Change has been bubbling to the surface across the Arab region, and as it passes the boiling point, it’s unclear what to do with so much hot water. What direction will the post-revolution(s) take? Who will determine the shape of things to come, and how? Disillusionment with politics has perhaps been the driving force behind much of the movement. In the meanwhile, strategies for creating and defining the future are being contemplated and considered and not only are other voices being included but different forms of communication are playing a more central role.
Art is one of them. The privately-organized, expansive Pan-Arab group show opening in Venice on June 2nd, “The Future of a Promise”, brings together some of the manifestations of these new forms of communication. According to Lina Lazaar, the curator, more than just regional appropriateness has played a role in who and what has been chosen for the show: “What is tying [the work of these twenty-one artists] together is the notion of a promise.“ Lazaar goes on to say, “Giving your word, what does it imply? In the Arab world giving your word is a very strong concept. It’s more important to protect than someone’s life.” In planning the show, Lazaar asked a series of questions, including, “how could we look at the future of those enunciated promises, whether they’ve been made fifty or ten years ago?”
(Image: Ahmed Mater, Antenna (White). Courtesy of the artist and Edge of Arabia)
Of course the ideas for the show were conceived and submitted in December 2010, long before the so-called Arab Spring. A more salient, if not interrelated, question would be: What does it mean to be Arab today? Lazaar noticed that in putting together the show, over half of the Arab artists that she determined to be today’s "most interesting" are part of the Diaspora. Nationalisms play little part in a definition of what you might call “Arab” today: “How do you categorize someone born in Saudi Arabia to Lebanese parents, who has lived in Paris and is planning on moving to Berlin? What is he?”
Among the works in the show certain themes speaking to Arab identity in the 21st century are emphasized: language; the region in current events and their perception from without and within; and the centrality of history and ritual.
Raafat Ishak, an Egyptian-Australian, will present a work entitled Responses to an immigration request from one hundred and ninety four governments. Ishak sent form letters requesting the right to immigrate and created paintings from the responses he received. The works use color combined with Arabic script that acts as a “pictorial abstract mechanism” which can both convey and hide meaning.
(Image: Mounir Fatmi, The Lost Springs, 2011, 2 brooms and 22 flags of the Arab league. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Hussenot, Paris)
Mounir Fatmi, with a series of installations, comments on the perceived role of the Pan-Arab region in world events. Save Manhattan 01 (2004), an assemblage of books written since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks creates a shadow of the pre-9/11 skyline with two copies of the Koran producing the shadow of the towers. Fatmi is another artist of the Diaspora, born in Tangier, Morocco and now resident in Paris.
Ritual and history in the Arab world is evoked through the work of Lara Baladi. With Rose (2010), a digital collage is made from photographs of left-over Turkish-coffee grounds in the cups of Egyptian family members collected at the time before the death of Baladi’s father. The Mandala-like symmetry of the work and the stuff of its content – the ritual of drinking coffee with family—make a powerful but unsentimental commentary on the centrality of family and history in Arab life today, wherever it might take place.
(Image: Lara Baladi, Rose, 2010, Digital collage and archival print on gesso, 410x410 cm. Courtesy of the artist, Gallery Isabelle van de Eynde, Dubai and the Kamel Lazaar Foundation, Tunis)
Identity in the 21st century is complex, and that is no exception in the Arab World. Despite the integral part it plays in the present and future of the planet, this “region” is still victim to gross stereotypes, assumptions and wide glosses in external eyes and hands—and often to disastrous results. A nuanced Pan-Arab voice that comes from a place that is regional and Universalist at once is not only very interesting—it’s also important.
Perhaps there is a potential for art to change things… but no promises just yet.