Los Angeles County Art Museum has been serving as a fortress of non-Western Contemporary art in California. With previous exhibitions concentrating on the Far and the Middle East, LACMA has made promising attempts to alter the Western hegemony in Western institutions by showcasing non-Western art. With its current exhibition Islamic Art Now: Contemporary Art of the Middle East, LACMA presents a cross section of Middle Eastern and Islamic Art (for want of better terms). However, when we look closer at the tendencies of North American and Western European institutions to include non-Western artists and art in their collections, exhibition agendas, and programming over the last two or three decades, this is no big surprise; rather it serves to highlight the urgency of dissecting, examining, and criticizing these attempts thoroughly by looking at how these artists are represented, displayed, and marketed.
Magiciens de la terre ("Magicians of the Earth") at the Pompidou Center in 1989 is regarded as the first international exhibition to set the bar for non-Western exhibitions taking place in the West. It marked a milestone for the representation of non-Western art and launch of cross-cultural dialogues. Projected as a response and criticism to Primitivism in the 21st Century: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern at MOMA in 1984, Magiciens was controversial, receiving responses both applauding and harshly condemning it. Jean Hubert Martin, the exhibition's curator intended for this show to correct the problem of “100 percent of exhibitions ignoring 80 percent of the earth”; to dissect Western oriented art; to confront problems presented by many exhibitions that perpetuated a colonialist mentality; and to criticize the conceit of the aforementioned Primitivism exhibition. For Martin, Primitivism fell into the orientalist and colonialist methodology and reconstructured the Western hegemony by categorizing the works as "modern" and "primitive" from the beginning. As explicated in depth by Edward Said in Orientalism, the West had created a perception of the East through images, texts, and discourses and crafted a dichotomy of the geographical lands as "theirs" and "ours" by categorizing the people as "us" and the "other." Associating the West with constant progress, development, and succession, the imperial and colonial establishments exercised power onto the Orient. In the end, the West used Orientalism by “making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it (…) for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient .”
A 2014 Pompidou Centre exhibition revisited the importance of Magiciens de la terre using archival materials and an exhibition designed by Sarkis.
Photo: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra via Wikimedia Commons
Following the trajectory of Said’s criticism, Magiciens aimed to expose Primitivism as steeped in the illusion of Eurocentric superiority. But the exhibition fell short of its goals, despite its numerical balance between Western and the non-Western contemporary artists. It was criticized for reinforcing the Orientalist idea that it wanted to criticize in the first place with its reference to "magicians" in its title, and for Martin's unwillingness to use the term "artists" to describe the contributors to the exhibition, as well as for his "local" attributions of the selected non-Western works. In the end, some critics have evaluated Magiciens as a tokenist  exhibition, which provided a hasty, unsophisticated selection of non-Western artists, claiming that it was neither a contribution to the representation of non-Western art in the West, nor to the dialogue within the Western art scene.
How much has changed for non-Western art exhibitions opened in the West since then? For instance, to what degree are biennials successful in providing artists with alternative platforms outside the confined borders of the institutions, where they can immediately respond to social, political, and artistic developments of art and foster cross-cultural dialogues questioning political and aesthetic definitions in the globalized art world?
Perhaps Okwui Enwezor’s Documenta 11 in 2002 was the first real attempt to undermine the Western hegemony in Western biennials (and other recurring mega-exhibitions like Documenta, triennials, etc.). The exhibition endeavored to examine the issues of postcolonial theory, globalization, cross-cultural, transnational, cosmopolitan art, with a team of six curators from different parts of the globe who were actively engaged in the international art scene. These curators invited artists to Kassel from countries that had never been represented there before. Enwezor envisaged this exhibition as a platform of global art and a "postcolonial constellation"  in which the issues of representation of the "other," postcolonialism, diversity, difference, hybridity, and diaspora would be discussed by a variety of a practitioners such as artists, architects, sociologist, anthropologists, art historians, curators, critics and so on. Constructing the exhibition in five platforms, Enwezor wanted to keep Documenta 11's geographic scope significantly broad. The exhibition at Kassel was the fifth of these "platforms," and included venues for lectures and discussions that actively and critically explored the relationship of contemporary art to political and social issues. Not much has changed in the biennial format in the West since Documenta 11. The selected artists were mostly well-represented non-Western (diaspora /jet set globetrotter) artists or Western artists.  The statistics have also not changed with regards to exhibitions happening in Western institutions: while there is a proliferation of exhibits that concentrate on certain non-Western geographies, the issue of representation of artists selected for these exhibitions remains a major issue.
Okwui Enwezor. Photo: Andrew Russeth via Wikimedia Commons
LACMA’s Islamic Art Now provides us with useful examples for examining these issues. The exhibition features 25 works in a range of differing media, including photography, sculpture, video, and installation art, by 20 artists from the Arab world. The artists include renowned names from the non-West (mostly diaspora) such as Shirin Neshat, Susan Hefuna, Lalla Essaydi, Mitra Tabrizian, Mona Hatoum, Hassan Hajjaj, Wafaa Bilal, Barbad Golshiri, and Youssef Nabil. LACMA’s Curator of Islamic Art, Linda Komaroff, claims that the exhibition exemplifies the brilliance of artists from the region with their local and global characteristics, asserting that:
The artists in this exhibition are not reinventing Islamic art but rather repurposing it as a form of personal expression. The contemporary works share a similarity with historical Islamic art in terms of their use of writing in the Arabic alphabet as a means of both communication and decoration, as well as their brilliant use of color and superb balance between design and form. 
These descriptions—specially the emphasis on the local/global dichotomy—is problematic, especially if we think about how the West has been defining non-Western artists for so long. In other words, instead of focusing on the artistic aspects of the works, more emphasis is put on the identity of the artists, and how they interpret the issues of the global world with their "local" point of view. Komaroff may have good intentions in showcasing contemporary artists from the Middle East and relating them to Islam but the very categorization of "Islamic art" or "Middle East" is challenging.
Mona Hatoum’s Prayer Mat—first exhibited in the 4th Istanbul Biennial, 1995—is interpreted with its reference to Islam. The work, which is made from thousands of nickel-plated brass pins glued on a canvas, with a compass placed at its center, in this context, can be read straighforwardly with its references to Mecca and Islam. However, this veils other interpretations and aesthetic references in the work, such as Guy Brett’s description of this work as "a poetic imagi-nation-streching invention, that re-circles on itself to evoke the cosmic wonder of a starry sky."  Of course, as a curatorial decision, it is possible to contextualize the work with its connection to Islam, but the problem is that the categorization or interpretation does not reach beyond that. The same goes for Nasser Al Salem’s God is Alive, He shall not die, a neon installation of the inscription of Allah in Arabic. Since Al Salem’s work is essentially Arabic written word, he considers himself to be first and foremost a calligrapher. Yet instead of using ink and paper, the traditional mediums of calligraphy, he incorporates neon lights and wooden columns, which allow him to encompass contemporary art and design perspectives in his work. Reading his work as a mere product of "Islamic art," confines Al Salem’s art into the boundaries of this category and foreshadows other aesthetic and conceptual aspects. Although the works are inspired by the Koran and tenets of faith they diverge from the usual subjects of calligraphy ("Hamdillah," which translates as "praise to God" and "Bismillah," which translates as "in the name of God") and even include quotidian words. Ultimately, Al Salem’s work ventures far outside of traditional boundaries of Islamic art and resonates more with waves of contemporary art.
Susan Hefuna, Woman Behind Mashrabiya I, 1997, Face-mounted laser C-print on Kodak Premium Paper. LACMA, Purchased with funds provided by Ann Colgin and Joe Wender, Kelvin Davis, John and Carolyn Diemer, Andy Gordon and Carlo Brandon, Deborah McLeod, and David and Mary Solomon through the 2013 Collectors Committee. © Susan Hefuna. Photo © 2014 Museum Associates/LACMA
Lalla Essaydi’s La Grande Odalisque (2008) is another work which cannot be impounded in the same category. The photograph incorporates layers of Islamic calligraphy applied by hand with henna on top of a model reclining in a pose directly inspired by 19th Century Orientalist painting. Beyond being a part of Islamic art, this work is primarily a critique of European exoticism and Western orientalism, as well as of patriarchy. Quoting the form of La Grande Odalisque by Ingres, it is a reminder of 19th-century Orientalist painters of Europe and America, who went to the Muslim world and depicted an imaginary view of the East.
Similarly, Shirin Neshat’s Speechless, a now iconic black-and-white image of veiled woman, covered with black inked text, is also a critique of patriarchal society and of the Western view of Muslim women, more than it is a work of "Islamic art." Using the four symbolic elements in this series—veil, gun, text, and gaze—she intends these images to be ambiguous, for they contradict a Western notion of Muslim women diminished and desexualized by the veil. Similar ideas are also found in Susan Hefuna’s Woman Behind Mashrabiya 1, an almost-abstract photograph of a woman behind the Islamic architectural form mashrabiya. Without a doubt, these artists are distinguished names in the global contemporary art world and their works are of equal importance. But this aside, the predicament remains as to what degree they are the representatives of "Islamic art" or indeed "Middle Eastern Art." How does LACMA substantiate these categorizations? And why does the exhibition concentrate mostly on identity-oriented works?
Shirin Neshat, Speechless, 1996, Gelatin silver print and ink. LACMA. Purchased with funds provided by Jamie McCourt through the 2012 Collectors Committee. © Shirin Neshat, Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York | Brussels. Photo © 2014 Museum Associates/LACMA
The way in which the curator attempts to substantiate her categorization is of note: she states that "Islamic art is difficult to define. It means different things to different people." She acknowledges the precariousness of these terms and pledges to scrutinize, undermine, and work over these categorizations within a Western institution, and in this sense, the exhibition reaches towards a dialogue around the validity of a term such as "Islamic" as a meaningful art-historical classification. In this way, the exhibition is an important contribution to the non-Western exhibition organized in the West as way to unravel "Islamic" in terms of art and cultural discourse.
However, this acknowledgement does not approach a solution to the problem of representation of non-Western artists in the West. Aside from the fact that Islamic Art Now constitutes a contemporary manifestation of LACMA's world-renowned and historical Islamic art collection and endeavors to demonstrates the deep connection between past and present via the identity-based selection of artists, it is still cemented in the stereotypes that riddle Western perceptions of the Middle East.
 Enwezor, O. (1999) “Introduction” Oguibe O., Enwezor. O. in (ed.) Reading the Contemporary. African Art from Theory to the Markeyplace, Cambridge: MIT Press, 9.
 Said, E. (1978) Orientalism, New York: Vintage, 3.
 Thomas Mc Evilley has provided an extensive review of the exhibition in Mc Evilley, T. (1995) ‘The Global Issue’, Art and Otherness in NY: Mc Pherson, 153-158. To access the article please see link.
 Tokenism is the practice of making a symbolic effort to recruit a small number of people from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of diversity within a homogenized group. To read a criticism of a tokenist approach please read Zimmer, Lyyn, 1988 “Tokenism and Women in the Workplace: The Limits of Gender-Neutral Theory”, in Social Problems, Vol. 35, No. 1, 64 - 77
 Enwezor, O. (2008) “Postcolonial Constellation” in Smith, T., O. Enwezor and N. Condee (ed.s) Antinomies of Art and Culture: Modernity, Postmodernity, Contemporaneity, Durham: Duke University Press
 The first platform, Democracy Unrealized took place in Vienna, Austria, from March 15 to April 20, 2001. Platform 2, Experiments with Truth: Transitional Justice and The Processes of Truth and Reconciliation, took place in New Delhi, India, from May 7 to May 21, 2001, and consisted of five days of public panel discussions, lectures, and debates and a video program. The third platform Créolité and Creolization, was held on the West Indian island of St. Lucia in the Caribbean between January 12 and January 16, 2002. Platform 4 was held in Lagos from March 15 to March 21, 2002, Under Siege: Four African Cities, Freetown, Johannesburg, Kinshasa, Lagos, engaged the current state of affairs of fast-growing African urban centers in a public symposium, along with a workshop, “Urban Processes in Africa. See here for more info.
 To access the statistics of artists in the biennials please look at Chin- Tao Wu’s extensive research and explanation in Wu, Chin-Tao, 2009, ‘Biennials without Borders’ in New Left Review 57.
 Guy Brett, ‘Survey’, in Michael Archer, Guy Brett and Catherine de Zegher, Mona Hatoum (London: Phaidon, 1997), 77.
 For an extensive interpretation of Mona Hatoum’s work please read Edward Said’s ‘The Art of Displacement: Mona Hatoum’s Logic of Irreconcilables’ in Saloni Mathur’s Migrant’s Time.
(Image at the top: Mitra Tabrizian, Tehran 2006, 2006, LightJet C-Type print. LACMA. Gift of the Buddy Taub Foundation, Jill and Dennis A Roach, Directors, through the 2014 Collectors Committee. © Mitra Tabrizian. Photo © 2014 Museum Associates/LACMA)
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