Institut du Monde Arabe marked its 25th anniversary by showing an important exhibition entitled 25 Years of Creativity: Contemporary Arab Art. Queuing up at the Zaha Hadid Pavilion entrance due to strict security, I shivered in the cold as every invitation was closely checked! It was worth the wait in the end.

Forty Arab artists spanning twenty-two countries made up one of the most extensive exhibitions of its kind since the 2010 opening of Doha’s Mathaf Museum. The mission was to consider the common threads in the works of these artists and identify prevalent themes. Exile, tradition, heritage, religion, identity and violence seemed to dominate, with the sense of a vocal and vibrant but introspective region facing its current geo-politics with as many concerns and questions as answers. This was even more symptomatic in the Toulouse scandal that preceded this opening: Moroccan artist Mounir Fatmi’s installation which – due to a technical error – had been projected onto the pavement with people walking all over the (sacred) image of the Quran, provoked cries of outrage. Yet another work of Fatmi’s was withdrawn from the IMA exhibition – this time a video of Salman Rushdie sleeping for 16 hours like Warhol’s underground heroes. IMA was accused of censorship, but responded gamely by saying that the work was not theme-compatible with the rest of the forward-looking exhibition. Fatmi’s selected work was, in the end, not his most exciting.


The Salle Hypostyle downstairs felt like a graveyard replete with the most explicitly dark, political works (coffins, guns, symbols of war), while the entry level of the main building showcased a representative variety of paintings by the likes of Youssef Nabil, Safwan Dahoul, and the captivating ‘Head over Heels’ photogramme by Saudi artist Maha Malluh. I was thrilled to see Ahmed Mater’s wonderful Magnetism (first seen at the British Museum’s Hajj exhibition).

Nadim Karam’s Closets & Closets series. (left) A Dream closet. (right) A War closet.

However in a league of its own was Nadim Karam’s sculpture – a superb, arresting work with two sides: War and Dreams, split by a Mirror in the middle. Urban toys of war in rusted steel fall scattered on the floor while shiny Dream words and images point to a world of hope.

While the exhibition sprawled the various niveaux (zero, minus 2, plus 9...), my own favourite space was the pavilion whose architecture definitely cocoons and envelops. There, Najda Mahadji’s Mystic Dance, Abdul Nasser Gharem’s Stamp and finally Ayman Baalbaki’s brightly-coloured tent adorned with lovers’ text messages stood out amongst the others.

A journey through contemporary Arab art, this exhibition is not to be missed.