Art Versus Cultural Diplomacy
Between Two Rounds of Fire, the Exile of the Sea: Arab Modern and Contemporary Works from the Barjeel Art Foundation. American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, 5 September – 17 December 2017
Years ago—long before the eruption of war drew the voyeurism of international museums and news media—the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center hosted Art from Syria: A Journey Through Half a Century of Creativity—the largest survey of modern and contemporary Syrian art in the United States to date. Co-organized by the Syrian Embassy in Washington D.C. in 2007, Art from Syria featured a range of artists including modernists Fateh Moudarres and Louay Kayyali and leading contemporary painters Marwan Kassab Bachi and Saad Yagan. The exhibition was a pet project of Imad Moustapha, the Syrian ambassador to the U.S., who regularly highlighted his favorite artists on a blog devoted to his diplomatic meetings and trips. Dispersed between the many paintings that flooded his travelogue were pictures of the ambassador alongside Syrian artists, gallerists, and other cultural figures, establishing a softer public image aimed at an American audience. The American University Museum exhibition took this public relations campaign one step further as an official diplomatic gesture.
Art from Syria was not a definitive show, yet it provided an overview of Syrian art as it developed in the span of fifty years, beginning with works from the 1950s. The development of Syrian art was fairly easy to detect among the included examples largely due to the fact that the country was isolated for many years and those that traveled abroad mostly returned to a small, concentrated art scene. In other words, without much curatorial effort, themes and formal experiments were visible, even if they were not explained or contextualized. Since it was a government-sponsored show, very little political background was provided, although much of the metaphoric imagery was self-explanatory to viewers who possessed basic knowledge of Syria’s modern history.
Ten years later, the American University Museum is hosting another survey exhibition from the Arab world, this time in collaboration with the Barjeel Art Foundation, a private art institution that grew from the personal collection of Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi, a member of Sharjah’s ruling family. After touring his collection at high-profile venues in the United States and Europe over the course of several years, Al-Qassemi is very much a cultural ambassador for the United Arab Emirates, whether he intends to be or not. Al-Qassemi’s patronage is less flashy and more focused than other wealthy Gulf art collectors; and the Barjeel Art foundation has been especially proactive in promoting and supporting Arab artists at home and abroad. Sharjah’s royals have led more studious efforts to support the arts than their Dubai and Abu Dhabi counterparts, although one can still argue that the millions of dollars the Emirates have collectively spent on art initiatives are part of a larger project that aims to strengthen their political influence and global profile—above all, their sway in the Arab world. This backstory matters because well-positioned art patrons can shape the future of modern and contemporary Arab art on a global scale, specifically how it is received; how it is preserved; and how it is historicized.
Karim Sultan—the director of the Barjeel Art Foundation—organized Between Two Rounds of Fire, the Exile of the Sea as an attempt to demonstrate how artists from the Arab world address “violence, power, and structure.”  For the curator, violence is not only limited to political conflict but also includes economic or social manifestations. In his curatorial essay, which serves as the main text of the exhibition catalogue, Sultan explains that a balance between sociopolitical concerns and the art history of the region is a central focus of the Barjeel Art Foundation. With Between Two Rounds of Fire, the curator seeks to bridge these two trajectories by using Hannah Arendt’s notion of storytelling, thus offering “an open way” of engaging the viewer. In applying this fluid approach, Sultan cites Arendt’s theory that “storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it. It brings about consent and reconciliation with things as they really are.” He then introduces the concept of a “representational void,” which can be understood as:
an unsettling silence (or repression) in which violence is occluded, and a cultural object (a poem, a song, a work of art) provides a symbolic node to trace the hidden structures of violence that exist—in both spectacular moments such as highly visible massacres, and the production of everyday life.
Three types of imagery appear in Between Two Rounds of Fire as evidence of the curator’s treatise on violence and power, and are described in the catalogue as “Territories,” “Signs,” and “Bodies.” Sultan’s method of storytelling is evident in his installation of the selected works, which are arranged in clusters that create a sort of scenography, irrespective of media or time period. For example, Akram Zaatari’s Untitled (Syrian MiG Fighter over Lebanon, 1982), a pixelated black and white print of a military jet in flight, hangs in a section of the exhibition that also includes a 1969 abstract composition by Samia Halaby and Taysir Batniji’s Pixels (2011), small, seemingly pixelated pencil drawings of blindfolded and detained Palestinian men shown in profile. Halaby’s White Cube in Brown Cube is one of several works in the exhibition that contains the image of an empty square, perhaps as a way of demonstrating the “representational void” Sultan identifies. Yet the inclusion of this specific work is a bit of stretch given that several writings by the artist describe the painting as an experiment in pure form. Hung alongside works that address political violence, the painting is reduced to a prop.
Although the curator’s storytelling approach is explained as a fluid means of encouraging engagement and interpretation, it encourages viewers to appreciate the included works without having to fully understand what they are looking at. Very little context is provided for the works other than a brief introductory text and wall labels that list the artists’ educational backgrounds, career accomplishments, and places of birth alongside a very short description of their artistic practices. While this exhibition design might be visually appealing, it is counterintuitive in that it yields to the conventions of cultural diplomacy and political discourse in the U.S. by prioritizing a generalized theme of art and conflict over deeper analysis.
As a result, the collected works are presented in a way that recreates a view of the Arab world that American audiences have been consuming in museums and galleries since the 1990s, largely due to the influence of US foreign policy. All the usual tropes are there: exotic-looking women; bombs and guns; and deserted landscapes—even a few subtle references to Islam. Individually, however, the featured paintings, photographs, and sculptures (plus one tapestry and one video animation) are dynamic or provocative, and indicative of the artistic shifts that have occurred in North Africa and West Asia (in addition to the United States and Europe) in the last forty years. Here, as in a number of recent regional exhibitions, the featured artists are represented in ways that do not allow them to fully speak for themselves, as the details of their works are not clarified. The danger of this is that art then becomes malleable for audiences in search of particular narratives. Between Two Rounds of Fire might not have been organized with this in mind, yet it contains enough gaps that can be filled in with misinformation. This is where cultural diplomacy comes in. Although touted as a means of equal exchange, the sole purpose of cultural diplomacy within the realm of American politics is to advance its own interests. Presenting an exhibition that describes the Arab world as a violent wasteland without offering a brief history of its systemic destruction at the hands of regional and international powers—especially the U.S. and its allies—reinforces the narrative that is used to justify and sell American hegemony.
Cultural generalizations and political clichés could have been unpacked while correcting existing political discourse had Sultan’s curatorial premise been fleshed out. In many ways the concept of a “representational void” relieves the curator from having to discuss why war or conflict is alluded to in the first place, particularly the sources of such violence. While Sultan’s curatorial approach of attempting to “reveal these representational voids by circling around them” offers a theoretical framework for considering how artists are confronting this recent history, it should not come at the expense of important facts that situate the featured works.
Missing from Sultan’s discussion of Akram Zaatari’s Saida June 6, 1982, for example, is the actual history of the digital composite, which clarifies why it demonstrates the artist’s “critical interest in collecting and re-contextualizing a range of visual, textual, and archival documents that explore the relationship between official histories and individual memories.” The composite was made using a series of photographs Zaatari took from the balcony of his family home in Saida, Lebanon. This panoramic view shows an Israeli raid on a nearby Palestinian base. The title of the work not only dates the original images but also refers to the beginning of the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. The artist was sixteen years old at the time, and unwittingly documented one of the most significant moments in his country’s modern history. Knowing the work’s background is essential to appreciating the depth with which Zaatari mines Lebanon’s political history through found objects and images in order to record how its various conflicts continue to shape everyday life. Without this information, the digital composite can be viewed as an “unsettling clinical and aestheticized” image of bombings, which is how Sultan describes it. Letting the work float without context also leads the uninformed viewer to believe that the scene is directly related to the artist’s Untitled (Syrian MiG Fighter over Lebanon, 1982), which shares a time and place but represents one of several perpetrators of violence in Lebanon’s muddled civil war.
[Akram Zaatari’s Saida June 6, 1982 (2009). Composite digital image, Lambda print, 36” x 74.8.” Courtesy of the Barjeel Art Foundation. Photography by Capital D Studio.]
Similarly, Ziad Antar’s black and white and color photographs of abandoned public spaces and emptied industrial landscapes are shown without any reference to their location. Portrait of a Territory, 2009-2010, shows the coastline of the United Arab Emirates as part of a larger project that documents its economic development between 2004 and 2011. Although the buildings, buses, and cars that appear in the images are recognizably modern, the outdated technology Antar uses creates the illusion of age. The paradox described is one of rapid growth and urban expansion that did not match the socioeconomic development of the Emirates at the time, leaving ambitious projects only partially realized or left as decaying relics. In this instance, Sultan missed an important opportunity to highlight how including the work sidesteps the Emirates’ carefully constructed public image, revealing a rare moment of self-reflection on the part of the foundation.
With curatorial fine-tuning, Between Two Rounds of Fire could have been an outstanding presentation of a stellar lineup of artists. In survey shows, accompanying texts and exhibition designs are crucial to elucidating art historical narratives, particularly when themes, imagery, or motifs reappear across space and time. Making these types of connections among several generations of artists requires a careful balance of context and analysis. Understanding the effects of violence and how it is approached in art cannot be fully achieved without first recognizing its causes. Sultan is justified in suggesting that the works of Between Two Rounds of Fire allow for multiple interpretations, but not because they address violence in roundabout ways or are “austere.” The strength of the featured works stems from the fact that artists confront sociopolitical issues head on then offer ample space for reflection through various aesthetic devices.
*Main image: Installation view of Between Two Rounds of Fire, the Exile of the Sea, American University Museum. Photo by Greg Staley.