For the last fifteen years, Massimiliano Gioni has enthusiastically observed the increased presence of the work of artists of Arabic origin at various biennials and international exhibitions. “And I started getting worried and suspicious,” says the Associate Director and Director of Programming of the New Museum, “because many of these great artists—who we would see everywhere else—were not being shown in New York.”
Here and Elsewhere (opening today at the museum) is his emphatic response to this oversight: an exhibition comprising 45 artists and collectives from over 15 different countries, spanning a geographic area from North Africa to the Gulf. It is, says Gioni, the largest show in the museum’s history—and, astonishingly, New York’s first museum-wide show of contemporary art from and about the Arab world.
The exhibition, Gioni admits, “was born out of what Carlo Ginzburg called ‘the euphoria of ignorance,’ which is the feeling of encountering a vast field of knowledge about which we know nothing, except that we understand we should know more.” Certainly, for the average American, images of the Arab world are primarily made or recorded by outsiders: voyeuristic snapshots of a region too often ripped apart by conflict. Here and Elsewhere could not have come soon enough.
The title itself is lifted from a made by Jean-Luc Godard in collaboration with Jean-Pierre Gorin and Anne-Marie Mieville, which began as a documentary about the Palestinian conflict. After six years in production, both the political situation and Godard’s personal ideas about cinema had changed irrevocably. “So it really went from being a realistic film to becoming a complex reflection on the status of images as tools of political consciousness itself,” explains Gioni. The exhibition, too, is dedicated to exploring political consciousness, the artist’s role in historical production, and the nature of image-making itself.
To Gioni, Here and Elsewhere, “stresses the multiplicity of views and geographies that we wanted to put at the core of this exhibition. We wanted to suggest that this show doesn’t propose a unified fictional stylistic image of Arab contemporary art. In fact, we ask ourselves if there is such a thing as Arab contemporary art…We wanted to stress that many of these artists are active internationally, and we didn’t want to fetishize their provenance or their origins in some kind of neo-Orientalist practice.”
If this all sounds like it’s veering too close towards Post-Colonial Studies 101 for your liking, then rest assured—this is far from textbook art. The exhibition is a many-layered, thought-provoking collection of works from a great many talented and contemplative artists. Few of those featured utilize “traditional” art practices. This is (explicitly) not exotica. Instead, the artists are engaged in interrogating, deconstructing and revising mainstream historical narratives in dramatic and visually arresting ways.
“What perhaps many of these artists share is that they are speaking in the first person singular…‘I’ve seen this, and you should see it to’,” says Gioni. “It’s not a happy show, I want to warn you—but unfortunately they are not really happy times. So the two things maybe go hand in hand.”
Here and Elsewhere may not be happy, but it is counter-intuitively beautiful: a kaleidoscope of different aesthetics, media, viewpoints; a remarkably rich cache of diverse works that manage to be politically engaged, aesthetically compelling and conceptually complex, without ever stumbling into pretension or opaqueness.
Different worlds jostle together: the matchbox miniatures of Mohamed Larbi Rahali (Morocco) next to the immigration-focused projections of Bouchra Khalili (Morocco/Berlin); the exquisite watercolor landscapes of Abdullah Al Saadi (UAE) juxtaposed with his compatriot Hassan Sharif’s chaotic, found-object bundles; Marwan Rechmaoui’s eerie model Beirut apartment looming over Fouad Elkoury’s photographs of everyday life in ’80s Lebanon; a multitude of video installations filmed from Mecca to Damascus. Taken together, these works present a fascinating portrait of a heterogeneous, dynamic region heretofore woefully under-represented in New York’s art world.
Here and Elsewhere is on view at New Museum (235 Bowery), July 16 through September 28. Admission $16. But why not take a public tour during the New Museum’s upcoming block party (Saturday, July 19), and get in FREE.
Click through the slideshow below to see highlights from the exhibition.