“But A Storm Is Blowing From Paradise: Contemporary Art from the Middle East and North Africa” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum is the third installment of the UBS Map Global Art Initiative, which aims to add contemporary art to the museum’s permanent collection from underrepresented regions of the world. The previous exhibitions featured works from Latin America and Southeast Asia. The initiative’s objective is to create a more diverse, cross-cultural dialogue about the contemporary art being created and exhibited today.
“But A Storm Is Blowing From Paradise” features seventeen artists whose works span a wide variety of media, including video, painting, photography, works on paper, bronze and copper sculpture, and installation pieces. The curator, Sara Raza (whose Instagram @punkorientalism is fabulous and worth checking out), includes artworks that grapple with immigration, geometry, architecture, and cultural memory.
The first work of art you see once you enter the exhibition is made of the most unusual and surprising material I’ve ever encountered in a museum—couscous! The artist Kader Attia recreated the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the ancient city of Ghardaïa using the Middle Eastern culinary staple. On the two walls behind the sculpture are images of the French architects Le Corbusier and his successor Fernand Pouillon. The two men visited Ghardaïa, Algeria in the 1930s and reworked elements of the local architecture into the aesthetic of European modern architecture, but never acknowledged or credited where they found their inspiration. The piece makes a thought-provoking statement about the colonial past of France and Algeria, and artistic colonization.
Another standout piece is Abbas Akhavan’s ‘Study for a Monument,’ which is a large array of bronze sculptures arranged on the floor not far from couscous sculpture. The bronzes are reproductions of plants native to ‘the cradle of civilization’: modern day Iraq. The decades of war has caused irreparable damage to the environment and ecology of the nation. And the plants Akhavan reproduces are representative of either endangered or extinct species. The title of the work plays with our idea of what a monument is—an object that glorifies or commemorates something forever.
My favorite artist within the exhibition is Nadia Kaabi-Linke. Her stainless steel sculpture ‘Flying Carpets’ hangs from the gallery’s high ceilings. The geometry of the sculpture corresponds to the dimension of blankets used by undocumented immigrant street vendors who sell their goods illegally. Kaabi-Linke encountered many of these vendors during her time in Venice, Italy, and the sculpture mirrors the arch of Venetian bridges. The title alludes to a trope in oriental myth, but is grounded in the realities of the migration crisis. The cage-like sculpture could even stand for the trap these immigrants find themselves in within the black market. These individuals face a constant threat of being arrested or deported for their illegal activity. The geometry of sculpture is breathtaking, and it throws beautifully intricate shadows along the surrounding walls.
One of the things that I appreciated the most about this exhibition is that it doesn’t try to discuss or grapple with every geopolitical, social, religious, or cultural issue that the Middle East and North Africa are dealing with. Instead, it chooses to show how a few contemporary artists can conceptually convey the complexity of the Middle East. Hopefully seeing the exhibition will inspire visitors to reevaluate their impression of the region through the lens of contemporary art.
“But A Storm Is Blowing From Paradise” is on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum until October 5th, 2016. In 2017, it will travel to the Pera Museum in Istanbul.