Restless Arab region presents curatorial challenge

by Edan Corkill

Staff Writer

In mid-February, Mori Art Museum Associate Curator Kenichi Kondo noticed an article on the Nafas website, which specializes in art news from the Middle East. Egyptian media artist Ahmed Basiony, it said, had gone to Tahrir Square in Cairo to join the protests against president Hosni Mubarak. He had been shot and killed.

“We had met Basiony in December,” Kondo said. “We didn’t know of him before we got to Cairo, but we were introduced by another artist and he came to show us his portfolio.”

Kondo had gone to Cairo with the director of Mori Art Museum, Fumio Nanjo, to conduct research for an exhibition of art from the Arab world that will be held at their museum from June through October next year. He explained that Basiony created media-enhanced performance works, such as one in which he wore a large, sealed plastic suit and ran on the spot with an accompanying video that was generated automatically from the pace of his heart rate.

“Basiony’s work wasn’t particularly political, but still he went to Tahrir Square,” Kondo said.

Curating an exhibition of artwork from a particular region is never easy, but the Mori’s attempt to create a show of Arab art — a project that began in summer last year, long before the emergence of the Arab Spring — presented a unique set of challenges. Kondo, who recently returned from his fourth research trip to the Middle East, agreed to explain them to me.

The first issue lay in the deceptively tricky task of defining the region.

“If you imagine Tokyo, Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur, well that’s how different Sharjah, Beirut and Cairo are over there,” he said.

After much debate, Kondo and Nanjo — with whom he is co-curating the show — decided to focus on the “Arab world.” That way, Kondo said, you could narrow the focus to the countries of the Arabian Peninsula and the Arab Levant (Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories) and also justify including Egypt, which, Kondo said, “was for a long time the capital of the Arab cultures.”

The predominantly Arabian Maghreb countries (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Mauritania), would not be included as they were featured prominently in an exhibition on African contemporary art held at the Mori in 2006.

Still, even this delineation has caused its share of problems. During his research trips to the region, Kondo has met many artists. Many of them ask why it is necessary to group the artists of the region at all.

“It’s the same as the way Japanese artists ask why they have to be included in shows of ‘Asian’ contemporary art or ‘Japanese’ contemporary art,” Kondo explained.

Very few artists see themselves as “representing” their region or their people — making art is a very personal endeavor — and so this question is difficult to answer, except through appeals to pragmatism.

“I tell the artists, honestly, that the Japanese public has very little access to information about the Arab world. They know about the existence of the region, but don’t know about its composition. In order to grab their interest, you need to start with what they know,” Kondo said.

In the past, the Mori has produced exhibitions of work from Africa, China and India. The idea, Kondo explained, is that in the first exhibition you introduce a region, in the next you might look at a trend or movement in that region, and then you can start getting into solo shows.

“If you were to jump straight to solo shows then the public wouldn’t come to see it,” he said.

Overcoming a lack of specialist regional knowledge is another problem that plagues curators like Kondo, who need to present overviews of a region.

When asked how he prepared to do his own research, Kondo answered with a suspicious smile: “You want me to say I read ‘The Middle East for Dummies’?” he said.

“Of course, I studied the history and politics of the region, but it is equally important to use existing networks of specialists there,” he continued.

Nanjo once worked with the Japan Foundation, and so he first visited the region in the late 1970s. Also, Kondo explained, they have been in contact with prominent gallery operators and curators in the region, including Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, the president of the Sharjah Biennale, which has been running since 1993.

Such contacts have been particularly useful in gaining insights into the artists in countries it has not been possible to visit — places like Iraq (because of the war) and Syria and Saudi Arabia (because of difficulties obtaining visas).

“We looked back at all the catalogs for events like the Sharjah Biennale, the Istanbul Biennale and the Venice Biennale,” Kondo said.

“We have chosen one Syrian artist so far — Hrair Sarkissian. But since we made that decision he has actually left the country for London,” Kondo said.

“In Iraq, the fact is that there are now very few contemporary artists working there,” Kondo said, hinting that they are now looking mostly at that nation’s diaspora.

Kondo said that although the exhibition’s regional focus is necessary to grasp the imagination of the viewing public, he is keen to ensure it clearly conveys the diversity that exists there. In particular, he said, it is necessary to try to counteract three stereotypes associated with the region: terrorism, religious conflict and war.

In order to do that, he and Nanjo are focusing on three tendencies they believe characterize much of the region’s contemporary art: personal issues or issues related to daily life; consideration of identity; and exploration of memory and documentation related to the region’s troubled past.

The works of the late Ahmed Basiony were perhaps most closely related to everyday life, although his life is now taking on a significance that encapsulates all three of those categories.

How to deal with Basiony and his works is another tricky problem that Kondo and his colleagues must address.

“We didn’t actually invite him to be in the show when we met him in December, but he was on our shortlist,” Kondo said, adding that there are also practical difficulties associated with recreating a work of a deceased performance artist. Still, he said, “We intend to find a way to include him.”