In: Middle East

A few weeks ago I wrote about Mona Hatoum’s tribute exhibition at Tate Modern, London. This particular piece is sensitively related to how an immigrant and refugee managed to break into a cultural scene that could seem enclosed and restricted only to Western artists.

When we think about globalization, we must understand that it affects us in many ways. One of them is cultural expansion. People travel longer distances with less effort nowadays, and decide to immigrate more often, carrying a large baggage full of customs, language influences, and cultural habits with them. Technology also spreads very quickly, connecting more and more people each day.

As ethnic and national populations move around the globe, they establish emotional ties with their places of origin. Artists in particular express their emotional longing, admiration, and sometimes worship of their mother lands in pieces of art that become part of their new country’s cultural heritage.

Shirin Neshat , Rebellious Silence (1994). B&W RC print & ink, photo by Cynthia Preston. Copyright Shirin Neshat. Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

Shirin Neshat , Rebellious Silence (1994). B&W RC print & ink, photo by Cynthia Preston. Copyright Shirin Neshat. Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

Contemporary Middle Eastern art, for instance, seems to provide answers to all the questions that the rest of the world has about this region’s traditions and cultural background. It is a silent voice that leaves a perpetual echo, one that sings the chorus of a struggle and of tortured beauty. There can be no discrimination in the space of art. A painting, a photograph, a sculpture or an installation remain anonymous for the viewer during the first few minutes of interaction. The name of the artist comes as a revelation. The level of admiration increases, the act of understanding intensifies, and finally an interest has been planted for a long time in the brain and heart of the art lover.

In today’s context, Abu Dhabi is expected to finalize works on its own branches of the Guggenheim and Louvre museums, which will shift the interest of the world from this distant city’s extravagant architecture and lifestyle, to its status as one of the world’s capitals for contemporary art.

Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. Photo courtesy Gehry Partners, LLP

Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. Photo courtesy Gehry Partners, LLP

Abu Dhabi is not the first capital to host both Middle Eastern and global art in an environment that unfortunately is not usually linked to the idea of globalization. For instance, Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, experienced a renaissance of sorts in the mid-20th century. Following World War II, the city became a tourist destination and a financial center. It was even nicknamed “the Paris of the Middle East” thanks to its French influences and vibrant cultural and intellectual life.

Architect Galal Mahmoud said about Beirut that its history is encompassed in the history of the world, as it includes layers of Roman, Ottoman, Persian and Phoenician influences. Today, Beirut is a place where you can constantly navigate between different minorities and their cultural backgrounds; it is a place where you learn to be more tolerant and open, where you must respect people from a variety of beliefs and backgrounds. It pretty much sounds like Paris today, or London, or New York.

Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi. Photo: louvreabudhabi.ae.

Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi. Photo: louvreabudhabi.ae.

Now, could Abu Dhabi offer the same vibe? Will the opening of these two monster houses of art attract only the nouveaux riches, or also well-educated and art-thirsty tourists? With a long history of influences (first Iranian in the 1900s, followed by Asian and European in the 1950s and 1960s), just like most of the big capitals of the world, Abu Dhabi is a place that can host most, if not all, the Middle Eastern art outbreaks.

The architectural design of the Abu Dhabi Guggenheim Museum was offered to architect Frank Gehry, who describes the idea behind the structure as: “… Low tech language. The character is messy… like a medieval city that came together over time… You go through this messiness and you find the centre.” The museum will be located on Saadiyat Island, just offshore of the city of Abu Dhabi. The island’s Cultural District will house the largest cluster of world-class cultural assets in Abu Dhabi. The Guggenheim building is part of a massive project to “create an exhibition space intended to turn this once-sleepy desert city along the Persian Gulf into an international arts capital and tourist destination.” (The New York Times)

Louvre Abu Dhabi. Source: ambafrance-eau.org.

Louvre Abu Dhabi. Source: ambafrance-eau.org.

“Someday, my paintings will be hanging in the Louvre”, van Gogh once said. A museum does not need further introduction. Abu Dhabi is preparing to open the doors to their very own Louvre -possibly in 2017-, a project that consists on building an island inside an island. The architect, Jean Nouvel, wants the museum to belong completely to the culture, history, geography and climate of Abu Dhabi. He has envisioned a place that people would want visit and revisit. As in most Arab cities, there will be a strong contrast between the temperature outside and inside of the venue. People will feel good thanks to this, and will want to share the experience with other people there. A medina of art, built with traditional architectural techniques, held together by an impressive modern dome that encompasses the beauty and poetry of light.

Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. Image © Gehry Partners.

Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. Image © Gehry Partners.

With these two architectural masterpieces, I believe that Abu Dhabi is breaking into the art world in the most elegant way possible. With the work of those Middle Eastern artists that have been moving audiences throughout the world, and with a continuous flow of ideas and cultural influences, the opening of the Guggenheim and Louvre buildings in the island of Abu Dhabi is announcing that the world is yet to be enchanted and pleasantly surprised.

Federico Fellini once said that “all art is autobiographical”, and Middle Eastern art is constantly underlining this statement. Globally, we are becoming an entity, we are coming closer and closer, and art has a lot to gain from this beautiful gathering of cultural differences. One day, people will be reading “An Autobiography of Earth’s Cultural Identity”.

“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.

 View of the 5th Floor. Copyright from Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

View of the 5th Floor. Copyright from Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

“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.

 'Flying Carpets' by Nadia Kaabi-Linke. Courtesy of Emma Holter.

‘Flying Carpets’ by Nadia Kaabi-Linke. Courtesy of Emma Holter.

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.