Houston, Texas – long the epicenter of the U.S. oil industry, and expanding rapidly with a 385-acre, 14-building new campus for ExxonMobil in the Woodlands – should provide a cross-cultural audience for the Fotofest 2014 Biennial. Fotofest’s principal exhibit this year, “View From Inside: Contemporary Arab Video, Photography and Mixed Media Art” presents artists from 14 countries in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, collectively known by the geo-political acronym MENASA.
The exhibit subtitle has already proven controversial because not all the artists consider themselves Arabs or are Muslim. The so-called Arab World constitutes the 22 countries that make up the Arab League, but hosts populations of differing religious practices and even tribal affiliations. Speaking Arabic might be the only thing these countries have in common. That, and histories of colonialism, war, revolution, and dramatic political, economic and religious change.
German curator Karin Adrian von Roques has focused on both ancient and modern art from these countries for 20 years. She delves into the term “Arab art” at length in the book which accompanies the exhibition:
In the context of contemporary art, the term Arab art leads to another kind of discussion among Arab artists. Some of them feel that they are being “ethnicized” and “exorcized” with labels such as Arab or Islamic attached to them. They see themselves more as part of the global discourse of visual art, on the same level as their colleagues in Europe and the United States.
But how will the average American viewer understand the complex notions behind the label Arab, even (or especially) in Houston with its resident representatives of the worldwide oil market? Lebanese artist Samer Mohdad writes in his own essay for the book: “How is it possible to define the Arab identity in our society when it is increasingly so narrowly identified with Islam? Many people believe that being Arab necessarily means being Muslim. Overloaded by the media our minds do not stop accumulating falsities. Misinterpretations of Islam and injustices committed in its name have led to many misunderstandings regarding the actual realities of the Arab world.”
For von Roques, the aim of the exhibition is “on the one hand to introduce the complex and heterogeneous MENASA art scene with all its diverse, interesting, and innovative contexts and, on the other, to sensitize viewers to the political dimensions of the works the region produces.”
What view can we expect from inside these countries? From these artists? Will it be politically focused?
Von Roques, who is based in Bonn, Germany, has been instrumental in bringing contemporary art from MENASA to international museums and galleries around the world. She is keenly aware that contemporary art from the MENASA countries is created within a wider socio-political context. Von Roques hopes to generate intercultural dialogue through seminars offered in conjunction with the Fotofest Biennial. In fact, she will remain in Houston through the end of April to see how people react to the exhibition.
“I really would be happy if visitors take something with them to have another idea about the Arabic world and come away from their stereotypes,” von Roques said via telephone. “I hope they get an artist to help them look at things differently.”
Differently from the stereotypes many hold of Arabs and Islam, of the oppression of women; of fanaticism, terrorism and radicalism. As a scholar, von Roques has noticed the shifts in perception from the outside, with negative perceptions about Arab people beginning with the 1991 publication of Not Without My Daughter, followed by 9/11 and the Arab Spring.
This is an exhibition that will explore questions of identity, displacement, and rapid change brought on by urban economic development. Egyptian artist Wael Shawky, who was seen in the 2008 SITE Santa Fe Biennial, “Lucky Number Seven,” explores the effects of globalization through his videos and installations inspired by television shows from his childhood and the tales and stories of his culture.
One effect of globalization is the emphasis on women and their role in society. Boushra Almutawakel from Yemen deals with the complexity of the hijab, or veil; she says: “I found that we, Arabs and Muslims, are either demonized or romanticized.” Iraqi artist Sama Alshaibi creates powerful images like “Razor Wire” and “Say Nothing” that present female oppression and violence. In contrast, Lalla A. Essaydi from Morocco creates exotic, beautiful photographs that tell her personal story, reflecting on the life of an Arab woman within an Islamic culture.
Oil has also played a big role in the changes explored by artists from the Gulf States. “With the oil boom, people often left their old houses and moved into new ones,” von Roques writes in her essay for the exhibition book. Hassan Meer from Muscat, Oman was inspired to resurrect the past to counteract the modernism that found its way uncontrolled into his grandfather’s house. It is oil that is at the root of many of these cultural and political changes, including huge wealth in places like Dubai and Abu Dhabi and political unrest between dictators and tribal societies.
It is also because of oil money that there is now a market for art from MENASA countries, allowing artists to be broadly shown and collected — and perhaps for the voices of these artists “on the inside” to tell their stories, and for those of us viewing the works to see those stories from their point of view.
FotoFest exhibitions happen March 15 – April 27, 2014 at more than 100 participating Houston-area museums, art galleries, non-profit art centers and corporate spaces. “View from Inside” will be on display at the event headquarters at four locations in Houston.