Courtesy New Museum, New York. Photo: Benoit Pailley.

LONDON - Two cultural capitals of the world have this summer hosted major exhibitions on Iranian and Arab art. The Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris’ exhibition Unedited History, Iran 1960-2014 and the New Museum in New York’s Here and Elsewhere, both make highly important narrative and political statements that provoke thought well beyond the confines of the shows. Catherine David, the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris’ chief curator, and Massimiliano Gioni the New Museum director, took bold steps in respectively showcasing some fascinating and controversial works which challenge long-held conceptions.

Here and Elsewhere is the first museum-wide exhibition in New York to feature contemporary art from and about the Arab world. The exhibition brings together more than 45 artists from over 15 countries, many of which live and work internationally. Gioni, whose acclaimed contribution to the last Venice Biennale is still fresh in our minds, says that he has aimed to combine pivotal and under-recognized figures with more established artists in an initiative which works against the notion of the Arab world as a homogenous entity. We see individualized practices that often have conceptual or aesthetic references to the Arab world, yet also extend well beyond.

Courtesy New Museum, New York. Photograph by Benoit Pailley.

Bidoun's imprint is clearly visible in the concept and tone of the catalogue – in depth artist interviews, intellectual forays, and critical essays – in short, a veritable resource. What struck me equally was the quality and rigor of the curatorial eye. Both catalogue and exhibition put forward an uncompromising and clear-eyed view of how Arab artists see their socio-political predicament. Like Iran's Unedited History, this show is not about an amble through the visual arts by way of the art market; rather, it is a political and historical narrative that tells a powerful story. Sometimes disturbing, other times enlightening, occasionally whimsical, every work is a journey of self-discovery.

There is a wide range of media – from painting, to video and installation art, portraiture, photography, drawing and sculpture. For me, the most distinctive works included those by Hrair Sarkissian whose photos of public squares in Syrian cities are especially moving; Akram Zaatari's powerful video work, Anna Boghiguian's dense and meditative drawings, Marwan's expressive portraiture and Ahmet Mater's statement about construction and development in Saudi Arabia also made compelling viewing.

Wafa Hourani's Qalandia 2087, 2009. Nadour Collection, Düsseldorf. Installation view: Haus der Kunst, Munich. Photograph by Wilfried Petzi.

I was struck by the unusual inclusion of Iranian artist Rokni Haerizadeh as an Arab artist; even though he resides in the UAE, his work is entirely informed by his own culture. Also conspicuous (this time by absence) was any manifestation of calligraphic works – so perennially identified with Arab art. No Leila Essaoudi for example, even though she too, is part of a political discourse. 

The curators, organizers and supporters of this exhibition should be congratulated for an enriching and enlightening exhibition – an event which will remain memorably in the landscape of Arab art history.

Arts of the Islamic World

8 October, London

Contemporary Art / Doha
13 October, London