Yesterday, I had a chat with my dear friend Yasmine who is thinking about curating a show with emerging Middle Eastern artists in London. While discussing the options, issues such as multi-cultural dialogue, identity and memory seem to repeat themselves at nauseam when referring to the work of those artists and it might be helpful to ask a rather generic question which is why we tend to box the art of certain regions into topical common places. For example, there is currently an exhibition of Latin American photography at the Fondation Cartier in Paris that discusses the issue of politics from the point of view of poverty which is not addressed as a topic but as style. After seeing a rather shabby and impoverished Paris, the viewer cannot help but thinking that those images are not too different from those the third world tries to project. So the questions seems more to do with how artists show their realities as they think they would be better appreciated by the viewer/buyer/collector. If we have a look at the way emerging Middle Eastern art is represented in London, we can see that at the Serpentine Gallery there is a show by illustrator and puppeteer Wael Shawky and another one at Thomas Dane Gallery by Akran Zataari where this staging reality is, in my opinion, unconsciously allegorised.
Shawky and Zataari coincide in that romanticisation of the past through its fragmentation that characterises Middle Eastern artists. Shawky films situations where puppets re-enact key historical moments when Eastern and Western civilisations collided. Zaatari represents memory through the construction of personal histories. This escape towards the past is evident in Youssef Nabil’s portraits where style and sitter collapse into nostalgic campness. So the question is why Middle Eastern artists insist on approaching their chaotic and violent present through a rather glamorised form of nostalgia.
Firstly, I think this ‘problematised idealisation of a fictional past’ equates an avoidance of reality. Secondly, that nostalgia for something that was supposed to be but that, in fact, never happened is deployed in what we considered as Western visual languages (cinema, Hollywood, High History, studio photography). It is as if emerging Middle Eastern artists were speaking to a public that is supposed to see them under a very specific light which is always presented as filtered and, in a way, distilled. In other words, it is as if these artist were not able to deploy a realistic visual language because they are afraid of the consequences of confronting such reality. One should wonder whether this Is because of political fear or because they think nostalgia is a more marketable visual rhetoric?
To be perfectly honest, after seeing Shawky and Zataari’s shows, I felt somehow excluded from that reality. They work as lecturing about someone that no one dare to enunciate. From this point of view, the former’s puppeteers and the later’s photos come across as an allegory of the own limitations that Middle Eastern artist seem to impose on themselves. Just a thought.