The Arab Spring may not be all it’s cracked up to be. There are clearly problems with a large swath of nations, formerly under various forms of authoritarian regimes, switching relatively quickly to “democracy,” at least as it is understood in the West.
But political prognosis aside, the events of the past 18 months have at least drawn more attention to the Arab world, a part of the planet that, like Japan, is often prey to myths, cliches and stereotypes.
It is timely, therefore, that the Mori Art Museum’s latest foray into familiarizing the public in Japan with lesser-known aspects of contemporary art focuses on the Arab World. “Arab Express: The Latest Art From the Arab World” is a major exhibition that was planned before the Arab Spring started and brings together works by 34 mainly young Arab artists and artist groups.
“We called it ‘Arab Express’ for two reasons,” the museum’s director, Fumio Nanjo, who is also one of the show’s two curators, explains. “First it suggests a newspaper or magazine — a journalistic point of view — because we’re trying to report the most up-to-date situation of Arabic art. Secondly, it sounds like the Orient Express, a train that is rapidly carrying the lives of people to different places.”
While Nanjo has a long-standing interest in the Arab world that dates from trips to the region in the 1970s for The Japan Foundation, he admits that Japanese art audiences are notorious for only being interested in certain cultures and countries and having blind spots about others.
“It’s a big problem,” Nanjo says of such selective indifference. “They should have more curiosity about those societies they don’t know well.”
One of the missions of the Mori is to widen the knowledge and awareness of neglected areas, with major exhibitions in the past looking at less fashionable areas of art such as India and Africa. Added impetus to focus on contemporary Arab art also comes from the boost that the local art infrastructure has received from the oil-rich Gulf States. Several high-profile museums, such as Doha’s Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art and satellite branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums in Abu Dhabi, have already opened or plan to open there.
Normally, presenting an exhibition of Arab art in Japan would be an uphill struggle, but because of the Arab Spring, Nanjo is optimistic of a more positive response, although he admits that it could also act as a distraction.
“It’s both bad and good,” he says. “Firstly, we have to get the audience. There’s a risk that many Japanese are very ignorant about this kind of exhibition because it’s just Arab art, but if they become curious because of the Arab Spring they might come.”
The exhibition is divided into three sections. While the first focuses on the environment and everyday reality, and the third deals with memories and also looks to the future, the middle section tries to tackle the thorny problem of stereotypes. One of the artists featured here is Maha Maamoun, a photographic and video artist working in Cairo, who is interested in how photographs and movies gain false and arbitrary interpretations as they spread through society.
Her video installation, “Domestic Tourism II” (2008), edits together snippets from Egyptian movies made since the 1950s that show the Great Pyramids. The artist’s intent is to present the iconic monuments as a mere backdrop to everyday, modern life, rather than as the tourist trap cliches they have become. The effect, however, is reminiscent of Katsushika Hokusai’s “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji.” The appearance of the pyramids serves to typecast all the scenes as ineffably Egyptian in the same way that Hokusai’s prints are made unmistakably Japanese by the looming form of Fuji.
Cliches, to a certain extent, also blow up in the face of Palestinian multimedia artist Sharif Waked. His video work “To Be Continued” (2009) plays with the now familiar imagery of the presuicide bombing attack video, with an actor dressed in paramilitary fatigues in front of what looks like the flag of some Islamic guerilla/terrorist organization.
However, instead of reciting some message from the Quran to inspire him on his final kamikaze mission, he is actually reading an extract from the Islamic classic “One Thousand and One Nights.” The irony — and it is a subtle one that can easily be missed — is that Scheherazade, the narrator of the stories that make up “One Thousand and One Nights,” tells the stories in order to stay alive. This implies that the apparent suicide bomber in Waked’s video installation actually wants to live, but this gentle twist will hardly suffice to deconstruct the notion of “Arab = Terrorist,” which the video’s dominant image reinforces. Nanjo, nevertheless believes that attempting to tackle such stereotypes is worth it.
“I think artists living there cannot avoid some of the typical symbols and icons to use in their art,” he responds. “The question is how they’re used. I think it’s a stereotype if it’s used for promoting the typical image of the county or region for commercial reasons and without a critical point of view. But if they use those symbols with a critical or cynical point of view, or make fun of them, then it’s not a stereotypical use of the symbols.”
In addition to stereotypes, another element that can’t be avoided is politics. Although there are several exhibits at this show that are not particularly political, such as Osama Esid’s somewhat kitschy photos of Cairo street workers or Jananne Al-Ani’s aerial photography revealing the hidden patterns in desert landscapes, a great deal of contemporary Arab art is intensely political, even when it doesn’t need to be.
Photographic artist Rula Halawani’s photo series “Intimacy” (2004) is a series of photos taken at the Kalandia checkpoint between Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories. Halawani cuts out the faces and focuses on the hands and other details of her subjects as they interact with each other. The main artistic interest stems from the sense of body language and common humanity we get from this approach, but the fact that she chose a military checkpoint instead of, say, a market place, gives these works an immediate political slant, even though there is practically no hint of oppression revealed by the photos. A project that could so easily have been apolitical has thus been mobilized in the greater Palestinian cause.
A similar point could be made about Lebanese video and photographic artist Akram Zaatari’s “Saida, June 6, 1982″ (2006-09). This is a group of photographs taken from the balcony of his home on the first day of Israel’s invasion of southern Lebanon in 1982, when the photographer was only 16.
Although it would be unnatural to ignore aspects of experience like this, the problem it creates artistically is one of imbalance between artistic and reportage elements, with the beauty of Zaatari’s photography obscured by the significance of the subject matter. In works like this we see why Nanjo opted for the journalistic resonance of “Arab Express” as the show’s title.
“Even if it looks political it’s a work that tells us about the reality of people’s lives. When we came to choose the works, that was our criterion,” he explains, referring to the selection process he and curatorial partner Kenichi Kondo adopted. “Zaatari’s work is not just a record of the bombing. It is a combined image with six or seven photos. What he told me was that he was very young and he was learning from his father how to take photos. Then the bombing started, so he was shocked and took some photos of it. Then, 20 years later, he combined the shots into one image. This is of course about the war and the conflict, but also it is a nostalgic piece about the memories he carries from his youth when he became more conscious of the society and the environment around him. It’s not just a political message. It’s also his life.”
One of Nanjo’s messages is that political art is what it is, and, as long as it serves to illuminate reality, it’s nothing to be afraid of, especially for Japanese audiences who have a reputation for seeing art in more frivolous or esoteric terms.
“I think Japanese audiences should learn more about contemporary art that is politically charged and has strong messages, but, at the same time, when we started making this exhibition we thought it could be more political but actually it was less than we expected. Yes, it’s political, but it’s not specifically about war, conflict or brutality. Most of the images are from the daily life of those involved.”
This is an exhibition that often confounds the compartmentalization of art and news, but there are still clear divisions between the two as Nanjo reminds us.
“After Sept. 11 some people said that that was the biggest performance art,” he mentions, referring to the simultaneous terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center in New York City in 2001. “If you want to say that you can say so, but most people don’t see it quite in those terms.”
“Arab Express: The Latest Art From the Arab World” runs at Mori Art Museum until Oct. 28 (10 a.m. to 10 p.m., to 5 p.m. on Tuesdays; ¥1,500 for adults [¥1,200 in advance] with discounts for students and children). For more information, call (03) 5777-8600 or visit www.mori.art.museum/contents/arab_express/index.html.