Con­flict, ex­ile, up­ris­ing Arab art from the mod­ern to the con­tem­po­rary

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO -

he Bat­tle of Kar­bala was fought in the year AD 680 in what is now present-day Iraq. The in­ci­dent came about after Husayn ibn Ali, a grand­son of the prophet Muham­mad, re­fused to swear al­le­giance to the caliph Yazid I. Husayn, along with his fam­ily and sup­port­ers, were am­bushed near the Euphrates by Yazid’s mil­i­tary. Those sup­port­ers who weren’t killed were im­pris­oned, but most — in­clud­ing Husayn, who was be­headed — were slaugh­tered, tram­pled un­der the hooves of the soldiers’ horses. The vic­tims have since been con­sid­ered mar­tyrs among many Sunni and Shia Mus­lims, their sac­ri­fice com­mem­o­rated by re­li­gious ob­ser­vances as well as in his­to­ries, lit­er­a­ture, and art.

More than a mil­len­nium on, artist Kad­him Hay­der (1932-1985) ref­er­enced the Bat­tle of Kar­bala in his 1965 paint­ing Fa­tigued Ten Horses Con­verse With Noth­ing, also called The Mar­tyr’s Epic, a work that ques­tions mar­tyr­dom’s value and de­spairs at the lack of an­swers to those ques­tions. The Mar­tyr’s Epic is now among many other trea­sures in the col­lec­tion of the Bar­jeel Art Foun­da­tion, a mu­seum es­tab­lished in 2010 in the United Arab Emi­rates to house the art col­lec­tion of Sul­tan Sooud Al-Qassemi. The col­lec­tion’s fo­cus is on mod­ern and con­tem­po­rary Arab art. In 2015, Lon­don’s Whitechapel Gallery hosted a four-part ex­hi­bi­tion based around the Bar­jeel col­lec­tion and pub­lished an ac­com­pa­ny­ing cat­a­log, Im­per­fect Chronol­ogy: Arab Art From the Mod­ern to the Con­tem­po­rary. The cat­a­log is an overview that places the art move­ments of the Mid­dle East within the con­text of chang­ing tra­di­tions, war, di­as­po­ras, and po­lit­i­cal up­heavals. The in­tro­duc­tion by Whitechapel di­rec­tor Iwona Blazwick states that a bar­jeel is an an­cient type of cool­ing tower com­mon to the Mid­dle East. The name means “wind-catcher,” and as she writes, “It seems a par­tic­u­larly ap­po­site de­scrip­tion for a col­lec­tion of art that spans a seis­mic cen­tury of cul­tural ex­pres­sion.”

The horses in The Mar­tyr’s Epic cry out as though in sor­row, un­der a dark sky and a blood-red sun. The paint­ing has an an­tecedent in Pablo Pi­casso’s Guer­nica. Like Pi­casso’s paint­ing, which was made in re­sponse to the bomb­ing of the Span­ish vil­lage by Nazis dur­ing World War II, the lack of ref­er­ence in The Mar­tyr’s Epic to spe­cific events be­yond the Bat­tle of Kar­bala makes it a time­less sym­bol of op­pres­sion, sug­gest­ing that the lessons of the past have yet to be learned. Ac­cord­ing to Omar Kholeif, former cu­ra­tor at Whitechapel Gallery, white horses of­ten rep­re­sent mar­tyrs in Is­lamic cul­ture.

Hay­der painted his work dur­ing the First IraqiKur­dish War, in which gov­ern­ment forces fought against Kurds seek­ing au­ton­omy, tar­geted Kur­dish peo­ple in me­dia cam­paigns, and bombed Kur­dish vil­lages, some­times en­tirely in­cin­er­at­ing them with na­palm. At the time he painted it, Hay­der was chair of the vis­ual arts depart­ment in Bagh­dad’s In­sti­tute of Fine Arts. At mid­cen­tury, the Arab world was chang­ing as it gained more and more in­de­pen­dence from Euro­pean pow­ers. Kuwait held its first-ever pan-Arab art ex­hi­bi­tion in 1959, two years be­fore gain­ing in­de­pen­dence from the Bri­tish Pro­tec­torate in 1961, and Al­ge­ria, in turn, gained its in­de­pen­dence from France the fol­low­ing year. That same year, 1962, a na­tional mu­seum of mod­ern art opened in Bagh­dad.

Although the Bar­jeel Art Foun­da­tion col­lec­tion is iden­ti­fied as Arab art, the term “Arab” is a broad one, com­pris­ing peo­ples of nu­mer­ous na­tions, in­clud­ing Al­ge­ria, Iraq, Saudi Ara­bia, Egypt, Syria, Le­banon, and Su­dan, among oth­ers. Blazwick cites ed­i­tor S.M. Nashashibi’s Forces of Change: Artists of the Arab World, which makes the point that the re­gion is a com­plex mix of cul­tures and be­liefs: “The Arab world is a ‘world’ not a na­tion.” Rather than tell the story of Arab art through a lens of eth­nic and re­gional iden­tity, the cat­a­log and ex­hi­bi­tion series at Whitechapel es­tab­lish cor­re­spon­dences be­tween lost or for­got­ten his­to­ries, made by artists who lived through the changes to their na­tions’ so­cial and po­lit­i­cal ide­olo­gies, and the present. “The Arab world is a re­gion in flux,” writes Sul­tan Sooud Al Qassemi in his es­say “The Arab World: A Sum of its Parts.” “It has seen its bor­ders re­drawn ev­ery few years, from the times of the Sykes-Pi­cot agree­ment in 1916 to the 2014 ISIS takeover of parts of Iraq and Syria. As bor­ders shift, so do na­tional iden­ti­ties.”

The book’s plates are ar­ranged into four sec­tions, fol­low­ing the chronol­ogy of the ex­hi­bi­tion: De­bat­ing Mod­ernism I and II, and Map­ping the Con­tem­po­rary I and II. Kholeif, in his ac­com­pa­ny­ing es­say “Trac­ing Routes: De­bat­ing Mod­ernism, Map­ping the Con­tem­po­rary,” states that the ini­tial chap­ter of the ex­hi­bi­tion at­tempts “to map a mod­ern con­di­tion ... that ex­ists out­side the con­fines of Western En­light­en­ment thought, while also con­sid­er­ing the be­lief that an Arab Nahda or re­nais­sance ex­ists.” He con­sid­ers the mod­ernist aes­thet­ics in Arab art from a for­ma­tive per­spec­tive, es­chew­ing the Western con­fla­tion of mod­ernism and progress, and high­lights in­stances where an Arab aes­thetic emerges in 20th­cen­tury art, some of which he as­cribes to the rise of na­tion­al­ism and pan-Ara­bism in the first part of the cen­tury. This point is fur­ther stressed in Univer­sity of North Texas art his­tory pro­fes­sor Nada Shabout’s es­say “Col­lect­ing Mod­ern Iraqi Art,” where she writes, “Se­ri­ous art was ex­pected as part of the po­lit­i­cal strug­gle to build new in­de­pen­dent Arab na­tions.”

Among the ear­li­est works de­scribed in Im­per­fect Chronol­ogy are un­dated draw­ings by Kahlil Gi­bran (1883-1931), which were prob­a­bly made around the time he pub­lished his well-known work of prose po­etry The Prophet (1923). They are paired in the ex­hibit with Ar­me­nian artist Er­vand Demird­jian’s un­dated por­trait Nu­bian Girl, which bears the in­flu­ence of Euro­pean fig­u­ra­tive paint­ing tra­di­tions and was also likely made early in the cen­tury. Demird­jian (1870-1938) stud­ied art in Con­stantino­ple and at the Academie Ju­lian in Paris, where he took a po­si­tion at the Lou­vre, study­ing and copy­ing mas­ter­works from the col­lec­tion. He would later be­come part of a di­as­pora, one of thou­sands of refugees who fled late 19th-cen­tury Turk­ish per­se­cu­tion in Ar­me­nia

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