The Saatchi Gallery’s new exhibit Unveiled: New Art from the Middle East, has been receiving a lot of press since it opened on January 30th. I had the chance to check out the popular show this past weekend, and although I may not be in a position to review the exhibit, I still must disagree with many reviewers who see the exhibit as overtly political, too controversial and bleak.
Featuring 21 young artists from countries such as Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Tunisia and Iran; the largely positive reviews have also referenced the show as being one which “may test the tolerance of some”, and can be seen as “brave — or foolish”. Rather, I found that the show successfully presented themes that are by and large universal.
There is a prevailing Western myth that the Middle East can only be represented in traditional political terms, and that necessarily all expressions derived thereof must be seen through this lens. However, contemporary art created by an individual of any nationality is tied more often than not, to some form of political expression — gender, identity, violence, commercialization, nationality, sexuality, etc. In fact, Unveiled actually presents very few works which depict war or the effects thereof. What is prevalent are works that question traditional gender roles and taboo subjects such as homosexuality and prostitution.
The direction of the show is thoughtful, and though a thematic thread can be drawn through the maze of the gallery, each artist has a distinct style and point of view. Unveiled brings a fresh perspective to cultures that are often misrepresented through Western mediation. A few personal favorites include:
Tehran-based artist Ghadirian exhibits photographic works from two series: The Like Everyday Series, and The Ghajar Series, both investigating themes of gender and identity. The Like Everyday Series depicts seven separate 183x183cm images of veiled women, their faces obscured by household objects such as a rubber glove, and a cheese grater. The items photographed were given to her as wedding presents, emphasizing the stereotypical notion of what a housewife should be.
The Ghajar Series was inspired by the Iranian Ghajar dynasty (1794-1925). It was during this time when portraits were first allowed. Ghadirian stays true to the aesthetic look of these photos, but has her women posing with modern objects such as a telephone and a vacuum cleaner. The results are both beautiful and humorous, “pointing to a culture clash of tradition and progress” the gallery explains.
Born in Hebron, Hourani currently resides in Ramallah and his featured work entitled Qalandia 2067 shows a mixed-media diorama of his artistic rendering of a Palestinian refugee camp one hundred years after the end of the Six-Day War. The five models: the airport, border crossing and three settlements, seem eerily abandoned. The residents are only seen through film strips in the windows of buildings and except for a few cars, and a toy soldier standing on top of the security wall, the scene feels stripped of life. The wall seems too big for the scenario, and it is mirrored, reflecting back onto the scene, emphasizing its ominous presence.
Hourani is quoted in the Khaleej Times as describing this choice as “the new solution… The people of Ramallah need to see themselves”. The article goes on to explain that “once his people examined themselves to overcome their divisions, control their emotions and become better at politics, their potential to create a happy future would be unlocked”. Spectators, invited to walk closely around the work, can do nothing but contemplate the division that wall creates, and the dioramas on either side give one a sense of the direction Hourani sees his country taking in the future.
Perhaps one of the most memorable works from the exhibit is Attia’s Ghost, which fills the entirety of one room and depicts over 200 shrouded women in prayer. The installation itself gives the work its presence, as you enter the narrow room the shimmering figures have their backs to the viewer. They are seen as individuals, but also as one. As you walk by one contemplates the fragility of this throw-away material; the vulnerability of each figure. Only as you reach the other end of the space do you realize that there are no faces, only a shell exists. The work raises many questions surrounding the individual and community aspects of faith and ritual, while also highlighting the fragility of human existence.
For a complete list of artists featured and gallery information check out the Saatchi’s website. The show runs until May 9th.