Milan, Italy – “This show is about Syria although Syria is never mentioned,” says Sara Raza, as she explains a conceptual strand in the art exhibition she curated – But A Storm is Blowing From Paradise.
“There are many elements of discourse that are not visible to the naked eye and there is nothing figurative in this exhibition, so a lot of the visitor’s experience relies on imagination.”
Six years ago, the Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation set out to expand their collection beyond the heavily Western-centric bias.
They focused on three geographic areas, including the Middle East and North Africa and thanks largely to the work of one curator, Middle Eastern art is now being seen and decontextualised by wider audiences.
“Interwoven with questions around the Middle East and North Africa’s colonial histories, [But A Storm is Blowing From Paradise] investigates themes such as movement, migration, architecture, and the process of uncovering hidden ideas or ‘conceptual contraband’,” according to the foundation.
The exhibition, the final instalment of the initiative, is, says Raza, about a “philosophical need to re-examine notions of truth in an age of uncertainty and ignorance”.
Raza is a scholar in Middle Eastern, North African and Central Asian art and bases much of her research in the Golden Age of Islamic scholarship, between the 7th and 13th centuries.
“I am interested in indigenous Islamic scholars and how they were trying to assess truth by rebuilding the modern sciences that had been destroyed during the Crusades,” she says.
“I was also interested in how these were adapted later on during times of crisis – particularly during the prewar period in 20th century Europe when fascism was on the rise. Contemporary philosophers then were arguing that we would need to revert back to the idea of origins and explore a purer notion of truth. And today, these voices are ever more pertinent.”
Rather than tackle the thorny issues of social and political unrest that blight the region head on, Raza’s curation takes a subtle and nuanced perspective and includes artists who rely on fiction, myth or symbology to encourage wider discussion.
In the primary room of the exhibition, which opened in April at Galleria d’Arte Moderna in Milan under the Italian translated title of Una Tempesta Del Paradiso, the wall is covered with an artwork by Lebanese artists Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige.
It consists of bound sections of several notebooks of which the content cannot be seen.
The accompanying video shows that the pages are filled with notes made by a fictitious photographer named Abdallah Farah, whom the artists imagine has been recording the changing cultural and political landscape of Beirut. However, the book does not contain images, only meticulously written descriptions of images.
It is an example of latency or presenting something that exists but simultaneously remains concealed.
“This work uses fictional history to speak about other complexities and to explore something that is hidden,” explains Raza. “It is a really important part of this exhibition.”
Other pressing humanitarian concerns are also raised with carefully selected artworks.
Abbas Akhavan’s Study for a Monument consists of bronze casts of plants native to the Tigris and Euphrates river systems that were destroyed during the contemporary Iraq war.
Presented on white sheets and laid on the floor, it is no coincidence that they resemble corpses and bring to mind the countless victims of war.
In another room, Lida Abdul’s video work, In Transit, shows footage of children playing in the wreckage of a bombed out Soviet warplane on the outskirts of Kabul. Here, the Afghanistan conflict is used as a metaphor for all the other wars raging on and poignantly brings the optimism of children into scrutiny.
When I began, I encountered many assumptions and sweeping stereotypes and I believe one of the great successes of the programme has been to start again with thematic presentations and create an ideas-driven narrative.
This is picked up later on in the exhibition by Turkish artist Gulsun Karamustafa, whose 1997 work is an arrangement of 30 child-size cotton shirts sewn shut with black thread. The work is meant to memorialise the plight of immigrant children in Turkey and their uncertain futures. Although more than 20 years old, the sentiment is still relevant today.
There are 13 artworks in the exhibition, which was first shown with 18 artists at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in April 2016. It comprises the third chapter in the initiative between the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and UBS, a leading Swiss investment bank.
The Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative began in 2012 to expand the Western-centric collection of the powerhouse art institution, by hiring three curators to help identify artists in three distinct geographies: South and Southeast Asia; Latin America; and the Middle East and North Africa.
The Guggenheim has bought 126 works of art from 88 artists in 37 countries across these regions.
At the grand opening of the final exhibition of the series in Milan, Richard Armstrong, the director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, declared it an overwhelming success that helped the institution gain perspective.
Raza says she chose artworks that allowed viewers to consider theoretical and philosophical readings of the region, and move away from prosaic stereotypes.
“The whole UBS MAP initiative has shifted the way American curators look at the region,” she says. “When I began, I encountered many assumptions and sweeping stereotypes and I believe one of the great successes of the programme has been to start again with thematic presentations and create an ideas-driven narrative.”
It was important to make the show globally and trans-culturally relevant by looking back to the Middle East’s historical roots to logic and the thinking sciences such as mathematics, geometry.
“That is not to say it is nostalgic,” says Raza. “I chose artists whose outlook is very much contemporary.”
Couscous and cultural claims
The exhibition’s title is borrowed from the work of Rokni Haerizadeh, an Iranian artist who painted over printed stills of television news broadcasts and YouTube videos to question ideas of authenticity and storytelling.
The multiple layers of the exhibition are perhaps summarised in one of the most visually striking works: Kader Attia’s couscous city. Laid out in small square and circular domed blocks that cluster towards the central terrain occupied by a taller tower, the scale model of the ancient city Ghardaia in the M’zab Valley in Algeria is constructed of cooked couscous.
Fragile and compelling, the sculpture is accompanied by two portraits of Western modernist architects (Le Corbusier and Fernand Pouillon) whose presence opens up the artistic debate. Attia is a prominent French-Algerian artist who is calling attention to the fact that both designers borrowed from architecture native to the M’zab region without acknowledging their inspiration, which was itself derived from France’s nineteenth century colonisation of Algeria.
By using couscous, a Middle Eastern culinary staple, Attia is nodding to the precarious nature of cultural claims while at the same time making a stake for his own.
While each work stands strongly alone, together, the narrative moves beyond assumption and offers an intelligent take on not only the Middle East and North Africa region but the current global crisis as a whole.