“But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them.” Walter Benjamin wrote these words describing Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus in his 1940 essay “These on the Philosophy of History.” The storm, he continues, is “what we call progress.” In the Guggenheim Museum’s ongoing group exhibition But a Storm Is Blowing from Paradise: Contemporary Art of the Middle East and North Africa, which opened this spring, progress blows through emblems of history, rushing against obstinate partial narratives and calling for them to be rewritten. Targeting representations of the region, historical and contemporary alike, the exhibition emphasizes the ways in which mainstream media and global politics trigger the dehumanization of diverse nations and communities. Employing an architectural and often minimalist vernacular, artists in But a Storm… challenge histories and literally erect new representations inside an icon of western modernism.
Delving into the current artistic trends in the region, the very form of the exhibition speaks to increasing visibility and rethinking accepted narratives: as part of the Guggenheim UBS Map Global Art Initiative, all the works in the exhibition will enter the museum’s collection—a substantive gesture from a museum physically expanding into the Middle East with its forthcoming Frank Gehry-designed Abu Dhabi location. Spanning two floors in the museum’s tower galleries, curator Sara Raza’s investigation takes up post-colonization, mental and physical displacement, and the reinterpretation of history through an architectural lens. The exhibition’s most memorable works experiment with geometric form; bulbous corners, sharp edges, brass railings, and escalating steps compliment Frank Lloyd Wright’s fortress of Modernist architecture—yet it is tempting to also read the works’ architectural focus within the context of the labor abuse allegations on the museum’s Abu Dhabi construction site. In this vein, works tapping on the West’s looting of the East’s ideological and physical foundations really hit home.
Kader Attia, Untitled (Ghardaïa), 2009, Couscous, two inkjet prints, and five photocopy prints. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Guggenheim UBS MAP Purchase Fund 2015.84 Installation View: But a Storm Is Blowing from Paradise: Contemporary Art of the Middle East and North Africa, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, April 29–October 5, 2016. Photo: David Heald
At the center of Kader Attia’s Untitled (Ghardaïa)—a large mixed-media installation welcoming the visitors into the exhibition—is a miniature town built of couscous. This model of the Algerian city Ghardaïa is exhibited alongside inkjet print portraits of Le Corbusier and Fernand Pouillon, two influential architects who helped define the silhouette of the modernist West, and photocopies of UNESCO documents granting Ghardaïa World Heritage status. The Algerian-born artist here illuminates the city through a staple ingredient in Middle-Eastern cuisine, substituting the density of cement, as well as the gravity of his narrative, with an element as fluffy and domestic as couscous.
The city model, built for the exhibition’s five-month run, is naturally susceptible to decay and deformation due to the unstable nature of its material. The stunning replica at first sight suggests the quirky innocence of sandcastles and encourages close inspection of its neat details; however, the work also chronicles the historic canons of art and design from a neglected point of view. Le Corbusier and Pouillon visited the city and the surrounding M’zab Valley many times for inspiration. Their uncredited appropriation of the city’s structural form represents more than just another historic detail: it weaves further thread in the deep history of Western intrusion into the East and North Africa and its exploitation of the region’s productive and cultural resources. Re-constructing a narrative pertaining to his identity as well as his past through an ingredient globally considered as “oriental,” Attia both embraces and scrutinizes the dominant voices of the past. The couscous towers transform into narrators of minor histories seeking voice amidst prevailing assertive doctrines embedded in art and architectural histories.
Hassan Khan, Bank Bannister (Banque Bannister), 2010, Brass, 209 x 206 x 22 cm,
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Guggenheim UBS MAP Purchase Fund 2015. © Hassan Khan
Nestled further on the same floor is Hassan Khan’s Bank Banister (Banque Bannister), a one-to-one reproduction of the brass handrail installed outside the Cairo headquarters of Egypt’s Banque Misr, the nation’s first Egyptian-owned bank. With its glaring brass and curvaceous edges, the elegant structure epitomizes more than the country’s economic foundations; it embodies an alternative to its centuries-long history of foreign-governed policies. Divorced from a utilitarian and contextual basis, the banister pays firsthand homage to Minimalist sculpture as well as to Art Deco architecture. The sternly positioned handrail gradually leads towards ambiguity where it awaits boundless narratives. Far from its purpose of guiding pedestrians upwards or down, the structure maintains both potential and failure—both possibilities exist within the banister’s in-between state. In a simple, refined gesture, the unmoored railing both represents and undermines notions of stability—fiscal or otherwise. Khan’s sculpture not only investigates the impact of visual form and aesthetic tendencies on nationalist identity, but also proposes alternative modes for looking at mundane objects surrounding us.
On the upper floor of the exhibition, the scene stealer is Nadia Kaabi-Linke’s Flying Carpets, an ambitious stainless steel structure suspended from the ceiling by thousands of rubber cables. It commands the space, at certain points reaching as low as the viewer’s eye level. The complexity of the assemblage is not hard to grasp; however, the narrative behind the fluctuating surface of steel shapes is less readily apparent. The well-known flying carpet trope attributed to Arab culture centers the artist’s concept, yet the work also refers to street vendors selling faux fashion merchandise to tourists in Western cities—specifically in Venice where the artist observed these vendors’ routines for a week.
Installation View: But a Storm Is Blowing from Paradise: Contemporary Art of the Middle East and North Africa,
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, April 29–October 5, 2016. Photo: David Heald
Typically undocumented immigrants from North African or Arab countries, these street sellers, facing the risk of being caught by inspectors, display their merchandise on rugs, which, when necessary, can be used to wrap their wares for a quick break away. The image of a flying carpet waywardly floating above a mystical city contradicts this contemporary version in which the peddlers sprint around Venetian streets and bridges to evade law enforcement. The artist’s cage-like structure comprises multiple frames representing the dimensions of the different rugs she saw dispersed around public walkways. Kaabi-Linke’s sharp-edged and optically complex constellation encapsulates the consuming tension these dwellers experience throughout their routines, in which each second requires one to be alert, ready to pack up and leave. The abstract form represents the harsh consequences of geopolitical structures and the erasure of certain communities from the social arena in which they’re struggling to survive.
These works each call upon their visual and cultural heritages—not only their collective artistic, formal, or scientific legacies, but also those stories and histories that are private, forgotten, or even never-told. Be it Attia’s organic architectural construction, the rustic sheen in Khan’s luminous brass readymade, or Kaabi-Linke’s floating Minimalist map, these works elegantly integrate ideas, concepts, and styles spanning continents and generations within distinct bodies. Drawing ties between aesthetics, politics, and society, they also contain bygone stories defying vanishment or negligence—stories that could not be more important for an expanding global franchise like the Guggenheim, known for its own singular architecture, to take on board.
Osman Can Yerebakan is a writer and curator based in New York.
(Image at top: Installation View: But a Storm Is Blowing from Paradise: Contemporary Art of the Middle East and North Africa, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, April 29–October 5, 2016. Photo: David Heald)
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