New Yorkers are accustomed to publicly admitting our provincialism while privately upholding the belief that we live at the center of it all. The New Museum’s current exhibition “Here and Elsewhere” does nothing if not deftly point out that, at least as far as the art world is concerned, our horizons need quite a bit of expanding. The show is New York’s first museumwide survey of contemporary art “from and about the Arab world,” an uncomfortable, sweeping proposition that cuts across its subjects with a double-edged sword, reminding us that geography is as much about projection as about physical place.
Curated by Massimiliano Gioni and an in-house team including Natalie Bell, Gary Carrion-Murayari, Helga Christoffersen and Margot Norton, “Here and Elsewhere” borrows its title from the film Ici et ailleurs (1976) by Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Gorin, and Anne-Marie Miéville. What began for the filmmakers as a sympathetic documentary about the Palestinian struggle became an uneasy meditation on the ethics of photographic representation. Images — like borders — are political, porous. They frame and restrain their contents, mediating the spaces between subject and viewer while other meanings, other agendas, still sneak in.
The exhibition winds this thread through the work of 45 artists for whom image-making is a potent, slippery tool for documenting, creating, and reclaiming ever-unspooling identity narratives that are both personal and political, chosen and imposed. New Yorkers may recognize some of the artists in the show (Yto Barrada, Wael Shawky, Etel Adnan), but most of the names will be new. As such, there is much to see in this intelligent, at times cacophonous exhibition as it conducts the eye across the nations of Syria, Lebanon, Kuwait, Morocco, Egypt, Dubai, Tunisia, Jordan, Iran, Iraq, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates to forge a rich and complicating vision of Arab identity.
As you open the door to the museum, you walk past a large-scale photograph plastered to its glass façade, of a lavishly appointed entrance to an Arabian Gulf resort. Once inside, turn around to see that the image has disappeared and left you looking back onto the Bowery through dully tinted windows. The illusion is courtesy of The One and Only Madinat New Museum Royal Mirage, an installation by the Gulf-based artists collective known as GCC. If the piece is a witty heads-up that the show is but a vision of the Arab world, other works remind us that there are very real theres there.
The short videos of Syrian production-collective Abounaddara capture the epic intimacies of everyday life, moving images to balance those the news broadcasts of civil war. In Jamal Penjweny’s photographic series, Saddam is here, Iraqi citizens are snapped in situ, holding portraits of Saddam Hussein over their faces. Read by an American, the portraits are shameful reminders of then-President Bush’s mapping and attacking Iraq as part of an “axis of evil,” though the masking also speaks to the psychological aftermath of Saddam’s dictatorship. The burdens of violence are also captured in Jordanian photographer Tanya Habjouqa’s Tomorrow there will be apricots, which documents the heavy mementos Syrian refugee women carry to remind themselves of those they’ve lost in the war.
The exhibition also reveals the sites out of sight (as it were), where identity has been expressed and explored with daring intimacy. The luminous self-portraits of Turkish-born Cairene photographer Van Leo were taken in his studio in the early to mid-1940s and capture the artist costumed as characters one might see in the movies, including one image of him in drag. Inside his Studio Shehrazade, Lebanese photographer Hashem el Madani snapped decades’ worth of clients posing and role playing — kissing, dancing, brandishing arms — seemingly without worry as to who was looking.
Although photographs and moving images comprise the majority of the show, artists working in other media contribute to the conversation with equal power. Syrian painter Marwan’s intense expressionistic figures agitate before us, while the languid and graceful lines of Palestinian conceptual artist Suha Traboulsi’s works in ink on paper eschew such representations for minimal gestures. Three color-block landscapes painted by Lebanese artist and poet Etel Adnan hang opposite the framed manuscript pages from her book-length poem, The Arab Apocalypse (1989), which many consider to be a masterwork of literature after the Lebanese Civil War. Her typewritten words laced throughout with handwritten revisions remind us that where images fail, language can provoke visions of another kind.
Perhaps the show’s greatest success is that there are so many artists here worth noting. (The joy of discovery isn’t a service most New York museums typically provide.) Egyptian Anna Boghiguian’s drawings are forceful incantations of odd wonderlands that collapse the ancient with the contemporary. Palestinian Wafa Hourani’s Qalandia 2087, meanwhile, constructs a vision of the Qalandia refugee camp’s future, at once dystopian and dazzling. Plan to linger longer at Bouchra Khalili’s video installation, titled, The Mapping Project, as well as Amal Kenawy’s dreamlike animation, The Purple Artificial Forest. Leave time to hover over Rokni Haerizadeh’s tragicomic drawings, Abdul Hay Mosallam’s relief paintings in acrylic and sawdust…the list could go on.
Although the exhibition prods us to see and think through and beyond the limits of place, a curatorial eagerness to illuminate the show’s subjects unsurprisingly leads to a fatiguing didacticism. The artists’ contributions are meticulously narrated throughout the entire exhibition, so much so that you may find yourself having to ignore the somewhat lengthy wall texts in order to have time enough to look. The problem has perhaps less to do with word count than it does with the classic perils of how an artwork’s origins, an artist’s intentions, and an institution’s bid for education can overdetermine how an audience receives the work itself. That said, audiences should view any excess of direction as an embarrassment of riches set inside what is, from beginning to end, an absolute gem.