Back in 2003, Robert Fisk, the Independent’s Middle Eastern correspondent, recalled one of his first encounters with the late Palestinian intellectual, Edward Said some thirty years previous. During this meeting, Fisk noted how his attitude towards Said was reverent, though somewhat two-dimensional:
“You’ve read my books, Robert – but I bet you haven’t read my work on music,” was how Said chose to tease the Westerner with good intentions, who had overlooked the fact that there was more to this man than simply Middle Eastern politics.
This slight ignorance remains ubiquitous in terms of how the West perceives the East; its inhabitants are victims, fanatics, dictators, but seldom artists, or intellects beyond matters of war. As The Economist said in their review for the stunning Here and Elsewhere exhibition that has occupied the New Museum in New York’s Bowery district over the summer: “Ask most American museum-goers, even avid ones, to name a prominent artist from the Arab world, and they will probably draw a blank.”
Indeed, prior to my attending of the exhibition, I too must admit that I would pause if confronted with the same question. Yet this should be not the case, for the very reason that recognising the creativity and honest expression of a person ought to transcend newspaper statistics, or photographs of tragedy. There is more to the Arabic states than war.
At the same time, even the concept of defining such a vast swathe of people is what the exhibit confronts by displaying 48 Arabic artists, with the sole cohesion being art. One initially walks in hoping to get an understanding of Arabic art. Instead, they find themselves lost in a collage of relatable diversity; satirical music videos of Western pop singers making Saddam Hussein speeches into songs, apolitical dream paintings, Pop Art installations, myriad styles that break down the barriers of certainty.
It is a darkly humorous jab at our attempts to formulate digestible definitions. The prime example of this is Lamia Joreige, whose ‘Objects of War No 1-4’ is comprised of dozens of interviews with people caught in the midst of 2006’s Hezbolla-Israeli conflict and the fifteen year Lebanese Civil War. Each person recounts their own story by discussing personal items that reflect a specific moment from the time, be they flashlights, passports, teddy bears, radios. Each is put on display to remind the viewer that this was a tangible experience for someone.
Yet there is not a singular narrative to these stories. When there is, then, it almost goes without saying that the word America tends to rear its head, such as in Rana Hamadeh’s ‘The Big Board’. This installation recreates the Green table from Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, playing an audio of the “World Targets in Megadeaths” speech, while displaying a basic outline of how resistance, in particular the Arab Spring, is boiled down for easy consumption. Her reworking of Kubrick’s Cold War classic into a contemporary setting looks at collateral damage in alien nations and the danger of creating a wall between societies. These ideas go as far as to relate to American societal divisions in terms of how universal this issue has become: Etel Adnan’s ‘The Arab Apocalypse’ poem evokes this problem by turning warfare into a surreal and interplanetary concept that shares a vein with racial inequality in the States. Consisting of some eighty pages, framed around an entire room, his work echoes that of the African-American poet Gil Scot Heron, who wrote: “A rat done bit my sister Nell, with Whitey on the moon”, while Adnan declared: “The Arabs are under the ground./ The Americans are on the moon.”
For an American audience in the face of the media storm regarding the present Middle Eastern crisis, the message is vital in its sheer humanity. The only shame is that it is unlikely to be a touring exhibit. However, if any interest is piqued herein, then I can assure you that the participating artists are not as difficult to search out, in spite of their apparent obscurity.
With equal parts tragic realism and subversive wit, Here and Elsewhere is a necessary reminder of the world’s virtues and diversity. It stands as a powerful call for global solidarity manifest through the art of faraway lands, with familiar mentalities, where misfortune is not defining of personalities, but rather a situation endured to express oneself. Imperialism may wage war and erect nonsensical walls that encourage an Us versus Them mind-set, but this exhibition shouts what ought to be an absolute given, which is that, as Shuya Nanahara exclaimed in Kinji Fukasaku’s anti-Western satire, Battle Royale 2, “our world is so much more complex than that”.