ArtInternational had a fair few galleries representing middle-eastern artists and so this is a blog themed around their works. By middle-eastern I mean artists originating from North Africa, the central Arab lands, and Iran.
Athr Gallery from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, is a staple at international art fairs. Athr has been building their artists slowly and steadily since they opened in 2009. They represented a strong selection of Saudi artists at ArtInternational with several works, including a sculpture by Siddiq Wasel in the outdoor sculpture section on the banks of the Bosphorus and an eye catching metal installation by Musaed al Hulis in the booth.
In this work al Hulis utilised metal link, chain and locks to create a carpet-like installation through which he comments on two main themes: lack of interfaith and cultural communication, and the hollow manner in which many perform religious rites and rituals. In so doing he looks to a future of greater understanding and spiritual consciousness.
Athr also exhibited the celebrated Ahmed Mater with his photograph of a black magnetic cube at the centre of a ring of iron filings, referencing the pull of Makkah; the spiritual epicentre of the Islamic faith.
Mater is also represented by well-established Austrian gallery, Krinzinger. Krinzinger carried a set of photographs from his Yellow Cow series, documentation of a conceptually driven performance piece where Mater created a product-line of Yellow Cheese and Yellow Milk around an imaginary yellow cow. He went so far as to design bright yellow packaging, bright yellow shelving and a bright yellow shop for his Yellow Cow products.
This buttercup-coloured cow with her gloriously sunny flanks entices the consumer with the promise of a better, happier, more fulfilled life; but this promise is empty. By wrapping up the bounty of nature in paper, aluminum and cardboard we commercialise something nutritious, forget its essence and desire it for its appearance and the aspirational message of its advertising campaign. In this piece, Mater attempts to bring us back to the source.
Krinzinger also carried the work of Kader Attia, a French artist of Algerian origin. Attia is a conceptual artist of renown and his works are in international museum collections including MOMA. In his Repaired Mirror series, Attia plays on the Italian artist Pistoletto’s trick of utilizing the mirror to encourage the interaction of the viewer with the artwork itself. By reflecting his appearance the viewer is no longer a divorced voyeur and critic because he becomes a part of the art work.
Attia takes a broken mirror and ‘sews’ it back together with a copper ‘thread’. The mirror becomes a metaphor for the human psyche, referring to the wounds we all carry. Attia acknowledges that we may have moved on from our suffering, but the scars are still there. It is a poignant work with universal relevance.
London based Bischoff Weiss carried the works of Aya Haidar, a Lebanese artist raised in London who prints images of locations around the world. In this case Haidar printed images of Jeddah’s old town onto linen and embroidered them with brightly coloured thread. In embroidering over the doorways and mashrabiyyas, the artist symbolically removes an obstacle – both physical and metaphorical – and looks to a world with less restrictions and boundaries.
Leila Heller carried a set of drawings by the Iranian artist Shiva Ahmadi. Shiva’s large-scale paintings have established her internationally, indeed one such painting has been acquired by the Museum of Contemporary Art in LA. Shiva draws on an Islamic aesthetic with elongated figures derived from Safavid miniature painting. She marries this with Bosch-like vignettes of corruption and degeneration depicting despotic governors and witless servants, characters that the artist identifies with both east and west.
Lawrie Shabibi came to the fair with artwork by a number of middle-eastern artists including Larissa Sansour, a hyper political artist of Palestinian origin who studied in Copenhagen, New York and London. In the works on view she creates arrestingly weird compositions, such as a bright white Scandanavian-style office in one half of the frame contrasting with a fire-filled sky glowing above the Dome of the Rock in the other. Sansour references her cultural background by juxtaposing images of east and west within a digitally manipulated and printed mise-en-scene.
Wendi Norris, who has also participated at Art Dubai, came all the way from San Francisco with the work of Shirin Guirguis. Guirguis is an Egyptian artist based in LA who works with intricate hand-cut paper works of Islamic motifs over-painted with abstract designs. She also works with wood to create sculptures that contemporise Islamic geometry. Guirguis’ work is current in its minimalism and she skillfully reanimates an ancient design concept for the twenty-first century.
“Sherin Guirguis’ work has been extremely well-received in Istanbul and the entire MENASA region. She blends the sophisticated hand-crafted elements of her Egyptian heritage with an intelligent, Californian sense of minimalism.”
All these artists have lived their own lives and had their own experiences in different countries with different domestic, political and cultural norms. Frankly grouping them as middle-eastern artists is wrong: we are all citizens of the world. However, for thematic ease I have sacrificed egalitarianism and have grouped them by an accident of their birth.
My personal observation is that there are recognizable themes that recur in the work of middle-eastern artists, these themes are: identity, liminality and politics. That said these themes also appear in international artist’s work. In fact the topic requires a doctoral thesis, but the above will have to do for now.