The world’s largest collection of modern and contemporary Arab art, visits Spain for the first time. Looking at the World Around You: Contemporary Works from Qatar Museums is the title of the exhibition that will be held from 9 February to 19 June 2016 at the Santander Art Gallery in Boadilla del Monte, Madrid. The exhibition portrays the Arab world from an artistic and human perspective, inviting us to observe and reflect on our surroundings.
The majority of the works in Looking at the World Around You: Contemporary Works from Qatar Museums were loaned by Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha, although there are also a number of pieces from other Qatar Museums collections. This selection, more than 160 works in total, represents the history of contemporary Arab art as seen through the eyes of 34 artists, most of whom are natives of Arab nations like Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Algeria, Iraq, Kuwait and, of course, Qatar. However, the exhibition also includes works by foreign-born creators whose art is related to the Arab world, such as Yan Pen Ming and Cai Guo-Qiang from China and the Belgian master René Magritte.
How we look at the world around us is the central idea that guided the curator, Abdellah Karroum, in the process of choosing and interrelating the portraits, photographs, sculptures, installations and video installations that comprise this show. Looking at the World Around You: Contemporary Works from Qatar Museums is an open window onto diverse geographical regions and myriad socio-political realities, from North Africa to Southeast Asia. Relevant themes such as historical narrative, memory and identity are addressed in works brimming with subtlety, beauty and strength that portray the past and present of the artists who imagined and breathed life into them.
The exhibition explores the connection between art and history through multiple works, from René Magritte’s vision of the Orient in Shéhérazade to the reflections of today’s most dynamic, engaged Arab artists—Mona Hatoum, Amal Kenawy, Manal AlDowayan and others—on the problems and changes affecting the Arab world.
Here we find artists whose works bear witness to history at the moment of its unfolding. Curator Abdellah Karroum explains, “When Inji Efflatoun painted her self-portrait in prison or her fellow citizens in the countryside in Egypt, she was also portraying a society at a moment of historical changes that shape and reshape individual lives. Similarly, Ismail Fattah’s dark portraits reflect burning lives, while Hassan bin Mohammed bin Ali Al Thani’s work speaks of wars and […] destruction.” The show is, in the curator’s words, “an invitation to look again and see anew; an invitation, in other words, to rethink the alignment of histories and how to make sense of the world today”.
Featured artists include Etel Adnan, Mona Hatoum, Hassan Sharif, Faraj Daham, Shirin Neshat, Wael Shawky, Youssef Nabil and Ghada Amer. Other highlights include: Visitors are greeted by Manal AlDowayan’s installation Suspended Together, which at first seems to float like a beautiful mirage, with dozens of doves soaring freely above the spectators’ heads. However, on approaching the work it becomes apparent that the birds are not actually free but symbols of the dire situation of Saudi women, who need permission from a male guardian in order to leave the country. This poetic criticism is our introduction to Looking at the World Around You: Contemporary Works from Qatar Museums, sending us off on a voyage to discover the universes of the artists featured in the show.
The first stop on our journey through this world of kaleidoscopic diversity is the forty-four portraits that comprise Spring Winter Summer Fall: Modernity Identity by Franco-Chinese painter Yan Pei-Ming. Arab politicians, intellectuals, artists and musicians are depicted by Yan, inviting us to scrutinise the faces of those with the power to influence the Arab community. Opposite this work we find the series Icons of the Nile, in which Egyptian artist Chant Avedissian adapts the language of advertising billboards to depict public and anonymous figures from his country that reflect social changes.
After this initial section devoted to portraiture, we step into an area devoted to the great Arab women painters who were pioneers of art in their countries. Three socially and politically engaged women—Etel Adnan from Lebanon, a living legend of Arab art; Baya Mahieddine, an Algerian artist who at age sixteen was hailed by André Breton as a Surrealist painter; and Inji Efflatoun from Egypt—created artworks that reflect everyday scenes in the social life of their respective countries. Another remarkable woman creator is Saloua Raouda Choucair, a pioneer of abstract art in Lebanon who, in sculptures like Poem of Three Verses, deconstructs poems by focusing solely on the structural format of the poetic text rather than its spiritual meaning.
Next, the exhibition plunges us into the original installation Undercurrent by one of the most visible artists from the Arab world, Mona Hatoum. Born to a Palestinian family living in Beirut, she developed her work primarily in London, the city to which she was exiled in 1975. Hatoum’s creations confront viewers with uncanny, conflicting, destabilising emotions.
The show also features a group of Arab artists immersed in technical experimentation and material innovation, individuals who studied in Europe and combined cutting-edge methods with elements typical of their own culture and local materials. Prime examples include Farid Belkahia, who uses traditional Moroccan dyes and henna in his work Trance; the Egyptian Adam Henein, who employed Egyptian motifs while embracing the influence of 20th-century European art movements; and Qatari artist Faraj Daham, whose paintings reflect the rapid changes in Qatar’s society caused by the oil industry and incorporate materials derived from petroleum.
Within this group of experimental artists, several stand out for their use of calligraphy as a form of artistic expression, such as the Tunisian Nja Mahdaoui, a self-described “explorer of signs” and “choreographer of letter”, and Qatar’s own Yousef Ahmad, whose experimentation with Arabic script is evident in The Birth of Innovation.
Leaving the expressive power of Arabic letters behind, we come across the film Cabaret Crusades: The Secrets of Karbala by Wael Shawky. This video, the third and last of the Cabaret Crusades trilogy, reflects on art’s capacity to offer different interpretations of history when the Crusades are told from an Arab perspective, drawing on sources that range from official historians to the writer Amin Maalouf. In the next section, the Crusades give way to the most recent history of the Arab world, marked by political instability, uprisings and wars. In Our House Is on Fire, Shirin Neshat captures contemporary Egypt in photographs that analyse the recent revolution, highlighting the contradictions inherent to processes in which violence and death are tools wielded in the name of justice, love and freedom.
Coming on the heels of Neshat’s gripping portrayal of the Arab Spring, Mona Hatoum confuses us once again with Misbah (Lantern), transforming a familiar, dreamy room into an uninhabitable space where danger is suggested by the shapes of soldiers reflected on the walls. She is followed by Amal Kenawy, another Egyptian woman artist, whose work The Silent Multitudes bear witness to the situation of her country prior to the Arab Spring. The more than one hundred liquid gas tanks in this piece evoke throngs of enraged citizens on the verge of revolt.
The show’s final section focuses on the work of Qatari and foreign artists who have developed close ties to Mathaf through residencies, exhibitions or commissions. This is the case, for instance, of Cai Guo-Qiang, whose Ninety-Nine Horses—an eighteen-metre-long piece, on display for the first time since it was commissioned—links the Chinese and Arab worlds by using symbols common to both cultures.
The exhibition also includes exiled artists like Dia Azzawi and Ismail Fattah, who were forced to flee their Iraqi homeland and seek asylum in Qatar. Nourished by the history of Iraq, Azzawi’s work is an artistic response to the ability of human beings to build civilisation and their power to destroy it. In Majnun Layla (Temptation), Azzawi creates a portrait of the madness, possession and sense of helplessness that mimic what people experience when forced to leave their homeland or witness its destruction. Ismail Fattah, on the other hand, made the human condition the core of his practice. His characters, rendered in dark colours, reflect the hopeless situation in Iraq.
Another artist in exile is Sami Mohammad, a pioneer of Kuwaiti sculpture. During the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, he fled to Doha and many of his works were destroyed. Attempt to Escape 3 is a political and social critique in which a male figures struggles to flee in vain, a provocative reference to the political blindness of many power systems in the Arab world.
Looking at the World Around You: Contemporary Works from Qatar Museums is the title of the exhibition that will be held from 9 February to 19 June 2016 at the Santander Art Gallery in Boadilla del Monte, Madrid